Beyond its proven magnificence, its lovely old voice, there is one element of the King James Bible we don't talk about so much. Contrary to all the warm spin it generates, it was not crafted by saints. Far from it. No, the most overlooked element in the making of the King James Bible, and yet the very quality that gives it a truer, more immediate charm is that it was assembled by capable men, certainly, but men who were as imperfect and flawed as the rest of us, the most flawed among them being the king himself.
King James was the most unlikely, improbable candidate to head such an enterprise. In spite of his belief in divine right, he was the most human of kings.
Orphaned and unloved as a child, kidnapped no less than nine times, mishandled and misprized, to say he was damaged psychologically is understating it. By the time he became the English king (1603) in his mid-thirties, he was damaged goods. "One of the most complicated neurotics" one scholar noted, "ever to sit upon the English throne."
His contrasts were wide and often irreconcilable. He could recite whole chapters of the Bible. He could dazzle his court with a powerful rhetoric. And yet he was known to tell toilet jokes in Parliament.
James Stuart was, as the prologue of my book says, "a mix of bombast and imperium, of sparkle and grime, of smut and brilliance, of visionary headship and blunder." He was the "unscrubbed child who never grew up nor had any mind to." And yet without him there would be no King James Bible. It would not have just materialized, any more than Hamlet would have materialized without a Shakespeare.
James was necessary. The irony alone is delicious.
The idea for a new Bible first came up at a three-day conference at the King's palace at Hampton Court in January 1604. At the end of the second day, John Reynolds, spokesman for the Puritan petitioners, after being bullied by the king and others, and after all his requests were denied, suggested that a new Bible be translated. It was not even on the Puritan agenda. The suggestion itself was more of an afterthought. Still, Reynolds was the big winner that day.
The thought of a new translation settled on the king like an epiphany.Within a short time, and with the help of Richard Bancroft, the bishop of London, James established the 15 rules of translation. He and Bancroft also chose the players, the 50 some odd translators who would do the work. (Bancroft confessed later that the king actually made up the rules himself and chose the players.)
There were six groups of translators (companies) -- two companies from Westminster, two from Oxford, and two from Cambridge. Each company had about eight translators and one director. There were ideally about 54 translators, though the actual number was more like 50.James saw a new Bible as a way to unify his people. A new translation would reflect the glory of his reign. Majesty itself was to be dispersed, by means of the Scriptures. It was to be the connective tissue that held a people together. He commanded that the language of the new Bible be "sett forth gorgeouslie."
The translation brought out the best that was in James. For all his indelicacy, for all his Broad Scots manners, and the sheer impossibility he posed at times, he had the power to inspire those around him, and not just because of a crown. And once the translation was under way, James, as brilliant as he was, as "hands on" as he could be, as meddling and as demanding, he simply stepped back and allowed these brilliant men do their work.
James Stuart was never more of a true king than he was over the translation. It brought out the best that was in him. And far from leaving a stain on this revered Bible, the king's imperfections and the imperfections of the many men who wove it together bring it much closer to you and me.
There is a large bustling humanity behind the King James Bible. And it serves a kind of justice that it does. After all, the Word of God is itself a living thing. It has both warmth and intellect (accessible at many levels). It has discretion, generosity, subtlety, movement, authority. It has a heart and a pulse. It keeps a beat and has a musical voice that allows it to sing. It enchants and it soothes. It argues and it forgives. It defends and it reasons. It intoxicates and it restores. It weeps and it exults. It thunders but never roars. It calls but never begs. And it always loves.But outside these noble qualities, the greatest lesson that the story of the King James Bible has to teach is perhaps in its subtext, which suggests to all of us that God can use the flawed, the damaged, the conflicted, the graceless, the ruined and the misprized among us to do the extraordinary. Truly, the extraordinary.