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HALL OF FAMEon 9 January 2006
There will likely never be a time when the King James Bible is without influence; it has through the dialectical relationship with the English language become part of a world-wide linguistic tradition that, should English ever become a dead language a la Latin or ancient Greek, its historical stamp will continue to be felt. Perhaps the twin towers of influence on modern English coming out of the medieval were Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Adam Nicolson set out to explore the development of this phenomenal text, often dubbed the best book ever produced by a committee.
Indeed, this was work done individually and communally. As Nicolson points out, the King James Version did not arise in a vacuum; there were earlier translations of the Bible into English, the greatest and most influential of which was the Tyndale Bible, whose influence was so great that at least three-quarters of the King James Version (and a goodly percentage of many future versions of the Bible) is directly from Tyndale.
This is no simple tale of translation. Nicolson explores the troubled times surrounding the early Jacobean reign in England. The glory of the Elizabethan age, with its turbulent times politically, socially and religiously, gave way to this somewhat-foreign influence now in authority. Part of the purpose of King James (the first of England, the sixth of Scotland) was to put an indelible English stamp on his reputation and reign, and succeeded such that his name continues to be near-synonymous with the holy scripture.
This age was one of change and growth, but also one of maturity and establishment. The Bible itself, from the very first page, proclaims this - this is the 'Authorised' version. The process itself took seven years, from the first commissioning in 1604 to the publication in 1611. Nicolson argues that there is a deep mystery in the process, whereby the names of the Translators (an official title for the 50 or so scholars from across Britain) are not known to the common reader of the Bible, despite the ubiquitous nature of the text. Their names are not inscribed in the text the way modern scholars ensure their names are duly credited - this anonymity strengthens the idea that this is a transmission of text from God, and not merely the work of human hands.
Nicolson applauds the political purposes behind the text (and yes, there were politics afoot here) - stating that this was 'a work of majesty, not of tyranny', this was an effort to place something in the country as a unifying entity that was simultaneously of the time and timeless, specific to the culture and yet universal.
Nicolson is no fan of Elizabeth, this is clear - the bleak picture of the end of her reign is about as far from a tribute to Gloriana as one can get; of course, this helps set the stage for the heroic James Stuart to appear. This early depiction gives the reader a clue to the bias inherent in the text, and biases there are, many. However, they are generally readily apparent, and the astute reader can glance over lightly interpretations while still enjoying the base information and turns that Nicolson devises as his narrative progresses.
Among the many personalities introduced here are Lancelot Andrewes, the chief Translator, a man of contradictory sensibilities - at once a lavish courtier and a world-denying, remorseful character. Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, was the chief organiser; Henry Savile, a figure of some glamour and prestige, is called by Nicolson a buccaneer-scholar - the only Translator not in Holy Orders. In addition to the personalities of the Translators were the characteristic events of the time - colonists setting off for the unknown lands of Virginia, the publication of Shakespeare's sonnets, and the freezing over of the river Thames all occurred during the translation process.
This is a wonderful book to read, not only to gain some back-stage information about the King James Bible, but to experience anew a world so vital for and yet so distant from our own.
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on 4 May 2009
God's Secretaries well deserves its excellent professional reviews. Some might think a book on the writing of the King James Bible might be a stuffy scholastic volume. Nothing of the sort. Many facets on 17th Century life are included, not just the writing of the Book itself. The period comes to life and the character pictures are excellent.
It also throws clear shafts of light on the purposes for which the King James Bible was written, the methods used for its composition and the reasons why it has maintained its place for so long.
I highly recommend it.
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God's Secretaries is a beautiful evocation of the making of the King James Bible, considered by many to be the most compelling version of the Bible ever published. Nicolson makes a powerful argument in support of this assertion. Nicolson's passion for the King James Bible permeates this work. It must be no easy task to use prose to describe a book that is held in such high regard. I think Nicolson has pulled this task off with grace and ease.
