Commentary Magazine


The Bible and a Liberal Education:
Its Benefits, as Seen by an Unbeliever

“The Bible as literature” has become virtually a term of abuse among those who deplore the absence of true, “hard” religious faith in the modern world. Spencer Brown tries here to reassert the unbeliever’s claim to the Bible as a monument of literature and moral insight which belongs to such as he quite as much as to those who see in it the word of God; and he tells why he believes that its reading in the schools should be an important part of the education of everyone. 

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Joseph Pulitzer, the story goes, once wrote a beautiful editorial on Christmas. A rival editor published this reply: “Shut up, Hungry Joe. Christmas is not for the likes of you.”

How can an unbelieving English teacher, venturing to say his say on the Bible, hope to escape, from both Christians and Jews, a like denial of their book to the likes of him? But it is my book as well as theirs. Indeed, in not insignificant ways, it is my book more than theirs. To justify this statement, I should first like to examine what the Bible is and what it is not. By the Bible, I mean here the book in the version best known to most of us, the English Bible in the King James translation.

The English Bible, is, of course, not the book of the Jews. The Old Testament is the book of the Jews—not a book, but the book. It is their Thucydides and Shakespeare and Michelangelo, their Plato and Goya and Mozart, clumsily and uneasily added together but not combined—the comprehensive heritage of this most narrowly but most deeply gifted people. But the New Testament, produced by the collision of the life and teachings of an inspired and eccentric Jewish prophet with Hellenistic philosophy and religion—the fusion of parochial and universal—the New Testament is not the book of the Jews.

The English Bible is not the book of the Catholics. By the accident of history they repudiate it as a translation; and if it were acceptable as a translation, it would still be unacceptable without the imposition of the Roman order of the Church upon the Jewish intensity and Greek subtlety of the book.

The English Bible is not even the book of the Church of England that created it. For the practices and traditions of the Church of England are wider and older than its Bible. Upon a Catholic foundation it has erected its own monument of Roman prose cadences and semi-Protestant theology, the Book of Common Prayer; its version of the Psalms, Coverdale’s translation, is a revision of Tyndale’s (the basis of the King James version) and to many ears still sounds as noble and more sinewy.

Nor is the English Bible any longer the book of the Protestants. Having for centuries accepted the King James Bible in its every phrase and every contradiction as the word of God—uneducated Protestants were often not really aware that their Bible was a translation—Protestant scholars have evolved more and more rational interpretations, and the churches have accepted more and more accurate translations, culminating in the Revised Standard Version, now authorized by the National Council of Churches.

At this point I might cry Q. E. D.: since none of these official groups owns the King James Bible, and since I claim it, it is mine. But such a claim cannot be exclusive in any case, and is flippant without further examination of the location and dimensions of the property and the encumbrances thereon.

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The Bible is not a coherent history. Compared with the all-ranging curiosity of Herodotus, the sustained tragic irony of Thucydides, or the sardonic unity of Tacitus—to name only ancient examples—it falls into the class of medieval fiction. Things happen; they often happen dramatically and magnificently; but the happenings are seldom caused. The Bible confuses and contradicts its own account of the creation; it is often childishly innocent of time and the historical sense—chronology expressed in begats enables the reader merely to attain the authors’ cloudiness of mind. The writer of the tremendous story of Saul and the Witch of Endor and the spirit of Samuel is a devout monotheist; yet he ironically manifests complete trust not only in the wickedness of magic but in its efficacy. And the collectors and transcribers of the Bible make attributions of authorship that almost surpass belief: Psalm 110 (“The Lord said unto my lord, Sit thou at my right hand”) is assigned to David, though anybody could tell it was written by a servant about his master. The Epistle to the Hebrews is supposed to be by Paul; internal evidence would suggest even Francis Bacon as almost as likely.

As a guide to the bedeviled, the Bible raised puzzles for every solution. Those of little faith will be troubled rather than comforted by God’s conduct toward Onan; by Paul’s remarks on marriage (“It is better to marry than to burn”); by the question “What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?” The barbarous revenge of Simeon and Levi upon Shechem, denounced by Jacob as bad public relations, seems to incur no heavenly censure even though the Lord’s rite of circumcision is used as a murderous stratagem. The Lord’s “answer to Job out of the whirlwind is no answer at all, as earnest moralists as diverse as Melville and Bertrand Russell have pointed out: ‘The divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint.” “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s” is a shrewd riposte to a sharp question rather than a viable principle of conduct in a difficult world. Shall we submit to the powers that be, Caesar or Haman? Or shall we cultivate such otherworldliness as to isolate ourselves from all practical men of limited sanctity?

