Alister McGrath, In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001 (ISBN 0340 78560 8) Hardback 14.99

In the preface, Alister McGrath tells how, like every child born in the coronation year, 1953, he was given a copy of the King James Bible (KJB) by order of the Queen. ‘As I grew older,’ he relates, ‘I often wondered how the whole thing came about. How was the translation process started? Who were the people who created it? What issues did they face? How did they go about producing the translation? How was it received? And why had Elizabeth II asked for this specific version of the Bible to be given to all born in the year of her coronation? What was so special about it?’ These are fair questions about the book he ‘now knew to be a literary and religious classic’.

The subject is beguiling, the author appears to have considerable credentials as a historian, and the book is good-looking. Would this turn out to be something worthwhile, or would it turn out to belong with those many, many books, articles and remarks that make up what I have called ‘the pious chorus’? Would it be a genuine new investigation or another reverential piece of half-thinking praise, an example of what I have called AVolatry?

The contents look promising, ranging from the development of printing and the rise of English through early English Bibles by way of an account of the Reformation to four chapters on King James, why and how the KJB was made, and the early printings, then moving on to problems of translation, how the Bible shaped modern English and how the KJB was finally acclaimed. History, Bible translation and language are appropriately mixed, though one wonders quite how the ‘culture’ of the title will fit in.

The result, however, is disappointing. Not only is this another piece of AVolatry, but it reads like a hasty patchwork pot-boiler. Alarm bells ring early: ‘without the King James Bible, there would have been no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim’s Progress, no Handel’s Messiah, no Negro spirituals, and no Gettysburg Address. These, and innumerable other works, were inspired by the language of this Bible. Without this Bible, the culture of the English-speaking world would have been immeasurably impoverished.’ It is the emphasis on ‘the language of this Bible’ that is worrying, though it is obviously true that the KJB was the particular form in which English Protestants (and some Catholics) knew the Bible.

If one could show that Paradise Lost and the others would have been quite different or even impossible if the KJB had never been made and the Geneva Bible, say, had become the Bible of England, then the claims would have real meaning, and a lot would have been said about how the KJB ‘changed... a culture’. But Paradise Lost, for instance, has only one line quoted verbatim from the KJB, ‘she gave me from the tree and I did eat’ (Gen. 3: 12). It is wonderfully effective in its plangent simplicity amidst the elaborations of Milton’s verse, but it isn’t unique to the KJB. The reading goes back through the Bishops’ and Geneva Bibles to the Great Bible. Little of Paradise Lost -- and one could say the same for so many literary works based on the Bible -- depends on the precise words of the KJB. Rather, the biblical story, available in so many versions as well as in art and popular mythology, is the prime but not the only source. Is there really anything in it that depends uniquely on the KJB? Would Paradise Lost have been different by a single word if the KJB had never been made?

McGrath does not answer such questions. What is perhaps more surprising is that none of the works he mentions except the Messiah receives another mention in the book. This is part of what I take to be the haste of the book: tough questions untouched, relevant areas unexplored.

Here are two more examples of apparent haste resulting in omission -- and error.

First, there are ten pages on the Bible in America, of which three are on Robert Aitken’s efforts to produce the first KJB printed in America. Following this are two paragraphs on rival translations in relation to the KJB, and the chapter stops. The Bible in America is a huge subject, fully relevant to this book, yet it simply isn’t there. There is a chasm where one expected a mountain; or, if not a mountain, at least a mention of the Gettysburg Address.

Second, there is the treatment of the printing of the KJB. There is a whole chapter on this, but nothing on the development of the text; instead, the chapter concludes with the easier topic of printing errors. Following a mention of the ‘Wicked Bible’ of 1631 (incorrectly attributed, as reference to A.S. Herbert’s indispensable Historical Catalogue would have shown), McGrath notes that the first edition of the KJB printed by Oxford University Press appeared in 1675, and that this ‘was followed in 1682 by a sumptuous edition prepared by the Oxford printer John Baskett’, the notorious ‘Baskett-full of Printer’s Errors’. The true date is 1717.

What, one might ask, of Cambridge University Press, which made crucial contributions to the text in 1629 and 1638? Well, there is a mention in the ‘biblical timeline’ given at the end: the last entry is for 1675, the year McGrath correctly gave for the first Oxford Bible: ‘King James Bible published by Cambridge University Press’. What an error to finish with, and what a date to choose for the final entry! There is no mention at all of Benjamin Blayney’s Oxford folio of 1769, the edition that established the received form of the text in England, nor any noting of later key moments in the history of the Bible such as the publication of the Revised Version in 1885. Such a set of errors and omissions is remarkable, especially given that Scrivener’s The Authorized Edition of the English Bible (1611) is cited in the bibliography.

Haste and carelessness ruin the book. The uninformed reader, wanting a decent introduction to the whole subject, would have no way of telling when the information is reliable and when not. If this reader wanted to trace the phrase, ‘the noblest monument of English prose’, he or she would have a long and fruitless hunt to find it in Robert Lowth, to whom McGrath attributes it; with antecedents, it comes from a man with a similar surname, John Livingston Lowes 180 years later.

Just as bad is the reference to Robert Cawdray’s early dictionary, A Table Alphabetical (to give it its right title): this deals with ‘hard usual English words’, not unusual ones, as Simon Winchester’s The Surgeon of Crowthorne would also have us believe. The mistake falsifies the early history of English lexicography.

Perhaps less culpable is the discussion of ‘his’ and ‘its’. There are some good examples and some good points made, but ‘its’ did not appear in the KJB of 1611 at Lev. 25: 5 (the one place where ‘its’ is now found), and McGrath’s opening point is about the state of the language when the KJB was made. The reading was ‘that which groweth of it owne accord’ until first changed (as the OED notes) in 1660.

I suggested earlier that this book has a patchwork quality. There are no footnotes, which is fair enough in a book intended for the popular market, but, as the author of one of the books in the bibliography, I recognise rather a lot. I suppose other authors of books in the bibliography might have the same experience. It’s flattering to be used, but I wish it had been in a book I could recommend.

David Norton
Victoria University of Wellington

Editor’s Note

David Norton’s most recent book is entitled A History of the Bible as Literature, Cambridge UP 2000

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