When I was growing up, Christians usually assumed John 3:16 was the best known Bible verse, even by those who were not believers. For a number of years now, pundits have claimed that Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not that ye be not judged” –King James Version) has taken over that role, though it is regularly cited out of context and applied more widely than Jesus originally intended.
Beyond those two verses, however, what does the average non-church-goer know of Scripture? When new translations appear, secular media usually turn to Genesis 1-3 on creation and the fall, to Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments, to Psalm 23, or to the Matthean Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12).
A small collection of additional allusions to Bible stories or characters still appear commonly. While they may know nothing of the actual details of the accounts, many unchurched Americans still recognize as coming from the Bible references to Noah and the flood, Joseph’s coat of many colors (thanks to the musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), Moses’ burning bush and contest with Pharaoh leading to the Exodus, Joshua and the battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, Solomon and his wisdom, Job and his patience, the virgin birth, stilling the storm, feeding the multitudes, walking on the water, turning water into wine, Peter’s denials, Judas’ betrayal, doubting Thomas, the good Samaritan, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. They have probably heard of the apostle Paul, if only because of his “politically incorrect” views on slavery, women and homosexuality! The “mark of the beast” and Armageddon have also passed into common parlance.
But a large group of expressions come straight from Scripture, especially the King James Version, which the average person without any church background probably doesn’t realize originated in the Bible. And how many even in the church without the help of a concordance (or Google!) could find “my cross to bear,” “labor of love,” “a sign of the times,” “a thorn in the flesh,” “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” “as old as the hills,” a “baptism of fire,” or “casting your pearls before swine”? What about “falling from grace,” “faith moving mountains,” “turning the other cheek,” “going the extra mile,” or “fighting the good fight”? How about “being led like a lamb to the slaughter,” “holier than thou,” or “happening in the twinkling of an eye”? Or “loving your neighbor as yourself,” or “reading the handwriting on the wall,” or knowing that “the love of money is the root of all evil”? The list goes on and on.
Still other sayings surprise many active, longtime Christians and Bible readers. How many would guess the biblical origins of “to everything there is a season,” “the way of all flesh,” “the straight and narrow,” “the skin of your teeth,” the root of the matter,” “the powers that be” or “the fly in the ointment”? What about “the blind leading the blind,” “sour grapes,” putting your “house in order,” or “a house divided against itself” not standing? Didn’t Abraham Lincoln craft the last of these? Oh, he was quoting Scripture? How about a scapegoat, no rest for the wicked, or nothing new under the sun? Or “the fat of the land,” “a law unto themselves,” or one’s “heart’s desire”?
Of course there are also the “pretend” Bible verses. Scripture does not teach that “God helps those who help themselves.” And the lion does not lie down with the lamb; it’s the wolf — but there at least the point is the same. In any event, the Bible has had a profound impact on English!
This article originally appeared in the NAE Insight.