Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. Character of the Bible, its constitution and qualities

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

II. The “Authorised Version” and its Influence

§ 2. Character of the Bible, its constitution and qualities

The character of the Bible as a whole is best understood by regarding the Old Testament as its representative, and devoting attention primarily to that. It is the Hebraic temper, and the achievements of the Hebrew genius, that give the Bible a unique place among books; and these racial traits were much less subject to modification by alien influences—such as that of Greek culture—in the period covered by the Old Testament, than during the epoch in which the composition of the New Testament was effected. Much of the difficulty, for example, encountered in the adequate rendering of St. Paul’s epistles into another tongue is due to elements in his writing which are not common to him and the writers of the Old Testament, but belong specifically to him as one who had received a tincture of Greek learning, which, in modifying his thought, had also modified his speech. The tone of the Bible, then, is given to it by the Old Testament, which, therefore, may be considered as the type of the whole.

Its themes are the greatest that literature can treat. They may be reduced to three—God, man and the physical universe. The physical universe is regarded as subordinate and even subject, to man, within the measure of his capacity and needs, while man, in his turn, is subject to God. The visible creation reveals the wisdom, power and skill of its Maker. Man’s constitution being related to that of the world about him, he finds in the latter provision for his physical wants, and a certain satisfaction, falling, however, short of the highest, for his spiritual cravings. The relations of one human being to another, and of all spiritual existences among themselves, are partly matters of positive ordinance, and partly to be inferred from their relations to God. Thus, if God is the Father of all, all men are brethren. God is represented as desiring to draw man into closer and closer union with Himself, or as restoring man to his original condition of friend and trustful child. Such eventual and complete restoration is to be effected through the agency of the Hebrew people, but particularly of certain leaders—patriarchs, prophets and others—who, accordingly, are made the subjects of more or less extended biographies.

Speaking generally, the three species of literature in the Old Testament, succeeding one another in the order of time, are: narrative, poetry—chiefly lyrical—and prophecy. In the New Testament, the epistles may be said to represent prophecy, and the Revelation to be partly of a prophetic, and partly of a poetical, character, so far as these two can be distinguished.

Narrative, then, comes first in order of time, as in order of books. It deals with the early history of mankind, and the great epochs, especially the earlier, in the history of the Hebrew race. As suggested above, it delineates history largely under the form of biography, its most universally interesting form, and these biographies are full of ups and downs, of lights and shadows, both in characters and events. Conceived as affecting the ultimate destinies of all mankind, and, indeed, of every individual soul, these lives, presented in bold and picturesque outlines, are among the most enthralling of stories.

Next in order to the narrative books, thus filled with matter of deepest import and overwhelming interest to the race, come the poetic books, of which the Psalter is the chief. Some of the psalms are founded upon chapters of the national history, and all presuppose an acquaintance with the national religion. In turn, the psalms of an earlier period are subject to reworking at a later epoch, to express more perfectly the sentiments of the individual or the religious community. The same staple of matter thus reappears in a variety of forms, all of them charged with sincerity, fervour, or even passion.

The prophetic books form the third main division. After story and song come monition and reproof, mingled with predictions of a better time. The prophet has much in common with the poet, but is more didactic, and is concerned with the national life rather than with the individual. Like the poet, the prophet rehearses or alludes to God’s dealings with His people, so that continuity of motive is maintained throughout. A projection into the future opens up occasional vistas of limitless range and surpassing beauty, which give scope and direction to such hopes as men are prone to conceive for themselves or their descendants.

The first condition of great literature is a unity of theme and concept that shall give coherence and organisation to all detail, however varied. By this test the Bible is great literature. One increasing purpose runs through the whole, and is reflected in the widening and deepening thought of the writers; yet it is a purpose which exists germinally at the beginning, and unfolds like a bud. Thus, all the principal books are linked and even welded together, and to the common consciousness form, as it were, but a single book, rather τóβıβλíov than τα´ βıβλíα.

By far the greater part of the books which the world has agreed to call classic—that is, permanently enjoyable and permanently helpful—are marked by dignity of theme and earnestness of treatment. The theme or themes of the Bible are of the utmost comprehensiveness, depth and poignancy of appeal. In the treatment there is nowhere a trace of levity or insincerity to be detected. The heart of a man is felt to be pulsating behind every line. There is no straining for effect, no obtrusive ornament, no complacent parading of the devices of art. Great matters are presented with warmth of sentiment, in a simple style; and nothing is more likely to render literature enduring.

Another trait of good literature exemplified by the Bible is breadth. Take, for example, the story of Jacob, the parable of the Prodigal Son, or St. Paul’s speech on Mars’ hill. Only the essentials are given. There is no petty and befogging detail. The characters, the events, or the arguments stand out with clearness, even with boldness. An inclusive and central effect is produced with a few masterly strokes, so that the resulting impression is one of conciseness and economy.

Closely associated with this quality of breadth is that of vigour. The authors of the Bible have no time nor mind to spend upon the elaboration of curiosities, or upon minute and trifling points. Every sentence, nay, every word, must count. The spirit which animates the whole must inform every particle. There is no room for delicate shadings; the issues are too momentous, the concerns too pressing, to admit of introducing anything that can be spared. A volume is compressed into a page, a page into a line.

