In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible.  By Alister McGrath  Hodder & Stoughton. 2001; 340 pp; $34.95 softcover.

Was the King James  (also known as the Authorised) Bible the greatest translation ever made ?

The two founding texts of the English language are generally thought to be the works of William Shakespeare and the King James Bible. In fact there is a myth that Shakespeare had a hand in writing the KJV and actually left his mark in the translation - the 46th word of Psalm 46 is "Shake" and the 46th word from the end is "Spear" -  and for fastidious Shakespeare was 46 at the time. A delightful myth, perhaps best used in Trivia contests.

The King James Version has had an enormous influence on the English language, inventing such everyday phrases as "to lick the dust", " the land of the living",  "the skin of my teeth",  "rise and shine", and "to see the writing on the wall". The list is endless, making Hebrew idioms a part of the English language.

Yet unlike Shakespeare, the KJV is was the work of faceless committee men, all scholars but chosen within a political context by King James 1 and the Archbishop of Canterbury Richard Bancroft. The cause of the translation was the multiplicity of other available translations, including the Calvinistic Geneva Bible which had a commentary in the margin that was not agreeable to English Anglicanism.

The commissioning of the translators arose from King James I's Hampton Court Conference on 14 January 1604. The translators appointed for the task were not to be paid for their work, and the "four and fifty" scholars selected were told that they could expect potential preferment in their careers - Archbishop Bancroft writing to his fellow bishops seeking appointments for the translators, with 20 pounds a year proposed as their stipend.

The translators were divided into six companies of scholars, and the Bible was divided up amongst those companies.  The printing of the King James Version was a massive undertaking, not only because of the length of the Bible, but also because of the number of copies required - one for every Church in England. It is noted that it was a work of private enterprise - the King might well have authorised it but certainly not pay for it, and instead it was done by venture capitalism estimated to be about three and half thousand pounds.

Alister McGrath is an international scholar of considerable standing, teaching historical theology at Oxford, and is also Principal of my old theological College Wycliffe Hall Oxford.

McGrath's work should be widely read, and it is great rippling yarn with a few surprises, like The Authorised Version never being "authorised"