The Bible might stand as a sort of theological constitution if there were only a Supreme Court to interpret it. In these matters, however, every man is his own chief justice. On a moot point like that of life after death and the resurrection of the body, the testimony of the Book of Daniel—”And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt”—is one of the few Old Testament passages to set against the prevailing impression, especially strong in Ecclesiastes and some of the Psalms, that Old Testament authors believed death to be total extinction. Christian interpretations must either ignore this view or trace the development of a belief historically and make a sharp distinction between Old and New Testaments: it is disconcerting to have the holy book more or less explicitly deny a central tenet. Christians and their churches have disagreed for centuries, sometimes with bloodshed, over the nature of Christ or the meaning of the words, “This is my body.” Support for almost any conceivable view of these vexed questions can be found in the Bible; Greek logic or Roman authority may decide them, but if one rejects the decision and consults the Bible instead, one is at liberty to find an answer neither Greek nor Roman but logical and authoritative enough to suit one’s own wishes.

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It is far easier, however, to say what the Bible is not than to say what it is. It is easier to name its inconsistencies and limitations (any careful reader could make up as significant and extensive a list as mine) than to analyze its power. For this miscellany of fact and pious fiction, of impossibly complex laws and miraculously simple truths, of a tedium of primitive incoherence and a poetry as mysterious, sudden, and brilliant as lightning, has moved men’s hearts and minds to suffer and inflict torture, to destroy and preserve civilizations, to build triumphant temples and endure exile and death. And it has bound their ears and tongues in a strong enchantment, diminished but not broken after twenty-five centuries, sometimes greater than but never wholly separate from its moral force.

By moral force I do not mean laws or theology or ritual. These exact sciences impinge on morals and allegedly measure them; they are a kind of celestial sociology that reduces disorderly human actions and emotions to orderly charts and figures. Nor do I mean that the Bible is to be read as children were taught to read Aesop’s Fables, with one story equal to one moral, the moral being equally useful at all times and in all places. From this kind of reading eventually arises another science, casuistry, which enables us to counterpoise “Look before you leap” with “He who hesitates is lost,” according to our self-interest of the moment.

The moral content that we seek and find in the Bible is that which we find in all good literature—what Matthew Arnold found preeminently in poetry and 20thcentury critics find preeminently in novels. Most of us are mildly surprised when we first discover that Arnold saw a moral idea in Keats’s words to the youth carved on the Grecian Urn: “Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair.” We soon accept, however, the principle that literature is good in proportion as it comments on or illuminates life. David Daiches says the same thing when he asserts that every poem is a poem on human destiny.

In short, the Bible is a moral book in the sense that all literature is moral; it instructs as all literature instructs; it is different from other books in excellence and size rather than in kind. Its claim to absolute truth has never been allowed by the vast majority of

men; today even in countries of the Judeo-Christian tradition many readers find in it neither guidance beyond the simplest and most universal of precepts nor that absolute truth which mutually disagreeing groups first assume to exist and to be knowable and then assume to be revealed in the Bible. Yet if Robert Frost’s saying, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” can be applied to the Bible as a great poem for all its acreage of prose, then we can draw from our delight in it a moral wisdom not of Solomon only but for all mankind.

Seen in this light, all the defects of the Bible become almost virtues, like the foibles of an honored friend. I would not expunge a single begat from its interminable procreation, any more than I would mothball a single ship of Homer’s dreary fleet. Not one jot or one tittle of the law shall pass away because of me, not even the commandment not to mar the corners of my beard or the elaborate prescriptions for treating the leper and his clean or unclean garments, any more than I should wish to throw out Love’s Labor’s Lost or rob Hamlet of such exquisitely bad lines as

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears.

Take away Shakespeare’s faults, and the less Shakespeare he. Select only the perfect passages for the modern Bible, and it is that much less the record of a wonderful and pious and backsliding and heroic and fickle people and their violent, capricious God who grows into holiness and majesty.

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For the Bible to the non-religious is more than history and anthropology embellished with legend and miracle, more even than a Jewish counterpart to the sagas. In it are scattered with the profusion of collective genius a multitude of stories no less profound for touching only a plot of earth too small to delay an Alexander or a Caesar. Regardless of their historical truth, they bring us the same delight and moral wisdom as all great fiction or great myth.