The first portion of the book puts the process of translation into the context of the early Jacobean era. Nicolson traces the end of the Elizabethan era and the ascension of James I (James VI of Scotland) to the throne of England in 1603. There were numerous issues of state and theology (the two are inexorably mixed) that James needed to navigate.
James I, was the head of the English church (referred to here as the Anglican church) that operated on a theological level that was betwixt and between Catholicism and the `purer' (for wont of a better adjective) Protestantism of Calvin and Luther (to name two) that had spread like wildfire across the continent and had made serious inroads into English religious life. Those Protestants were referred to as nonconformists in England because their practice did not conform to the Anglican tradition. Nicolson does an admirable job of setting out the doctrinal and political justifications for this tripartite divide. At its most superficial level, Catholicism because of its focus on the religious dominance of Rome and the Pope served to lessen the authority of the crown because it split the allegiance of the faithful and belied the critical notion that the King's authority flowed directly from God without reference to or reliance on the Pope.
The differences between nonconformists and Anglicans were more doctrinal but those differences were as politically laden, if not more so, than those with the Catholic Church. Specifically, the centerpiece of the Anglican Church was the Altar. The idea of the `ceremony' of Christianity took pride of place. There was also a clear hierarchy in the form of the King, Archbishops, and Priests tasked with reading and interpreting God's words. By contrast, the centerpiece of the nonconformist rite was the pulpit. The idea of the word of God took pride of place. Further, nonconformists believed that the individual had the ability to understand the word of God and that the individual could have a personal relationship with God without the guidance of Bishops, Archbishops, or the King. The difference in focus was a direct and immediate threat to the King's authority. If an individual could derive divine guidance without recourse to the church or King the very need for a King and that King's divine right to rule, would be (and was) called into question.
Nicolson devotes the rest of his book to the creation of the King James Bible by a committee of generally unknown churchmen and scholars. Split into groups and assigned different books of the Old and New Testaments the translators (as they were known) were provided with earlier versions (specifically the Geneva and Tyndale versions) and tasked with creating a new, `improved' version. The translators included both Anglicans and nonconformists. Nicolson provides compelling reasons why this committee was so constructed.
It seems clear that James I intended to co-opt a certain moderate segment of the nonconformist tradition and in so doing render them and their flocks less likely to challenge to the authority of royal rule. If successful such a co-option would make his reign less vulnerable from that side of the religious divide. Nicolson infers that the creation of a universally accepted version of the Bible would mitigate doctrinal differences making a ceremony out of the word itself. Focusing more attention on the `word' might appease some nonconformists. Creating a version rich and rife with meaning also had certain ceremonial aspects that might appease the Anglican powers that feared undue focus on the word. It was an admirable goal even if the bloody civil war that followed a mere 30 years or so from its publication proved the attempt futile.
The most important element of the book for me lies with Nicolson's unrelenting love for the words created by this `great commission'. Nicolson does acknowledge that much of the core text of the King James Bible is freely adopted from the Tyndale version. He does show, however, how the change of only one or two words can turn "those words into a tangible experience" that enhances the beauty and power of the previous text. Nicolson is also not averse to castigating contemporary versions of the Bible that denude the language of meaning for the sake of making it a bit easier to read. Nicolson cites T.S. Eliot's admonition of the New English Bible that it "astonishes in its combination of the vulgar, the trivial, and the pedantic."
Nicolson does seem more kindly disposed to James I than may be warranted. He notes James' profligate spending and sensual appetite only in passing. However, my impression was that the beauty and power of the Bible prepared at his direction and published under his name covered a multitude of sins and that James' other actions were not particularly relevant to the creation of `His' Bible
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on 31 August 2010
As always, visiting and reading the words of the previous 63 Amazon US reviews has proved to be enlightening and useful. Because of certain comments and objections offered in the past, it seems to me that I should begin with statements of what this book is NOT:

