The Greatest English Classic A Study of the King James Version of the Bible and its Influence on Life and Literature
Cleland Boyd McAfee

Part 2 out of 5

take sides when it could be avoided. On some
mooted words they did not try translation, but
transliteration instead. That is, they brought
the Greek or Hebrew word over into English,
letter by letter. Suppose scholars differed as to
the exact meaning in English of a word in the
Greek. Some said it has this meaning, and some
that it has that. Now, if the version committed
itself to one of those meanings, it became an
argument at once against the other and helped
to settle a question on which scholarship was not
yet agreed. They could avoid making a partisan
Book by the simple device of bringing the
word which was disputed over into the new
translation. That left the discussion just where
it was before, but it saved the work from being
partisan. The method of transliteration did not
always work to advantage, as we shall see, but
it was intended throughout to save the Book
from taking sides on any question where honest
men might differ as to the meaning of words.

They did that with all proper names, and
that was notable in the Old Testament, because
most Old Testament proper names can be translated.
They all mean something in themselves.
Adam is the Hebrew word for man; Abraham
means Father of a Great Multitude; David is
the Hebrew word for Beloved; Malachi means
My Messenger. Yet as proper names they do
not mean any of those things. It is impossible
to translate a proper name into another tongue
without absurdity. It must be transliterated.
Yet there is constant fascination for translators
in the work of translating these proper names,
trying to make them seem more vivid. It is
quite likely, though it is disputed, that proper
names do all go back to simple meanings. But
by the time they become proper names they no
longer have those meanings. The only proper
treatment of them is by transliteration.

The King James translators follow that same
practice of transliteration rather than translation
with another word which is full of controversial.
possibility. I mean the word "baptism."
There was dispute then as now about
the method of that ordinance in early Christian
history. There were many who held that the
classical meaning which involved immersion had
been taken over bodily into the Christian faith,
and that all baptism was by immersion. There
were others who held that while that might be
the classical meaning of the word, yet in early
Christian custom baptism was not by immersion,
but might be by sprinkling or pouring, and who
insisted that no pressure on the mode was wise
or necessary. That dispute continues to this
day. Early versions of the Bible already figured
in the discussion, and for a while there was
question whether this King James version should
take sides in that controversy, about which men
equally loyal to truth and early Christian history
could honestly differ. The translators
avoided taking sides by bringing the Greek
word which was under discussion over into
English, letter by letter. Our word "baptism"
is not an English word nor a Saxon word; it
is a purely Greek word. The controversy has
been brought over into the English language;
but the King James version avoided becoming
a controversial book. A number of years ago
the convictions of some were so strong that another
version of the Bible was made, in which
the word baptism was carefully replaced by
what was believed to be the English translation,
"immersion," but the version never had
wide influence.

In this connection it is well to notice the
effort of the King James translators at a fair
statement of the divine name. It will be remembered
that it appears in the Old Testament
ordinarily as "LORD," printed in small capitals.
A very interesting bit of verbal history lies back
of that word. The word which represents the
divine name in Hebrew consists of four
consonants, J or Y, H, V, and H. There are no
vowels; indeed, there were no vowels in the
early Hebrew at all. Those that we now have
were added not far from the time of Christ.
No one knows the original pronunciation of that
sacred name consisting of four letters. At a
very early day it had become too sacred to pronounce,
so that when men came to it in reading
or in speech, they simply used another word
which is, translated into English, Lord, a word of
high dignity. When the time came that vowels
were to be added to the consonants, the vowels
of this other word Lord were placed under the
consonants of the sacred name, so that in the
word Jehovah, where the J H V H occur, there
are the consonants of one word whose vowels
are unknown and the vowels of another word
whose consonants are not used.

Illustrate it by imagining that in American
literature the name Lincoln gathered to itself
such sacredness that it was never pronounced
and only its consonants were ever printed. Suppose
that whenever readers came to it they
simply said Washington, thinking Lincoln all
the while. Then think of the displacement of
the vowels of Lincoln by the vowels of Washington.
You have a word that looks like Lancilon
or Lanicoln; but a reader would never
pronounce so strange a word. He would always
say Washington, yet he would always think the
other meaning. And while he would retain the
meaning in some degree, he would soon forget
the original word, retaining only his awe of it.
Which is just what happened with the divine
name. The Hebrews knew it was not Lord, yet
they always said Lord when they came to the
four letters that stood for the sacred word.
The word Jehovah, made up of the consonants
of an unknown word and the vowels of a familiar
word, is in itself meaningless. Scholarship
is not yet sure what was the original meaning
of the sacred name with its four consonants.

These translators had to face that problem.
It was a peculiar problem at that time. How
should they put into English the august name of
God when they did not know what the true
vowels were? There was dispute among scholars.
They did not take sides as our later American
Revision has done, some of us think quite unwisely.
They chose to retain the Hebrew usage,
and print the divine name in unmistakable type
so that its personal meaning could not be mistaken.

On the other hand, disputes since their day
have shown how they translated when transliteration
would have been wiser. Illustrate with
one instance. There is a Hebrew word, Sheol,
with a Greek word, Hades, which corresponds to
it. Usage had adopted the Anglo-Saxon word
Hell as the equivalent of both of these words,
so they translated Sheol and Hades with the
English word Hell. The only question that had
been raised was by that Hugh Broughton of
whom we were speaking a moment ago, and it
had not seemed a serious one. Certainly the
three terms have much in common, and there
are places where both the original words seemed
to be virtually equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon
Hell, but they are not the same. The Revised
Version of our own time returned to the original,
and instead of translating those words whose
meaning can be debated, it transliterated them
and brought the Hebrew word Sheol and the
Greek word Hades over into English. That,
of course, gave a chance for paragraphers to say
that the Revised Version had read Hell out of
the Scriptures. All that happened was that
cognizance was taken of a dispute which would
have guided the King James translators if it
had existed in their time, and we should not
have become familiar with the Anglo-Saxon
word Hell as the translation of those disputed
Hebrew and Greek words.

We need not seek more instances. These are
enough to illustrate the saying that here is an
honest version, the fruit of the best scholarship
of the times, without prejudice.

II. A second trait of the work as a version is
its remarkable accuracy. It is surprising that
with all the new light coming from early documents,
with all the new discoveries that have
been made. the latest revision needed to make
so few changes, and those for the most part
minor ones. There are, to be sure, some important
changes, as we shall see later; the wonder
is that there are not many more. The King
James version had, to be sure, the benefit of
all the earlier controversy. The whole ground
had been really fought over in the centuries
before, and most of the questions had been discussed.
They frankly made use of all the earlier
controversy. They say in their preface: "Truly,
good Christian reader, we never thought from
the beginning that we should need to make a
new translation, nor yet to make a bad one a
good one, but to make a good one better. That
hath been our endeavor, that our work." Also,
they had the advantage of deliberation. This
was the first version that had been made which
had such sanction that they could take their
time, and in which they had no reason to fear
that the results would endanger them. They
say in their preface that they had not run over
their work with that "posting haste" that had
marked the Septuagint, if the saying was true
that they did it all in seventy-two days; nor
were they "barred and hindered from going over
it again," as Jerome himself said he had been,
since as soon as he wrote any part "it was
snatched away from him and published"; nor
were they "working in a new field," as Origen
was when he wrote his first commentary on the
Bible. Both these things--their taking advantage
of earlier controversies which had cleared
many differences, and their deliberation--were
supplemented by a third which gave great accuracy
to the version. That was their adoption
of the principle of all early translators, perhaps
worded best by Purvey, who completed the
Wiclif version: "The best translation is to
translate after the sentence, and not only after
the words, so that the sentence be as open in
English as in Latin." That makes for accuracy.
It is quite impossible to put any language over,
word for word, into another without great
inaccuracy. But when the translators sought to
take the sentence of the Hebrew or the Greek
and put it into an exactly equivalent English
sentence, they had larger play for their language
and they had a fairer field for accuracy. These
were the three great facts which made the
remarkable accuracy possible, and it may be
interesting to note three corresponding results
which show the effort they made to be absolutely
accurate and fair in their translation.