This effect I am sure I cannot analyze, but I shall try to suggest it by adducing a few familiar examples from other literature: the scene in Homer where Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, “terrible man-slaying hands that had slain so many of Priam’s sons”; or the mourning of the slaves for the death of Patroclus, ‘The women groaned, using the pretext of Patroclus to bewail their own torments.” A somewhat different touch appears in the lines where Odysseus is told how he can ultimately appease the wrathful sea-god: he must travel inland with an oar over his shoulder until some countryman asks him what he is doing with that stout flail; there shall he set up the oar as a memorial and make sacrifice to Poseidon. We feel the same effect in The Idiot when Nastasya Filippovna wounds Ganya’s pride by throwing a hundred thousand rubles into the fire and telling him they are his if he will pluck them out with his bare hand; or in the incredible but incredibly convincing tale of Julien Sorel’s head in The Red and the Black; or in Iago’s promise as he is led off to torture,

Demand me nothing: what you know,
    you
know; From this time forth I never will speak
    word

and we know he never will.

History is blunted by being true but can sometimes rise to the same sharp vision: the epitaph of the Spartans at Thermopylae, “Traveler, tell the Lacedemonians that we lie here, obedient to their word”; the speeches of Pericles and Lincoln; Churchill’s “Never in the history of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few”; the siege of Syracuse in Thucydides.

In all these passages, and in a hundred others that the reader may choose for himself, there seem to me to be some common elements: a feeling of elevation and of overarching pity; a sense of remote or unplumbed mystery and yet of immediacy and instinctive rightness; and above all a suggestion of the littleness and at the same time of the dignity of man—which many writers make almost too explicit, as in Pope’s ‘The glory, jest, and riddle of the world,” or Pascal’s “Glory and trash of the universe.”

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Page after page of the Bible shows these qualities, often in their finest form. For example:

Then said Judith unto them, Hear me, and I will do a thing, which shall go throughout all generations to the children of our nation.

Ye shall stand this night in the gate, and I will go forth with my waitingwoman: and within the days that ye have promised to deliver the city to our enemies the Lord will visit Israel by my hand.

But enquire not ye of mine act: for I will not declare it unto you, till the things be finished that I do.

After they agree, she begins the majestic and appalling prayer,

O Lord God of my father Simeon, to whom thou gavest a sword to take vengeance of the strangers,

with its triumphant,

Smite by the deceit of my lips the servant with the prince, and the prince with the servant: break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman.

The God of Simeon, we are tempted to say, of all people! But though by our standards Simeon was murderous, by Judith’s he was right; there is force and aptness in the allusion, and we are carried away by strength of character and shrewdness that combine Lady Macbeth and Mata Hari in the service of the Living God. Not the least authentic touch of genius in the unknown writer, moreover, is the way in which Judith scrupulously refrains from eating and drinking heathen food and wine as she beguiles Holofernes; and it takes two strokes of the fauchion to sever his head.1

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The Book of Judith is probably fiction, by a highly skilled and self-conscious artist. Yet if we turn to other books, purportedly history, by artists no more skilled and self-conscious than the sculptors and glassmakers of the Cathedral of Chartres, we find in them the same qualities as in Judith even when they lack the same unity of tone and clarity of purpose. Such is the story of Saul and David, or the Gospel of Mark.

The more one reads of David, the more one is astonished by the fathomless complexity of his character: he is evasive and sometimes cowardly; he has such a talent for embellishing a tale that Gladys Schmitt’s novel fairly credibly bases itself on the supposition that he invented the exploit of the lion and the bear and that Goliath was slain by somebody else; he is sly and murderous in pursuing his selfish aims, but he will not stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, his mortal enemy Saul; his religion he expresses in the loftiest poetry, but it is severely practical—after his child is dead, there is no use in further prayer and repentance. David is a great king; but he backs into the throne, as it were, and most of his reign is a turmoil of nearly successful rebellion. He is in love with his political opponents and enraged at those who save him by slaying them—in complete contrast to his son Solomon, who acts decisively and ruthlessly to establish his own kingdom.

In the tale as a whole there is no direct” moral teaching acceptable to a sophisticated reader; the ways of the Lord to David are sometimes inscrutable, not through depth, but through caprice. There is not even moral teaching in reverse—”See my neck and save your own”—or in partial reverse—”Do what I say, not what I do.” But there is the highest kind of moral wisdom for the sophisticated or the unsophisticated in this extended view of a surpassingly real man with great virtues, passions, and shortcomings, as he acts and speaks significantly and profoundly.

