There's heavy irony in the fact that readers who aren't all that crazy about God tend to love the King James Bible. Perhaps it's too much to say that in modern times the KJB has become the Bible for people who dislike religion, but certainly its most passionate fans include atheists, agnostics and the sort of Christian who sees the inside of a church about three times a decade. Such readers consider that what matters about the King James translation is the brilliance of the writing. We mourn its disappearance from churches and homes and firmly believe it should survive, though we have no idea how that could be managed.
Christians who try to live by the Bible tend to be less enthusiastic about the KJB and more likely to prefer later translations that they consider clearer, more easily understood and, in places, more accurate. They, of course, want to save souls, whereas supporters of the KJB hope to save Western civilization, not quite the same thing.
W.H. Auden, a devoted Christian for much of his life, once expressed disdain for "those who read the Bible for its prose," though he was describing most of his friends and even himself at times. He was saying that when God and eternity are on the agenda it's arrogant to start nattering on about prose style. But, as Margaret Drabble remarked recently, "It all depends on what you think the Bible is for."
King James the first thought he knew what his Bible was for: to unify Britain by unifying British Christianity, and to assert his authority as head of both Church and state. A Scot who was baptized as a Roman Catholic and then reared by Presbyterians, he sat uneasily on the throne when he succeeded Elizabeth in 1603. When he sought to enhance his position by commissioning a Bible translation, he couldn't have known how important it would be, but he was clever and learned enough to know how it should be done.
It was so well done that for centuries it had more influence over English prose than all other books combined. It was the crucial book in the life of Abraham Lincoln and Ernest Hemingway, as their respective styles demonstrated. (Hemingway's repetitions and use of the word "and" precisely echo the King James.) Martin Luther King Jr. became the supreme preacher of his age with the KJB echoing in his head. Tennyson and Wordsworth and Coleridge and D.H. Lawrence can all be seen as offshoots of the KJB. In the English-speaking world it became the prime source of elegant cadence and carefully chiselled prose.
Adam Nicolson's deft and attractive book God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible has focused attention on this monumental achievement, a work so grand that Nicolson doesn't sound overblown when he calls it "England's equivalent of the great baroque cathedral it never built." Nicolson's account has become admired and widely sold since it appeared last May, even though it completely fails to deliver what it promises.
It does not, in fact, describe the making of the King James Bible, because the information to support such a description doesn't exist. The Translators (their importance at the time was recognized by the capital T) left behind only a meagre account of their work. The record includes few of their memoranda or minutes of their meetings, and (this seems especially striking) not one extensive memoir written by a participant. It's almost as if the participants wanted to obliterate the evidence of their deliberations and leave instead a vague impression that God signed off on the final draft.
Over the period 1604-1611, the scholars of England attacked this project in platoon strength. At least 50 Biblical scholars were involved, including 23 from Cambridge and 18 from Oxford. There's one rare set of notes, about the final revision of the Apocrypha, kept by a scholar named John Bois, who describes the text being read aloud as a roomful of scholars followed along by reading Bibles in several languages. They interrupted when they heard what they considered a clumsy phrase. They knew that to do its work, the KJB would have to speak with a powerful voice when read aloud in church.
They didn't pretend to produce "natural" prose, of the kind people spoke or wrote in letters. They thought a Bible should sound Bible-like, which meant elements of grandeur and sonority and more than a trace of the archaic. Otherwise, it would lack the ability to persuade. By intention they made a book that was old-fashioned when it appeared.
Lacking information on the work of the Translators, God's Secretaries instead describes the milieu from which they sprang -- a world of pathetic sycophancy, ruthless careerism, much drunkenness and ferocious theological intolerance (they were still hanging heretics). Lancelot Andrewes, almost the only still-familiar name among the Translators, gets singled out by Nicolson not only for the greatness of his work (he directed the First Westminster Company of Translators, responsible for Genesis to Kings II) but for the squalor of his character. Those of us who know him only as an elegant stylist (quoted by T.S. Eliot, among others) learn from Nicolson that Andrewes was a self-indulgent, self-seeking coward who deserted his parish in the time of the plague and treated, with appalling insouciance, the tragic fate of the Puritan martyrs. His story amounts to yet another depressing reminder that magnificent prose can be written by scoundrels.
Modern scholars will wince at the blithe incompetence with which the early printing was done. The first printers sometimes produced two different editions at the same time, then bound sheets from each into the same book. As a result, Nicolson notes, no copy of the 1611 Bible is like any other. All were riddled with errors. This standard was maintained for many years, most famously in the Wicked Bible of 1631, which omitted the word "not" from "Thou shalt not commit adultery." In the 19th century, a scholar, collating all editions of the King James Bible then in circulation, found more than 24,000 variations among them. The KJB may be a central document of English-speaking civilization, but anyone who looks for the original text of it, consistent and whole, will discover that no such thing exists.