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

Alister E. McGrath


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 33)

At the end of In the Beginning, Alister McGrath remarks upon the prominent role of the King James Bible in English culture. By the late nineteenth century it was known simply as the Authorized Version in England and was the translation of choice in other English-speaking nations too. So profoundly did it underlie Protestant doctrine and general education that most people were not even aware that it was a translation. It was simply the Bible. McGrath’s book recounts how and why the King James Bible achieved that status.

It is a large, complex, worthy undertaking, but one hampered from the beginning by its intentions. A renowned biblical scholar and editor, McGrath is eminently qualified to write such a book, and he wrote it for a general readership. That, it appears, created a great—perhaps insurmountable—challenge. The topic is intensely intellectual. It entails the history and politics of Protestantism and the English monarchy, the theory of translation, theological controversies, and comparative linguistics. These are not subjects that individually are easy to make clear, much less engrossing, to nonspecialists; mixed together in one relatively brief book, it is a daunting task indeed. Accordingly, specialists will find that sometimes the book’s explanations move along so swiftly as to be superficial, or even misleading. McGrath claims, for example, that the first English translation of the Bible was undertaken by followers of John Wycliffe in the late fourteenth century. In fact, the English prelate Ælfric translated portions of the Bible four centuries earlier. Ælfric’s work was probably unknown to Wycliffe’s era, and so its existence does not impair the substance of McGrath’s arguments, but it is just the sort of glossed-over fact that experts are sure to notice.

It is not that McGrath dumbs down the material. He condenses. The first three chapters sketch the technological and historical background. In the first, he recounts the invention of printing, the growth of a wealthy middle class, and the rise in literacy rates. The second describes the shift, in fifteenth and sixteenth century England, from French and Latin to English as the language of officialdom and literature. Here he exaggerates the low repute of English and its supposed crudeness of expression. English readers knew and esteemed such writers as John Gower, Thomas Malory, and the transcendent poet and storyteller Geoffrey Chaucer, even if French had more international éclat. The third chapter outlines the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. It gave rise to shift in emphasis from reliance on the clergy to the responsibility of individuals, as guided by the Gospels, for their own righteousness. In Germany and France, such reformers as Martin Luther produced vernacular versions of the Vulgate (Latin) Bible to make it easier for nonclergy to school themselves in Holy Scripture.

The English version of the Reformation was intimately involved with the politics of Henry VIII, who separated his nation from the Roman Catholic Church. Despite objections from leaders of the English church, the political climate appeared not to forbid translations of the Bible into English, and several people tried. Among the earliest was William Tyndale. In the fourth chapter, McGrath argues that Tyndale’s 1526 translation was the best and most influential, affecting the phrasing of all subsequent English Bibles until the twentieth century. It is at this point that In the Beginningcomes into its own. McGrath examines textual matters closely, at times juxtaposing passages from different translations, and makes his points lucidly and convincingly. Chapter 5 concerns the Geneva Bible, the main competitor with the King James Bible and the version used by William Shakespeare. Published in 1560 by political refugees from Protestant persecutions under Queen Mary, it was the first English translation to use chapter and verse divisions, and came with notes and commentaries explaining “hard places” in the text—explanations that strongly reflected the Protestant theology of John Calvin.

The Geneva Bible was the preferred version of the Puritans. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Puritans were tolerated, but they were also frustrated in their campaign to reform the nation’s religious practices. When King James I ascended the throne in 1603, the Puritans believed he...

(The entire section is 1788 words.)