Study of the King James Bible Part 4

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 appearance.



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 large.

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 possession.

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 natural.

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."

Chapter end

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