  • And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.
  • Jesus wept.
  • It would not be difficult to show how all these qualities flow necessarily from the intense preoccupation of the Biblical authors with matters affecting all they held dear, all their hopes and fears with respect to their country, their family and themselves, at the present and in a boundless future. Even when the phrases employed seem cool and measured, they represent a compressed energy like that of a tightly coiled spring, tending to actuate effort and struggle of many kinds, and to open out into arts and civilisations of which the Hebrew never dreamed.

    In a sense, then, it is the lyrical faculty that distinguishes the Hebrew author. Yet he is not an Aeolian harp, delicately responsive to every zephyr of sentiment. His passions are few and elemental, and, as we have seen, are prone to utter themselves energetically. One is tempted to compare the great lyric, as it has been called, of the Hebrew, with the effusions, or rather the creations, of Sappho and Pindar. Yet Sappho and Pindar must suffer in the comparison. Addison speaks of Horace and Pindar as showing, when confronted with the Psalms, “an absurdity and confusion of style,” and “a comparative poverty of imagination.” As for Sappho, her longest extant production, while intense, shows, in conjunction with the shorter fragments, that her deeper emotion is limited in range, and, because of this limitation, and the tropical fervour displayed, is less universal in its appeal than the best lyrical outpourings of the Hebrew genius. These include, not only the Psalms, but much of Job, the best of the prophets, a good deal of the Apocalypse, occasional passages of St. Paul, and even parts of the narrative books, especially those which report the utterances of notable persons.

    It has been asserted that the Hebrews of the Old Testament were incapable of producing either drama or fiction, and, one might add, the leisurely developments of the epic. This is only another way of affirming their lyrical intensity and preoccupation. The destruction of Sennacherib’s host is related with exultation, and the historian of Exodus rejoices over the destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. He is no more dispassionate than Tacitus in excoriating Nero, or Joinville in his devotion to St. Louis. Events are never displayed in that “dry light” so dear, as they supposed, to Heraclitus and Francis Bacon. There are always postulates which nothing could induce the writer to discard. There is always a presumption in favour of monotheism, of God’s protecting or punitive care for the people of Israel, of their eventual deliverance and full entrance upon their divinely ordained mission. The poet or prophet could never be brought to admit that there might be gods many, nor that the Hebrew people were not fore-ordained to pre-eminence over Philistines and Assyrians.

    But this egoism, this racial pride, which manifest themselves by a strong colouring and a decided tone, and which are at the furthest possible remove from scientific indifferentism, do not prevent the Bible from possessing a universality which has placed it at the foundation, or the head, or both, of all modern literatures. There are several reasons for this. Every one is interested in the origin of the world and of man. It may be urged that no other literature gives so plain and coherent an account of these origins, and of the early history of mankind, as the book of Genesis. Next, the Bible eemphasises the conception that all nations are of one blood, and that all men are brethren, since their Father is one. This, in satisfying the social instinct, has tended more and more to draw tribe to tribe, and kingdom to kingdom, as well as individual to individual, and indirectly, has appealed to national and personal ambition. Thirdly, the morality of the Bible, even where it takes the form of statutory enactments, keeps in view the interests of individual happiness and social well-being. Fourthly, the Hebrew race is presented as, in some sort, the prototype, or the beneficent elder brother, of all other races and nationalities, so that any of its experiences are likely to find a parallel in subsequent history, or even to help in making subsequent history. Fifthly, the future of mankind is regarded in the Bible as bound up with the general acceptance of Hebrew principles and ideals. Sixthly, the utmost fulness of individual life is represented as conditional upon the acceptance of that God who first distinctly revealed Himself to the Hebrews, upon obedience to Him and upon spiritual union with Him. With this is associated the Messianic hope of a Deliverer, who, greater than His brethren, yet even as they, should serve to bring God down to man, and lift man up to God. These, perhaps, are reasons enough why, notwithstanding the lyric note which is everywhere heard throughout the Bible, it possesses also a character of universality, and, one might also say, of impersonality. Thus, the Psalter, the most lyrical part of the Bible, is perhaps the widest in its appeal of any, simply because the cry of the individual believer, however impassioned, finds an echo in every other believing soul, and is not without some response from the most apathetic.

    As to form, in the sense of order and proportion, it is often assumed that the Greeks alone possessed its secret in antiquity, and bequeathed some hint of it to the modern world. Perhaps, in an endeavour to vindicate for the Hebrews a sense of form, we may best appeal to authority; and, if so, we can hardly decline to accept the judgment of a man who, classically educated, and possessed of a Frenchman’s love of order and beauty, was a Semitic scholar of unusual scope and insight. It was Renan who said:

  • Israel had, like Greece, the gift of disengaging its idea perfectly, and of expressing it in a concise and finished outline; proportion, measure, taste were, in the Orient, the exclusive privilege of the Hebrew people, and because of this they succeeded in imparting to thought and feeling a form general and acceptable to all mankind.
  • It is true that, if we regard the technicalities of literary construction, a book of the Bible will not infrequently seem to fall short; but this is because the author is not intent upon structure of a patent and easily definable sort. If he secures unity of impression with variety in detail, it is often by the use of other means, and especially through an intrinsic and enthralling power which pervades his whole composition. Structure in the more usual sense is, however, to be found in limited portions, such as the story of Joseph, a single prophecy, or a speech from the Acts of the Apostles.

    An attempt has been made above to show what there is in the constitution and qualities of the Bible entitling it to be called a classic. In what follows, the aim will be to consider the process by which it became an English classic, and the influence it has exerted, and continues to exert, in that capacity. Before attempting this directly, however, we shall need briefly to examine the problem which it presents to the translator.