The first of those results is visible in the
italicized words which they used. In the King
James version words in italics are a frank acknowledgment that
the Greek or the Hebrew
cannot be put into English literally. These are
English words which are put in because it seems
impossible to express the meaning originally
intended without certain additions which the
reader must take into account in his
understanding of the version. We need not think
far to see how necessary that was. The arrangement
of words in Greek, for example, is different
from that in English. The Greek of the
first verse of the Gospel of John reads that "God
was the Word," but the English makes its sentences
in a reversed form, and it really means,
"the Word was God." So the Greek uses particles
where the English does not. Often it
would say "the God" where we would say
simply "God." Those particles are ordinarily
wisely omitted. So the Greek does not use verbs
at some points where it is quite essential that
the English shall use them. But it is only fair
that in reading a version of the Scripture we
should know what words have been put in by
translators in their effort to make the version
clear to us; and the italicized words of the King
James version are a frank effort to be accurate
and yet fair.

The second result which shows their effort at
accuracy is in the marginal readings. Most of
these are optional readings, and are preceded
by the word "or," which indicates that one may
read what is in the text, or substitute for it what
is in the margin with equal fairness to the
original. But sometimes, instead of that familiar
"or," occur letters which indicate that
the Hebrew or the Greek literally means something
else than what is given in the English
text, and what it literally means is given in the
margin. The translators thereby say to the
reader that if he can take that literal meaning
and put it into the text so that it is intelligible
to him, here is his chance. As for them, they
think that the whole context or meaning of the
sentence rather involves the use of the phrase
which they put into the text. But the marginal
references are of great interest to most of us
as showing how these men were frank to say
that there were some things they could not
settle. They were rather blamed for it, chiefly
by those who had committed themselves to the
Douai version, which has no marginal readings,
on the ground that the translation ought to be
as authoritative as the original. The King
James translators repudiate that theory and
frankly say that the reason they put these
words in the margin was because they were not
sure what was the best reading. In the margin
of the epistle to the Romans there are eighty-
four such marginal readings, and the proportion
will hold throughout most of the version. They
were only trying to be accurate and to give every
one a chance to make up his own mind where
there was fair reason to question their results.

The third thing which shows their effort at
accuracy is their explicit avoidance of
uniformity in translating the same word. They
tried to put the meaning into English terms.
So, as they say, the one word might become
either "journeying" or "traveling"; one word
might be "thinking" or "supposing," "joy" or
"gladness," "eternal" or "everlasting." One
of the reasons they give for this is quaint enough
to quote. They said they did not think it right
to honor some words by giving them a place
forever in the Bible, while they virtually said
to other equally good words: Get ye hence and
be banished forever. They quote a "certaine
great philosopher" who said that those logs
were happy which became images and were worshiped,
while, other logs as good as they were
laid behind the fire to be burned. So they
sought to use as many English words, familiar
in speech and commonly understood, as they
might, lest they should impoverish the language,
and so lose out of use good words. There is no
doubt that in this effort both to save the language,
and to represent accurately the meaning
of the original, they sometimes overdid that
avoidance of uniformity. There were times
when it would have been well if the words had
been more consistently translated. For example,
in the epistle of James ii: 2, 3, you have goodly
"apparel," vile "raiment," and gay "clothing,"
all translating one Greek word. Our revised
versions have sought to correct such inconsistencies.
But it was all done in the interest
of an accuracy that should yet not be a slavish

This will be enough to illustrate what was
meant in speaking of the effort of the translators
to achieve accuracy in their version.

III. The third marked trait of the work as
a version of the Scripture is its striking blending
of dignity and popularity in its language. At
any period of a living language, there are three
levels of speech. There is an upper level used
by the clearest thinkers and most careful writers,
always correct according to the laws of the language,
generally somewhat remote from common
life--the habitual speech of the more intellectual.
There is also the lower level used by the
least intellectual, frequently incorrect according
to the laws of the language, rough, containing
what we now call "slang," the talk of a knot of
men on the street corner waiting for a new bulletin
of a ball game, cheap in words, impoverished
in synonyms, using one word to express any
number of ideas, as slang always does. Those
two levels are really farther apart than we are
apt to realize. A book or an article on the upper
level will be uninteresting and unintelligible to
the people on the lower level. And a book in
the language of the lower level is offensive and
disgusting to those of the upper level. That is
not because the ideas are so remote, but because
the characteristic expressions are almost unfamiliar
to the people of the different levels.
The more thoughtful people read the abler
journals of the day; they read the editorials or
the more extended articles; they read also the
great literature. If they take up the sporting
page of a newspaper to read the account of a
ball game written in the style of the lower level
of thought, where words are misused in disregard
of the laws of the language, and where one
word is made to do duty for a great many ideas,
they do it solely for amusement. They could
never think of finding their mental stimulus in
that sort of thing. On the other hand, there are
people who find in that kind of reading their
real interest. If they should take up a
thoughtful editorial or a book of essays, they would
not know what the words mean in the connection
in which they are used. They speak a good deal
about the vividness of this lower-level language,
about its popularity; they speak with a sneer
about the stiffness and dignity of that upper

These are, however, only the two extremes,
for there is always a middle level where move
words common to both, where are avoided the
words peculiar to each. It is the language that
most people speak. It is the language of the
street, and also of the study, of the parlor, and
of the shop. But it has little that is peculiar
to either of those other levels, or to any one
place where a man may live his life and do his
talking. If we illustrate from other literature,
we can say that Macaulay's essays move on the
upper level, and that much of the so-called popular
literature of our day moves on the lower
level, while Dickens moves on the middle level,
which means that men whose habitual language
is that of the upper and the lower levels can both
enter into the spirit of his writing.

Now, originally the Bible moved on that middle
level. It was a colloquial book. The languages
in which it first appeared were not in the
classic forms. They are the languages of the
streets where they were written. The Hebrew
is almost our only example of the tongue at its
period, but it is not a literary language in any
case. The Greek of the New Testament is not
the Eolic, the language of the lyrics of Sappho;
nor the Doric, the language of war-songs or the
chorus in the drama; nor the Ionic, the dialect of
epic poetry; but the Attic Greek, and a corrupted
form of that, a form corrupted by use in
the streets and in the markets.

That was the original language of the Bible,
a colloquial language. But that fact does not
determine the translation. Whether it shall be
put into the English language on the upper
level or on the lower level is not so readily
determined. Efforts have been made to put it
into the language of each level. We have a so-
called elegant translation, and we have the
Bible cast into the speech of the common day.
The King James version is on the middle level.
It is a striking blending of the dignity of the
upper level and the popularity of the lower level.

There is tremendous significance in the fact
that these men were making a version which
should be for all people, making it out in the
open day with the king and all the people behind
them. It was the first independent version
which had been made under such favorable
circumstances. Most of the versions had been
made in private by men who were imperiling
themselves in their work. They did not expect
the Book to pass into common use; they knew
that the men who received the result of their
work would have to be those who were earnest
enough to go into secret places for their reading.
But here was a changed condition. These men
were making a version by royal authority, a
version awaited with eager interest by the people
in general. The result is that it is a people's
Book. Its phrases are those of common life,
those that had lived up to that time. It is not
in the peculiar language of the times. If you
want to know the language of their own times,
read these translators' servile, unhistorical dedication to the
king, or their far nobler preface to
the reader. That is the language peculiar to
their own day. But the language of the Bible
itself is that form which had lived its way into
common use. One hundred years after Wiclif
it yet speaks his language in large part, for
that part had really lived. In the Bibliotheca
Pastorum Ruskin makes comment on Sir Philip
Sidney and his metrical version of the Psalms in
these words: "Sir Philip Sidney will use any
cow-boy or tinker words if they only help him
to say precisely in English what David said in
Hebrew; impressed the while himself so vividly
of the majesty of the thought itself that no
tinker's language can lower it or vulgarize it in
his mind." The King James translators were
most eager to say what the original said, and
to say it so that the common man could well
understand it, and yet so that it should not be
vulgarized or cheapened by adoption of cheap

In his History Hallam passes some rather
sharp strictures on the English of the King James
version, remarking that it abounds in uncouth
phrases and in words whose meaning is not
familiar, and that whatever is to be said it is,
at any rate, not in the English of the time of
King James. And that latter saying is true,
though it must be remembered that Hallam
wrote in the period when no English was recognized
by literary people except that of the upper
level, when they did not know that these so-
called uncouth phrases were to return to common
use. To-day it would be absurd to say
that the Bible is full of uncouth phrases.
Professor Cook has said that "the movement of
English diction, which in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries was on the whole away
from the Bible, now returns with ever-accelerating
speed toward it." If the phrases went out,
they came back. But it is true that the English
of the King James version is not that of the time
of James I., only because it is the English of the
history of the language. It has not immortalized
for us the tongue of its times, because it has
taken that tongue from its beginning and determined
its form. It carefully avoided words
that were counted coarse. On the other hand,
it did not commit itself to words which were
simply refinements of verbal construction. That,
I say, is a general fact.

