Brief Commentary: In the Beginning

In the Beginning : The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a CultureIn the Beginning : The Story of the King James Bible and How it Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister E. McGrath

A wonderful primer on the history, technological changes, and politics of the late middle ages, the history, politics, and theology behind the Reformation, the debates that went into translating the Bible into English, the history of early-modern English translations and how these relate to the political struggle between Royalists, Parliamentarians, Puritans, and Anglicans, and how this all eventually results in the King James Bible. McGrath also does a fine job of describing the translation process, the various theories of scriptural translation, that informed all of the English translations of the Bible. As a popular, layman’s history of these things, it doesn’t go into a lot of depth, but does an admirable job of providing just enough information to give context for appropriate understanding. McGrath is highly readable, and the book present complex issues without ever sacrificing lucidity or moving towards inaccessibility.

Three things hold the book back, however:
1–McGrath focuses too much on perhaps unnecessary background information, and thus puts himself in a bind wherein he sacrifices how much focus he can put on the actual ostensible subject. The story of the KJB doesn’t begin until about 2/3 in, and feels somewhat rushed. While the discussions of European politics and theology post-Gutenberg are intriguing and well done, for the purposes of this book, they felt as if they were largely superfluous. Better to give a quick summary and start with discussing the need for an English Bible post-Henry VIII much more quickly.
2–An odd repetitiveness haunts the book, suggesting some editorial issues.
3–One of the most interesting aspects of the KJB is its continuing popularity. McGrath recognizes this, but moves his discussion of the KJB as a literary masterpiece, a thing of enduring theological consideration, etc. to the last 25 or so pages. This is easily one of the most fascinating parts of the history of the work, and is too-lightly treated.

While flawed and perhaps lacking focus in places, McGrath does an excellent job of writing a readable, accessible, and generally fascinating history of the most vital period of Anglophone Christianity, and its most important production.

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