A little over 400 years ago, the committee that translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek (and some Aramaic) into English gathered to do its work in this very place. What they produced became known as the King James Version, a scholarly and aesthetic achievement that amounted, in the late Christopher Hitchens’s words, to “a giant step in the maturing of English literature”. “It’s a lot to live up to,” jokes McMahan, as we settle down as near to the electric radiator as possible.
The King James Version was a vital part of a revolution in religious learning, which was the main academic discipline of the time, helping to remove power from the priesthood and, in its own way, hasten the spread of literacy. Only a generation or two earlier, translating the Bible was a capital offence – William Tyndale, whose own groundbreaking translation the King James Version built on, was strangled and burned for heresy.
Four centuries on, we in Britain live in a more open and tolerant society in which the pursuit of learning is untrammelled by the threat of death – at least from governmental authorities. But the modern dangers that academics face don’t need to be state-sanctioned, or indeed lethal, to have an effect on their work. According to McMahan, and a number of his colleagues, there is a new climate of intellectual caution developing as a result of intimidation from both outside and within the academy.