God’s Secretaries (The Making Of The King James Bible) – Book Review

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If you weren’t convinced that the King James Version of the Bible is the best English translation available you will be after reading God’s Secretaries (The Making of the King James Bible) by Adam Nicolson. At the heart of the “translation-wars”, are the questions of faithfulness to the original documents, understanding of the original languages, and submission to original intent. These are vital questions, especially in light of more modern translations that cut entire scriptures and even chapters from the text. Nicolson does an admirable job of historically demonstrating the faithful mindset that permeated the translation of the world’s most popular Bible. In my opinion, this book is a must-read for anyone who loves the Bible and considers it to be inerrant.

Interestingly, Nicolson is not a preacher, theologian, hermeneutician, or even a student of ancient biblical language. Neither, does he seem to be overwhelmingly pious or religious. In a refreshing way, this adds weight to his conclusions. He seems to offer an unbiased accounting of the historical context without the agenda that would naturally infiltrate the average person who would be inclined to write on such a topic. He is a historian of sorts and a gifted writer. Nicolson is thoroughly British (the 5th baron of Cornock) giving him a fascinating perspective of Jacobean England and the political and religious ideologies that produced the King James Bible.

This is not a boring retelling of the minutia of academic processes that birthed the King James Bible. It is a vivid historical portrait of England beginning in 1602 a full two years before the commissioning of a new and better translation by King James. The book draws you into the tapestry of political intrigue, religious fervor (both sincere and insincere), and the turmoil of the setting that birthed a timeless Bible translation that exudes the majesty of God. You will see as is so often the case with God, that human frailty is no hindrance to the ultimate plan of God in preserving His sacred Word.

“One of the King James Bible’s most consistent driving forces is the idea of majesty. Its method and its voice are far more regal than demotic. Its archaic formulations, its consistent attention to a grand and heavily musical rhythm are the vehicles by which that majesty are infused into the body of the text. Its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, power. There is no desire to please here; only the belief in the enormous and overwhelming Divine authority… The Translators of the Bible clearly believed that the majesty of their translation stemmed from its loyal belief in Divine authority (page 189) .”

Even in Jacobean England, there was great pressure to translate a Bible that condescended into common vernacular and easily accessible language construction. In other words, like today, there were strong influences that wanted to “dumb down” the vocabulary of Scripture. This reasoning was flatly rejected on every level. The overwhelming consensus being that God’s Word is not common, trivial, or mundane. The King James translators were set upon preserving the poetic intensity of Scripture, and portraying the royal language of Divine inspiration.

“The King James Bible is about more than mere sonority or the …heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has in short, lost all authority. The language of the King James Bible is the language of …patriarchy, of 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 (pages 153-154).”

Although, as Nicolson, does not try to hide, there were differences and skirmishes between the translators and the overseers, they were all united in the firmly held belief that every word of Scripture is God-breathed. They revered every “jot” and every “tittle” as sacred. This informed every aspect of the translation process giving rise to the masterpiece that is the King James Bible.

“[The King James Bible translators believed] the words of the Bible were the foundation of all understanding, [and that] nothing could be more important than a text that was both accurate and intelligible. Precision in Bible scholarship and in translation was the foundation stone of the Reformation. High fidelity reproduction was a moral as well as technical quality and it was axiomatic that Translators and scholars could approach the text only in a mood of humility and service. ‘He who does not believe one part of it,’ Luther had said, ‘cannot believe any of it. (page 183)’”

Bible historian Gordon Campbell, one of the world’s leading authorities on the King James Bible, has observed:

“The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than in the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJB Translators. (Bible – The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011)”

Most notable is Nicolson’s spotlighting of the translators secretaryship mindset during the translation process. Over 50 men worked tirelessly from 1604 until it’s publication in 1611 to produce a faithful translation. They did so in a selfless, egoless, and humble fashion which was a direct result of the political and religious atmosphere of the era. That is to say, that a culture which understood kingly royalty in the natural, although far from perfect, was able to capture the kingly majesty and sovereignty of God’s Word. They internalized as a moral code the command from Revelations 22:19 that not one word can be added or taken away from Scripture.

“Those who originally wrote the words of the Bible had been God’s secretaries, as loyal, as self suppressing, as utterly disposed to the uses of the Divine call… self-abnegation in the service of greatness was the ideal… Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don’t. Every iota of the Bible counts but without it you count for nothing. The secretary knows that… he does not distort the source of his authority. A secretary, whether of God or of king, is in a position of dependent power. He has no authority independent of his master, but he executes that authority without hesitation or compromise. He is nothing without his master but everything through him. Loyalty is power and submission control. For this reason, biblical translation, like royal service, could only be utterly faithful. Without faithfulness, it became meaningless (page 184).”

Recently, the King James Bible has seen a resurgence of popularity as this article outlines The Most Popular and Fastest Growing Bible Translation Isn’t What You Think It Is. The Washington Post even noticed this trend in an article entitled The Most Popular Bible of the Year Is Probably Not What You Think It Is. Their basic premise is that people are losing confidence in modern translations. Here’s another great article that tries to make sense of this seemingly countercultural rejection of modern translations entitled 10 Reasons Why The KJV Is Still The Most Popular Version. In essence, the King James Bible encapsulates the authoritative sanctity of the Holy Bible. It remains true to the Divine intent and literalness of the original texts. It exemplifies respect for the grandeur of the Author. As our culture has digressed into absurdities like an emoji Bible (The Emoji Bible, Reviewed), the King James Bible stands out from the crowd with increasing gravitas. With all of the swirling debates and controversies, God’s Secretaries brings clarity of thought to the discussion.

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