It can be illustrated in one or two ways. For
instance, a word which has become common to
us is the neuter possessive pronoun "its." That
word does not occur in the edition of 1611, and
appears first in an edition in the printing of
1660. In place of it, in the edition of 1611, the
more dignified personal pronoun "his" or "her"
is always used, and it continues for the most
part in our familiar version. In this verse you
notice it: "Look not upon the wine when it is
red; when it giveth HIS color aright in the cup."
In the Levitical law especially, where reference
is made to sacrifices, to the articles of the furniture
of the tabernacle, or other neuter objects,
the masculine pronoun is almost invariably
used. In the original it was invariably used.
You see the other form in the familiar verse
about charity, that it "doth not behave itself
unseemly, seeketh not HER own, is not easily
provoked." Now, there is evidence that the
neuter possessive pronoun was just coming into
use. Shakespeare uses it ten times in his works,
but ten times only, and a number of writers do
not use it at all. It was, to be sure, a word
beginning to be heard on the street, and for the
most part on the lower level. The King James
translators never used it. The dignified word
was that masculine or feminine pronoun, and
they always use it in place of the neuter.

On the other hand, there was a word which was
coming into use on the upper level which has become
common property to us now. It is the word
"anxiety." It is not certain just when it came
into use. I believe Shakespeare does not use it;
and it occurs very little in the literature of the
times. Probably it was known to these translators.
When they came, however, to translating
a word which now we translate by "anxious"
or "anxiety" they did not use that word.
It was not familiar. They used instead the word
which represented the idea for the people of the
middle level; they used the word "thought."
So they said, "Take no thought for the morrow,"
where we would say, "Be not anxious for
the morrow." There is a contemporary
document which illustrates how that word "thought"
was commonly used, in which we read: "In five
hundred years only two queens died in child
birth, Queen Catherine Parr having died rather
of thought." That was written about the time
of the King James version, and "thought"
evidently means worry or anxiety. Neither of
those words, the neuter possessive pronoun or
the new word "anxious," got into the King James
version. One was coming into proper use from
the lower level, and one was coming into proper
use from the upper level. They had not yet
so arrived that they could be used.

One result of this care to preserve dignity and
also popularity appears in the fact that so few
words of the English version have become obsolete.
Words disappear upward out of the upper
level or downward out of the lower level, but it
takes a long time for a word to get out of a
language once it is in confirmed use on the middle
level. Of course, the version itself has tended
to keep words familiar; but no book, no matter
how widely used, can prevent some words from
passing off the stage or from changing their
meaning so noticeably that they are virtually
different words. Yet even in those words which
do not become common there is very little tendency
to obsolescence in the King James version.
More words of Shakespeare have become obsolete
or have changed their meanings than in the
King James version.

There is one interesting illustration to which
attention has been called by Dr. Davidson,
which is interesting. In the ninth chapter of
the Judges, where we are told about Abimelech,
the fifty-third verse reads that a woman cast a
stone down from the wall and "all to break his
skull." That is confessedly rather obscure.
Our ordinary understanding of it would be that
she did that for no other purpose than just to
break the skull of Abimelech. As a matter of
fact, that expression is a printer's bungling way
of giving a word which has become obsolete in
the original form. When the King James translators
wrote that, they used the word "alto,"
which is evidently the beginning of "altogether,"
or wholly or utterly, and what they
meant was that she threw the stone and utterly
broke his skull. But that abbreviated form of
the word passed out of use, and when later
printers--not much later--came to it they did
not know what it meant and divided it as it
stands in our present text. It is one of the few
words that have become obsolete. But so few
are there of them, that it was made a rule of
the Revised Version not to admit to the new
version, where it could be avoided, any word
not already found in the Authorized Version,
and also not to omit from the Revised Version,
except under pressure of necessity, any word
which occurred there. It is largely this blending
of dignity and popularity that has made the
King James version so influential in English
literature. It talks the language not of the
upper level nor of the lower level, but of that
middle level where all meet sometimes and
where most men are all the while.

These are great traits to mark a book, any
book, but especially a translation--that it is
honest, that it is accurate, and that its language
blends dignity and popularity so that it lowers
the speech of none. They are all conspicuous
traits of our familiar version of the Bible, and
in them in part lies its power with the generations
of these three centuries that have followed its



LET it be plainly said at the very first that
when we speak of the literary phases of
the Bible we are not discussing the book in its
historic meaning. It was never meant as literature
in our usual sense of the word. Nothing
could have been further from the thought of
the men who wrote it, whoever they were and
whenever they wrote, than that they were
making a world literature. They had the
characteristics of men who do make great literature--
they had clear vision and a great passion for
truth; they loved their fellows mightily, and
they were far more concerned to be understood
than to speak. These are traits that go to make
great writers. But it was never in their minds
that they were making a world literature. The
Bible is a book of religious significance from
first to last. If it utterly broke down by the
tests of literature, it might be as great a book
as it needs to be. It is a subordinate fact that
by the tests of literature it proves also to be
great. Prof. Gardiner, of Harvard, whose book
called The Bible as English Literature makes
other such works almost unnecessary, frankly
bases his judgment on the result of critical study
of the Bible, but he serves fair warning that he
takes inspiration for granted, and thinks it
"obvious that no literary criticism of the Bible
could hope for success which was not reverent
in tone. A critic who should approach it superciliously
or arrogantly would miss all that has
given the Book its power as literature and its
lasting and universal appeal."[1] Farther over
in his book he goes on to say that when we
search for the causes of the feelings which made
the marvelous style of the Bible a necessity,
explanation can make but a short step, for "we
are in a realm where the only ultimate explanation
is the fact of inspiration; and that is only
another way of saying that we are in the presence
of forces above and beyond our present
human understanding."[2]

[1] Preface, p. vii.

[2] Page 124.

However, we may fairly make distinction between
the Bible as an original work and the
Bible as a work of English literature. For the
Bible as an original work is not so much a book
as a series of books, the work of many men working
separately over a period of at least fifteen
hundred years, and these men unconscious for
the most part of any purpose of agreement.
This series of books is made one book in the
original by the unity of its general purpose and
the agreement of its parts. The Bible in English
is, however, not a series of books, but properly
one book, the work of six small groups of
men working in conscious unity through a short
period of years. And while there is variation in
style, while there are inequalities in result, yet
it stands as a single piece of English literature.
It has a literary style of its own, even though
it feels powerfully the Hebrew influence throughout.
And while it would not be a condemnation
of the Bible if it were not great literature in
English or elsewhere, it is still part of its power
that by literary standards alone it measures

It is so that men of letters have rated it since
it came into existence. "It holds a place of
pre-eminence in the republic of letters." When
John Richard Green comes to deal with it, he
says: "As a mere literary monument the English
version of the Bible remains the noblest language
of the English tongue, while its perpetual use
made of it from the instant of its appearance
the standard of our language."[1] And in Macaulay's
essay on Dryden, while he is deploring
the deterioration of English style, he yet says
that in the period when the English language
was imperiled there appeared "the English
Bible, a book which if everything else in our
language should perish would alone suffice to
show the extent of its beauty and power."

