Monday, December 20, 2010

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

Author: Alister McGrath
Published by Anchor Books, 2001

History, politics, theology; these three are intermingled resulting in a scholarly treatise on how the King James version of the Bible came to be written, as well as the effect it had on language and culture, not just of its time, but its continuing effect today. McGrath, who is an historical theology professor at Oxford University begins the history of the King James Bible with the printing of the first Bible in 1468 by Johannes Gutenberg.( Hark the Herald Angels Sing, tune written by Johannes Gutenberg ) and Martin Luthor's translation of the Bible into German
     From McGrath, we learn that the spread of ideas of the reformation owe much to the invention of the printing press. The Church (at the time Roman Catholic) had been selling "Indulgences," a printed paper which said that a person had been forgiven of all their sins. These papers were sold to sinners for a very high price, the money which was used to build and repair cathedrals all over Europe.  With the advent of the printing press, Indulgences were printed and sold much faster, creating a spreading uproar among Christian Church reformers.
     Gutenberg's Bible was printed in Latin, the language of the Church. The next step in its history was for the Bible to be printed in vernacular or native languages. This was a big deal, much bigger than it might seem to us in the twenty-first century with books in any language so readily available. At the time, a country's religion was controlled by whatever monarch was in power.  The Church and the ruling power were usually the same.  It was the government, in collusion with the Church that told people what the Bible said and interpreted its passages for them. If people could read the Bible for themselves, there could be all kinds of trouble.
   I won't be spoiling the ending by telling you that yes, the Bible was eventually written in English, culminating in the creation of the King James Bible in 1611.  It is the journey of this release that is so interestingly documented by McGrath his book.
   Don't think that this is just a book on Christianity because it definitely is not.  It deeply considers the evolution of language that affected and was affected by the  1611 translation of the Bible.  In In the Beginning we learn why archaic word were chosen, words that were already falling out of usage.  We learn that the now-common usage of a neutral possessive, "its" was not  commonly used at the time of writing the King James translation.  In its place was the word, "his" which, to us, means male possessive.  It caused lots of trouble to the translators of the time who  used many convoluted sentences in their attempt to avoid using the word, "his."  The result is that we see many items in the Bible as being male when they were originally neither male nor female.  This is one small translation issue that has affected our language and culture even today!
    I've read this book three times.  It is not easy reading. There is a horde of information given and it could use a bit more editing to tidy up the paragraphs.  I sometimes felt that I was reading in circles as sentences and phrases were repeated throughout a chapter.  But the reader shouldn't be intimidated by the scholarly nature of the book.  Even with just one reading I learned enough about the history of Bible translating and the political upheaval caused by the Reformation that I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in those subjects. I have re-read the book because my small mind could not grasp hold of all the information the first time through.  Each reading had taught me something new.
In the Beginning helps set in order some the political upheaval that occurred in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Because I refer to the book from time to time, it is not a book I loan out. I, therefore, suggest that you buy your own and find out why Christians often say they belong to a "church" rather than a "congregation."

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