The Impact of the Bible on the English Language

(This is one of those "this is itching my brain so I write to scratch it" posts.)

I was listening to a podcast the other day, I forget which one, and they were talking about the origin of law. They were citing the Code of Hammurabi and one of the hosts said something that really kind of bugged me.

"Hammurabi's code was much like that of the Bible", she said (I'm paraphrasing from memory), "an eye for an eye."

"You're right", the other host said, "But here in the 21st century I hope we've moved on from the outdated teaching of the Bible to 'turn the other cheek'".

Ummm... Where did the phrase "turn the other cheek" come from? Yes, "eye for an eye" is from the Old Testament in the Bible, but "turn the other cheek"is also Bible. New Testament. Matthew 5:39 and Luke 6:29.

This is the basis of my argument, while many people may not know chapter and verse, everyone knows some Bible. It has had an impact on English literature and language that goes beyond the church.

The opposite extreme was demonstrated on a forum I participate in. The topic was "what one book should everyone read". Many suggested works of Shakespeare, others suggested one classic novel or another, I suggested the Bible. My argument was "not because it's religious, but because the King James version has helped shape the English language over the past 400 years". The response I got was "well, then you should read the Torah, the Qu'ran, and every other religious text out there".

Ok, no problem with that, but I don't see how those have had an influence on western writings and language, which was my point.

Here's my point, what do you think of when I say "The Golden Rule"? Or if you read a headline that says something like "A David vs. Goliath battle"? Or how about "She's a thorn in my side"? What's a "Good Samaritan"?

Even if you've never been in church, never went to Sunday school when you were little, you know these expressions and you know what they mean. Did you learn them from some "churchy" person in your life? Probably not, you probably picked them up from movies and TV you've seen and books, stories, and newspapers you've read.

If you like to read, a total book geek, then you should read the Bible. No, I'm not going to preach at you and tell you "YOU HAVE TO, IT'S TRUTH!", instead I'm going to tell you that you should go out and get a King James version (if you don't have one around, which you might) and tread carefully. Not every part of the Bible has had an impact. There are long LOOONG stretches that are extremely boring to read. Long lists of geneologies and rules for handling mold and so on. But there are two things to be on the lookout for:

1) What familiar words, phrases, and expressions do you recognize? When was this passage in the Bible written? Did language influece the Bible or vice versa?

2) What familiar stories and characters do you recognize? How have the themes from these stories been reflected in the writings of others? Have you seen these characters elsewhere?

There was a big controversy a few years back, and maybe it's still ongoing, I don't know. The issue was teaching the Bible as literature in high school and college classrooms. There were opponents on both sides of the religious fence saying "NO! You can't do that!" Some said "It's the BIBLE, it's more than literature, it's TRUTH", the other side was saying "It's the BIBLE! Separation of Church and State!" The poor teachers caught in the middle were the only ones that had the right idea and couldn't make their opponents see it. The Bible is already in the classroom, in the works of Shakespeare, Melville, Tolstoy, Dickens, even Arthur C. Clarke. To understand the Bible is to understand the roots of their thinking.

Anyway, that's my argument. What do you think?