Review – McGrath, Alister, In the Beginning

McGrath, Alister, In the Beginning — the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture.

This is another of those books that you see in airport bookshops and larger variety store chains, with a cover that promises much, but never really delivers on that promise. Starting from the premise that the King James Bible was more of a linguistic and sociological influence on modern society than a religious document, the author seeks to investigate the social, economic and political forces that created the need for an English translation.

While readable, the text isn’t as well written as could be expected in a book of this type. This appears to due to the book being aimed at interested but uninformed readers who can only manage a few pages at a time. Concepts are repeated every few pages, possibly to address those with shorter attention spans, leaving the reader feeling more like they are viewing a website than reading a book. Some of the prose is particularly purple, on one occasion, borrowing from the local media: “Western Europe was like a dry tinderbox” (p40). Indeed, there are few things worse than a wet tinderbox.

A number of what I’ll charitably call “sub-editorial problems” are evident in the book; fragmentary sentences and missing subjunctives are frequent. Whilst mainly a minor irritation, it gets sort of funny in an ironic sort of way during the chapter dealing with translation errors in the Latin Vulgate Bible.

The story examines the driving forces behind the translation of the Bible into “base” languages such as French, German, Spanish and English, rather than the Roman Church’s position of leaving it in the more “noble” Latin Vulgate. It quickly turns into a Protestant v. Catholic slugfest, on whether it was or wasn’t suitable for the believer to read and interpret (or not interpret) the bible for themselves. A brief history of the different English versions leading up to the King James translation is given, along with parallel versions of the same verses to highlight the differences in 150 years of English translations (almost none, apparently deliberately).  Short biographies of the dramatis personae are provided to give them a political context, and short anecdotes introduce the medieval mindset. Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London (1522-1530) comes in for special mention as a “religious moderate… in that he only burned books, not people”. The particular books in question were “William Tyndale’s New Testament and Pentateuch, published at the command of the previous king…”. A true Renaissance Man, Tunstall wrote the first printed work published in England devoted exclusively to mathematics, De arte supputandi libri quattuor (1522)

The technical part of the book delves in to papers, fonts and innovations, often using them as an aid to identifying differing editions and places of publication. A number of errors appeared in different editions of the King James Bible, causing those editions to have different names. Joaz indulges in cross-dressing in the 1613 edition where he is called “she” (Ruth 3:15), causing that edition to be called the “Great She Bible”. A slightly later edition amusingly mentions the Midianites who “vex you with their wives”, rather than their (possibly less effective but more correct) wiles (Numbers 25:18). And then there’s the infamous “Wicked Bible” of 1631, where the seventh commandment is “Thou shalt commit adultery”.

Some notes on changes in the written and spoken language are given: one of the purposes of the new translation was to be read aloud in Church – some of the larger sized volumes could hardly be used for anything else. McGrath makes the argument that English was in a transition, the third person changing from the “-eth” ending to “-s”. There is evidence that while still being written as “-eth”, these words were pronounced as if they ended in “-s”. An extract from the Special Help to Orthography by Robert Hodges, published in 1643 is used to illustrate the point; while it was customary to “write such words as ‘leadeth it, noteth it, raketh it, perfumeth it’ the words were said as ‘leads it, notes it, rakes it, perfumes it’.” English, being non phonetic doesn’t need to change the spelling every time the pronunciation changes.

Rather than continue with a review of a book that I found interesting, but fundamentally unfulfilling, I’ll give a potted history of the translations below.

Early translations in English were by Tyndale (Cologne, 1526), Coverdale (Zurich, 1535) – both suppressed; Matthew (London, 1537) – heavily drawing on Coverdale and Tyndale, again suppressed and; Taverner (London, 1539) – a revision of Matthew’s Bible, with the strongly Protestant notes omitted or toned down.

The first edition of the Great Bible (sometimes known as Cramer’s Bible by virtue of his introduction to the second edition) appeared in April 1539, and an injunction was issued by Thomas Cromwell that a copy of it should be set up in every parish church. It was consequently the first (and only) English Bible formally authorised for public use. In April 1540 a second edition appeared. Two more editions followed in July and November, in 1541 three editions were issued.

The Geneva Bible was made by a group of Calvinist English exiles living in Geneva. It was distributed on the black market in England. Between 1583 and 1603, 51 editions of the Geneva Bible were published in sizes ranging from quarto down to duodecimo (page size about 4”x 5”), making it the still most common bible of the early to mid 17th century. The Soldiers Pocket Bible was published in 1643, consisting of selections from the Geneva Bible. There were over 560 different editions of the Geneva Bible in various forms; the last edition was in 1644. Many of the alleged innovations of the King James Bible were borrowed from previous Geneva editions. Verse division was first introduced in the 1551 edition of the Geneva Bible. Prior to that edition, each verse started on a new line. The use of Roman typefaces, not dissimilar to modern Garamond comes from the 1560/61 edition.

The Bishops’ Bible (also known as the Treacle Bible on its promise of a “land flowing with milk and treacle…” Exodus 3:7) was a revision of the Great Bible done by several bishops under the direction of Queen Elizabeth’s Archbishop, Matthew Parker. An attempt to create an official version that could compete with the Geneva Bible (unacceptable to the bishops on account of its anti-Episcopal notes), the edition failed. Only seven editions of the Bishops’ Bible were published to 1603, all in large formats suitable for Church use.

The Douay-Rheims Bible was published first as a New Testament at Rheims in 1582 and as a full Bible in two volumes at Douay in 1609-10. It was an English translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible as an attempt to stop all the nonsense of using Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic texts as the basis of Bible translations. It didn’t catch on in the Protestant churches but is still remembered by Catholics with some affection possibly not evident when it was published.

The King James Bible, when first published in 1611 was a folio edition, quarto and octavo editions in 1612, duodecimo in 1617 and a pocket size vicesimoquarto edition in 1620. The 1611 edition was in laid out in two columns in black-letter type, the later, smaller versions in Roman typefaces. The two columns of text were enclosed in rules, with each verse beginning on a new line. Notes were restricted to cross references and translation notes and were kept safely out of the way in the margins. It wasn’t really accepted until a generation or so after its publication, The Geneva Bible still being the most popular with the book-buying populace up to the time of the Restoration. Most of the social impact from this version dates from the Victorian period.

The Apocrypha was a feature of all these English translations; the first English-language bible to be printed without the Apocrypha was published in North America in 1782. It was done to reduce the use of scarce paper resources at the time. The rest of the Protestant world didn’t really catch up until early in the nineteenth century.


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