What an illuminating history and how clearly penned is this book! McGrath demonstrates how the great social forces that changed the face of Europe and England set the stage upon which the Translation that produced the King James Version of the Bible would be played out. Beginning with the Renaissance, progressing through the Reformation, and showing the impact of even the defeat of the Spanish armada, McGrath paints for the reader a portrait of evolving societies that demanded a Bible that they themselves could read, be their language French, Spanish or English.
McGrath shows us how the changing fortunes of the English tongue itself played a preparatory role in the demand for an English language Bible, and how the rise of the English merchant classes brought what had been a second-class language into respectable usage. Ah, but there was great political danger in allowing a Bible to be written in the people's tongue. How could the church fathers maintain control and exert their accustomed influence if the people were no longer forced to depend upon them to read, interpret and explain the Latin scriptures to their flocks? (Their Latin Bibles were, of course, only translations themselves, but doubtless few clerics could have understood the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek originals!)
And that blasted Reformation! Now we had Puritans interpreting the Bible their way-which weakened the concept of the divine right of kings and threatened the future of the monarchy. That certainly had to be opposed! Such political considerations led to bans on publishing Bibles in the English tongue and to the execution of those who would dare do so abroad. Still, by the time that James VI of Scotland and I of England assumed the throne, English translations of the Bible did exist, several versions of them in fact, including one printed in Geneva by English expatriates. This was a particularly dangerous version inasmuch as it was favored by the Puritan movement and was growing in popularity despite opposition from the Anglican bishops. All of this religious rancor, of course, permeated the entire government, for religion and worldly politics were thoroughly intertwined and inseparable.
Perhaps, James thought, directing that a new translation be made would mollify the warring political/religious elements of his realm. Although his goal was not immediately realized, the consequences of his decision were more far-reaching and influential than he could have possibly foreseen. Privately published and sold by venture capitalists, largely ignored or rejected upon its publication in 1611, and fraught with printing errors, the King James Version was not precisely a best seller for quite a long while. It was a rather inauspicious start for what would become one of the most influential books in the English language.
I read McGrath's book after Adam Nicolson's "God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible." The two works are not repetitive, for they approach the same history from different perspectives. While McGrath generally focuses on the broader linguistic, economic and social movements that eventually created a demand for an English language Bible and explains the political necessity for yet another translation under King James, Nicolson focuses largely on the personalities of the king, his advisors, and on what is known of the individual Translators and their six companies. The two books complement each other nicely, and I would recommend reading both, though, if a reader absolutely must limit himself to just one of the two, then perhaps McGrath's book will give the more thorough understanding.
Bear in mind, gentle sir or madam, that, unless you are yourself fluent in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, you, no more than I, have never read and will never be able to read any biblical texts. The best we can manage is to read a translation, itself based on and heavily influenced by even earlier translations, all of which were themselves influenced by the degree of linguistic skill of the translators, by their own beliefs and biases, and by the secular and church politics that controlled them. Both McGrath's and Nicolson's books will be of inestimable help in understanding just what it is that we are reading today when we claim to be reading the Bible. May I also emphasize that one need not be a follower of Jewish or Christian theology to enjoy these histories. Both educate in a most entertaining way, but, best of all, neither preaches.