Interview with Adam Nicolson
Adam Nicolson is author of the book God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, published by Harper Collins in 2003. He spoke with Moira Bucciarelli about his insights into the world of the King Kames Version.
SBL: What drew you to write about the KJV?
Nicolson: I was writing a book for the British Government about a great project called the Millennium Dome. It was a nightmarish job trying to write something positive about that; the whole thing was catastrophic. The idea was to encapsulate everything that was best about British society, and at the time I was struggling with it because the Dome in reality was a disaster. Then a friend suggested the KJV as a great government project that was also designed to encompass what was best about Britain at the time, and which still involved argumentative people and yet produced the most marvelous book ever written in English. How did that miracle evolve from that mess? I had already had from my Dome experience an inner look at the horrors of government work. My question then was, what was different about seventeenth-century England that could produce beauty, when in our times grand government committees could only produce chaos and tumult?
SBL: So what was the difference? Might there be a model in the KJV companies for modern Bible scholars who unlock talons?
Nicolson: The governmental difference between seventeenth-century England and modern democracies is the question of authority. Early seventeenth-century England we would see as a highly authoritarian state where stepping outside of the norm was punishable by death or exile. So in effect, I think that the whole environment at the time is not one in which the individual voice has any validity. So there is something naturally cohesive about it, a clustering around the idea of the central, divine, royal authority. This takes everyone in. It's only those at the margins, in tiny minorities, who don't subscribe to that idea.
Of course you can make the opposite argument that the need for authority arises because individuality is on the rise, and by the early seventeenth century they have reached an explosive relationship; the demands of the hero and the demands of order and the society are what make the drama of the times. It's everywhere in Shakespeare and the playwrights of the time.
To answer the question another way, that conflict is simply not around now. The liberal idea of freedom of conscience has won—everyone is going to be at each other's throats because there is no external punishment. Committees don't work now because everyone will just 'row.' The KJV emerged from a society we would hate to live in.
The process behind the New English Bible was one of haggling and compromise and you ended up with an inert text, one that is blameless. Beauty is never blameless. It's too big for that. The need to find a consensual text nowadays means that translation is in a real pickle. You either have private translations by individuals that are odd or eccentric, or you have agreement, which tends to be dead. This may reflect where we are as a civilization; perhaps Bible translation can no longer be done. The twentieth century attempted a sort of banal accessibility. Where do you go now? I don't know the answer.
SBL: Can you describe some of the more interesting or surprising things you discovered in your research?
Nicolson: The thing I was most fascinated by and what my book is about, is how ordinary and fallible these people were. The translators of the KJV were very political people, on the make; some were corrupt, others nepotistic or deceitful; one was a pornographer. There is something absolutely marvelous in that a group of people very much like us produced the greatest sacred text in English.
SBL: Given that so many Bible translations exist and many Bible scholars now look at the KJV as outdated, what would you say in its defense?
Nicolson: I would say that the KJV is clearly wrong in at least two ways. One is the text on which the translators were relying. Second is they didn't always entirely understand the Greek or Hebrew. And so you have a double layer of error. The errors are never doctrinal or crucial, but clearly there are mistakes. Some parts of the text are unintelligible.
Richard Holloway (the former Bishop of Edinburgh) said to me the thing that the KJV translators understood, is that what matters about a translation is to convey the mythos and not the logos. By that I think he means logos as clear, precise information—straight transcription. The mythos is the 'haze of imaginative reality which hangs about a holy text.' I think this is what the KJV has; it knows about holiness, beauty, majesty, and music. If that is what he means, then I agree with Holloway about mythos. It is a less obvious but perhaps truer route to the divine. Musicality and beauty are things which that text has given any English speaker a greater sense of connection between our sphere and the divine.
I would also say that the point of the KJV is that the people doing the translating were the greatest scholars at the time. They were not insular—they were in touch with current research in Britain and the continent. Their whole idea was to meld the beautiful and the true and not to see them as distinct. And to make sure everything they did was as accessible as could be and yet instilled with majesty, to have a royal quality of divinity.
The godliness of kings and the kingliness of God were very much present in their minds, yet the Bible was meant for everyone. The KJV is far simpler than most Jacobean texts. It was majesty accessible to all.
Citation: , " Interview with Adam Nicolson," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Sept 2003]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=192