Coyle's Reviews > God's Secretaries : The Making of the King James Bible

God's Secretaries  by Adam Nicolson
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's review
Dec 01, 2009

it was amazing
Read in February, 2010

If nothing else, Nicolson's book demonstrates that immersing ourselves in the past affects the way we write and think, for the better. For example:
If you think of the King James Bible as the greatest creation of seventeenth-century England... it is easy to see it as England's equivalent of the great baroque cathederal it never built, an enormous and magnificent verbal artifice, its huge structures embracing 4 million Englishmen, its orderliness and richness a kind of national shrine built only of words.
In an age when we are dominated by the visual and think only in shallow, postmodern soundbites, it's refreshing to read someone who can paint with words and slip us so easily into a world so alien.
And it is an alien world. The KJV translators were molded by an era in which wonder and glory were the driving forces:
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 is infused into the body of the text. Its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, power. There is no desire to please here; only a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority, of which royal authority, 'the powers that be' as they translated the words of St Paul, was an adjunct and extension.
There was none of our petty modern quest for pleasure, or our ceaseless desire to destroy all meaning and authority outside our own small ego. This was a world in which one of the translators could write that sin
is a smoke, like fire, it mounteth upward, and comes even before God to accuse us; it is like a serpent in our bosom, still ready to sting us; it is the devil's daughter. A woman hath her pains in travail and delivery but rejoiceth when she seeth a child is born; but the birth of sin is of a contrary fashion; for all the pleasure is in the bringing forth, but when it is finished and brought forth, it tormenteth us continually; they haunt us like tragical furies.
and people would listen. The individual and the self were certainly important and valuable, but their import and value were derived from those things which are greater than the self. The nation, the crown, the church, and God.
Overall, a great read that provides the setting for the translation of the King James Version of the Bible. A setting which no longer exists and a translation which could not be made today:
The churches and biblical scholarship have, by and large, abandoned the frame of mind which created this translation. The social structures which gave rise to it- rigid hierarchies; a love of majesty; subservience; an association of power with glory -have all gone. The belief in the historical and authentic truth of the scriptures, particularly the Gospels, has been largely abandoned, even by the religious... religion, or at least the conventional religion of ordinary people, has been drained of its passion. There is no modern language that can encompass the realities which the Jacobeans accepted as normal. Modern religious rhetoric is dilute and ineffectual, and where it isn't, it seems mad and aberrational.
I gladly and heartily agree with Christophen Hitchens in saying that "Adam Nicolson's re-creation of this context is beyond praise."

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