Biblical Influence on English Language: Development of Standard Prose Relinquishing the Crude Style of the Liturgical Treatises


   The greatest of all translations is the English Bible. It is even more than that: It is the greatest English book, the first of the English classics, the source of the greatest influences upon English Character and speech………. It is in a singular degree, the voice of a people.” ---- George Sampson. It is needless to say that the influence of the Bible on English literature has been immensely great and most valuable. Ever since the publication of the first translation of the Bible by Wycliffe to the publication of the Authorized Version in 1611, its influence on English literature and language has been constant and steady. These productions exerted great influence in the development of standard prose relinquishing the crude style of the liturgical treatises. The influence of the Bible was immensely felt in other branches of literature especially in poetry.


The Authorized Version of the Bible was published in 1611. It was the work of forty-seven scholars nominated by James I, over whom Bishop Lancelot Andrews presided. It is very difficult to distinguish the influence of Authorized Bible from that of the earlier forms yet it found a righteous conclusion of religions controversies started in 1523 in England.

Humanism, the product of the Renaissance and the religions Reformation came into conflict during the mid 16th century England. The greatest advantage of this was that they largely contributed to the development of English prose. The controversialists wanted to reach the public and win over their sympathies. For that purpose they had to write their pamphlets and treatise in simple English so that it could easily be understood by the common people. That is how the translation of the Bible into English raised the controversies and how these controversies helped in the development of English prose. Let us now study the Biblical influence upon the modern English as it stands now.




Proverbs & phrases: Many proverbs and phrases, which are in common use in modern English, are the gifts of the Bible. Quotations from the Bible are given profusely. English language has been enriched by the Bible so much that a proper assessment is practically impossible. Some illustrations of Biblical phrases are given below: ‘arose as one man’, ‘broken reed’, ‘a law unto themselves’, ‘the man of sin’, ‘moth and rust’, ‘clear as crystal’, ‘the eleventh hour’, ‘city of refuse’, ‘whited sepulcher’, ‘wash one’s hands off’ and many other familiar scriptural phrases and allusions. From Tyndale we owe ‘long-suffering’, ‘peacemaker’, ‘stumbling block’, ‘the fatted calf’, ‘filthy lucre’, ‘mercy seat’, ‘day spring’ and ‘scapegoat’. From Coverdale we have ‘tender mercy’, ‘loving-kindness’, ‘valley of the shadow of death’, ‘avenges of blood’ etc. Many such Biblical phrases and idioms are current in modern English without even knowing its source.
Poetry: Right from Chaucer to the present day the influence of the Bible is clearly discernible in poetry. Even Chaucer drew the material for some of his tales from the Bible. Spenser’s Fairy Queen is also “steeped in the humanism of the classics and Italian literature and it everywhere testifies to the strenuous idealism and moral earnestness of Protestantism”. Milton’s Paradise Lost is Biblical while the metaphysical poets were interested in Biblical allusion. In the twentieth century the poetry of T.S.Eliot, Yeats, and Dylan Thomas is full of the Biblical references. Technically the Biblical influence can be seen in the use of ‘th’ such as in hath, ‘loveth’, ‘hateth’, ‘giveth’ etc in place of ‘has’, ‘haves’, ‘gives’ etc as a poetical style. Again, we find old past tenses in ‘gat’, ‘clave’, ‘brake’ instead of got, clove, broke in poetry mastered by Tennyson, Morris, Coleridge etc. Instead of using ‘s’ ending in verbs we have: “He prayeth best who loveth best/All things both great and small”- Ancient Mariners.

Superlatives, Scriptural Proper Names: On the analogy of the scriptural ‘holy of holies’ which contains a Hebrew manner of expressing the superlatives, we get in modern English similar phrases such as: In my heart of hearts, the place of all places, a friend of friends, the pearl of pearls, a prince of princes etc.

Further scriptural proper names are often used as appellatives to designate types of character. As for example, ‘to raise Cain’ meaning to make a determined angry fuss; ‘David and Jonathan’ means ‘any pair of devoted friends’.

Revival of Some Archaic Words: Biblical usage has revived some of the lost words into full life. Such words are like ‘damsel’ for young women, ‘raiment and apparel’ for dress, ‘firmament’, a poetical synonym for sky’.

The modern world has seen many changes; but it has, so far, seen no movement that has shaken the supremacy of the greatest of English books ‘The Bible’. If ever the Bible falls from its high sovereignty, we may be sure that the English character has fallen with it.