A great story: making the King James Bible

In exploring the genesis of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson quite reasonably begins with King James. He became James VI of Scotland when he was 1 and his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, was deposed. By the time Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, as Nicolson puts it, "James' mouth was dry with years of panting." He would travel south from Edinburgh, ascend the English throne as James I and create a unified Britain at last.

"James Stuart was an unlikely hero," Nicolson writes vividly, "ugly, restless, red-haired, pale-skinned, his tongue, it was said, too big for his mouth, impatient, vulgar, clever, nervous." But he was an inspired diplomat when it came to reconciling the warring religious factions in his new country. He recognized that one way to mediate between Roman Catholics and Protestant Puritans was to give them a shared mission.

"No bishops, no king," he bluntly told one highly placed Puritan; his ability to rule depended on a unity between church and state. And the Puritans were too austere and independent to guarantee that. (Authentic Puritan names of the period include Faint-not, Eschew-evil and No-merit.) James thus had political reasons to want a Bible that, unlike the Geneva Bible preferred by Puritans, did not use the word tyrant more than 400 times. In explaining the need for a new text, the king said bluntly: "It was no reason that because a man had been sick of the poxe 40 years, therefore he should not be cured at length."

The tyrant-free King James Bible required "something approaching 350 scholar years" to complete. God's Secretaries takes on the daunting task of explaining how that work was done. The plan called for six teams of eight scholars apiece, with each group called a company. There were six overseers as well, and each team dealt with a different section of Scripture. "With these men, it is often difficult to penetrate beneath the slew of titles and appointments, of publicly declared positions and overt alliances," the author acknowledges. Nonetheless, he gives it a venturesome try.