[1] Short History of the English People, Book vii, chap. i.

The mere fact that the English Bible contains
a religion does not affect its standing as literature.
Homer and Virgil are Greek and Roman
classics, yet each of them contains a definite
religion. You can build up the religious faith
of the Greeks and Romans out of their great
literature. So you can build up the religious
faith of the Hebrews and the early Christians
from the Old and New Testaments. "For fifteen
centuries a Hebrew Book, the Bible, contained
almost the whole literature and learning of a
whole nation," while it was also the book of
their religion.

As literature, however, apart from its religious
connection, it is subject to any of the criteria
of literature. In so far it is the fair subject of
criticism. It must stand or fall when it enters
the realm of literature by the standards of other
books. Indeed, many questions regarding its
dates, the authorship of unassigned portions, the
meaning of its disputed passages may be
answered most fairly by literary tests. That
is always liable to abuse; but literary tests
are always liable to that. There have been
enough blunders made in the knowledge of us
all to require us to go carefully in such a matter.
The Waverley Novels were published anonymously,
and, while some suspected Scott at once,
others were entirely clear that on the ground of
literary style his authorship was entirely impossible!
Let a magazine publish an anonymous
serial, and readers everywhere are quick to
recognize the writer from his literary style and
his general ideas, but each group "recognizes"
a different writer. Arguments based chiefly on
style overlook the large personal equation in all
writing. The same writer has more than one
natural style. It is not until he becomes in a
certain sense affected--grows proud of his
peculiarities--that he settles down to one form.
And it is quite impossible to assign a book to
any narrow historical period on the ground of
its style alone. But though large emphasis
could be laid upon the literary merits of the
Bible to the obscuring of its other more important
merits, it is yet true that from the literary
point of view the Bible stands as an English
classic, indeed, as the outstanding English
classic. To acknowledge ignorance of it is to
confess one's self ignorant of our greatest literary

A moment ago it was said that as a piece of
literature the Bible must accept the standards
of other literary books. For all present purposes
we can define great literature as worthy
written expression of great ideas. If we may
take the word "written" for granted, the rough
definition becomes this: that great literature is
the worthy expression of great ideas. Works
which claim to be great in literature may fail
of greatness in either half of that test. Petty,
local, unimportant ideas may be well clothed,
or great ideas may be unworthily expressed; in
either case the literature is poor. It is not until
great ideas are wedded to worthy expression
that literature becomes great. Failure at one
end or the other will explain the failure of most
of the work that seeks to be accounted literature.
The literary value of a book cannot be determined
by its style alone. It is possible to
say nothing gracefully, even with dignity, symmetry,
rhythm; but it is not possible to make
literature without ideas. Abiding literature
demands large ideas worthily expressed. Now,
of course, "large" and "small" are not words
that are usually applied to the measurement of
ideas; but we can make them seem appropriate
here. Let us mean that an idea is large or
small according to its breadth of interest to the
race and its length of interest to the race. If
there is an idea which is of value to all the
members of the human race to-day, and which
does not lose its value as the generations come
and go, that is the largest possible idea within
human thought. Transient literature may do
without those large ideas. A gifted young reporter
may describe a dog fight or a presidential
nominating convention in such terms as lift his
article out of carelessness and hasty newspaper
writing into the realm of real literature; but it
cannot become abiding literature. It has not a
large enough idea to keep it alive. And to any
one who loves worthy expression there is a sense
of degradation in the use of fine literary powers
for the description of purely transient local
events. It is always regrettable when men with
literary skill are available for the description of
a ball game, or are exploited as worthy writers
about a prize-fight. If a man has power to
express ideas well, he ought to use that power
for the expression of great ideas.

Many of us have seen a dozen books hailed
as classic novels sure to live, each of them the
great American novel at last, the author to be
compared with Dickens and Thackeray and
George Eliot. And the books have gone the
way of all the earth. With some, the trouble
is a weak, involved, or otherwise poor style.
With most the trouble is lack of real ideas.
Charles Dickens, to be sure, does deal with
boarding-schools in England, with conditions
which in their local form do not recur and are
not familiar to us; but he deals with them as
involving a great principle of the relation of
society to youth, and so David Copperfield or
Oliver Twist becomes a book for the life of all
of us, and for all time. And even here it is
evident that not all of Dickens's work will live,
but only that which is least narrowly local and
is most broadly human.

There is a further striking illustration in a
familiar event in American history. Most young
people are required to study Webster's speech
in reply to Robert Hayne in the United States
Senate, using it as a model in literary construction.
The speech of Hayne is lost to our interest,
yet the fact is that Hayne himself was
gifted in expression, that by the standards of
simple style his speech compares favorably with
that of Webster. Yet reading Webster's reply
takes one not to the local condition which was
concerning Hayne, but to a great principle of
liberty and union. He shows that principle
emerging in history; the local touches are lost
to thought as he goes on, and a truth is expressed
in terms of history which will be valid until
history is ended. It is not simply Webster's
style; it is that with his great idea which made
his reply memorable.

That neither ideas nor style alone can keep
literature alive is shown by literary history after
Shakespeare. Just after him you have the
"mellifluous poets" of the next period on the
one hand, with style enough, but with such
attenuated ideas that their work has died. Who
knows Drayton or Brown or Wither? On the
other hand, there came the metaphysicians with
ideas in abundance, but not style, and their
works have died.

Here, then, is the English Bible becoming the
chief English classic by the wedding of great
ideas to worthy expression. From one point of
view this early seventeenth century was an
opportune time for making such a classic.
Theology was a popular subject. Men's minds
had found a new freedom, and they used it to
discuss great themes. They even began to sing.
The reign of Elizabeth had prepared the way.
The English scholar Hoare traces this new liberty
to the sailing away of the Armada and the
releasing of England from the perpetual dread of
Spanish invasion. He says that the birds felt
the free air, and sang as they had never sung
before and as they have not often sung since.
But this was not restricted to the birds of
English song. It was a period of remarkable
awakening in the whole intellectual life of
England, and that intellectual life was directing
itself among the common people to religion.
Another English writer, Eaton, says a profounder
word in tracing the awakening to the reformation,
saying that it "could not fail, from the
very nature of it, to tinge the literature of the
Elizabethan era. It gave a logical and disputatious
character to the age and produced men
mighty in the Scriptures."[1] A French visitor
went home disgusted because people talked of
nothing but theology in England. Grotius
thought all the people of England were
theologians. James's chief pride was his theological
learning. It did not prove difficult to find
half a hundred men in small England instantly
recognized as experts in Scripture study. The
people were ready to welcome a book of great
ideas. Let us pass by those ideas a moment,
remembering that they are not enough in them-
selves to give the work literary value, and turn
our minds to the style of the English Bible.

[1] T. R. Eaton, Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 2.

From this point of view the times were not
perfectly opportune for a piece of pure English
literature, though it was the time which
produced Shakespeare. A definite movement was
on to refine the language by foreign decorations.
Not even Shakespeare avoids it always. No
writer of the time avoids it wholly. The
dedication of the King James version shows that
these scholars themselves did not avoid it. In
that dedication, and their preface, they give us
fine writing, striving for effect, ornamental
phrases characteristic of the time. Men were
feeling that this English language was rough and
barbarous, insufficient, needing enlargement by
the addition of other words constructed in a
foreign form. The essays of Lord Bacon are
virtually contemporaneous with this translation.
Macaulay says a rather hard word in calling
his style "odious and deformed,"[1] but when
one turns from Bacon to the English Bible there
is a sharp contrast in mere style, and it favors
the Bible. The contrast is as great as that which
Carlyle first felt between the ideas of Shakespeare
and those of the Bible when he said that
"this world is a catholic kind of place; the
Puritan gospel and Shakespeare's plays: such
a pair of facts I have rarely seen save out of one
chimerical generation."[2] And that gives point
to the word already quoted from Hallam that
the English of the King James version is not
the English of James I.

[1] Essay on John Dryden.

[2] Historical Sketches, Hampton Court Conference.

