TTBW 1135   ·   'Adam Nicolson / God's Secretaries'
Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg   ·   PBS feed date: 18 Dec 2003
  Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg.

Four hundred years ago, a Scottish king ascended the throne of a deeply divided England. Bubonic plague had broken out in the towns and cities. Within two years, political terrorists were plotting to blow up Parliament. And many of the most fundamental assumptions about spiritual life were being called into question by the movement known as the Reformation. In that time of turmoil, some fifty scholars and clergymen from London, Oxford, and Cambridge began work on what would become the most influential and awe-inspiring book of English prose ever produced: the King James Bible. How did it happen? To find out, Think Tank is joined this week by Adam Nicolson, author of God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible.
The topic before the House: God's Secretaries.
This week on Think Tank.
BW: Adam Nicolson, fresh from London. Welcome to Think Tank.
AN: Thank you.
BW: Weíre going to talk about the King James Bible, about which you wrote a book called God's Secretaries. Could we begin by you giving us sort of a brief fill-in on what was going on in England? The book is started in 16-0_..?
AN: 1603, which is the year when Elizabeth dies. And this new man, James Stewart, her cousin, comes in from Scotland and it is a moment of huge energy and a sense of incredible newness. England was just becoming in its own sense of its self a world power. The English had started to think of themselves as serious players on the worldís scene. Elizabeth - Queen Elizabeth whoíd been queen for forty-odd years had last.
BW: Childless, no heir to the throne
AN: Childless. No direct heir of her body. Never married. The virgin queen. And her cousin James - James Stewart, who had been king in Scotland since he was a child, again for forty years almost--was her designated heir. And this man, this new man who was married, had several children, his wife was pregnant, was a great intellectual, a poet, a man of questionable personal habits. Very ugly. His tongue much too big for his mouth, people always said. But a great charmer, a fantastically good politician. And James had been looking longingly at the English throne for twenty years.
BW: Sounds familiar.
AN: (laughter) No, but Scotland was so poor and so violent and with a dreadful antediluvian, Scottish aristocracy and a dreadfully aggressive Presbyterian church and no place in Europe could have been worse to be king than Scotland. England though was rich, burgeoning, with a church that loved the crown.
BW: This is Shakespeareís time.
AN: It is Shakespeareís England and all that vitality and richness, and sense of possibility really, that you find in Shakespeare is the context of this King James Bible; is the plum that James arrived in England to have. He called himself a bridegroom. He said, 'I feel as if Iím a bridegroom and Iíve just married the richest bride in the world.'
BW: Now, prior to the publication of the King James Bible, bible translations had been banned for centuries. Now, why was that?
AN: Well, the Catholic church all through the middle ages was insistent that the bible itself should not get into the hands of people who couldnít understand it. It is a difficult thing for a modern sensibility to grasp: the idea that the most central institution of Christian Europe wanted to deny most people access to the thing that mattered. In the reformation itself in England, when the Catholic church was still in power, before England became Protestant, anyone to do with making the translation, printing it or distributing it, was killed, as they were all over Europe. And there were many, many martyrs, especially when Queen Mary - Bloody Mary - was on the throne...killed in a horrible way. And thereís no - I donít think thereís any a, you canít put an emphasis on one side or another with that. Catholics and Protestants were equally bloody in 16th century Europe. One of the reasons that this bible project had as much energy behind it as it did was that thereíd been a century of blood on the basis of what a bible should or should not say. And everyone was weary of it. It had to come to an end.
BW: So this is a democratization this King James Bible.
AN: Well the King James Bible -itís important I think to make this distinction - comes a good seventy years after the reformation. The reformation really happens in the 1520s and 30s. And the great English figure is William Tyndale, a follower of Luther who translates the scriptures into English for the first time for general access.
BW: You write that Tyndale actually wrote or translated about two-thirds of what we now know as the King James Bible. Is that right?
AN: Tyndale is there in the 1530s providing a Bible he said which could be read by an English plowboy, and it has a beautiful directness, simplicity. Tyndale basically had to slap the medieval establishment in the face saying, 'You are not to deny this to everyday Englishman. While Iím going to give them the Bible as plain as could be.' And the Tyndale Bible is rather bony and sort of spare and ugly in a way. Itís got a very, very stripped down, basic toolkit feeling to it, I think. By the time it comes to the early 17th century, seventy years later, there are different things at work. There are different politics at work. The early 17th century culture is really divided between Tyndale-like Puritans who want very plain, very exact, very democratic, you could say even very American bibles and a monarchical, Episcopal, grand, enriched, even baroque side to the culture.
BW: Episcopalianism is the American branch of the Church of England, basically.
AN: Yes, thatís right. Itís a church with bishops; itís a church with ceremony; itís a church with sense, I would say, of poetry and majesty. Whereas your very stripped-down Puritans would be interested in plainness and exactness..
BW: Meeting house and no grand church, and right....
AN: Exactly. And both these currents are running hard in England in the early 17th century and theyíre directly contradictory. I mean the one loves the thing that the other hates.
