God Was an Englishman
WIDE AS THE WATERS: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution That Inspired It. By Benson Bobrick. Simon and Schuster. 379pp. $26;
IN THE BEGINNING: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture. By Alister McGrath. Doubleday. 340pp. $24.95;
GOD'S SECRETARIES: The Making of the King James Bible. By Adam Nicolson. HarperCollins, 304pp. $24.95.
One of the greatest ironies of the success of English versions of the Bible is that many people fail to appreciate that these versions are foreign literature in translation. It's not at all unusual for people to claim that the Apostle Paul spoke King James English or to engage in intense debates about doctrinal differences without consulting the Bible's original languages to see if their arguments are well founded.
While some controversy has surrounded the numerous contemporary English translations of the Bible, three new books remind us that the earliest attempts to render the biblical texts from Hebrew and Greek into English were marked by political intrigue and religious controversy, where often the translator's life was at stake—sadly and literally.
In Wide as the Waters, Benson Bobrick (author of Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution) eloquently narrates the political and religious history of England from the fourteenth century to the seventeenth century as he traces the development of the English Bible. Up until the English Renaissance, the Bible translation that churches used was Jerome's Vulgate, a fourth-century Latin translation of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) and Greek New Testament. Yet even in the Middle Ages in England, Latin was the language of scholars and clerics rather than the language of day-to-day business. Already by the time of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a new vernacular English was emerging.
As the Renaissance flowered, literacy rates rose, printing technology made books more accessible, and early Protestants challenged the monolithic religious hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Up through the Middle Ages, priests read the Vulgate to their parishioners because so few could read the Bible for themselves. Such a model upset early English reformers not only because a large part of the populace could not understand Latin but also because it gave priests power. Thus, the earliest English translations were not only attempts to provide the Scriptures to people in their own language; they were often also attacks upon the Catholic view of Church and Bible.
Bobrick's elegant prose brings to life several of these early translators and reformers such as John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, and James I. Oxford-trained Wycliffe fired the first broadsides for reform when he challenged practices of the Catholic Church. He contended that every individual, whether cleric or layperson, had the right to examine the Bible. In order to liberate the Bible from the hands of the priests, he commissioned the first English translation based on the Vulgate. According to Bobrick, Wycliffe's critics denounced him for opening Scriptures to all readers so that "the pearl of the Gospel is scattered abroad and trodden underfoot by swine." Wycliffe's work opened the gates for a flood of English translations.
The first English Bible translation to be printed rather than copied by hand was the work of William Tyndale, a master of ancient languages who could read Latin by the age of 10. Tyndale published his version of the New Testament in 1526, and subsequently published translations of the Pentateuch and Jonah. Tyndale's was the first version to make it into the hands of the populace, and, even more important, it was the first to be translated from Greek and Hebrew rather than Latin. Tyndale produced an elegant masterpiece. Many of his phrases remain with us today: "a man after his own heart," "flowing with milk and honey," "a stranger in a strange land," and "apple of his eye." Nonetheless, protests against the translation led to Tyndale's death at the stake.
In 1535 Miles Coverdale produced the first printed English version of the entire Bible. His version depended not on Greek and Hebrew but on Latin versions and Luther's German Bible. Three years later, Coverdale published the Great Bible, which became the first authorized English version, with copies placed in every church at the king's mandate. The early development of the English Bible culminated with the publication of the enduringly popular King James Version of 1611.
While Bobrick provides a spectacular overview of the various players involved in the making of the King James Bible, Alister McGrath's In the Beginning briefly narrates the evolution of the version and explores the tremendous impact it has had on English and American culture. Both writers agree on the events that produced the KJV.
When James I ascended to the throne, both the Puritans and the Anglicans tried to claim him for their own. For English Reformers, the Church of England's liturgies, doctrines, and internal politics mimicked all too closely those of the Catholic Church. During the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, James played both sides of the religious street as he tried to allay the concerns of both Puritans and Anglicans. Although most of the conference's conversation favored the Anglicans and their politics, James made a concession to both parties (and to his own greatness as king) when he commissioned a new translation of the Bible. According to its preface, this version would be made as consonant as could be to the original Hebrew and Greek, and was to be used in all churches in England in time of divine service. Almost all contemporary Bible versions are done by committees, but the King James was the first English version to be done this way—the collaborative effort of fifty-four translators, appointed by the king and divided into six companies, each responsible for a different section of the Bible.
Although this was to be a new translation, many of the verses of the KJV come from earlier English versions. Indeed, sixty percent of the final form of the English-language Bible was completed before the KJV. According to some scholars, at least one-third of the King James New Testament is worded exactly as Tyndale's, and the other two-thirds is based on Tyndale's structure.
Although McGrath's histories of the development of the English Bible are lively and anecdotal, he offers a helpful and detailed overview of the process of Bible translation. McGrath surveys the ways that the King James translators dealt with difficult, rare or idiomatic words and phrases as well as how they determined which Greek and Hebrew manuscripts to use. He also points out that the translators of the KJV strove not for elegance but for accuracy in rendering Greek and Hebrew words.
Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries covers much the same territory as Bobrick and McGrath. The focus however, is on the people involved, rather than the trench work of translation. More than half the book is devoted to the politics, personalities, and ethos of the Jacobean era. Nicolson's re-creation is evocative and engaging, and the reader gains a palpable sense of what led the translators to produce a Bible that preserved religious authority in aesthetic richness. Nicolson adds little to what is found in Bobrick and McGrath, but an alluring style makes this book a case of old wine in new skins. Bobrick's remains the most elegant and comprehensive treatment of the making of the King James Bible.
How, then, did the King James achieve its elevated status among Bible translations? Both Bobrick and McGrath contend that the King James was produced during a period of rapid evolution in the English language. The King James Bible contributed to and benefited from this language revolution. By the nineteenth century the KJV's place in literary history was so secure that Lord Macaulay could refer to it as a "book which, if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power."
Henry L. Carrigan, Jr is Editorial Director, Trinity Press International in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He is a member of SBL.
Citation: Henry Carrigan, " God Was an Englishman," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=179