The Bible is one of the best-known and influential texts in human history. It has been translated into countless languages and dialects the world over. Many people in Judeo-Christian societies are familiar with biblical stories and passages such as Adam and Eve, the Parting of the Red Sea and the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Nativity from our school days.
And yet there is probably only a small minority of people who regularly read the Scriptures. Few people have what would be considered a “good” knowledge of the Old and New Testaments. A 1954 book, Why Gods Persist cited a Gallup poll in the USA which highlighted this gap of knowledge. Three-quarters of Catholics and Protestants were unable to name a single Old Testament prophet. Two-thirds were not aware who delivered the Sermon on the Mount while many thought that Moses was one of Jesus’ disciples. And, lest we forget, this poll was conducted in the United States, arguably the most religious country in the developed world with a Judeo-Christian tradition.
The Bible has been a part of literary culture. It is for this reason that Richard Dawkins, a renowned atheist, and critic of organised religion, has argued that the Bible should be part of our education. “Surely ignorance of the Bible is bound to impoverish one’s appreciation of English literature,” Dawkins writes in his best-selling 2006 book The God Delusion. He notes that 1,300 references to the Bible can be found in the works of Shakespeare. The Bible Literary Report provides further examples, thus demonstrating that a degree of Biblical literacy is important to understand and appreciate a wide range of texts.
There are also numerous of biblical, or Bible-inspired, phrases which have entered into everyday or conversational English. An uncivilised and crude individual might be regarded as a “Philistine” whereas a kind-hearted, compassionate person who goes out of their way to help others is a “Good Samaritan.” We might sometimes feel like a “stranger in a strange land” or accuse our government of acting like a “Leviathan.”
Moreover, the beauty of the language can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of whether they are a practicing Christian or Jew or not. This is especially true of the old English King James Version, which was first published in 1611. Like many others, I believe that the words contained in this version hold more power than those found in more recent, modern English versions. When reading from its pages I cannot help but feel a tremendous sense of history. I’ve often thought about the authors of these passages and the individuals who have read and recited them down through the centuries.
This is particularly acute when reading a chapter such as Psalm 23, which has no doubt given comfort to so many people through its timeless verses: …“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul …l Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”