The King James Version as English Literature
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 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

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 away."

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.

lecture ii the making of
Top of Page
Top of Page