BW: And this was - I mean I donít want to say something too obvious--but this was the big leagues. I mean, religion wasnít something that was on page four. I mean it was what...
AN: Itís super page-one stuff.
BW: Yeah.
AN: It is the top thing. Someone said to me, when theyíd read my book about the way in which the British government then went about making this bible, that it reminded them of the Manhattan Project; that it was absolutely central to the idea of government; that you had a bible that worked. It was an incredibly delicate and exact and complex tool that had to be made and you got in everybody you could.
BW: Does King James play a day-to-day personal role in this?
AN: No. He doesnít. He was very keen on it. It was certainly his idea.
BW: It was.
AN: It was certainly his idea, and there was a suggestion from Puritans that a very Puritan bible should be produced and he said, 'No, I want - I want this bible.' And in the documents that survived he is always there in the background, prodding, saying, 'Come on, hurry up.
BW: Tell me about some of the specific people who work on this. I guess the key organizer appointed by King James was Richard Bancroft, is that right?
AN: Yes. He was Archbishop of Canterbury. A ferocious pursuer of Puritans who quite happily strung Puritans up. The kind of people who founded America were to him utterly anathema. And he hanged tens of Puritans for not agreeing that the queen--Queen Elizabeth, that is--should be head of the church. Anyone who believed in a bishop, well, Bancroft would have him up in Tyburn, the great hanging place in London. But he was also, I mean, he was also a brilliant administrator. I mean thatís one of the things, that he ran a great show.
BW: (laughter) Right.
AN: But thereís a more general point about that that a lot of these people are very, very worldly; very political, often very corrupt, making fortunes out of their jobs in the church. One of them, Launcelot Andrewes was chief translator...
BW: I was just going to ask you about Andrewes. He was the chief translator.
AN: He was, and a remarkable man, a brilliant man, a great scholar, a very pious man; spent five hours every morning in prayer, most of it in tears - he said, weeping for the miserableness of his soul. At the same time appointing his brothers to all kinds of jobs around the Church of England. He gave a party for the king that lasted three days and cost three thousand pounds at a time when a vicar, an average vicar in England, was earning twenty pounds a year, and a plowman three pounds a year. So - and this terrible, corrupt, you know, wicked man was also the author of some of the most beautiful prayers ever written in English. Robert Cecil was the kingís secretary of state and the great fixer - another of these very crafty...making a fortune out of his job. I mean he built three huge palaces out of money that he siphoned out of the kingís purse. Corrupt in every way...taking a huge pension from the Spanish crown while acting as the secretary of state for England. And yet shepherding this process along. Itís an extraordinary very, very modern bit of bureaucracy.
BW: I mean itís written by a committee. Itís like a great university putting everything together.
AN: It is. It is. They got fifty people--that is, six teams of eight each plus a couple extra--and divided the bible up into six sections, handed it over to these six subcommittees, each of the subcommittees gave their work to the others so there was a lot of cross-checking and then everything came up to a grand supervising committee, then to the bishops of the Church of England and finally to the king. And so the whole thing is as if itís written by England.
BW: And theyíre dealing not only with the original but with scores of other previous translations.
AN: Yes. Theyíre looking at all the Hebrew texts, the Greek texts, relevant Aramaic. They would all have known an extraordinary number of languages, these translators. One of them claims to have known fifteen modern and six ancient languages, and would have been comparing every translation that had ever been made. It is an enormously absorbent process and there are some notes that survived from the final meeting of the final overseeing committee and they discussed for hours at a time whether you should use, you know, a Latinet word or maybe a more Anglo-Saxon word. Should you use a word which suggested say more the kind of humanity of God or more the authority and distance of God. And very, very finely, almost in needlepoint, this text emerges and the question, I mean, the governing question of my book really, is why does that moment allow a committee to make something of beauty? What is it about early 17th century England that allows this in many ways clumsy and pedantic and difficult process to produce what is often enormously moving and powerful poetry?
BW: Whatís your answer?
AN: Well, I think the answer is an interesting and very illiberal one. And...which is, that it is a period which worships and adores authority. It believes in authority more than in freedom, and it believes in conformity more than individualism. And it is simply the belief of these very gifted, very learned, very talented men that they should submit to the authority of God and to the authority of the state, which allows them to make this kind of extraordinarily unified thing. I mean this is a very, very, unfashionable thing to say that in some ways beauty emerges from a belief in government. But I think that thatís what this bible is about.
BW: And where did they meet actually? In a palace or a...
AN: They met in Oxford and Cambridge in one or two of the colleges there...there were four committees; two in Oxford, two in Cambridge and two in London - in Westminster... in Westminster Cathedral. And thereís still the room in Westminster Cathedral where they met called the Jerusalem chamber. A very beautiful, elegant room.
BW: How do they deal in the King James Bible with the whole issue of sensuality? Did that tone it down from other versions, or do they...
AN: No, no. The Song of Songs, which is, I think, the most beautiful part of the whole bible, they turned it up.
BW: They turned it up.
AN: They make it as sexy as it has ever been, I think.
BW: Including in the original Hebrew?
