The Good Book – The Bible in Literature

The Bible is the most important book in the Western literary canon. There, I’ve said it. If you want to understand anything about literature in the English language you must read the Bible. Preferably the richly poetic King James Version.

I had the Bible ground into me from birth. My mother first took me to church when I was a few weeks old and for the next 16 years I barely missed a week of Sunday School and sermons. Plus summer camps, Vacation Bible School, and sundry other indoctrination opportunities. I also spent three years at a Seventh Day Adventist school. A place that forbade make-up, above-the-knee skirts and ear-piercing. The Bible was presented as the literal, infallible word of the Almighty. As such, it was revered, memorised, read cover to cover and never questioned.

bible illuminated

When I was 16 or so, I slipped the church’s insidious grasp and escaped into a world that didn’t require a belief in six days of creation or the fundamental evil of homosexuality.


I felt no need to return to the Bible. The other day, however, recalling Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ I loaded the King James Bible on my Kindle and read Ecclesiastes.

Literary and cultural references flew off the page:

‘The sun also ariseth’ Eccl 1:5 — Hemingway ‘The Sun Also Rises’

‘There is no new thing under the sun’ Eccl 1:9 — aphorism

‘There is no remembrance of former things’ Eccl 1:11 — Proust ‘Remembrance of Things Past’

‘To everything there is a season…’ Eccl 3:1 The Byrds ‘Turn Turn Turn’

‘Two are better than one’ Eccl 4:9 — aphorism

‘Better is a poor and a wise child’ Eccl 4:13 — surely Salinger’s reference for ‘It’s a Wise Child’

‘The heart of fools is in the house of mirth’ Eccl 7:4 — Edith Wharton ‘The House of Mirth’

‘A living dog is better than a dead lion’ Eccl 9:4 — quoted by Henry David Thoreau in ‘Walden’

‘I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all’ Eccl 9:11 — George Orwell, quoted in ‘Politics & the English Language’

It is almost spooky reading the Bible and seeing how many quotidian words and phrases we draw from it, to say nothing of stories, images, and allusions.

I don’t advocate religion but if you write in English you need the Bible like you need the alphabet.

What book can’t you live without? Share in the comments.


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