|Bible Research > English Versions > McAfee > 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
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." 3 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."
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." 4 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.
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," 5 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." 6 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.
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. 7 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.
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." 8
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. 9
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 offers.
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 one.
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. 10 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.
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.
1 Preface, p. vii.
2 Page 124.
3 Short History of the English People, Book vii, chap. i.
4 T. R. Eaton, Shakespeare and the Bible, p. 2.
5 Essay on John Dryden.
6 Historical Sketches, Hampton Court Conference.
7 Trevelyan, England under the Stuarts, p. 54.
8 The Spectator, No. 405.
9 This table will show the comparison at a glance:
10 McGiffert, Life of Martin Luther.
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