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All the while through this marvelous story-—it is marvelous even in a flat translation or in a prolix modern retelling—there runs the incomparable style of the King James translators. It is a simple language “understood of the people” of its time and easily understood today, capable of rising to any height demanded by its subject. It moves with ease from the vivifying commonplace to dignity and majesty, and it is all one:

And Saul armed David with his armour, and he put an helmet of brass upon his head; also he armed him with a coat of mail.

And David girded his sword upon his armour, and he essayed to go; for he had not proved it. And David said to Saul, I cannot go with these: for I have not proved them. And David put them off him.

And he took his staff in his hand, and chose him five smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had, even in a scrip; and his sling was in his hand: and he drew near to the Philistine.

And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David; and the man that bare the shield went before him.

And when the Philistine looked about him, and saw David, he disdained him: for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.

And the Philistine said unto David, Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves? And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.

And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.

Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.

This day will the Lord deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcasses of the host of the Philistines this clay unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.

And all this assembly shall know that the Lord saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give you into our hands.

This cannot be matched in the sustained grand style of Milton, who can soar but not walk. Nor can it be rivaled in the great tragedies of Greece and France, for they also move too stiffly; nor in Melville, for when he descends to the simple, his irony often cumbers him. Only in Homer and Shakespeare can we find the same extended and natural magnificence.

In the Gospel of Mark, the most literal and direct of the four Gospels, this style is put to its severest test. The problem seen by Mark, no doubt unconsciously, was to make plausible the doings and sayings of a prophet whom he believed to be both God and man. The Gospel is an incomplete document, not so maimed at the end as that of Luke, but incomprehensible in places without the support of the other Gospels. Its structure, however, has a crude mastery. And though without John’s theology, Matthew’s learning, or Luke’s wealth of parable and poetry, Mark’s Gospel is unrivaled in homely vividness and in displaying the power of his idea. The following passage, for example, reaches one of the most stunning climaxes of all literature in two miracles—reading the hostile mind and healing the incurable—which Mark regards as part of the single miracle of Jesus:

And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house.

And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them.

And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four.

And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee.

But there were certain of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts,

Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God only?

And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasonned within themselves, he said unto them, Why reason ye these things in your hearts?

Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?

But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (he saith to the sick of the palsy,)

I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed, and go thy way into thine house.

And immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went forth before them all; insomuch that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion.

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So far I have not attempted to deal with any of the more celebrated purple passages of the King James Bible. I have not yet done so because I make a distinction, convenient if not very valid, between lines and scenes that are great literature in their deep moral content and those that are great chiefly in verbal felicity. I give myself the luxury of suggesting a few of the latter from English poetry: Shakespeare’s

Not poppy, nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
That thou owed’st yesterday
;

or Milton’s

                  A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows
        dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men’s names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses
;

or Coleridge’s

The moving moon went up the sky
And no where did abide
Softly she was going up
And a star or two beside—
Her beams bemocked the sultry main
Like April hoar-frost spread;
But where the ship’s huge shadow lay
The charmed water burnt alway
A still and awful red.

The laurels are not all cut down; the woods are full of them, and everyone is free to gather his own.

In the poetry of the English Bible, verbal felicity is incomparable both in intensity and extent: “Here is God’s plenty.” If I dwell on it too much, I console myself that it is better for people to read it in a magazine than not to read it all. Not being allowed to quote two-thirds of the Psalms, I quote two:

O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.

Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained:

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou has put all things under his feet:

All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;

The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8.)

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137.)

There is not much to be done with these masterpieces except to memorize them. We can perhaps marvel at the supple rhythm of “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.” The majesty of the balanced phrases rises to “What is man?” (glory and trash of the universe) and falls away in cadence. The sorrow of all exile is in Psalm 137—an elegy for this century also. But the poet is a man, and a primitive man: he gloats in anticipation of horrific revenge. Yet this poetry eludes analysis. If some of its power is adventitious, through familiarity, nevertheless on re-reading it we are struck again by its perennial vigor.

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The poetry is not limited to the Psalms. Nearly every book of the Bible rises to such heights, sometimes quite unexpectedly. In the midst of the common sense of Ecclesiasticus we come on the wonderful apostrophe to death—”There is no inquisition in the grave”—or the chapter on the beauty of sky and season:

He made the moon also to serve in her season for a declaration of times, and a sign of the world.

