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
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
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
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
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
– 30 –
First published in the Chicago Tribune (July 2, 1995)