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Book of Books

The genesis of the King James Bible.

Jul 7, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 42 • By ALAN JACOBS
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God's Secretaries

The Making of the King James Bible

by Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins, 281 pp., $24.95

WHEN I FIRST SAW Adam Nicolson's new book about the King James Bible, I feared that it would be no more than a belated competitor to two volumes that appeared a year or so ago: Alister McGrath's "In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture" and Benson Bobrick's "Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired." But Nicolson's book is something much different, and, I think, richer and deeper than those two useful studies. This is popular history at something close to its very best.

"God's Secretaries" counts as "popular" history because it lacks footnotes; that is, Nicolson focuses on creating a compelling narrative rather than emphasizing (as professors usually do) the sources supporting the narrative and specifying the inferences the author has drawn from them. Although Nicolson is not a professional scholar, his learning is both impressive and well managed. Especially noteworthy is his discretion in speculating--noteworthy because the story he has to tell is one that cannot be told without some guesswork. As Nicolson notes, at the end of several chapters tracing the lineaments of Jacobean (that is, early seventeenth-century) political and religious culture:

it was an intense, competitive and vital world. But the question remains: how did this Bible emerge from it? How did the selected men deliver? After the initial flurry of documents [stemming from a 1604 conference at which the idea of a new translation first arose], there is a dearth of evidence almost until the final printed volume appeared in 1611. Once the king had decided it should happen; once [Archbishop of Canterbury Richard] Bancroft had disseminated the Rules; and once the Translators had been chosen, almost the entire process drops from view.

No wonder then that, despite McGrath's title, only two of his twelve chapters focus on the King James Bible itself; similarly, Bobrick is more concerned to trace the theological, political, and linguistic developments of the century prior to James's commission of six Companies of Translators, and the subsequent cultural influence of that Bible, than to trace the production of the book itself.

NICOLSON, however, is not deterred by the poverty of documentation: His book is a wonderful example of what the determined researcher can find and use where the less diligent or imaginative see only deficiency. Typical of Nicolson's scrupulousness is his skillful exploration of the theological and political context for each of the fifteen Rules that Archbishop Bancroft, working from King James's own instructions, disseminated to the Translators. It is likewise typical of his skill as a writer that he makes this exploration fascinating.

He does so largely through his description of the personalities that give energy and tension even to the mere elaboration of rules for translation. Perhaps Nicolson's greatest gift is his ability to portray the vibrant characters of the men responsible for the unfolding of this story. Without speculating unnecessarily, he draws on letters, diaries, governmental reports, and every other kind of document available to reveal the minds and hearts of the Translators.

A particularly lovely example is Nicolson's account of John Layfield, a Translator who in the 1590s had been chaplain to the Earl of Cumberland on a voyage to Puerto Rico and had written an account of the voyage "as bright-coloured an adventure as anything by Robert Louis Stevenson." Layfield seems to have been particularly interested in the richness and profusion of the flora of the New World, and racked his brains to find a way to describe the taste of pineapples: "I cannot liken it in the palate to any (me thinks) better then to very ripe Strawberries and Creame." How appropriate, then, suggests Nicolson, that Layfield would be one of the men responsible for translating the first chapters of Genesis, whose Eden must have called to Layfield's mind his voyage to a strange land where "the trees doe continually maintaine themselves in greene-good liking" and the rivers provide "a continuall refresshing of very sweete and tastie water."

Examples of this kind could easily be multiplied. Nicolson describes the culture of affection in Jacobean England--in which friendships with no element of sexuality would nevertheless find passionate expression in words and embraces, something visitors from the more restrained Continent (how times have changed!) often commented on--and considers how that passionate intensity found its way into the translation of the Song of Solomon.