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Joan K. Snipes

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A review of Adam Nicolson's book, God's Secretaries
By Joan K. Snipes   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Friday, March 14, 2008
Posted: Friday, March 14, 2008

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If you are a fan of the King James Bible, you will enjoy Nicolson's book.

After reading Adam Nicolson's book, "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible," I have a deepened appreciation for the majesty, the richness, the musicality, and the exactness of this beloved English translation of the Bible.  Nicolson does a wonderful job of explaining the historical climate of Jacobean England, the guidance provided by King James I, and the unrivaled text that fifty or so scholars worked on for seven years prior to the publication in 1611.  I especially commend this book to you if you are a fan of the King James Bible or if you question the value of this particular translation.

Here is an excerpt from Nicolson's book, commenting on a passage from Mark's Gospel:

There came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
        And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?
        For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.  And they murmured against her.

"This is a particularly resonant and revealing passage about the way in which the King James Bible works.  The private ritual of the woman with the spikenard is cloaked in an air of what can only be called holiness.  Her bringing the oil of spikenard (an aromatic plant, sometimes identified with lavender) carries echoes of the Magi bringing their precious substances to the child in the stable, and the words these translators chose also carry forward-echoes of the Last Supper, now only hours away ('and she brake the box, and poured it on his head, 'Jesus took bread, and brake it').  This atmosphere of holiness is made to reside in the strange, formal, ritualised language of the seventeenth-century Bible (which also happens to be an intimately exact translation of the original)...."

Nicolson notes that this passage "is both clear and rich."  The wording infuses the translation "with a sense of beauty and ceremony."  Eloquently, Nicolson concludes his praise for the King James translation of this passage with this:  "the richness of the words somehow represents a substance that goes beyond mere words and that is its triumph."  (See p. 196.)

Thanks to Nicolson, I became aware that the King James Bible was translated with attention to how it would sound to its listeners.  The final committee of scholars read the text aloud as part of the process of deciding on the wording.  This accounts for the sense of rhythm in so many passages.

I enjoyed learning more about the 50 scholars who did the work and came away amazed that such imperfect individuals could accomplish something so wonderful.  Nicolson, whose liking for his subject shines through with unabashed enthusiasm, explains how the translators worked (in six companies) and sheds much light on the atmosphere and beliefs of the time.  I'm so grateful I had the opportunity to read this book.  Please let me know what YOU think of the book!

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