Michael Macrone

On Religion
Within the Bible, a Treasure-Trove of Popular Phrases

(Chicago Tribune, July 2, 1995)
By Paul Galloway

Labor of love. Fear and trembling. The powers that be. Feet of clay. Stumbling block. Scapegoat. Den of thieves. Signs of the time. There’s nothing new under the sun. All things to all men. The salt of the earth. Eat, drink and be merry.

Faithful readers of this humble column are fulgently versed in religion and thus can easily identify the origin of the preceding expressions.

It’s the Bible, which, purely on a cultural level, is the most important book in this society.

Indeed, in “The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know,” E.D. Hirsch Jr. declares: “No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible.”

He continues: “No person in the modern world can be considered educated without a basic knowledge of all the great religions of the world,” yet because the Bible is “embedded” so deeply “in our thought and language,” it’s essential that Americans are duly grounded in Judaism and Christianity.

Even if they follow another faith or don’t believe in any religion, parents are guilty of child neglect if they don’t make sure their progeny is taught about these two traditions and their holy writings. Schools without such instruction are irresponsible and inferior.

In many instances, it’s possible to use scriptural formations without knowing it. Such as those at the top of the column and these:

To suffer fools gladly. In the twinkling of an eye. Who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Many are called, few are chosen. The blind leading the blind. TO fall by the wayside. A house divided against itself shall not stand. To reap the whirlwind. A two-edged sword. Tender mercies.

But folks must know the Good Book to grasp allusions to Sodom and Gomorrah or David and Goliath, the prodigal son or the good Samaritan. It also helps to know what’s meant by the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job or a cup that runneth over. Not to mention references to:

Jonah and the whale. Lot’s wife. Doubting Thomas. Philistines. Jezebel. Jacob’s ladder. Tower of Babel. Noah’s ark. Methuselah. The mark of Cain. Armageddon. Daniel in the lions’ den. The Promised Land.

This column will occasionally look at various aspects of the Bible - its history, the conflicts over some translations; the emergence of “higher criticism,” which considers the historical context in interpreting Scripture, and the hostile reaction to it by fundamentalists.

We begin by emphasizing the Bible’s place as “a sovereign source of spiritual and ethical teaching,” “a treasure of dramatic stories and intriguing questions” and the greatest “single influence on our language, literary and spoken.”

Those are the words of Michael Macrone, author of “Brush Up Your Bible!” (HarperCollins), from which the column’s italicized biblical sayings are drawn. Ready for more? From the Book of Isaiah:

Holier than thou. A lamb to the slaughter. To see eye to eye. A drop in the bucket. A voice crying in the wilderness. To beat swords into plowshares.

Edifying and enjoyable, the book is a guide to famous phrases, sites and characters. Macrone untangles “the often archaic phrasing of the original” and offers a brief essay on each selection, approaching the texts “principally as literature, secondarily as history and only implicitly as theology.”

In an interview, Macrone, who has similar books on Shakespeare, the Greek classics and Greek and Roman mythology, noted that the King James translation, published in 1611 and still widely used, was instrumental in developing a sparser, more concise English prose style.

“In the late 16th Century, a very flowery style, called the Asiatic or Oriental style, was in fashion,” he said. “But the translators appointed by King James made a conscious effort to go with the most direct expression of an idea.”

An example of Macrone’s method is his survey of “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing,” which comes from Jesus’ . warning in Matthew 7:15: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

Macrone observes that Jesus’ “false prophets” is his but that the rest is from an Aesop’s fable (6th Century B.C.), which Jesus’ listeners would have known. Jesus also probably expected them to know the surprise ending, which he omitted. The hungry-for-mutton shepherd kills the impersonator for dinner. In conclusion:

The truth shall make you free. Cast the first stone, I was blind but now I see. The last shall be first and the first last. Turn the other cheek. Land of milk and honey. To gain the whole world but lose your soul. New wine in old bottles. Pearls before swine. A city on a hill. The writing on the wall. A leopard can’t change its spots. Man does not live by bread alone. It is better to give than to receive. Love thy neighbor.

– 30 –

First published in the Chicago Tribune (July 2, 1995)

Chicago Tribune story

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