Today is the anniversary of the publication of what is probably the most influential work in the history of the English language, the King James translation of the Old and New Testaments, completed in 1611. Of course, one might argue that it is not one work but 66 separate books (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament); nevertheless, the reading and proclaiming of the words from the King James Bible have made a significant impact on the words we speak today.
For example, take any letter of the alphabet and think of expressions we use in print and spoken word that came to us from the King James Authorized Version. Here are just a few examples from the letter A:
Apple of one’s eye
A little lower than angels
All things are possible
All things work together for good
Alpha and omega
Am I my brother’s keeper?
A soft answer turneth away wrath
Ask, and it shall be given
For a more complete collection of words and phrases from the Bible, see the book Mene, Mene, Tekel (The handwriting is on the wall): A lively lexicon of words and phrases from the Bible (1).
In the second year of his reign, after the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I ordered a new English authorized translation of the Bible. It was a time of renaissance for the spoken and written word in English as witnessed by the works of William Shakespeare, who was a contemporary of the men working on James’ translation. Over fifty scholars worked on the project, making it probably the most impressive work ever completed by a committee.
The King James Bible and the manner of speaking it influenced soon crossed the Atlantic to the New World, where in 1620 the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth to plant the seed of King James’ English in this new Promised Land.
The King James Bible was published the same year that Shakespeare began work on his last play The Tempest. In Shakespeare and the Authorized version of the Bible, we have the Yin and the Yang of the English language. Shakespeare prodigiously invented words, metaphors, and turns of phrase; his works make up a vocabulary of approximately 30,000 words. In contrast, the King James Version uses a sparse 8,000 words, a basic lexicon that could be read, spoken, and understood by common men and women.
Bard or Bible?
Read the common expressions below. Which come from the King James Bible and which are from Shakespeare’s plays?
- Apple of one’s eye
- Out of the mouth of babes
- There’s the rub
- Fallen from grace
- Lamb to the slaughter
- It’s Greek to me
- Through a glass, darkly
- To eat out of house and home
- Tower of strength
- Pearls before swine
- Serve God and Mammon
- Sings of the times
- Too much of a good thing
- Skin of the teeth
- Fatted calf
- Feet of clay
- Giants in the earth
- Gone with the wind
- Every inch a kind
- Turn the other cheek
- Eye for eye, tooth for tooth
- Den of lions
- Cast the first stone
- Paint the lily
- Cruel to be kind
- Blind leading the blind
- Budge an inch
According to the scholar and critic E. D. Hirsch, knowledge of the Bible is not simply an issue of religious education; it is instead an issue of literacy (see March 1: Cultural Literacy Day).. A basic understanding and working knowledge of the Bible is essential to being literate in the English-speaking world. As Hirsch puts it:
Literate people in India, whose religious traditions are not based on the Bible but whose common language is English, must know about the Bible in order to understand English within their own country. All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish . . . . Those who cannot use or understand such allusions cannot fully participate in literate English. (2)
Allusions are references to people, places, events, and things from history, mythology, religion, or literature. The mention of an allusion doesn’t just evoke a story, it also evokes an abstract idea or universal theme. For example, if a writer makes an allusion to “Judas,” most literate readers will comprehend the reference to Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus as told in the New Testament. In addition to the story of Judas, the allusion also evokes themes related to Judas’ story, such as treachery and betrayal.
Today’s Challenge: Tales from the Testaments
What are some examples of stories from the Bible that everyone should know — the kind of stories that are alluded to not just in religious works, but also in secular poems, novels, and nonfiction works? Brainstorm a list of stories you think of that come from the Bible, either the Old or the New Testament. The following are a few examples of allusions that most literate persons would be expected to recognize:
Abraham and Isaac, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, Good Samaritan, Jacob and Esau, Job, Jonah and the Whale, Lot’s wife, Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, Moses and the Exodus, Noah and the Flood, Pentecost, Pontius Pilate, Prodigal Son, Solomon, Tower of Babel
Select one allusion and paraphrase the essential elements of the story. Imagine an audience who has not heard the story before. Your purpose is to give them details concerning the story’s plot and its characters to that they will understand both the story and the meaning of the story. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)
Quotation of the Day: It ain’t the parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it’s the parts that I do understand. –Mark Twain
1 – Ehrlich, Eugene and David H Scott. Mene, Mene, Tekel: A lively lexicon of words and phrases from the Bible. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.
2- Hirsch, E. D. The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.
KJV: 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14,15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 26
Shakespeare: 3, 6, 8, 9, 13, 19, 24, 25, 27