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The greatest work of prose ever written?

Power and Glory: Jacobean England and the Making of the King James Bible
Adam Nicolson
HarperCollins Publishers 2003

A claim on the dust jacket states:”The King James Bible is the greatest work of prose ever written,” and the message of the book, while not repeating it, is an elaboration of this claim; Nicolson, though not quite a believer or an unbeliever, is obviously besotted with the King James Bible, often called The Authorised Version, though it was never officially authorised by King or Parliament. It is now rarely to be found in the pews and on the lecterns of most churches, and hardly ever heard in public worship, where its language, already deliberately archaic even in its predecessors, has also been discarded and God, just like everyone else, is addressed as ‘you’. If Christians are a minority in the English- speaking world, then KJB readers and users are a minority within a minority. Does this matter? The Centenary of its publication in 1611 is approaching and is unlikely to be celebrated, or commemorated by as much as a postage stamp, the excuse being that this would be ‘controversial’ or ‘divisive’, in the way that 1588, 1688, 1603, 1605, and 1707 were or will be. Adam Nicolson has written a fine book, of interest to all of us brought up on the King James Bible, quotations from which resonate in the memory, even when not at once identifiable, while those from all other subsequent translations set the teeth on edge. Here we are told part of the story – for most of it is lost – of how this seminal work was produced.

Why lost? The Translators (then and now capitalised), organized into six ‘companies’ of nine men, left few clues as to their working methods, their deliberations, discussions or disagreements and the manuscript sent to the printers has disappeared, possibly burnt in the Great Fire of London in 1666 (p. 225). Just as the whole scaffolding to build a great edifice is taken down and dispersed, so notes and drafts of the great translation ended up in the wastepaper basket, with some intriguing exceptions, and the fifty workers (four short of what there should have been) got on with their lives afterwards, leaving no memoirs, let alone diaries, of what it was like to have been on the project and not dreaming they had written the world’s bestseller, the Bible to dominate the English-speaking world for four centuries and help shape the English language. Only a few, fascinating scraps remain. Like the copy of the Bishops’ Bible (the text the Translators were supposed to revise) which the Bodleian bought from one of them (or someone) for 13/4 (pre-decimal for 2/3 of a pound), with his suggested emendations for the new translation marked in it. Or John Bois, the rather humble, impoverished but very learned Translator, who took notes of the revisers-translators’ discussions of the complete work and whose notebook has somehow survived – everything in it written in Latin, bar Greek, of course. This leads Nicolson to speculate whether the discussions were carried out in Latin. It is almost certain that had not King James desired it, ‘his’ Bible would not have been produced, and England, and Scotland too, would have made do with one of the versions already extant, either the ‘official’, Elizabethan Bishops’ Bible of 1568 or the Geneva Bible of the late 1550s, favourite of the Puritans and heavily annotated politically – and subversively so in the opinion of the King, a good reason for replacing it; he banned its printing in England in 1616, though it continued to be produced on the Continent. It is fair to say that this was not his only reason. After he came to the throne he made a real attempt to promote peace and unity in his kingdoms. He ended the war with Spain, which had dragged on irrelevantly, but was unable to unite Scotland with England into a single Kingdom with one Parliament (the English objected). He also attempted -he was, after all, its Head – to reconcile the two factions within the Church of England, though this meant retaining the penal laws against Roman Catholics, now, however, less strictly enforced. The King was used to the Puritan faction; he had been up against its like all his life in Scotland, where he was certainly not the head of the Church, with its lack of bishops, its Presbyterianism and its Calvinism. The reconciliation was only partially successful; bishops were non-negotiable (“No bishops… no king”), and hard-line opponents were excluded from the start from the Hampton Court Conference, designed to bring concord.

Indeed, with the king bringing out all the disagreements, to some extent fudged by Elizabeth, the Conference was a stormy affair and seemed to make things worse. But his wish to have a new version of the Bible prevailed, and even though Bancroft, the Archbishop of Canterbury had been an opponent of the idea, he took charge of the operation to bring it about, perhaps to ensure the Puritan element was excluded. Even so, men with Puritan leanings were included amongst the Translators.

Bancroft’s instructions are still extant; a copy of the first of its two pages is printed as an end paper (why not the other?) and Nicolson discusses each fifteen of their headings. As for the translation itself, the Bible, including the Apocrypha, was divided up into six sections for the six ‘companies’ of nine to translate – and there, for the next four years, the information largely runs out. The first instruction directs that the translation should be founded on the Bishops’ Bible, for it had been far from the intention of anyone for almost the last eighty years to make a translation de novo. The Bishops’ Bible was descended, through the Great Bible commissioned by Henry VIII in 1539, back through Coverdale to Tyndale, who might have translated the whole Bible if he had not been caught and burnt in Flanders. In fact, the translators looked at all the versions that had been produced, including (without acknowledgement) the one produced by the English Catholics in Rheims and Douai in 1609. This backward gaze was to invite an archaic style and there is every reason to believe that this was accepted as desirable, and the Gothic font of the early editions deliberate.

