Priests, atheists, sceptics, devotees, agnostics, and evangelists are generally agreed that the Authorised Version of the English Bible is the best example of English literature that the world has ever seen. It combines the noblest elevations of thought, aspiration, imagination, passion and religion with simplicity of diction.
Everyone who has a thorough knowledge of the Bible may truly be called educated; and no other learning or culture, no matter how extensive or elegant, can, among Europeans and Americans, form a proper substitute. Western civilisation is founded upon the Bible; our ideas, our wisdom, our philosophy, our literature, our art, our ideals, come more from the Bible than from all other books put together. It is a revelation of divinity and of humanity; it contains the loftiest religious aspiration along with a candid representation of all that is earthly, sensual and devilish. I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women; but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible. For in the Bible we have profound thought beautifully expressed;
we have the nature of boys and girls, of men and women, more accurately charted than in the works of any modern novelist or playwright. You can learn more about human nature by reading the Bible than by living in New York.
The Elizabethan period--a term loosely applied to the years between 1558 and 1642--is properly regarded as the most important era in English literature. Shakespeare and his mighty contemporaries brought the drama to the highest point in the world's history; lyrical poetry found supreme expression; Spenser's Faerie Queene was a unique performance; Bacon's Essays have never been surpassed. But the crowning achievement of those spacious times was the Authorised Translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1611. Three centuries of English literature followed; but although they have been crowded with poets and novelists and essayists, and although the teaching of the English language and literature now gives employment to many earnest men and women, the art of English composition reached its climax in the pages of the Bible.
The translators made more mistakes in Greek than they did in English. When we remember that English is not a perfect language, for as a means of expression it is inferior to both Russian and Polish, it is marvellous to consider what that group of Elizabethan scholars did with it. We Anglo-Saxons have a better Bible than the French or the
Germans or the Italians or the Spanish; our English translation is even better than the original Hebrew and Greek. There is only one way to explain this; I have no theory to account for the so-called "inspiration of the Bible," but I am confident that the Authorised Version was inspired.
Now as the English-speaking people have the best Bible in the world, and as it is the most beautiful monument ever erected with the English alphabet, we ought to make the most of it, for it is an incomparably rich inheritance, free to all who can read. This means that we ought invariably in the church and on public occasions to use the Authorised Version; all others are inferior. And, except for special purposes, it should be used exclusively in private reading. Why make constant companions of the second best, when the best is available?
The so-called Revised Version and modern condensed versions are valuable for their superior accuracy in individual instances; they may be used as checks and comments; but for steady reading, and in all public places where the Bible is read aloud, let us have the noble, marbly English of 1611. I suggest that one reason why so many people cease reading the Bible after childhood, is because most copies are printed in abominably thin and small type. It is easy to obtain a Bible in convenient shape and weight, printed in large, black type, which pleases the eyes instead of destroying them.
In this book I shall consider the Old Testament as a work of literature, revealing the grandeur, the folly, the nobility, the baseness of human nature. I shall not consider it primarily as "the history of the Hebrew people," for the Hebrew people are much like other people, having the same passions, impulses, purity, filth, selfishness and self-sacrifice that dwell side by side in the heart of every man and woman in the world. I shall consider it as I would a play, an essay, a novel, a poem. The characters in the Bible are just as real to me as Theodore Roosevelt. I shall therefore point out and try to interpret interesting and significant episodes and passages, with one hope in the back of my mind all the time--that those who read these pages will re-read the Bible with renewed zest.
W. L. P.
Tuesday, 22 August, 1922.