Novelist, Read The Bible!

By Maeve Maddox

Whatever your religious affiliation or views, if you wish to enrich your writing in English, it’s in your interest to familiarize yourself with the language of the 1611 translation known as the Authorized Version (AV) or King James Bible.

More recent translations are preferable for purposes of textual criticism, but for the lover of English, the AV belongs right next to the dictionary on the writer’s shelf of essential references.

The Bible is not one book, it’s a library of different kinds of writing: poetry, history, laws, drama, and philosophy.

I don’t recommend struggling through the food laws or the “begats” (long genealogical lists), but the poetic books like Job and Song of Songs provide an inexhaustible mine of balanced phrasing and indelible imagery.

Hemingway took his title The Sun Also Rises from beautiful, world-weary Ecclesiastes:

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.

Some other writers got titles from the same place:

Earth Abides, by George R. Steward
Earth Abideth, by George Dell
One Generation Passes Away, Another Generation Comes, by Joyce Jones Roe

And then there’s this passage from the Song of Songs (also called Song of Solomon):

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land…
Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.
My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies.

NOTE: In this context the “turtle” is a turtledove.

Here are some titles that this passage seems to have inspired:

Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, by George Victor Martin
The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman
The Voice of the Turtle, by John Van Druten
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Among the Lilies, by Mary Adriano and Mary Bruno
Winter is Past, by Ruth Axtell Morren

Some readers may balk at the old -eth endings. One way to deal with them is to read them as -es verbs. Another way is to read from the Revised King James version which modernizes the grammar:

One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever.

Thanks to a multiplicity of websites equipped with great search engines, you can go directly to the stories you want to read.

A good place to begin is The Bible Gateway.

Who knows? You may find the perfect title for your next novel.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


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12 Responses to “Novelist, Read The Bible!”

  • bill weaver

    Good advice. Beyond finding clever titles or interesting word usements to structure, the Bible is a fascinating treasure of writing forms. Layered parallelism, symbolism, argument, and on and on. AV of 1611 is beautiful language, but for structure and form, the Bible is best read in a more current literal translation (NASB or ESV).

    Bible Gateway is good. Another good one is eBible.com. Has a fancy-pants “web 2.0” interface.

  • Maeve

    Bil,
    Thanks for the link.

    I can’t agree with you about NASB and ESV. And as for literal translations, the only one I’ve looked at is pretty clunky. I’ll have to check out J.P. Green’s Literal Translation from 1985.

    New American Standard Bible (NASB)
    A generation goes and a generation comes,
             But the earth remains forever.
     Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
             And hastening to its place it rises there again.

    English Standard Version (ESV)
    A generation goes, and a generation comes,
       but the earth remains forever.
    The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
       and hastens to the place where it rises.

    Young’s Literal Version (1898)
    A generation is going, and a generation is coming, and the earth to the age is standing.
    Also, the sun hath risen, and the sun hath gone in, and unto its place panting it is rising there.

  • bill weaver

    Well, as I said, the language of the KJV definitely has a nice resonance in the ear which gives it a deserved air of reverence.

    My point about NASB/ESV was mainly referring to pulling apart the larger structure of a given book or letter and marveling at the genius behind it. But to be fair, the structure is there in the KVJ as well. So touché. 🙂

  • Tea Party Girl

    Yeah, I wish the schools weren’t finding it such a political battle to be able to teach it as a literary work. So many other literary works, as you mentioned, reference the classic of classics.

  • DPeach

    For those not familiar with the Bible, check out the book of Proverbs. There are tons of pithy sayings. Parallelism reigns supreme.

    Psalms is a book of poetry that, though sometimes hard to wrap your head around, has some incredible language.

    Jesus’ sermon on the mount (Matthew 5-7) has quite the language and good prose in places. The thing there is to try and take it a chunk at a time. Otherwise your eyes start to glaze over. You will probably be surprised as to how many of the sayings in those 3 chapters are very familiar to you.

  • Patrique

    I am not too fond of the Bible. It’s badly written and has a shoddy, highly unlikely plot with Deus Ex Machina thrown in all over the place. If you really want to be inspired by an ancient text, you’d better check out something like the Bhagavad Gita.

  • cprice

    There is no more beautifully written word than the AV. Not only is the language remarkable, but the diversity is unmatched.

  • Ivy

    My issue with the KJ version is that the translators tried for an “arcane” sound, but didn’t entirely know what they were doing, resulting is the bizarre practice of talking down to G-d.

    Thee/Thou is similar to “tu” in French or Spanish. It is the second person singular informal (“thou” is the nominative, similar to “he”, “she” or “who”; “thee: is the dative, similar to “him”, “her”, or “whom”). Use these in close relationships or when speaking to an inferior.

    The use of “Thou” when G-d addresses humans is perfectly fine. The use of “Thou” in the Lord’s prayer is nasty (and before someone points out that Jesus wrote the Lord’s prayer, let me remind you he was speaking Aramaic and his words were captured in Greek).

    The second person plural form in old English is “you”. It is far more polite, and because of this, became the only acceptable second person pronoun in English. “Hallowed by your name” is far more respectful.

    The language is beautiful overall, but errors like that, caused by ill-informed pretentiousness, stop me cold.

  • Rachel

    The only reason not to use the KJV is to understand it better – the KJV is the best- completly accurate source to use

  • ATP

    Oh my gosh. Thank you so much for referring to the Bible. It’s a great refresher to see somebody reffer to it, even though it isn’t part of his niche. Your a true inspiration.

    I like the NIV version personally, because it’s easy to read, and most study bibles/ bible commentary’s I READ use NIV.

  • Debra Braun

    I’m late to the party, but nonetheless must respond to Ivy’s comment lest future readers are misled:
    Ivy says the translators tried for an “arcane” sound, by which I think she means to say an archaic sound. Ivy is unaware of the early modern language spoken in 1611, when the Bible was translated. Reading Shakespeare, a contemporary writer, would show a second extant body of language using the you/thou.

    Ivy’s other misunderstanding is the use of thou. You/thou mirrors both the German Sie/du, and the French vous/tu, (and of course other languages). The “du” , to use German as our example, is a mark of intimacy, not belittlement. It is indeed used for children, who in turn use “Sie” to an adult. It is a significant marker of increasing intimacy to offer the “du” to somebody. This shows that you wish to be considered a friend and not only a colleague or acquaintance.
    The God of the Bible is a God of intimate personal relationship with his people. This is reflected in the early modern English language that was still used in 1611 by the translators employed by King James 1 of England.

    The German language uses the intimate “du” for God, and French uses the intimate “tu” for God. I don’t speak any other language than those so perhaps other languages do too.

  • A Lurking Verbophile

    The KJV sparked my love of language as a child and it cannot be matched for the beauty of the text, but for trying to comprehend meaning (if one is not fluent in Shakespearean english), the ESV is an acceptable modern alternative that still maintains much of the KJV’s beauty but is much easier to understand for modern readers. Reading them side-by-side could be a beneficial exercise. There are many versions I absolutely abhor as they sacrifice the beauty of the text to make meaning painfully obvious to even the dullest reader, but in doing so they make the whole thing unappealing and the reader gives up in disgust. Something worth reading should be a little challenging, thus do we grow. I am tired of the modern idea that a book/article/blog that is not easy to read is not worth reading; I fear that texting/twitter/etc. will further sound the death-knell of the english language. Bravo for an article encouraging the exploration of The Text that will not only enrich the reader’s language skills but also make them think, a habit too little cultivated in our virtual society!

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