Departing from Tyndale’s spare, vernacular style, the Jacobean verges on the rhetorical and orotund, or, as Nicolson prefers to put it, majestical. But can one, if brought up on it, subject it to any sort of literary criticism? Nicolson emphasises very much the reverence for the original texts, translated with far less freedom than was countenanced in rendering the secular classics into English, where even the translator’s own views might be allowed to obtrude. Yet this did not mean literalness, or always using the same English word for the original one in different contexts.

Perhaps from lack of information about the procedures and meetings and discussions that the Translators must have endured, Nicolson instead describes some of them, in order to give us an insight into their characters and ways of thinking. It would have been nice to have had more portraits; those he has included are most interesting. Unfortunately, none of the eleven men in the painting reproduced on the back of the dust jacket is identified (though one is plainly Robert Cecil) in a picture entitled “The Somerset House Conference, 1604″, a Conference not mentioned in the book and possibly a mistake for the one at Hampton Court. This is entirely in keeping with the cavalier and slipshod way dust jacket pictures are generally presented by publishers. In this fine, but anonymous work, all have turned to face the painter except two who sit opposite each other, in mild confrontation, the only ones with their right hands just resting on the rich table covering, meticulously painted. Were the two sides ‘Establishment’ (obviously on the right, with Robert Cecil at the front, notepad and inkstand in front of him) and ‘Puritans’? And why was this picture not included in the book itself?

All fifty Translators (there were a few drop-outs from the projected fifty four)are listed by their ‘companies’ at the end of the book. Most had comfortable ecclesiastical positions; eight were or became bishops, eight were heads and twelve were professors of university colleges; others had, or were given, prebenderies or vicarages. The actual funding of the project is uncertain, but it seems to have been understood that the actual Translators did the work as part of the duties implicit in their positions. The printer could be expected to make a profit from his work, having paid £3,500 for the privilege, but in fact he went bankrupt. James’s chief minister, Cecil, probably eased the matter of expenses; he was excellent with what would now be called ‘stealth taxes’, but James was almost equally prodigal with what he secured.

The Translator Nicolson obviously found most interesting is Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster Abbey, later successively Bishop of Ely, Chichester and Winchester, whose manifold and often contradictory qualities are listed like a threnody from page 26 to 27; at once sensitive, even saintly, and yet callous, he could regularly spend five hours every morning in prayer (and in tears), but sneer at a stubborn Puritan, incarcerated in a filthy dungeon, who would later be executed, obviously with his approval (p. 92). Known for the wonderful prose of his sermons (see p. 191, for the passage borrowed by T.S. Eliot), he was just the man to make the new Bible “shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished”, as the Preface to the finished work, The Translators to the Reader, probably written by Miles Smith, puts it. For the Translators were careful not to impugn any previous translation, probably one reason why all were revisions. Nicolson suggests that Andrewes may have revised the bulk of the first twelve books of the Bible: “Most of our company are negligent”, he wrote dismissively, and Nicolson produces some evidence to back this (p. 192).

The only lay Translator was Sir Henry Savile (price of knighthood: £1000) who was lucky to survive his complicity in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. He was very much a Renaissance Man and, as such, unscrupulous as well as learned (he produced, with help, the definitive edition of St Chrysostom, at enormous cost, which did not sell well), with an eye for a good billet – Eton, despite the fact that the Provost was supposed to be a cleric – and at the same time an unreliable patron, as John Bois, the Latin note-taker mentioned above, found out. By another quirk of survival, we know more about Bois than of most of the other Translators, for a close friend wrote a memoir of this absent-minded husband, devoted father and financially careless brilliant scholar, and Nicolson uses it to illuminate one niche of the environment in which the translations took place (pp. 203-215).

Early in 1609 all the nine sections were brought together for revision by twelve unnamed scholars, meeting in the new Stationers’ Hall, for whom Bois was the note-taker. There is evidence, though from a later source, that the whole Bible was read through: “one read the translation, the rest holding in their hands some Bible, either of the learned tongues, or French, Spanish, Italian, etc. If they found any fault, they spoke up; if not, he read on (p. 209).” Nothing could make clearer that the sound was as important as the sense. Perhaps this procedure also accounts for the fact that two years passed before a complete manuscript was ready for the printer.

It might be expected that after all the care taken in its production – “three hundred and fifty scholar-years” Nicolson estimates – it would be a great publishing success, but this was not the case. Only after the Restoration in 1660, almost fifty years later, did it come to take its place as the only Bible in English that all Protestants read. Even the Translators were too accustomed to the Geneva Bible: Andrewes’ sermons are sprinkled with quotations from it and Smith (or whoever wrote its Preface) did not quote from the Bible he was presenting to the Reader, but from the Geneva, though in mitigation it may be said that he would not have a copy of the new text readily available. Likewise, a generation later, Archbishop Laud, scourge of the Puritans, used the same Geneva Bible they favoured. There seems to have been no definitive first edition and careless printing ensured that editions were produced littered with misprints, the most notorious being the ‘Wicked Bible’ where the Seventh Commandment enjoins “Thou shalt commit adultery.”

