A Magnificent English Cathedral

by Bruce Carlson

God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson, New York: Harper Collins, 2003, 280 pages.

In a small room connected to my office is an old (counter Reformation era) Milanese harpsichord made during the lifetimes of Luther, Calvin, Ignatius Loyola and King Henry VIII. This slightly-rickety-pentagonal spinet predates Shakespeare and even, by some 200 years, J. S. Bach’s first adventures on the pianoforte. When I gaze at its ancient wood and fittings I often think of all the history it has lived through. This little thing was making music when Queen Elizabeth died and James I took the English throne.

Religious wars had racked Europe for much of the 16th century. James was baptized a Catholic—his mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, after all—but was raised by Presbyterians. Fed up with wars, upon becoming King in 1603, James, an intellectual and not a soldier, conceived the idea of uniting his country with an elaborate scheme centered on a great new translation of the Bible. He wanted his new Bible to become, in the beautiful phrase of the time, an irenicon, a thing of peace, a means by which the divisions of the church and of the country could be encompassed in one unifying fabric.

James convened the leading scholars of the day from his government, the church establishment, and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. He then drew up very detailed rules for these chosen translators and set his project in motion. It took ten years. And the results were magnificent. God’s Secretaries, these gifted and brilliant men, produced the greatest creation of 17th century England. Anglican and Separatist Divines worked closely together. Separatists and Presbyterians were the radical intellectuals in the Universities during the 1580s, much as the communists were in these same schools in the 1930s. But 400 years ago the intellectual vanguard worked on the Bible with its stories and poetry, not on a rational economic scheme, to heal a broken society.

A great work of art is almost always done by a single person. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony wasn’t written by a committee. Same with Shakespeare’s plays. It’s hard to think of any other masterpiece, aside from the KJB, cooked up in this way.

I have always preferred the King James Version to other, more recent, translations. But I wasn’t sure just why this was so until I read Adam Nicolson’s new book God’s Secretaries. What I respond to in the King James is the deep music, the majestic poetry wrought by the collective sensibilities of these brilliantly educated Jacobean scholars. It’s the music that carries one along; the rich chords, the sense of majesty. Yet the language is also fresh and clear. Set sentence by sentence along side of any newer version, the KJB sweeps the field. It’s Bach’s B minor Mass towering over Fanny Crosby or a ditty by Simon and Garfunkel.

Here is an example from the KJB telling the story of when Christ appears to the apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee:

But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knewe not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No. And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and yee shall finde.

Now, let’s turn to the lifeless, tensionless, mystery-free New English Bible (NEB):

Morning came and there stood Jesus on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. He called out to them ‘Friends, have you caught anything? They answered ‘No’. He said, ‘Shoot the net to starboard, and you will make a catch.’

I remember when the NEB appeared in 1970; my Dad gave me a copy for a Christmas present. The important Cambridge scholar C. H. Dodd had been in charge of this project and he had called for “timeless prose.” What did appear, in Adam Nicolson’s phrase, was “the language of the memo.” T. S. Eliot wrote at the time about the NEB: “What astonishes is its combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic.” Newer versions may have gained from recent scholarship, but they have lost the stateliness, the grace, the scale and power that must have been inherent in the language and culture of Jacobean England. This was the ethos, the era, of Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne, George Herbert and the other great metaphysical poets. The grandeur of this King James language can later be found underneath the great speeches of Lincoln, and even John Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Four hundred years ago, Divine authority was a given Truth and not, as it is in the current climate of opinion, whittled down to a toothpick. What can still speak powerfully today is the language of music and poetry. It can be glimpsed in the ancient instrument in the next room. And it can also certainly be found in the vivid vocabulary, phrasing and rhythms of the King James Bible.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson