The book is a history of the preparation of the King James Version of the Bible, but it is much more than simply a narrowly focused study of Jacobean religious scholarship. Nicolson presents an interesting discussion of the whole social, political and religious milieu of England in the early 17th Century, which was the context for yet another English translation of sacred text. He presents partial biographies of the principal individuals involved in the work, some of whom were churchmen and some of them laity. King James himself is portrayed as a ruler with foibles as well as strengths, and the reader is reminded that he always was the grey eminence that drove the translating committees, even though he did not directly participate in the work that bore his name.
The King James Version was the standard Bible in the English language for almost three centuries after it was printed and thus it carries an aura of great antiquity. Only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did modern translations appear which have tended to supersede the KJV in both public and private worship. However, as God’s Secretaries reminds us, the KJV was far from being the first English translation of Scripture. If we include William Tyndale’s renegade translation, the Great Bible of Henry VIII, the Geneva Bible (very popular with the Puritans) and the Bishop’s Bible (a counterpoise favored by the Anglican establishment), the KJV was the fifth major translation, and this does not include relatively minor efforts that came out of the religious turmoil of the 16th Century.
The two-fold motivation behind the great translation is carefully explained in the book. One motive was to present a translation that would supersede the popular Calvinistic Geneva Bible, which was laced with pro-Presbyterian commentary in its marginal references. The king and the authorities of the Established Church wanted to produce a translation more becoming to a church supervised by appointed archbishops and bishops. A second motive was to create a literary masterpiece of the English tongue that would fuel the sentiments of piety, and thus it was to replace the earlier authorized translations that had more cumbersome expression. In fulfilling the literary thrust of the great work, persons with high literary talent, such as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, carried great authority in the final decisions as to how the verses of Scripture were to be phrased.
What they produced was a masterpiece that stands with Shakespeare in the history of the language at this critical stage of its evolution.
Nicolson examines the radical Catholic-inspired trauma of the Gunpowder Plot, both its reasons and its effects, and he takes an interesting look at the level of religious tolerance in Jacobean England, particularly towards the Puritans, who made up the left wing in the politico-religious spectrum of the time. In so doing, he discusses the Pilgrim Fathers, who carried both themselves and their Bible to America.
Of particular interest is his discussion of the problems that were faced by the translators. He draws attention to the fact that, when quoting the Hebrew scriptures, Jesus and the Apostles (as depicted by the original authors of the Gospels) tended to use the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament books, not the pure Hebrew of the synagogue scrolls. Thus, Nicholson raises a perplexing question. If Jesus was God Incarnate, how well did He know His own Word? This is a subtlety that more fundamentalist Christians of our time may not appreciate, and it certainly posed a problem to the translating committees four centuries ago. Nicholson points out that the books of the New Testament generally were written in a very poor style of Greek compared to the Greek used during the height of Hellenistic culture in the fourth and fifth centuries, BC. This also posed a problem for the translators, who wanted to compose a Bible that was to be the best expression of Jacobean literary composition..
In 'God’s Secretaries', Adam Nicholson, a prize-winning author of mostly travel books who does not present himself as a professional historian or scriptural scholar, has written a very interesting work on a very fascinating and important subject.