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Alister McGrath’s study of the King’s James Bible, is a story of publishing, politics, culture, and language. We tend to forget that the Bible as we know it are translations: the Old Testament from Hebrew and Aramaic and the New Testament from Greek. Whether understood as literal gospel or not, most have only read a secondary source. How the King James Bible evolved to be one of the most pervasive of those sources and its impact on the English language is the tale of this fascinating book.

Like the internet, the printing press changed the Western world. This book’s examination of the development of the Gutenberg Bible from a publishing business perspective parallels business concerns today. These practicalities are often ignored in historical surveys. Mr. McGrath intertwines business with politics. The Dutch were cheaper and better printers than the British Crown monopolies. The Geneva Bible, the preferred Bible of Lutherans and Puritans, was the popular product marketed through European printers. Its anti-monarchist notes were a threat to the Anglicans and was illegal in, or import restricted to, England. The King James Bible was to be a political compromise. A substitution for the Geneva Bible that Anglican Bishops could accept, and a translation revision in form, for the Puritans. While it bore the imprimatur of the Crown, it was privately financed, due to the King’s existing debts.

The King James Bible was the political culmination of other English translations: Wycliffite Bible; Tyndale’s partial translation of the New Testament and the Pentateuch; Coverdale Bible; Matthew’s Bible; Great Bible; Geneva Bible; Bishop’s Bible; and the Douai New Testament. It reflected the growth in power of England and the acceptance of the English language as a consequence. The Reformation began the “populist” revolt, undermining Rome, Latin, and Catholicism (and the Vulgate translation of the Bible). Publishing allowed the reduction of the size of the published Bible from folio, which was meant to be read by the clergy to the congregation, to duodecimo and sextodecimo, which individuals could readily carry with them and could be smuggled. King James was a disappointment to the Puritans, as being Scotch they thought him an ally. He had to govern however, was apparently openly homosexual, and his successor, Charles I, was ultimately more to their liking.

Mr. McGrath examines the organization and process of translation of the King James Bible. It is the product of each. Unlike earlier Bibles which translated each word (with often incomprehensible result), the translators tried to remain true to original language, yet capture the concept. It followed some Anglican tradition by including the Apocrypha and used Middle English, although such verbiage was less used in the popular vernacular. The recognition that translations are not static as language evolves, is demonstrated by common current misunderstandings of Middle English used in the King James Bible. The Bible’s influence on modern English is also demonstrated through phrases that have their origin in the King James Bible translations from Hebrew. To name a few:

“to fall flat on his face” (Numbers 22:31)
” a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14)
“sour grapes” (Ezekiel 18:2)

There is also a comparison of the English translations of Psalm 23 from the Wycliffite Bible (c. 1384) through to the Revised Standard Version of 1952. The consistencies and differences are interesting.

In fact, there are so many interesting facets of this book, that I cannot do it justice in this review. History is a product of accidents. If Catherine of Aragon had a son, instead of a daughter (Mary Tudor), would the Geneva Bible have ever been printed? For every action there is a reaction. I recommend that you read this book if you like history, politics, business and language. If you also have an interest in theology, so much the better.