| Bartlett's Bible Quotations |
By John Bartlett
Genre: Non Fiction
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About halfway down the Sinai Peninsula, between Egypt and Israel, lie the ruins of a rock-hewn temple known as Serabit el-Khadim, or "Heights of the Slave." Built on a mountaintop in the early second millennium B.C.E., Serabit el-Khadim represents an attempt by the pharaohs to control workers in nearby turquoise mines. A short walk away is a small cave. To enter, you must lie on your back and slide down a red clay chute into a cavern about the size of the space underneath a pickup truck. On the walls are a handful of inscriptions that are animal-like or anthropoid: snake, ox, fish, house.
Deciphered in 1940 by William Albright, these inscriptions are believed to be the initial forms of a Semitic alphabet, the precursor to our alphabet, and to all alphabets. The snake would become the N, the fish the D, the house the B. These letters, called the protosinaitic inscriptions, are the oldest letters ever found.
Visiting this site a few years ago, I was struck by the fact that the Semitic alphabet was developed in the Ancient Near East in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., at nearly the exact time that the Israelites would have been traversing this same route during their Exodus from Egypt. Suddenly, the importance of words in the Bible took on new meaning.
Early biblical figures such as Noah, Abraham, and Joseph would have interacted with God, but only orally. By the time of Moses, who would have been born around 1300 B.C.E., this reality would have changed. A great leader would have been able to read. Sure enough, the Ten Commandments, delivered by God on Mount Sinai in a location likely within walking distance of Serabit el- Khadim, are the first words in the Bible that are actually written down.
The People of the Book is born. Written narrative in Israelite religion is one of its chief innovations-and surely one of the principal reasons biblical religion endures to this day. As this collection of biblical quotations makes clear, once stories, prayers, and divine pleas are written down, they can seize the imaginations of nations, transform the world, and even change how people speak.
In 1855, John Bartlett, the owner of the Harvard University bookstore and a well-known trivia buff around Cambridge, Massachusetts, self-published A Collection of Familiar Quotations, a book of prose and verse quotes from 169 different authors, which he described as an effort to trace common phrases back to their original sources. The first edition was regularly reprinted and expanded, often imitated, but never equaled, until it became nearly as common in American households as, well, the Bible. I can remember as a self-important teenager pouring over Bartlett's, looking for quotations to sprinkle into student council speeches and a quote for my high school yearbook.
As they were in John Bartlett's original edition, quotations from the Bible represent the second-largest single block in Bartlett's today (the largest is drawn from the works of Shakespeare), and those selections have now been gathered in an edition devoted solely to Scripture. All quotations come from the Authorized Version of the Bible, known as the King James Version, or KJV, published in 1611. The KJV was commissioned by James I of England in 1604 to settle various religious disagreements that had arisen in the century since Martin Luther triggered the Protestant Reformation. The KJV is surely the most influential book ever published in the English language.
Both the weaknesses and strengths of the King James Bible, translated by fifty-four scholars across England, are on display in this volume. The nearly forty books of the Hebrew Bible are here called the Old Testament, a term that has been losing favor in recent years, as it implies that the wisdom of the early books of the Bible was supplanted by the New Testament. Also, the ornate Elizabethan language can sometimes make the Bible seem remote. Genesis 8:11, when the dove Noah sends to survey the flood returns, is rendered here as "And, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off." Exodus 3:5, when Moses encounters God in the burning bush, appears as "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." The New Revised Standard Version offers the same line as "Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."
But the towering contributions of the KJV also appear here, and they include some of the most enduring phrases in the English language: "Am I my brother's keeper?"; "pillar of salt"; "coat of many colors"; "Let my people go"; "Man doth not live by bread alone"; "out of the mouth of babes"; "the meek shall inherit the earth"; "They shall beat their swords into plowshares"; "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb"; "Love your enemies"; "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name." Make no mistake: Many of these phrases are translated differently in other editions of the Bible. They were introduced by the King James Bible, picked up in English vernacular, and entered popular imagination. One unexpected gift of Bartlett's Bible Quotations is finding these familiar phrases gathered all in one place and seeing them traced, as John Bartlett wished, back to their original source.
Among the quotations assembled here, the book includes what is arguably the most important phrase in Western civilization, a quotation from Genesis 1, "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Early Christians used this line to help weaken the Roman Empire by claiming that society was based not on divine rulers but on the inherent rights of every human being. Centuries later, when the American colonists went looking for a metaphor to express their frustration with British imperial rule, they looked back to this phrase, too. The stirring words of American Creation-"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights"-are a direct echo of the words of biblical Creation, "Let us make man in our image."
Above all, what the phrases, sentences, psalms, and proverbs gathered in Bartlett's Bible Quotations demonstrate is an idea as old as the first few lines of Genesis.
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
"And God said." The Bible introduced the notion that
millennia later countless sermons, study groups, private
reading sessions, scholarly interpretations, and books like
this reinforce. The most powerful force in the world-the
one God himself employs to create the world-is not earth,
water, fire, or light.
It is words.
Excerpted from Bartlett's Bible Quotations , by John Bartlett . Copyright (c) 2005 by Little, Brown and Company. Foreword copyright (c) 2005 by Bruce Feiler. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top