AN: Well, I havenít read the original Hebrew. I canít speak Hebrew. But of all the English versions the King James Bible Song of Songs is absolutely dripping in sensuality with an extraordinary commentary laid over the top of it. One of the intriguing things about the Song of Songs is that it was translated by the most Puritan group of translators. The people you would think of as wanting to shut it down. But not at all. So, for example, they would have translated...the Song of Songs is a conversation between a boy and a girl. One sings and then another sings back. And so the girl sings 'A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me. He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts.' And he replies, 'Behold, thou art fair my love. Behold thou art fair. Thou hast doveís eyes.' Just beautiful. And then the Puritan commentary or summary says, 'The Church and Christ congratulate one another.' [Laughing] And goes on.
BW: So theyíre taking the spin off. I mean...'...'
AN: Theyíre is a spin.
BW: That they leave the language but take the spin-off.
AN: That is right, yes.
BW: Now King James is trying to put out and publish an inclusive document to bring his people together. Do you have an example of that sort of a passage and - and I mean - I - donít quite fathom how a few words or a few sentences of a translation no less, itís not you know, workers of the world unite, itís a few nuances in a translation could have such uh, such power.
AN: I think itís very intriguing and I can...
BW: Great, yeah.
AN: I say, I can read you something...
BW: Okay.
AN: ...from the Bible that they did, which I think embodies precisely this question of how to get a language and a kind of rhetoric that is both accessible to everyone and somehow great and majestic. Itís the nondemitus. Itís very familiar. Itís the words of Simeon on seeing the child Jesus. And they wrote, the translators wrote, 'Lord, now letest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people. A light to light in the gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.' Now I think that is utterly simple. You know exactly whatís going on. Thereís no elaborate vocabulary. There is no reaching down in a kind of patronizing way from some great heights to common people so that they can understand it. It is totally simple and yet it is addressing issues of the greatest magnitude.
BW: When an American reads the King James Bible and you read about the 'thees' and the 'thous' and all these words that are very unfamiliar to the American ear, is that the way people spoke in England at that time?
AN: No. No. Not at all. It is written in a language that is very archaic, even in 1611. In fact, it is written in a kind of English that was never spoken. It does not match the English of the street, and never, ever has. It doesnít now clearly, and it didnít then. And I think thereís something very interesting about this, about the language of God. That in fact nearly all the great translations, even the great Latin bible of the Middle Ages, the Vulgate, was written in a language, in a Latin, that was old when it was done.
BW: That was old when it was done.
AN: Yes.
BW: In order to give it its majesty. I mean...
AN: Exactly.
BW:'s God speaking.
AN: And there is something about a kind of sense of oldness, which somehow looks like a sense of distance to God. The time gap looks like a metaphysical gap, if that makes any sense. That if you can feel this voice coming from the past somehow, you can then imagine it as coming from above.
BW: When the King James translation is finally published and released, what is that - 16...?
AN: In 1611.
BW: 1611. How is it treated by the public?
AN: It goes down like a lead balloon. They hated it.
BW: Really?
AN: The previous bible, which the English had loved, was called the Geneva Bible, translated by some Calvinists in Geneva in the 1560s. A lovely, lovely book full of helpful hints on how to read the bible, maps of the Holy land; almost like a family encyclopedia. Very well printed. The Bible - Shakespeareís bible--and the Geneva Bible continues to be the favored bible of the English after the King James Bible is produced. And incredibly even the preface to the King James Bible itself quotes not from the King James Bible, but from the Geneva Bible and Launcelot Andrewes, the great chief translator, for years afterwards in his sermons will quote from the Geneva Bible.
BW: But from the American point of view the great cadences and rhythms of Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy and Martin Luther King are Jamesian or Jacobean.
AN: They are. Well, but there's a great irony about that too, because when the Pilgrim fathers come here they take with them not the King James Bible; they hated the King James Bible as a thing of kings and bishops and priests and ceremony and richness. They take the Geneva Bible with them and for the first maybe, what? fifty years of American history, the Geneva Bible is the American Bible. And it is only at the end of the 17th century that Americans, like the English, start to turn to the King James Bible as a bible that is about nation-building. And I think that that is the political explanation for this. The Geneva Bible is the bible of the ardent, private, Puritan spirit, with a direct relation to God. Just me, God, and the bible. And the King James Bible is about making a nation. And that shift, which happens in England after the Civil War, happens in America towards the end of the 17th century, as that private, Puritan spirit in some ways starts to become less needed than the idea of building a nation. And incredibly this un-American book, this very, very, you know, originally, very un-American book becomes the great American book. I think the King James Bible was intended as a thing, an instrument, almost a tool, to bring people together, to heal division, and to make a single nation under God. I think that was its purpose. But all of these things that weíve talking about, these divergent forces that James is trying to hold together in one fabric, broke apart and this thing is, in a way, the one thing that survives from his dream of a great, unified nation.
BW: On that note, Adam Nicolson, thank you very much for joining us on Think Tank. And thank you.
  For Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg. This is PBS   ·   Think Tank Archive   ·   [FMC]