From the moon is the sign of feasts, a light that decreaseth in her perfection.

The month is called after her name, increasing wonderfully in her changing, being an instrument of the armies above, shining in the firmament of heaven;

The beauty of heaven, the glory of the stars, an ornament giving light in the highest places of the Lord.

At the commandment of the Holy One they will stand in their order, and never faint in their watches.

And just where we might expect the apostle Paul to be most arid, in his repetitive and wire-drawn pronouncements on the resurrection and nature of the “glorified body,” we hear the trumpet of the last judgment and a hymn of sober but exalted triumph:

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed.

For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.

So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?

The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.

But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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To many readers all these quotations and comments will have been obvious; to others less familiar with the Bible, they will remain unconvincing. Still others may legitimately ask whether the difficulties that the English Bible presents to the modern reader might not be removed and its merits preserved and made accessible through a better translation. This question has been raised (and, let us hope, answered for our time) by the appearance of the Revised Standard Version, which achieved the top of the bestseller lists.

The King James translators, it is true, did not have the benefit of modern historical criticism and knowledge of ancient manuscripts; their work is based on inferior texts and is, in the light of fuller information, inaccurate in many places. Furthermore, though it was intended to be understood of the people, the language of the people has changed, and some words and phrases clear to everybody in 1611 are now obscure to all who do not take the trouble to get used to them. Hence a score of modern translations have been made, all closer to the correct Greek and Hebrew texts, but unfortunately all, by their colloquial nature, lacking the dignity and rhythm of their great predecessor.

The Revised Standard Version, like 19thcentury revisions, attempts to “preserve all that is best in the English Bible” and at the same time to add accuracy, consistency, and ease of reading. That it does neither is not to our present point. It is a valiant effort that should never have been made, since the modern reader who wishes to find out what the Bible actually says should, if he has the linguistic equipment, consult the original texts; if he has not, he should read a modern colloquial version with the help of scholarly commentaries. But the Revised Standard Version is a remarkable if unintentional guide to the excellences of the King James translation.

The RSV translators explain in their preface that, since the second person singular is obsolete, they are abandoning it; yet they keep it to address the Deity in the Psalms, and in prayers elsewhere, so that the unlucky reader must still understand verbs ending in -est. Dozens of words, also, that have passed from the language or changed in meaning have been eliminated—but not consistently so. Nigh appears vestigially in some Psalms, though it has been excised elsewhere. The King James euphemism for sexual intercourse “went in unto” becomes “went in to,” and “knew” is kept unchanged, probably to the continued bafflement of younger readers; Samson continues to smite the Philistines “hip and thigh”; Saul breathes out “threats and murder” instead of “threatenings and slaughter”—and the hendiadys is still not clear, though no longer familiar. A few phrases have succumbed to modern scholarship and disappeared forever: “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” and “Sleep on now and take your rest.” Man’s “long home” becomes his “eternal home”; “Behold, this dreamer Cometh” is “Here comes this dreamer” (the whole Joseph story, incidentally, is pretty roughly treated); “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” is now “Worship the Lord in holy array”; the vivid “Gallio cared for none of those things” is flattened out to “Gallio paid no attention to this.”

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Let us look at a more extended passage; the : story can hardly help remaining impressive in the RSV, but virtue has gone out of it.

In the King James version:

Now Peter and John went up together into the temple at the hour of prayer, being the ninth hour.

And a certain man lame from his mother’s womb was carried, whom they laid daily at

the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms of them that entered into the temple;

Who seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple asked an alms.

And Peter, fastening his eyes upon him with John, said, Look on us.

And he gave heed unto them, expecting to receive something of them.

Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.

And he took him by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ancle bones received strength.

And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.

Now, in Revised Standard Version:

Now Peter and John were going to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.

Nothing, it seems to me, could make clearer the unassuming splendor of the King James version and its almost infallible grasp of dramatic and rhetorical climax—”Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee.” For the scholar, for the religious disputant, modem re-wordings and accurate commentaries are essential, just as they are for a full understanding of Shakespeare; a revised standard retranslation retaining many peculiarities of the seventeenth-century text without its power is unnecessary. Shakespeare presents considerable difficulties, to be sure, but nobody wants this sort of thing:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether it’s nobler in the mind to endure.
The missiles of hostile fortune,
Or to mobilize against innumerable troubles,
And by opposing, to end them. . . . To die,
    to sleep;
To sleep, perhaps to dream: yes, there’s the
    difficulty.

