01 November 2011
Quoting the King
by Glen Scrivener
What is the most famous verse in the Bible?
Think of your instinctive response.
Was it John 3:16 by any chance?
If so, we may have understood the Bible and our faith too narrowly. Consider these contenders for the mantle of 'Most famous Scripture': "By the skin of my teeth." "No rest for the wicked." "Salt of the earth." "How the mighty are fallen." "The Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak." "In the twinkling of an eye." "Turn the other cheek."
The list runs into the hundreds. Sometimes the sayings are a misquote of the Bible: "Money is the root of all evil." Sometimes they are paraphrases such as "pride goeth before a fall" or "going the extra mile". Often we use a summary of Bible stories: "Giant killing", "The writing is on the wall", "The good Samaritan." In most cases the Scriptures "put words in our mouth" even though "we know not what we do!"
This year I have been blogging my way through 365 biblical phrases. If the general public ranked this list according to familiarity, I wonder where "God so loved the world" would come? I doubt it would make the top 100.
That's the first thing I've learnt this year: The Scriptures are also secular.
We commonly think of the Bible as the Church's book. Yet it doesn't really belong to us. It is the word of God to the whole world.
Professor of inguistics David Crystal claims that the Bible has given us at least twice as many famous phrases as Shakespeare. That would be remarkable in itself. But I would put the impact differently. The Bible has given us Shakespeare! Or to say it another way, the Bible does not merely outshine Shakespeare, Shakespeare works by its light. And so do we all, whether we know it or not.
The Scriptures have given us a grammar, a vocabulary, a story and categories of thought that continue to shape us. It has "turned the world upside down!" Therefore it's not a case of pointing to this verse or that, or of counting up cultural references. The Bible is not just the loudest voice in the linguistic chorus - it's the founding member, composer and conductor all in one. Whether the rest of the choir is paying attention is another matter.
The second lesson I've learnt is this: The King James Version is derivative.
This year I have marvelled at the beauty of many 'King James phrases'. On closer examination, the great majority turn out to be Tyndale phrases, or from the Geneva Bible, or the Bishop's Bible. Actually there were seven English translations before the KJV. But none were more influential than William Tyndale's.
Computer analysis has revealed that more than three quarters of the King James Version can be traced directly to Tyndale. Many times we can wish he was followed even more closely. Consider Tyndale's matchless translation of Genesis 3:4. The serpent tempts Eve saying, "Tush, ye shall not die"!
Tyndale was fluent in eight languages, a genius of translation and a true reformer. It was his passion to make the "plow-boy" know the Scriptures that cost him his freedom and then his life. The KJV is sometimes called 'the greatest book written by committee'. Yet, for the most part, those 54 scholars could not improve on the work of a young evangelical who gave his life for the gospel.
Yet if we're looking for a hero in this story, that position is already taken...
Christ is supreme
Trawling the Bible for quotable quotes was a painstaking business (though a "labour of love"!) My target was 365. In the end I found more than enough. But at one point I nearly "gave up the ghost." As I finished Malachi, my tally was just 167. Given that the Old Testament contains three quarters of the Bible's verses, the outlook was bleak.
Yet, as the Good Book says: salvation was at hand. When I turned to the gospels I hit pay-dirt. The words of Jesus gave me well over half the phrases I needed.
And this holds true no matter who compiles the lists. It seems that, in all the Bible, it's the words of Jesus that tower above the rest. By itself, the Sermon on the Mount provides 40 sayings. Those three chapters of Matthew have yielded as many phrases as all the Scriptures from Leviticus to Job - 16 books in total. Jesus speaks around five per cent of the Bible's content but provides most of its enduring phrases.
How do you account for that? That is the question for our world - shaped as it is by this book. How can we explain the extraordinary impact of this unschooled Rabbi? Surely He is the Word of God made flesh.
Indeed Jesus is the true King of the King James Bible.
Glen Scrivener is an evangelist working for Revival Media. He is blogging, phrase by phrase, through the King James Bible at kingsenglish.info.