Four things helped to determine the simplicity
and pure English--unornamented English--of
the King James version, made it, that
is, the English classic. Two of these things have
been dealt with already in other connections.
First, that it was a Book for the people, for the
people of the middle level of language; a work
by scholars, but not chiefly for scholars, intended
rather for the common use of common people.
Secondly, that the translators were constantly
beholden to the work of the past in this same
line. Where Wiclif's words were still in use
they used them. That tended to fix the language
by the use which had already become

The other two determining influences must be
spoken of now. The third lies in the fact that
the English language was still plastic. It had
not fallen into such hard forms that its words
were narrow or restricted. The truth is that
from the point of view of pure literature the
Bible is better in English than it is in Greek or
Hebrew. That is, the English of the King
James version as English is better than the Greek
of the New Testament as Greek. As for the
Hebrew there was little development for many
generations; Renan thinks there was none at all.
The difference comes from the point of time in
the growth of the tongue when the Book was
written. The Greek was written when the
language was old, when it had differentiated its
terms, when it had become corrupted by outside
influence. The English version was written
when the language was new and fresh, when a
word could be taken and set in its meaning
without being warped from some earlier usage.
The study of the Greek Testament is always
being complicated by the effort to bring into its
words the classical meaning, when so far as the
writers of the New Testament were concerned
they had no interest in the classical meaning,
but only in the current meaning of those words.
In the English language there was as yet no
classical meaning; it was exactly that meaning
that these writers were giving the words when
they brought them into their version.[1] There is
large advantage in the fact that the age was not
a scientific one, that the language had not
become complicated. So it becomes interesting to
observe with Professor March that ninety-three
per cent. of these words, counting also repetitions,
are native English words. The language was new,
was still plastic. It had not been stiffened by
use. It received its set more definitely from
the English Bible than from any other one
work--more than from Shakespeare, whose influence
was second.

[1] Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, p. 54,

The fourth fact which helped to determine its
English style is the loyalty of the translators to
the original, notably the Hebrew. It is a common
remark of the students of the original
tongues that the Hebrew and Greek languages
are peculiarly translatable. That is notable in
the Hebrew. It is not a language of abstract
terms. The tendency of language is always to
become vague, since we are lazy in the use of it.
We use one word in various ways, and a pet one
for many ideas. Language is always more concrete
in its earlier forms. In this period of the
concrete English language, then, the translation
was made from the Hebrew, which was also a
concrete, figurative language itself. The structure
of the Hebrew sentence is very simple.
There are no extended paragraphs in it. It is
somewhat different in the New Testament,
where these paragraphs are found, certainly in
the Pauline Greek; but even there the extended
sentences are broken into clauses which can be
taken as wholes. The English version shows
constantly the marks of the Hebrew influence in
the simplicity of its phrasing. Renan says that
the Hebrew "knows how to make propositions,
but not how to link them into paragraphs." So
the earlier Bible stories are like a child's way of
talking. They let one sentence follow another,
and their unity is found in the overflowing use
of the word "and"--one fact hung to another
to make a story, but not to make an argument.
In the first ten chapters of I Samuel, for example,
there are two hundred and thirty-eight verses;
one hundred and sixty of them begin with AND.
There are only twenty-six of the whole which
have no connective word that thrusts them back
upon the preceding verse.

In the Hebrew language, also, most of the
emotions are connected either in the word used
or in the words accompanying it with the physical
condition that expresses it. Over and over
we are told that "he opened his mouth and
said," or, "he was angry and his countenance
fell." Anger is expressed in words which tell
of hard breathing, of heat, of boiling tumult, of
trembling. We would not trouble to say that.
The opening of the mouth to speak or the falling
of the countenance in anger, we would take
for granted. The Hebrew does not. Even in
the description of God you remember the terms
are those of common life; He is a shepherd when
shepherds are writing; He is a husbandman
threshing out the nations, treading the wine-
press until He is reddened with the wine--and
so on. That is the natural method of the Hebrew
language--concrete, vivid, never abstract,
simple in its phrasing. The King James translators
are exceedingly loyal to that original.

Professor Cook, of Yale, suggests that four
traits make the Bible easy to translate into any
language: universality of interest, so that there
are apt to be words in any language to express
what it means, since it expresses nothing but
what men all talk about; then, the concreteness
and picturesqueness of its language, avoiding
abstract phrases which might be difficult to
reproduce in another tongue; then, the simplicity
of its structure, so that it can be taken
in small bits, and long complicated sentences
are not needed; and, finally, its rhythm, so that
part easily follows part and the words catch a
kind of swing which is not difficult to imitate.
That is a very true analysis. The Bible is the
most easily translated book there is, and has
become the classic for more languages than any
other one book. It is brought about in part in
our English version by the faithfulness of the
translators to the original.

Passing from these general considerations,
let us look directly at the English Bible itself
and its literary qualities. The first thing that
attracts attention is its use of words, and since
words lie at the root of all literature it is worth
while to stop for them for a moment. Two
things are to be said about the words: first,
that they are few; and, secondly, that they are
short. The vocabulary of the English Bible is
not an extensive one. Shakespeare uses from
fifteen to twenty thousand words. In Milton's
verse he uses about thirteen thousand. In the
Old Testament, in the Hebrew and Chaldaic
tongue, there are fifty-six hundred and forty-
two words. In the New Testament, in the Greek,
there are forty-eight hundred. But in the whole
of the King James version there are only about
six thousand different words. The vocabulary
is plainly a narrow one for a book of its size.
While, as was said before, the translators avoided
using the same word always for translation of
the same original, they yet managed to recur
to the same words often enough so that this
comparatively small list of six thousand words,
about one-third Shakespeare's vocabulary, sufficed
for the stating of the truth.

Then, Secondly, the words are short, and in
general short words are the strong ones. The
average word in the whole Bible, including the
long proper names, is barely over four letters,
and if all the proper names are excluded the average
word is just a little under four letters. Of
course, another way of saying that is that the
words are generally Anglo-Saxon, and, while in
the original spelling they were much longer, yet
in their sound they were as brief as they are in
our present spelling. There is no merit in Anglo-
Saxon words except in the fact that they are
concrete, definite, non-abstract words. They
are words that mean the same to everybody;
they are part of common experience. We shall
see the power of such words by comparing a
simple statement in Saxon words from the
English Bible with a comment of a learned
theologian of our own time on them. The
phrase is a simple one in the Communion service:
"This is my body which is given for you."
That is all Saxon. When our theologian comes
to comment on it he says we are to understand
that "the validity of the service does not lie
in the quality of external signs and sacramental
representation, but in its essential property and
substantial reality." Now there are nine words
abstract in their meaning, Latin in their form.
It is in that kind of words that the Bible could
have been translated, and in our own day might
even be translated. Addison speaks of that:
"If any one would judge of the beauties of poetry
that are to be met with in the divine writings,
and examine how kindly the Hebrew manners of
speech mix and incorporate with the English
language, after having perused the Book of
Psalms, let him read a literal translation of
Horace or Pindar. He will find in these two
last such an absurdity and confusion of style
with such a comparative poverty of imagination,
as will make him very sensible of what I have
been here advancing."[1]

[1] The Spectator, No. 405.

The fact that the words are short can be
quickly illustrated by taking some familiar
sections. In the Ten Commandments there are
three hundred and nineteen words in all; two
hundred and fifty-nine of them are words of
one syllable, and only sixty are of two syllables
and over. There are fifty words of two syllables,
six of three syllables, of which four are such
composite words that they really amount to two
words of one and two syllables each, with four
words of four syllables, and none over that.
Make a comparison just here. There is a paragraph
in Professor March's lectures on the English
language where he is urging that its strongest
words are purely English, not derived from
Greek or Latin. He uses the King James version
as illustration. If, now, we take three
hundred and nineteen words at the beginning
of that paragraph to compare with the three
hundred and nineteen in the Ten Commandments,
the result will be interesting. Where
the Ten Commandments have two hundred and
fifty-nine words of one syllable, Professor March
has only one hundred and ninety-four; over
against the fifty two-syllable words in the Ten
Commandments, Professor March has sixty-five;
over against their six words of three syllables,
he has thirty-five; over against their four words
of four syllables, he uses eighteen; and while
the Ten Commandments have no word longer
than four syllables, Professor March needs five
words of five syllables and two words of six
syllables to express his ideas.[1]

[1] This table will show the comparison at a glance:

Syllables 1 2 3 4 5 6
The Commandments 259 50 6 4 0 0 319
Professor March 194 65 35 18 5 2 319

The same thing appears in the familiar 23d
Psalm, where there are one hundred and nineteen
words in all, of which ninety-five are words of
one syllable, and only three of three syllables,
with none longer. In the Sermon on the Mount
eighty two per cent. of the words in our English
version are words of one syllable.

