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The following quotations are from Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution it Inspired, by Benson Bobrick:

“Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was — and is — the most influential book ever published…

“In 1604, a committee of 54 scholars, the flower of Oxford and Cambridge, collaborated on the new translation for King James. Their collective expertise in Biblical languages and related fields has probably never been matched, and the translation they produced — substantially based on the earlier work of Wycliffe, Tyndale and others — would shape English literature and speech for centuries. As the great historian Macaulay wrote of their version, ‘If everything else in our language should perish, it alone would suffice to show the extent of its beauty and power.’ To this day its common expressions, such as ‘labor of love’, ‘lick the dust’, ‘a thorn in the flesh’, ‘the root of all evil’, ‘the fat of the land’, ‘the sweat of thy brow’, ‘to cast pearls before swine’, and ‘the shadow of death’ are heard in everyday speech.

“The impact of the English Bible on law and society was profound. It gave every literate person access to the sacred text, which helped to foster the spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. This, in turn, accelerated the growth of commercial printing and the proliferation of books. Once people were free to interpret the word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of their inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the Church, and to the rise of constitutional government in England and the end of the divine right of kings. England fought a Civil War in the light (and shadow) of such concepts, and by them confirmed the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In time, the new world of ideas that the English Bible helped inspire spread across the Atlantic to America, and eventually, like Wycliffe’s sea-borne scattered ashes, all the world over, ‘as wide as the waters be’.”

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“With the Great Bible, the Scriptures in English finally achieved that official status Tyndale had envisioned for them when he died. By royal injunction… every parish church in England was to ‘set up in some convenient place’ a copy of the English Bible accessible to all as ‘the very lively Word of God’. Throughout the kingdom, copies for public use and edification were soon chained to lecterns in the vestibules of churches — six of them in St. Paul’s Church alone.

“There were some constraints. The people, for example, were admonished ‘to avoid all contention and altercation’ in their discussion of Biblical passages and ‘refer the explication of obscure places to men of higher judgment’. But they ignored such injunctions and yielded completely to their new, blissful sense of spiritual awakening and release. ‘It was wonderful to see with what joy the book of God was received,’ wrote an early biographer of Cranmer, ‘not only among the more learned sort and those that were noted for lovers of the reformation, but generally all England over among the vulgar and common people; with what greediness God’s word was read, and what resort to places where the reading of it was. Everybody that could bought the book and busily read it; or got others to read it to them, if they could not themselves; and divers among the elderly learned to read on purpose. And even little boys flocked among the rest to hear portions of the Holy Scriptures read.’ “

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“To a remarkable degree, the translators had proved faithful to the Hebrew, to the Greek, even (in a sense) to the Vulgate, ‘for the rhythm of the English Bible, as it finally emerged,’ Sir Herbert Grierson noted, ‘owes not a little to the Latin of St. Jerome.’ At the same time, nine tenths of the words were of Saxon derivation, and the entire translation had a vocabulary of only 8,000 words. It fused Anglo-Saxon and Latin elements — the Latin, as one scholar notes, imparting stateliness and sonority to its diction; the Anglo-Saxon conforming to the Hebrew in homely vigor, concreteness and directness of style. In Anglo-Saxon, the translators captured the form of Hebrew superlatives, such as ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘Song of Songs’, ‘King of Kings’, and ‘Vanity of vanities’; and the inverted phrase — ‘throne of ivory’, ‘altar of stone’, ‘helmet of brass’, ‘man of war’, ‘children of wickedness’, ‘man of truth’, ‘prisoners of hope’, ‘rock of ages’, ‘man of sorrows’, and ‘Son of man’. The learned and literary John Selden (an eminent 17th century lawyer, scholar and orientalist, with expertise in rabbinical law) once complained that the Bible had been ‘rather translated into English words than into English phrases. The Hebraisms are kept and the phrase of that language is kept.’ But that was precisely what gave it special dignity and strength.”

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“By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, the English public was the most literate in Europe — indeed, it had become ‘the people of a book’, and that book was the English Bible. Its legends, histories, war songs, and psalms; its sacred biographies of the Hebrew fathers, who loomed as large in the imagined past as classical gods; the stern words of its mighty prophets; the infinitely illuminating parables of Christ; the life of Christ itself; apocalyptic visions — all were absorbed by the popular mind ‘unoccupied for the most part by any rival learning.’ However much the ruling powers might wish to direct the understanding of their subjects, no state or Church authority could any longer hope to force it in a mold. ‘Pandora’s box was open,’ as one historian put it, ‘and no power could put back the thoughts on religion that took hold of the minds of men.’ “

(What a contrast to the 21st century! England now seems to rank among the most irreligious nations in the world!)

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