--This book is not an advocate of any particular religious issue, sect or cause.

--This book is not a Bible study or, indeed, any sort of religious study guide. Those seeking an exposition of religious truth should turn away right now. This is not for you.

--This book is not an academic text, being largely free of any formal thesis and paying no particular homage to whatever Theory happens to be on the academic boil these days. Academic drudges burrowing for material with which to footnote their footnotes will be wasting their time here in a manner even more dramatically pointless than usual.

--This book is not a self-consciously designed "easy read" written in words and phrases suitable for the comprehension of fourth graders. This author occasionally dares to quote people who lived four hundred years ago in their own words, styles and spellings. Consider this passage: "I am persuaded his Royall mynde reioyceth more with good hope, wch he hathe for happy successe of that worke [the new Bible], then of his peace concluded with Spayne." [Page 65-66 of the hardcover edition] If that taxes your reading skills to the breaking point, seek enlightenment elsewhere.

This book does provide an overview--or perhaps more accurately, a sketch of religion and politics in 17th century England. In many ways, the two words were alternate terms for the same phenomenon, much as they are in Baghdad or Tehran today. (A single generation after this translation of the Bible was made, the intertwining of religion and politics would become almost as deadly as it is in Afghanistan today.)

The book offers thumbnail biographies--and in a few cases, somewhat more than that--of the fifty or so grave and learned scholars tasked with preparing the translation. In so far as the records survive, it outlines their organization and their contributions--for even in those long-ago days there were bosses and drudges.

Finally, the book deals with the majestic 17th century translation of the Bible as a literary entity. Here, at last, Adam Nicolson becomes an advocate. While acknowledging that scholarship and learning have made advances in the three centuries since the translation was made, he argues forcefully that no English translation made before or since has matched the King James Version in effectiveness, directness, power and sublimity.

Nicolson is such an advocate of the grand style of the KJV that it affects his own writing style. He does not emulate the actual style of the Bible--a thing, he makes clear, that was deliberately chosen and already noticeably archaic in the early 17th century, but he is much more orotund than is common in our piping times. He models his prose more on Gibbon or Macaulay than, say, Hemingway.

Consider the author's handling of a meeting at Hampton Court that involved the newly crowned King James, some gorgeously bedecked senior bishops of the Church of England and four black-clad Puritan ministers. All were assembled to bring sweet harmony to the land under a King who liked to think of himself as a peacemaker--and who sometimes was. That, of course, turned out to be a flat failure, but one of the Puritans, John Reynolds, almost casually remarked that the ministers he represented would like to have "one only translation of ye Bible to be authenticall and read in ye churche." Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London (who a few years earlier had taken up a pike among his own armed guards to repulse the Earl of Essex's ragtag rebellion and who would soon become Archbishop of Canterbury) sneered at that, saying "If every man's humour might be followed, there would be no end of translating."

To everyone's surprise, the King commanded that a translation be made. In Adam Nicolson's long-breathed, parentheses-strewn, semi-colon-laden words, it was a "translation that was to be uniform (in other words with no contentious Geneva-style interpretations set alongside or within the text); with the learned authority of Oxford and Cambridge (which, at least in their upper echelons, were profoundly conservative institutions ...); to be revised by the bishops (the very influence that Reynolds did not want); then given, for goodness' sake, to the Privy Council, in effect a central censorship committee with which the government would see that its stamp was on the text, no deviation or subversion allowed; and finally to James himself, whose hostility to any whiff of radicalism ... had been clear enough. And this ferociously episcopal and monarchist Bible was to be the only translation to be read in church: `no other'." [Page 60.]

It must be pointed out, however, that Nicolson's prose does not always march to the solemn beat of the kettledrums ("for goodness' sake"), but sometimes dances to a merrier piper: "For these Puritans, and in a way we can scarcely understand now, the words of the scriptures were thought to provide a direct, almost intravenous access to the divine." [Page 135]

This is a good, middleweight book that, so far as I can tell, does not push unduly beyond the bounds of the scanty evidence. It can be justly criticized for being as much a series of raconteurial anecdotes as a logically-structured book. Its underlying preference for style over content is, at the very least, open for debate.