The only point urged now is that this kind of
thing makes for strength in literature. Short
words are strong words. They have a snap and a
grip to them that long words have not. Very few
men would grow angry over having a statement
called a "prevarication" or "a disingenuous
entanglement of ideas," but there is something
about the word "lie" that snaps in a man's
face. "Unjustifiable hypothecation" may be
the same as stealing, but it would never excite
one to be called "an unjustifiable hypothecator"
as it does to be called a thief. At the very
foundation of the strength of the literature of the
English Bible there lies this tendency to short,
clear-cut words.

Rising now from this basal element in the
literature of the version, we come to the place
where its style and its ideas blend in what we
may call its earnestness. That is itself a literary
characteristic. There is not a line of trifling
in the book. No man would ever learn
trifling from it. It takes itself with tremendous
seriousness. Here are earnest men at work;
to them life is joyous, but it is no joke. That is
why the element of humor in it is such a small
one. It is there, to be sure. Many of its
similes are intended to be humorous. A few of
its incidents are humorous; but it has little
of that element in it, as indeed little of our literature has
that element markedly in it. We have
a few exceptions. But what George Eliot says
in Adam Bede is true, that wit is of a temporary
nature, and does not deal with the deep and
more lasting elements in life. The Bible is not
a sad book. There are children at play in it;
there are feasts and buoyant gatherings fully
recounted. But it never trifles nor jests.

So it has given us a language of great dignity.
Let Addison speak again: "How cold and dead
does a prayer appear that is composed in the
most elegant and polite forms of speech, which
are natural to our tongue, when it is not heightened
by that solemnity of phrase which may be
drawn from the sacred writings. It has been
said by some of the ancients that if the gods
were to talk with men, they would certainly
speak in Plato's style; but I think we may say,
with justice, that when mortals converse with
their Creator they cannot do it in so proper a
style as in that of the Holy Scriptures."

As that earnestness of the literature of the
original precluded any great amount of humor
in the wide range of its literary forms, so in the
King James version it precluded any trifling expressions, any
plays on words, even the duplication
of such plays as can be found in the Hebrew
or the Greek. You seldom find any turn of a
word in the King James version, though you do
occasionally find it in the Hebrew. One such
punning expression occurs in the story of Samson
(Judges xv:16), where our version reads:
"With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps,
with the jawbone of an ass have I slain a thousand
men." In the Hebrew the words translated
"ass" and "heaps" are variants of the
same word. It comes near the Hebrew to say:
"With the jawbone of an ass, masses upon
masses," and so on. These translators would
not risk reproducing such puns for fear of lowering
the dignity of their results. There is a
deadly seriousness about their work and so
they never lose strength as they go on.

That earnestness grows out of a second fact
which may be emphasized--namely, the greatness
of the themes of Bible literature. Here is
history, but it is not cast into fiction form.
History always becomes more interesting for a first
reading when it is in the form of fiction; but it
always loses greatness in that form. Test it by
turning from a history of the American revolutionary
or civil war to an historical novel that
deals with the same period; or from a history
of Scotland to the Waverly novels. In some
degree the earnestness of the time is lost; the
same facts are there; but they do not loom so
large, nor do they seem so great. So there is
power in the fact that the historical elements
of the version are in stately form and are never
sacrificed to the fictional form.

These great themes save the work from being
local. It issues from life, but from life
considered in the large. The themes of great
literature are great enough to make their immediate
surroundings forgotten. "The English
Bible deals with the great facts and the great
problems. It is from the point of view of those
great facts that it handles even commonplace
things, and you forget the commonplaceness of
the things in the greatness of the dealing. Take
its attitude toward God. One needs the sense of
that great theme to read it fairly. It quietly
overlooks secondary causes, goes back of them
to God. Partly that was because the original
writers were ignorant of some of those secondary
causes; partly that they knew them, but wanted
to go farther back. Take the most outstanding
instance, that of the Book of Jonah. All its
facts, without exception, can be told without
mention of God, if one cared to do it. But
there could not be anything like so great a story
if it is told that way. One of his biographers
says of Lincoln that there is nothing in his whole
career which calls for explanation in other than
a purely natural and human way. That is true,
if one does not care to go any farther back than
that. But the greatest story cannot be made
out of Lincoln's life on those terms. There is
not material enough; the life must be delocalized.
It can be told without that larger view, so that
it will be of interest to America and American
children, but not so that it will be of value to
generations of men in all countries and under all
circumstances if it is told on those terms. Part
of the greatness of Scripture, from a literary
point of view, is that it has such a tremendous
range of theme, and is saved from a mere narration
of local events by seeing those events in the
light of larger considerations.

Let that stand for one of the great facts.
Now take one of the great problems. The thing
that makes Job so great a classic is the fact that,
while it is dealing with a character, he is standing
for the problem of undeserved suffering. A
man who has that before him, if he has at all
the gift of imagination, is sure to write in a far
larger way than when he is dealing with a man
with boils as though he were finally important.
One could deal with Job as a character, and do
a small piece of work. But when you deal
with Job as a type, a much larger opportunity

It is these great ideas, as to either facts or
problems, that give the seriousness, the earnestness
to the literature of the Bible. Men
who express great ideas in literary form are not
dilettante about them. One of the English
writers just now prominent as an essayist is
often counted whimsical, trifling. One of his
near friends keenly resents that opinion, insists
instead that he is dead in earnest, serious to the
last degree, purposeful in all his work. What
makes that so difficult to believe is that there is
always a tone of chaffing in his essays. He
seems always to be making fun of himself or of
other people; and if he is dead in earnest he has
the wrong style to make great literature or
literature that will live long.

It is that earnestness and greatness of theme
which puts the tang into the English of the
Bible. Coleridge says that "after reading Isaiah
or the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homer and Virgil
are disgustingly tame, Milton himself barely
tolerable." It need not be put quite so strongly
as that; but there is large warrant of fact in
that expression.

Go a little farther in thought of the literary
characteristics of the Bible. Notice the variety
of the forms involved. Recall Professor Moulton's
four cardinal points in literature, all of it
taking one of these forms: either description,
when a scene is given in the words of the author,
as when Milton and Homer describe scenes
without pretending to give the words of the
actors throughout; or, secondly, presentation,
when a scene is given in the words of those who
took part in it, and the author does not appear,
as, of course, in the plays of Shakespeare, when
he never appears, but where all his sentiments
are put in the words of others. As between
those two, the Bible is predominantly a book
of description, the authors for the most part
doing the speaking, though there is, of course,
an element of presentation. Professor Moulton
goes on with the two other phases of literary
form: prose, moving in the region limited by
facts, as history and philosophy deal only with
what actually has existence; and poetry, which
by its Greek origin means creative literature.
He reminds us that, however literature starts,
these are the points toward which it moves, the
paths it takes. All four of them appear in the
literature of the English Bible. You have more
of prose and less of poetry; but the poetry is
there, not in the sense of rhyme, but in the sense
of real creative literature.

A more natural way of considering the literature
has been followed by Professor Gardiner.
He finds four elements in the literature of the
Bible: its narrative, its poetry, its philosophizing,
and its prophecy. It is not necessary
for our purpose to go into details about that.
We shall have all we need when we realize that,
small as the volume of the book is, it yet does
cover all these types of literature. Its difference
from other books is that it deals with all of its
subjects so compactly.