Is the analogy with Shakespeare unfair? Perhaps it is; the retranslators of the Bible would not concede that a knowledge of Shakespeare is necessary to salvation. But from my point of view the two are different in manner and degree, not in kind. Both are filled with moral wisdom and verbal felicity; to destroy the latter must impair the delight by which we attain the former. Perhaps it is pedantic to carp at the gross faults of the Revised Standard Version; perhaps, instead, we may vaguely hope that it will draw all men back to the great monument of Elizabethan and Jacobean English —supplest, most expressive, and least disciplined of tongues, disciplined here for once by awe of the Holy Word, as it was disciplined at about the same time by Shakespeare’s dramatic and poetic technique.

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Thus far, among other things, I hope that as an English teacher, even though an unbeliever, I have made good my claim to the Bible. The English teacher is preoccupied with verbal felicity and is also a teacher of morals. He studies and teaches whatever our culture has to say about life, whatever is distinct from scientific measurement. He appropriates not only original documents but whatever translations are not too offensive to the ear. He studies and teaches the value that Sophocles and Euripides put on the individual man. He weighs in his non-numerical scales the wickedness of Edmund and Goneril, the fierce onelegged mind of Ahab, the irresolute treachery of Nostromo, the loneliness of Hanno Buddenbrook, the rage of Dmitri Karamazov. He alone in modern life—an awesome responsibility for which he is ill-equipped— takes all literature to be his province. And since one of the finest treasuries of our culture is the Bible, the Bible belongs to the English teacher.

At this point I feel like Pilgrim emerging from the lush green Valley of Platitude into the harsh Upland of Sniping, where lurk the Slings and Arrows. I have no desire here to enter the controversy over the separation of church and state in the schools—though I have strong opinions on the subject. Faced with the demonstrable failure of church and home to make religion attractive, the sects have chivvied the public school to let them in or itself to give religious instruction. Their pressure has been crude, emotional, sometimes disingenuous. Respected religious leaders have used shoddy stratagems to sanction a snatch of prayer in the classroom, or even, as in New York State, to persuade children to repeat an allegation of their dependence on God, in phrases theologically pregnant but to a child merely tumid. It seems characteristic of waning faiths throughout history thus to excite amused retrospective pity. (But surely the time for that retrospection is not yet come.)

On the other hand I know that if our culture is to be preserved and transmitted at its best, it must include the Bible. Church and home failing, the school must undertake the job and hand it over to the English teacher. In other words, I wish to clarify by complication the problem of separating schools and sects, for I have often been uneasy as I listened to arguments for such separation; even as I agreed, they seemed to me a revised standard version of what I believed.

In short, the Bible should be taught. It must not, for reasons not all dependent on my particular philosophy, be taught as theology; it must be taught, by the English teacher, as great fiction, history, myth, and poetry—a process that, if successful, will not make any sect much happier, though this should not be too strongly urged as an argument. If anyone objects that few, if any, English teachers are fitted for so delicate and dangerous a task—walking the narrow bridge between theological commitment and scoffing irreverence, and not alone but accompanied by perhaps bovine students, like the man in Irish legend who was punished for stealing a cow by having to lead it across a mile-long razor-blade over a mile-deep gulf of flames—I can only reply that so are few people fitted to teach Shakespeare.

When Thomas Huxley was busy mining the foundations of the classical education he had enjoyed and used so well, his enemies compared him to a man who, having inherited great wealth, went about preaching that others should scorn money. If this was true of Huxley, it should not be true of us. We should wish our children to inherit our wealth, hut without the entail of guilt and theological bitterness and scientific absurdity that so many of us were forced to accept with the wealth. That such a desideratum presents problems it would be foolish to deny: all good teaching is difficult.

The Bible will repay, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, any degree of intellectual and literary understanding we can lend to it. Our children, left alone, are unlikely to read the Book of Books concealed inside a comic, or, like latter-day Abe Lincolns, by the flickering light of the TV set; and if they do, they will need our help in the reading. The Bible belongs to all of us, and we should allow neither the greed of the sects for converts nor the justifiable apprehension of the secularists to deprive us and our children of its delight and wisdom.

_____________

 


Footnotes

1 I have no desire to pit myself against Jerome and other formidable scholars past and present; I simply appropriate the Apocrypha as a collection of books that ought to belong to the Bible. Let Jerome argue the matter against the Council of Trent.

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