Four stars--but well worth reading in any case.
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Nicolson's study of the background and people involved in producing the King James Bible is akin to doing an old jigsaw puzzle where the colours are washed out. You're pretty certain of how it will look when completed. After all, most people have been exposed to the book's purported topic. You have expectations of what you will encounter. Each chapter offers a new piece leading to the assumed final result. Yet each piece is something of a surprise - an unknown character or an obscure event. As the image builds, Nicolson assures you of its relevance. Yet, when the task has been finished, the rendering is almost wholly unexpected.
For once, the renaming of a British publication - the original was "Power and Glory" - was appropriate. Nicolson opens with the accession of King James I of England, but the VI of Scotland. This unusual transformation of a monarch brought about a new wave of stresses to a nation that had endured a succession of religious upheavals over the previous century. From Henry VIII's break with Rome, through an unmitigated Protestantism and sudden reversion to Roman Catholicism, to Elizabeth's long, waffling reign, the British welcomed a king they felt promised religious stability. They hadn't counted on James' unhappy years under Scots Presbyterian mentors. Nicolson's depiction of James is of a man almost obsessed with exercising power over religious matters. If not the subtle initiator, James certainly pounced on the idea of creating a "new" English Bible.
It was an era of Bible writing. The Douai had been recently produced by English Catholics in exile, while the very Presbyterians James loathed had imported Calvin's Geneva text enthusiastically. Anglicans had struggled with earlier English-language versions, from Tyndale through the half-century old Bishop's Bible. Having been smothered by the heavily annotated Geneva version, James was keen to have a "pure" text. Nicolson convenes, almost one at a time, the Translator committee to produce it. Calling them "a disparate lot" is but mildly descriptive. There were stern theologians, frowning at any challenge to episcopal prerogatives. Others were known to weep while delivering sermons. The Presbyterian presence, no matter how unwelcome in James' view, still had to be tolerated. The Geneva, as Nicolson notes repeatedly, is what came to the Western Hemisphere on the Mayflower.
However pedantic this book might have been in another's hands, Nicolson's characterisations elevate it to gripping reading. Lancelot Andrewes, the weeping pastor, takes centre stage as the chief Translator - James insisted on the capitalisation. Andrewes, along with most of the team, was driven by the notion of a monarch closely aligned with the church. No more backsliding to Rome! The Puritans, although not yet granted that appellation, wanted even stronger guarantees - bishops were the banana peels leading to papistry. Get them out! The tenor, ably captured by Nicolson, is a strong church under a strong king. Yet among the Translators was one entertaining the most seditious thought of all. Henry Savile, whose family would later found the London haberdashery locus, had travelled and read probably more widely than any of his colleagues. Describing him as "the most glamorous of the Translators", Nicolson also reveals that Savile harboured the idea of a nation without kings! Savile's experience kept him from the confines of holy orders, but his language capability was undeniable.
As the work begins, Nicolson is forced to reveal that almost nothing of the Translators' notes or exchanges has survived. Although they had access to a large compendium of works by Church Fathers and other commentators, no list of what they consulted is available. There are some personal journal entries in various locations - mostly uncovered by American researchers beavering away in dusty vaults. These, however, are but a tantalising sample. No record of submissions, disputations, arguments or reasons for resolutions are provided. Instead, we are given Nicolson's paean to the formal language of Jacobean England. His disparagement of more recent versions isn't even camouflaged scorn. He longs to return to the subject of his study, but what would be sacrificed to accomplish this end?
Although this is supposed to be a study of Jacobean times, there are a few gaps. The communication between Britain and the Continent, only touched on with Savile, had more impact than Nicolson grants. Explorers were widening the view of the world, which led many to wonder what the deity had been up to in those remote places. Within the British Isles, Savile was but a symptom. The rapid change of faiths led to serious questioning of long-standing dogmas. If religion could change so often and so dramatically, how could the deity tolerate it.
Nicolson ignores the growing tendency to question and the resulting emergence of "the village atheist" in Britain at that time. As the most literate people, which Nicolson notes was increasing in this period, it was only logical that questions would increase. Nor does he see fit to note that the very effort the Translators made laid the foundation for an even greater upheaval in the Puritan Revolution and Cromwell.
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on 3 July 2013
I wanted to follow up on the well written "When God spoke English", so I purchased this.

I feel ripped off because it is the same book under a different title.

Amazon, why didn't you make this clear?
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on 5 April 2012
As always with Amazon, the book arrived on time in first class condition.
The book itself was an excellent read, full of interest, explaining much about the characters and the story of the translation set against the background of King James's reign. A thoroughly recommended book if you are interested in this type of subject matter. It is not a hard read, but it isn't an impulse buy at the airport either.
Jim Grace
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on 21 April 2014
Thank you again for sending me my required item in good time.
I have just started reading the book. So not too far into it yet.
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on 10 March 2015
Book arrived great condition
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on 30 January 2014
A wide ranging study of the people and issues behind the Authorised Version (aka The King James version), and accessible for non-specialists.
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