In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

imageIn the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, by Alister McGrath. Published by Doubleday, 2001

The King James Bible is a hallmark of the English language. McGrath writes that, “No other book has so penetrated and permeated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible” (253). This, no doubt, is true. Christians took the time in 2011 to commemorate the King James Bible on it’s 400th birthday, even those who are the most critical of its origin and translation. In the Beginning provides a colorful and easy to read history of the KJV, and the lineage of English translation which preceded it.

If you are trying to make decisions about manuscript families or translation philosophies, this book would not be the place to start. McGrath touches slightly on the history of the textus receptus, and comes down against its reliability, albeit he is gracious and nuanced. This book, however, is not about that. It does serve as a very readable and helpful introduction to the English Reformation in general, particularly the Bible translating surrounding it. As we learned from Josiah, the Bible always brings about Reform when it is read and obeyed (cf. 2 Kings 22:11, 23:3-4).

One caution I would give regarding this book, is that there are points in which McGrath discusses King James as though he were simply a politician with his finger in the air, trying to decipher which way the wind was blowing. While some of that might be true, there was no real discussion of James’ personal Christian piety. It seems unreasonable, in my unscholarly opinion, to assert that the entire reasoning behind the production of this translation was political (or, by extension, to imply that because it was political it must therefore be bad). McGrath does do a very nice job, however, at briefly tracing the history of Bible translation during the Protestant Reformation, and the central role that it had. The history of the Geneva Bible was particularly fascinating, especially the role of its marginal notes on the political atmosphere of Europe.

Beyond simply recounting the history, McGrath compiles some fascinating ways in which the language of the KJV has impacted English, particularly through the translation of Hebrew idioms. I now know how my teeth got skin on them. Also, McGrath makes some helpful points regarding translation in the process, especially translating into “living languages” as he phrases it. Considering how young English was at the time of translation, it caused all sorts of difficulty for the translators, who were aiming primarily for accuracy, and the ability for their work to be “understood even of the very vulgar” (310).

I would definitely recommend this quick, yet fascinating, read. Worth running through the 310 pages.

How Things Fit Together

Bible translation is a particularly messy business. At least, that is the way we have made it these days. In every age, the 17th century included, there are political, economic, historical, and doctrinal factors at play. Which manuscript family should be used? That question alone raises questions regarding the providence of God, and the work of the Holy Spirit (at least in the minds of some). Should there be a “target audience” when translating the Bible? Who actual should do the translating? Do these men need to be orthodox Christians, or can we just get leading secular language scholars to do the work for us? What authority do “Bible societies” have? Who profits from the sale of Bibles? Should they?

No doubt we have been richly blessed by the availability of the Bible in English, and we should never forget that. Thomas Watson once wrote, “I wish we did not slight those truths now which would taste sweet in a prison. How precarious was a leaf of the Bible in Queen Mary’s days! the wise God sees it good sometimes to give us the sharp sauce of affliction, to make us feed more hungrily upon the bread of life.” [1] Any translation is better read than no translation, and yet, we tend to just have multiple English translations collecting dust and none of them being read. That is to our shame.

The sheer amount of translations available to us, however, should not cause us to stop asking the questions I raised (and I believe McGrath’s book raised in my mind) above. It still matters where our Bibles come from and how they got here. We need to be thoughtfully engaging in this conversation regarding our own time, as we reflect on how God worked in the past.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Thomas Watson.The Beatitudes. 1660. Reprinted by Banner of Truth in 2007. Page 135.
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