British travel writer Nicolson (Sea Room, 2002, etc.) anatomizes the creation of the 1611 English-language Bible, perhaps the only work of art ever made by a committee.
But what a committee it was: made up some of the finest poets, translators, and scholars in the thoroughly well educated realm of King James I. The Bible that they produced with their collective wisdom and skill, James hoped, would settle dissent on any number of fronts, binding together the dissident branches of the still-new Church of England, calming Puritan disquietude, perhaps even helping bring about a reconciliation of some kind with the Catholic Church. “Money and happiness would dance together through the increasingly elegant streets of London,” writes Nicolson, and “James’s Arcadian vision of untroubled togetherness would descend on the soul of the land like a balm.” No such thing happened, of course; dissent and disunity continued unabated and would soon spill over into civil war. But in the meanwhile, tucked away in their warrens, the makers of James’s Bible produced an elegant and indeed unifying tapestry made of scattered Latin, Hebrew, and Greek texts, debating (in Latin, with learned Greek asides) over such matters as whether Launcelot Andrewes’s “face” was quite the right word in the stirring passage “and darknesse was vpon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.” Having a broad scene to paint, Nicolson takes his time building up to the work of the great translators and writers under James’s commission, offering a vivid picture of Jacobite London and its many roiling arguments—not least of them concerning the Englishing of biblical words such as ecclesia and presbyteros, on which “the entire meaning of the Reformation hinges.”
Livelier and less scholarly than Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning (2001): an engaging work of literary, cultural, and religious history.