Over the centuries, biblical phrases and expressions have become part of the vocabulary of those for whose culture the Bible is a central text. Some idea of the Bible's influence on the English language may be gleaned from the following sample of everyday expressions, all of biblical origin, chiefly in the Authorized or King James Version (1611).
A person may be said to behave like the great I Am (Exod. 3.14), or to have “the mark of Cain” (Gen. 4:15). People are tempted to eat forbidden fruit (Gen. 2.17), desire the fleshpots of Egypt (Exod. 16.3), and give up something worth having for a mess of pottage (Gen. 25.29–34).
Yet “one does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8.3), and finally each must go the way of all flesh (cf. Gen. 6.12; Josh. 23.14) and return to the dust (Gen. 3.19). For the moment, those who find themselves “at their wits' end” (Ps. 107.27) may still escape by the skin of their teeth (Job 19.20), but others find themselves in the position of a scapegoat (Lev. 16.8–10; see Azazel). Nevertheless, “a soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov. 15.1). Unfortunately, a leopard cannot change its spots (Jer. 13.23). The wicked sow the wind and reap the whirlwind (Hos. 8.7), and because they ignore the writing on the wall (Dan. 5.24), they are fated to “lick the dust” (Ps. 72.9). Inevitably “pride goeth…before a fall” (Prov. 16.18), and anything that hinders success is a fly in the ointment (Eccles. 10.1). The wise recall that life lasts “but threescore years and ten” (Ps. 90.10), and so they gird their loins (Job 38.3) and teach their children “the good and the right way” (1 Sam. 12.23). Such people know that “you can't take it with you” (cf. Eccles. 5.15), and that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1.9).
Everyday expressions from the New Testament are largely derived from the parables and other teachings of Jesus. Who has not known a good Samaritan (Luke 10.30–37), a person that will “go a second mile” (Matt. 5.41)? These individuals are “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5.13) and often “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5.38). Some seek the “pearl of great price” (Matt. 13.46), while others, like the Prodigal Son, waste their lives “in riotous living” (Luke 15.13). “No one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6.24). “A house divided against itself will not stand” (Mark 3.25), nor can “the blind lead the blind” (Matt. 15.14). It is useless to “cast pearls before swine” (Matt. 7.6).
In antiquity a “talent” was a unit of weight or money, but because of Jesus' parable of the talents (Matt. 25.14–30), the word has come to mean natural endowment or ability. To disregard these abilities is to hide one's light under a bushel (Matt. 5.15). Even those who have never opened a Bible recognize the golden rule of doing to others as we would have them do to us (Matt. 7.12; Luke 6.31).
The letters of Paul are also a source of several expressions now in everyday use: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3.6); “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6.10); “to see through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13.12); “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12.7).
Bruce M. Metzger