It will accent this fact of its variety if we note
the musical element in the literature of the Bible.
It comes in part from the form which marks
the original Hebrew poetry. It has become familiar
to say that it is not of the rhyming kind.
Rather it is marked by the balancing of phrases
or of ideas, so that it runs in couplets or in
triplets throughout. In the Psalms there is
always a balance of clauses. They are sometimes
adversative; sometimes they are simply
cumulative. Take several instances from the
119th Psalm, each a complete stanza of Hebrew
poetry; (verse 15) "I will meditate in thy precepts, and have
respect unto thy ways"; or this
(verse 23), "Princes also did sit and speak
against me: but thy servant did meditate in
thy statutes"; or this (verse 45), "And I will
walk at liberty: for I seek thy precepts";
(verse 51,) "The proud have had me greatly in
derision: yet have I not inclined from thy law."
Each presents a parallel or a contrast of ideas.
That is the characteristic mark of Hebrew poetry.
It results in a kind of rhythm of the English
which makes it very easy to set to music.
Some of it can be sung, though for some of it
only the thunder is the right accompaniment.
But it is not simply in the balance of phrases
that the musical element appears. Sometimes
it is in a natural but rhythmic consecution of
ideas. The 35th chapter of Isaiah, for example,
is not poetic in the Hebrew, yet it is remarkably
musical in the English. Read it aloud from
our familiar version:

"The wilderness and the solitary place shall be
glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and
blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice even with joy and singing; the glory of
Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of
Carmel and Sharon; they shall see the glory of the
Lord, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye
the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say
to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear
not: behold, your God will come with vengeance,
even God with a recompense; He will come and save
you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and
the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall
the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the
dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break
out, and streams in the desert. And the parched
ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land
springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where
each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And
a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be
called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not
pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring
men, though fools, shall not err therein. No
lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go
up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the
redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the
Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and
everlasting joy upon their heads; they shall obtain
joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee

That can be set to music as it stands. You
catch the same form in the familiar 13th chapter
of I Corinthians, the chapter on Charity.
It could be almost sung throughout. This
musical element is in sharp contrast with much
else in the Scripture, where necessity does not
permit that literary form. For example, in the
Epistle to the Hebrews, which is argumentative
throughout, there is no part except its quotations
which has ever been set to music for uses in
Christian worship. It is rugged and protracted
in its form, and has no musical element about
it. The contrast within the Scripture of the
musical and the unmusical is a very marked

Add to the thought of the earnestness and
variety of the Scripture a word about the simplicity
of its literary expression. There is nothing
meretricious in its style. There is no effort
to say a thing finely. The translators have
avoided all temptation to grow dramatic in
reproducing the original. Contrast the actual
English Bible with the narratives or other literary
works that have been built up out of it.
Read all that the Bible tells about the loss
of Paradise, and then read Milton's "Paradise
Lost." Nearly all of the conceptions of Milton's
greatest poem are built up from brief
Scripture references. But Milton becomes subtle
in his analysis of motives; he enlarges greatly
on events. Scripture never does that. It gives
us very few analyses of motive from first to last.
That is not the method nor the purpose of
Scripture. It tells the story in terms that move
on the middle level of speech and the middle
level of understanding, while Milton labors with
it, complicates it, entangling it with countless

details which are to the Scripture unimportant.
It goes straight to the simple and fundamental
elements in the account. Take a more modern
illustration. Probably the finest poem of its
length in the English language is Browning's
"Saul." It is built out of one incident and a
single expression in the Bible story of Saul and
David. The incident is David's being called
from his sheep to play his harp and to sing
before Saul in the fits of gloom which overcome
him; the expression is the single saying that
David loved Saul. Taking that incident and
that expression, Browning writes a beautiful
poem with many decorative details, with keen
analysis of motive, with long accounts of the
way David felt when he rendered his service,
and how his heart leaped or sang. Imagine
finding Browning's familiar phrases in Scripture:
"The lilies we twine round the harp-chords,
lest they snap neath the stress of the noontide--
those sunbeams like swords"; "Oh, the wild joy
of living!" "Spring's arrowy summons," going
"straight to the aim." That is very well for
Browning, but it is not the Scripture way; it
is too complicated. All that the Bible says can
be said anywhere; Browning's "Saul" could not
possibly be reproduced in other languages. It
would need a glossary or a commentary to make
it intelligible. It is beautiful English, and great
because it has taken a great idea and clothed
it in worthy expression. But the simplicity of
the Bible narrative appears in sharp contrast
with it. In my childhood my father used to
tell of a man who preached on the creation,
and with great detail and much elaboration and
decoration told the story of creation as it is
suggested in the first chapter of Genesis. When it
was over he asked an old listener what he thought
of his effort, and the only comment was, "You
can't beat Moses!" Well, it would be difficult
to surpass these Bible writers in simplicity, in
going straight to the point, and making that
plain and leaving it. Where the Bible takes a
hundred words to tell the whole story Browning
takes several hundred lines to tell it.

The simplicity of the Bible is largely because
there is so little abstract reasoning in it. Having
few or no abstract ideas, it does not need abstract
words. Rather, it groups its whole movement
around characters. Three eminent literary men
were once asked to select the best reviews of a
novel which had just appeared. One of the
three statements which they rated highest said
of the book that it "achieves the true purpose
of a novel, which is to make comprehensible the
philosophy of life of a whole community or race
of men by showing us how that philosophy accords
with the impulses and yearnings of typical
individuals." Few phrases could be more foreign
to Bible phrases than those. But there is
valuable suggestion in it for more than the
literature of the novel. That is exactly what the
Scripture does. Its reasoning is kept concrete
by the fact that it is dealing with characters
more than movements, and so it can speak in
concrete words. That always makes for simplicity.

There are two elements common to the history
of literature about which a special word
is deserved. I mean the dramatic and the oratorical
elements. The difference between the
dramatic and the oratorical is chiefly that in
dramatic writing there is a scene in which many
take part, and in the oratorical writing one man
presents the whole scene, however dramatic the
surroundings. There is not a great deal of either
in the Scripture. There is no formal drama,
nothing that could be acted as it stands. It is
true, to be sure, that Job can be cast into dramatic
form by a sufficient manipulation, but it
is quite unlikely, in spite of some scholars, that
it was ever meant to be a formal drama for
action. It does move in cycles in the appearance
of its characters, and it does close in a way
to take one back to the beginning. It has many
marks of the drama, and yet it seems very unlikely
that it was ever prepared with that definitely
in mind. On the other hand, a most
likely explanation of the Song of Solomon is
that it is a short drama which appears in our
Bible without any character names, as though
you should take "Hamlet" and print it continuously,
indicating in no way the change of
speakers nor any movement. The effort has
been measurably successful to discover and insert
the names of the probable speakers. That
seems to be the one exception to the general
statement that there is no formal drama in the
Scripture. But there are some very striking
dramatic episodes, and they are made dramatic
for us very largely by the way they are told.
One of the earlier is in I Kings xviii:21-39. It
is almost impossible to read it aloud without
dramatic expression:

"And Elijah came unto all the people, and said,
How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord
be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him.
And the people answered him not a word. Then
said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain
a prophet of the Lord; but Baal's prophets are four
hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us
two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for
themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood,
and put no fire under; and I will dress the other
bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under:
and call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call
on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth
by fire, let him be God. And all the people
answered and said, It is well spoken. And Elijah
said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock
for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are
many; and call on the name of your gods, but put
no fire under. And they took the bullock which
was given them, and they dressed it, and called on
the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying,
O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that
answered. And they leaped upon the altar which
was made. And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah
mocked them, and said, Cry aloud; for he is a god;
either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or, he is in a
journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be
awakened. And they cried aloud, and cut themselves
after their manner with knives and lancets,
till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came
to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied
until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice,
that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor
any that regarded. And Elijah said unto all the people,
Come near unto me. And all the people came
near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the
Lord that was broken down. And Elijah took
twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes
of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the
Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name. And
with the stones he built an altar in the name of the
Lord; and he made a trench about the altar, as great
as would contain two measures of seed. And he put
the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and
laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with
water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the
wood. And he said, Do it the second time. And
they did it the second time. And he said, Do it
the third time. And they did it the third time.
And the water ran round about the altar; and he
filled the trench also with water. And it came to
pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that
Elijah the prophet came near, and said,
Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be
known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that
I am thy servant, and that I have done all these
things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that
this people may know that thou art the Lord God,
and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the
burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and
the dust, and licked up the water that was in the
trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell
on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the
God; the Lord, he is the God."

