I have sometimes thought that the best way to learn history is not to read a textbook or historical synthesis, but to read about one event, one person, or one cultural artifact. In order to understand the significance of any historical particularity, we must understand the surrounding context. But if we wish to understand the context, we can grasp it through that particularity.The philosophical remarks are necessary, as it is that idea–that we can begin to understand the dynamics of a culture through a particular event–that undergirds Adam Nicolson’s methodology in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible
After all, God’s Secretaries is not only about the King James Bible: it is about England and its transition from Elizabeth to James. With tensions increasing between the newly formed Church of England and the Puritans, James saw the creation of a new Bible, a Bible for all of England, as essential to keeping the country together. In order to do so, he commissioned this new translation to be a moderate translation, one that would marginalize the anti-hierarchical translations of the popular Puritan Geneva Bible, which he saw as a threat to his own rule.
God’s Secretaries is the story of the men and the events that shaped that translation.
The end result of their efforts, argues Nicolson, is a Bible that reflects the moderate inclusiveness of the King James court : “[The King James Bible] does not choose. It absorbs and includes. It is in that sense catholic, as Jacobean Englishmen consistently called their church: not Roman but catholic, embracing all.”
Nicolson does not limit his analysis to the abstract generalizations. At points, he reads the text of the King James Bible extremely close, comparing it to previous and later translations. In his discussion of Mark 14:4, where (as the KJV puts it) Judas asks, “Why was this waste of the ointment made?,” Nicolson concludes: “In this sentence, one can see the extraordinary phenomenon of the King James Bible conforming both to Protestant and pre-Protestant ideas about the nature of Christianity. It is both clear and rich. It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony. It has that peculiarly Jacobean combination of light and richnesss, the huge windows illuminating the densely decorated room, the unfamiliar amalgam of the court–Puritan, both strict and grand…It doesn’t choose between the clear and the rich but makes its elucidation into a kind of richness.”
As much could be said of Nicolson’s prose. As might be expected from someone steeped in the language of the King James Bible, Nicolson is very aware of language–including his own. In comparing the King James Bible to the recent New English Bible, Nicolson concludes that the New English Bible is “a descent to dreariness, to a level of banality below Tyndale’s…The language of the King James Bible is the language of Hatfield, of patriarcy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by a desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.” Nicolson’s own prose, however, avoids the pretentiousness of someone who is self-consciously trying to resurrect the English tongue. His musical and poetic style flows too freely to be intentional.
God’s Secretaries is valuable not only as a window into the England of King James, though it is an excellent window. It contains a rich analysis of the King James Bible and an fascinating recounting of the men and events that shaped the translation. Nicolson’s work contains illuminating comparisons of our own era and language to the era of the King James Bible, comparisons that are as thoughtful as they are wistful.
Through it all, Nicolson is engaging without being trivial and erudite without being obscure, which makes God’s Secretaries a must read for anyone interested in history.