GWEN IFILL: The book is "God's Secretaries, the Making of the King James Bible." It is the story of the men who translated the most widely read and influential version of the scriptures, and describes how the work drawn from original Greek and Hebrew texts came to be. It's a story of human ambition and human frailties, much like the Bible itself. Adam Nicolson is the author, he joins us now. Welcome.
ADAM NICHOLSON: Thank you.
GWEN IFILL: Many of us were raised around the Bible, believing it was the word of God as written, as dictated from the skies to the page. But in fact, there were a lot of steps and a lot of versions of the Bible. Tell us how you came to write about this one.
ADAM NICOLSON: Well, the King James Bible is the great Bible. If you measure it by the number of Bibles sold, for example. Five billion copies of this Bible have been sold. It is the Bible that the world knows as the Bible.
And the reason it's really fascinating is that it was a creation, this greatest work of English prose, was the creation of a committee of 50 vicars and academics. And the idea that somehow the most beautiful words in the English language emerged from a committee of 50 unheard of, obscure men and totally unheard-of-now scholars, is at least odd.
GWEN IFILL: Can I read your words back to you? You wrote, "Committees thrive on compromise and compromise produces fudge and muddle."
ADAM NICOLSON: Exactly. Well that's what we think, don't we? We think that if you get enough people around the table, mud is bound to emerge. But miraculously, this great book comes out of the most bureaucratic and complicated and governmental process. That's the other odd thing about it.
GWEN IFILL: It was very political, wasn't it?
ADAM NICOLSON: It's a government project. It's King James in the early 17th century wants a Bible that unifies the country. He wants a Bible that will appeal to everybody. And make him look good. Make kings look godly and gods look kingly. The whole thing is an elaborate exercise in one way of propaganda.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us about King James.
ADAM NICOLSON: King James is a rum sort.
GWEN IFILL: A what?
ADAM NICOLSON: An odd man. ( Laughs ) Is that not an American phrase?
GWEN IFILL: I like it. ( Laughs )
ADAM NICOLSON: Middle aged, appallingly brought up, bullied when a boy, socially insecure, very kind of overintellectual for a king -- extravagant beyond belief, but charming, a lovely man to be with, great party giver, and someone who really believed in a kind of unity of society and religion and culture, which England in the early 17th century wasn't in some ways ready for.
GWEN IFILL: Was he a deeply religious man himself?
ADAM NICOLSON: I think in nearly that question doesn't make sense in the 17th century, because God was what was. There was no other option. There were one or two maniac atheists on the side, but it's like asking, "Do you believe in physics?" You know, God is how it is. And what he really believed in was making a church and making a Bible that would appeal to your most extreme Puritans, and your Catholics who believed in ceremony and richness and so on.
GWEN IFILL: Who were the vicars, who were these men who were appointed to do this?
ADAM NICOLSON: They are very -- they are a pretty rum lot too. A lot of them are rather obscure scholars from Oxford and Cambridge -- some of them, notifiably drunk, pornographers among them.
There are the machine politicians, apparatchiks, really, of the Stewart regime, a very, very ordinary cross section of your average English of the early 17th century. And that, you know, miracle on miracle can be laid on here. But it's extraordinary that this great, great book, great spiritual book comes out of a set of people who are as worldly as you like.
GWEN IFILL: And yet they were able to craft an amazing language. I've asked to you take a look at a passage that I isolated for you in the book, which shows us how they transformed the language, one of the most famous passages of course in Genesis, in the beginning.
ADAM NICOLSON: That's right. I mean, there had been translations of the Bible into English before, famously by William Tindale, about 70 years earlier -- a great Protestant martyr who was killed in the end. And a man who was standing up to the old Catholic establishment.
In his version the 1530s of the beginning of Genesis, went like this. "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep.
And the spirit of God moved upon the water." Now, you can obviously see in that the bare bones of the beginning of the Genesis that we now know. But it is rather spare, and boney itself, it isn't rich because his point was he wanted to do a Bible that would make sense to your English plowboy, was his phrase.
But when it comes to King James' Bible, they're much more interested in grandeur and majesty and richness. They transformed Tindale's words into this: "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." Now, the changes in that are very, very slight and subtle.
GWEN IFILL: But it makes it much more poetic.
ADAM NICOLSON: It has a current sort of baroque richness to it and it has that lovely phrase twice, you know, "upon the face of the deep, and upon the face of the waters."
And I think there is something, it's not only more accurate in the first one, but there is something suggestive in that that somehow God hovering over these waters actually has his face reflected in them, and it's a subliminal, but very, very rich thing. I think can you see in that tiny example the method ... of greatness, really.
GWEN IFILL: I was surprised to read that in fact even when they were complete, the translators had done their job, there still wasn't one single consistent version of the King James Bible, in fact there were 24,000 different variations?
ADAM NICOLSON: It was an incredible muddle, the whole printing process was a muddle, the revision process was a muddle. There was no such thing, one thing as the King James Bible. There was a terrible edition produced in the 1630s which left the word "not" out of the sixth commandment, called the wicked Bible, so -- which recommended that thou shalt commit adultery.
GWEN IFILL: Not the intent.
ADAM NICOLSON: No, not the intent. He was thrown into jail, the printer of that Bible.
GWEN IFILL: (Laughs) Well, you write repeatedly throughout this book and especially at the end about King James' -- and you've alluded to this -- King James' efforts to create an inclusive Bible. Did he succeed, did they succeed?
ADAM NICOLSON: Well, very curiously they, this great book we think of as the identifying book of the English language was a failure, a complete failure when it was produced, no one liked it, they stuck with the earlier Bibles.
And it took the crisis of the 17th century in England, the terrible civil war, I mean, the most bloody war that English people have ever been involved with, and then the restoration of the monarchy after that, for people to take this Bible up in a way as the Bible of old England, the Bible of the kind of dream of wholeness that they wanted to return to.
GWEN IFILL: And the Bible is so much of America now as well. Adam Nicholson, thank you very much.
ADAM NICOLSON: Thank you.