Nicolson obviously has little time for subsequent translations, but, though he gives examples from both earlier and later versions to point the KJB’s superiority, he has to admit that Jacobean scholarship was sometimes inadequate, particularly for tackling the knotty prose of St Paul, and that superior original manuscripts than those used have since come to light, or were even available at the time. Oddly, he stigmatises the Revised Version, produced in 1885, claiming that “it introduced a string of Jacobethanisms which had not been in the 1611 text”, though the words he lists are all well-represented in Cruden’s Concordance of the KJB, published in 1737.

The Bible, however translated, has not made a successful transition from a religious to a literary work, though there have been several attempts using the KJB, with titles such as The Reader’s Bible and The Bible Designed to be Read as Literature. Though probably unknown today, Arthur Mee’s lavishly illustrated Children’s Bible, is a fine example of editing, pruning the KJB’s 775,000 words down to 250,000. Nor is it likely that the Bible could be taught as an example of Eng. Lit. without there being a demand that other religious works should be admitted for ‘balance’, though probably nothing would be able to compete with it for narrative interest and comprehensibility.

Other books I can recommend on this topic are In the beginning: The story of the King James Bible by Alister McGrath; The Making of The English Bible by Benson Bobrick; and David Daniell’s massive The Bible in English.

6 comments to The greatest work of prose ever written?

  • nargo

    Fascinating historical stuff, even to a raving atheist like me!

  • What nargo said. I don’t know about “greatest work of prose ever written”. Sections of the Bible are dull and repetitive. But it’s certainly interesting to read about its history. I’ve read elsewhere that the King James Bible has “slave” translated to “manservant” — it will be interesting to see if Nicolson has anything to say about such distortions.

    Incidentally, “Thou shalt commit adultery” sounds like the work of a mischeivous typesetter to me.

  • What I want to know is, what has Nicholson got against the Psalter?

    Vast sections of the Old Testament, the Psalms most notably, are verse, for chapters upon chapters, and I rather think the title slights the verse. Consider the lilies, yes, but consider the influence of the KJV 23rd Psalm…

  • Johnathan

    This is a great review and very interesting to this lapsed Anglican who used to read bits of the KJB in confirmation class.

    All serious writers, be they agnostic, Christian or atheist, should read the KJB and Book of Common Prayer at least once.

  • Ian Bennett

    Perhaps they should also read what a Library of Congress survey showed to be the second most influential book in America: Atlas Shrugged.

  • Bubba

    Since the king James Bible has been my interest for the past 14 years, I’d like to thank the reviewer for mentioning other books on the subject.

    I agree with Johnathan that even agnostics and atheists should read it. Although, I recommend reading certain parts of it, at least once in a while.

    skepticsannotatedbible is a website that has a list of what they think to be ‘Good stuff’ in the Bible, while they have other Bible passages listed under ‘absurd, and whatnot. For non-religious, I would recommend reading the KJV rendering of Luke and Ecclesiastes.

    To Rob Fisher, I think there to be good reasons for the KJV terms ‘bondservant,’ and ‘servant’ rather than the word slave.
    I would not read a pro-slavery Bible. If not for the KJV, all I would have to pick from are versions that have the word slave every other chapter.

    Fanatics abound. Pseudo-clergy and unreasonable people do stupid, awful things. Put a Bible in the hand of a fanatic, or a cruel person and all you’ve got is a cruel fanatic with a Bible. Put a translation of any thing that justifies slavery in the hand of a statist clown, and you’ve got another set of fatalities waiting to happen.

    I think it better not to risk it.
    The KJV only has the word slave mentioned in Jeremiah and Revelation. Nothing good is said about being a slave in either passage.

    If the KJV rendering ‘bondservant’ or ‘servant’ read ‘slave’ in Greek, I would depart from the Greek too. In fact, I would avoid it like the plague.

    If it’s a distortion, I’ll pick distortion over slavery any day of the week.

    I’ll take a distortion that lets me keep my freedom, rather than ‘accurate translations’ that puts people in bondage. If an absurdity gives a person more respect for life and the boundaries of others, I’ll take the absurdity.

    Besides, I’m not a Greek and Hebrew scholar. Don’t have time or money. It’s a little too late now any way to be looking for an original-which nobody really has.

    In her lesser known writing ‘Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ Harriet Beecher Stowe relates that the early Church had in fact condemned slavery, and found ways of freeing slaves, that often included making them clergymen.

    In spite of pro-slavery clergy in the ante bellum United States, religious AND NON-RELIGIOUS people in Britain, France, and the Northern states decided that slavery was evil, and had to be abolished.

    Christian religion, and the Bible, have both been misused, and abused.

    But it has survived attempts to warp and twist it. It has endured in spite of the misuse and abuse of it by fanatics.

    I think it important to note that people do gravitate toward literature that reflects what they already think and feel any how. Thus, I do not insist on my rightness, or any one else’s wrongness.

    I encourage the study of Christian ethics, and ethics generally.

    I appreciate the input that the other commentators made above. Thank you all.