Book review on the making of the King James Bible

Book review on the making of the King James Bible

Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson
Review by Michael Chapman, Northland-Wilton Parish

This book provides a fascinating account on the making of the King James Bible, the impetus for the work, the power struggles between church factions and the King, how the translators worked, as well as the dynamics between various individuals. Part of this power struggle were the puritan reformists who saw the new reign of James (well versed in the ways of Presbyterianism) as a chance to make a new and turn the Church of England into a bona fide Protestant organisation. The petition the Puritans submitted to the King was the seed from which the new Translation of the Bible would grow.

Previous translations of the Bible had been undertaken by one or more people. For instance, the 1539 Great Bible had been produced by diverse learned men, The Geneva Bible by a small team of three or four English divines and the Bishops Bible by a team of fourteen bishops. Not so with the work King James commissioned with about 50 translators and of these one was not ordained.

The two key players were Richard Bancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury and principal organiser of the King James Bible and the Dean of Westminster, Lancelot Andrewes, chief translator and Director of the First Westminster Company. Andrewes was later to be a bishop.

In 1604 six companies were established, each with its own director and each worked independently. The letters of instruction to the translators set out 15 very detailed rules. One of the rules required each man to take a chapter or chapters and having translated them, the company was to meet together, and decide on whether or not each part required further revision or should stand. Considering that each member had to work individually – no conferring allowed – until the chapter or chapters had been completed it is amazing what was achieved. Also, each company had to supervise the work of every other and if there was major disagreement it was to be resolved at a general meeting of the chief persons of each company.

Well how did the translators deliver their commission? Surprisingly little is known. After the initial flurry of getting the rules developed and the translators appointed, there is a dearth of evidence on how the process worked, drafts of the translators and debate amongst them until the bible was to appear in print.

An example of debate which has survived reveals the priorities at work. This is where in the printed version of the Bible in the letter to the Hebrews it says simply “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever” but when the translators came to this passage Andrew Downes, Regius professor of Greek, suggested that verse should read “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day the same, and for ever”. His reasoning was not to do with meaning but with sound – “If the words are arranged in this way, the statement will sound more majestic”, he said.

Considering that the work was commissioned on a company basis with about 50 translators it is surprising what was achieved. It has been said that committees thrive on compromise and compromise produces fudge and muddle. One would think that a company approach was a recipe for disaster but the result was a masterpiece given the diverse backgrounds of the translators. To them we are grateful for a translation that stood the test of time for so long.