That is not simply a dramatic event; that is
a striking telling of it. It is more than a narrative.
In narrative literature the scene is accepted
as already constructed. In dramatic
literature such appeal is made to the imagination
that the reader reconstructs the scene for himself.
We are not told in this how Elijah felt,
or how he acted, nor how the people as a whole
looked, nor the setting of the scene; but if one
reads it with care it makes its own setting. The
scene constructs itself.

The dramatic style does not prevail at most
important points of the Scripture, because it is
a fictitious style for the presenting of truth. It
inevitably suggests superficiality. Things actually
do not happen in life as they do in drama.

One of our latest biographers says that a
scientific historian is always suspicious of dramatic
events.[1] They may be true, but they
are more liable to be afterthoughts, like the
bright answers we could have made to our opponents
if we had only thought of them at the
time. You never lose the sense of unreality in
the very construction of a drama. Life cannot
be crowded into two or three hours, and justice
does not come out as the drama makes it do.
So that at most important points of the Scripture
dramatic writing does not appear. The
account of the carrying away into captivity of
the children of Israel is at no point dramatic,
though you can see instantly what a great opportunity
there was for it. It is simply narrative.
It is noticeable that none of the accounts
of the crucifixion is at all dramatic. They are
all simply narrative. The imagination does not
immediately conjure up the scene. There may
be two reasons for that. One is that there are
involved several hours in which there is no
action recorded. The other is that by the time
the accounts were written the actual events
were submerged in importance by their unworded
meaning. The account of the conversion of
Paul, on the other hand, brief as it is, has at
least minor dramatic elements in it. On the
whole, the Old Testament is far more dramatic
than the New.

[1] McGiffert, Life of Martin Luther.

There is even less of the oratorical element in
the Scripture. There is, to be sure, a considerable
amount of quotation, and men do speak at
some length, but seldom oratorically. The
prophetical writings are generally too fragmentary
to suggest oratory, and the quotations in the
New Testament, especially from the preaching
of our Lord, are evidently for the most part
excerpts from longer addresses than are given.
There are few of the statements of Paul, as in
the 26th chapter of Acts, which could be delivered
oratorically; but here again the Old
Testament is more marked than the New. The
earliest specimen of oratory is also one of the
finest specimens. It is in the 44th chapter of
Genesis, and is the account of Judah's reply to
his unrecognized brother Joseph:

"Then Judah came near unto him, and said, O my
lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in
my lord's ears, and let not thine anger burn against
thy servant: for thou art even as Pharoah. My lord
asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a
brother? And we said unto my lord, We have a
father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a
little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is
left of his mother, and his father loveth him. And
thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto
me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. And we
said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father:
for if he should leave his father, his father would die. And thou
saidst unto thy servant, Except your
youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see
my face no more. And it came to pass when we
came up unto thy servant my father, we told him the
words of my lord. And our father said, Go again
and buy us a little food. And we said, We cannot
go down; if our youngest brother be with us, then we
will go down: for we may not see the man's face,
except our youngest brother be with us. And thy
servant my father said unto us, Ye know that my
wife bare me two sons: and the one went out from
me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I
saw him not since: and if ye take this also from me,
and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my gray
hairs with sorrow to the grave. Now therefore when
I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not
with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's
life; it shall come to pass, when he seeth that the
lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants
shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our
father with sorrow to the grave. For thy servant
became surety for the lad unto my father, saying,
If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the
blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, I pray
thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my
lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go
up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I
see the evil that shall come on my father."

That is pure oratory, and it is greatly helped
by the English expression of it. Here our King
James version is finer than either of the other
later versions, as indeed it is in almost all these
sections where the phraseology is important for
the ear.

We need not go farther. Part of these outstanding
characteristics come to our version
from the original, and might appear in any version
of the Bible. Yet nowhere do even these
original characteristics come to such prominence
as in the King James translation; and it adds
to them those that are peculiar to itself.



THE Bible is a book-making book. It is
literature which provokes literature.

It would be a pleasure to survey the whole
field of literature in the broadest sense and to
note the creative power of the King James version;
but that is manifestly impossible here.
Certain limitations must be frankly made.
Leave on one side, therefore; the immense body
of purely religious literature, sermons, expositions,
commentaries, which, of course, are the
direct product of the Bible. No book ever
caused so much discussion about itself and its
teaching. That is because it deals with the
fundamental human interest, religion. It still
remains true that the largest single department
of substantial books from our English presses is
in the realm of religion, and after the purely
recreative literature they are probably most
widely read. Yet, they are not what we mean
at this time by the literary result of the English

Leave on one side also the very large body
of political and historical writing. Much of it
shows Bible influence. In the nature of the
case, any historian of the past three hundred
years must often refer to and quote from the
English Bible, and must note its influence. An
entire study could be devoted to the influence
of the English Bible on Green or Bancroft or
Freeman or Prescott--its influence on their
matter and their manner. Another could be
given to its influence on political writing and
speaking. No great orator of the day would fail
us of material, and the great political papers
and orations of the past would only widen the
field. Yet while some of this political and historical
writing is recognized as literature, most
of it can be left out of our thought just

It may aid in the limiting of the field to
accept what Dean Stanley said in another connection:
"By literature, I mean those great
works that rise above professional or commonplace
uses and take possession of the mind of
a whole nation or a whole age."[1] This is one
of the matters which we all understand until
we begin to define it; we know what we mean
until some one asks us.

[1] Thoughts that Breathe.

The literature of which we are thinking in this
narrower sense is in the sphere of art rather than
in the sphere of distinct achievement. De
Quincey's division is familiar: the literature of
knowledge, and the literature of power. The
function of the first is to teach; the function of
the second is to move. Professor Dowden
points out that between the two lies a third
field, the literature of criticism. It seeks both
to teach and to move. Our concern is chiefly
with De Quincey's second field--the literature
of power. In the first field, the literature of
knowledge, must lie all history, with Hume and
Gibbon; all science, with Darwin and Fiske;
all philosophy, with Spencer and William James;
all political writing, with Voltaire and Webster.
Near that same field must lie many of those
essays in criticism of which Professor Dowden
speaks. This which we omit, this literature of
knowledge, is powerful literature, though its
main purpose is not to move, but to teach.
We are only reducing our field so that we can
survey it. For our uses just now we shall
find pure literature taking the three standard
forms: the poem, the essay, and the story. It
is the influence of the English Bible on this
large field of literature which we are to observe.

Just for safety's sake, accept another narrowing
of the field. The effect of the Bible and its
religious teaching, on the writer himself is a
separate study, and is for the most part left out
of consideration. It sounds correct when Milton
says: "He who would not be frustrate of
his Power to write well ought himself to be a
true poem." But there is Milton himself to
deal with; irreproachable in morals, there are
yet the unhappy years of his young wife to
trouble us, and there were his daughters, who
were not at peace with him, and whom after
their service in his blindness he yet stigmatizes
in his will as "undutiful children." Then, if
you think of Shelley or Byron, you are troubled
by their lives; or even Carlyle, the very master
of the Victorian era--one would not like to scan
his life according to the laws of true poetry.
Then there is Coleridge, falling a prey to opium
until, as years came, conscience and will seemed
to go. Only a very ardent Scot will feel that he
can defend Robert Burns at all points, and we
would be strange Americans if we felt that
Edgar Allen Poe was a model of propriety. That
is a large and interesting field, but the Bible
seems even to gain power as a book-making book
when it lays hold on the book-making proclivities
of men who are not prepared to yield to its
personal power. They may get away from it
as religion; they do not get away from it as

The first and most notable fact regarding the
influence of the Bible on English literature is
the remarkable extent of that influence. It is
literally everywhere. If every Bible in any


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