I was reading through some English L & U SE questions, and happened across one asking about the origin of the phrase "Through a Glass, Clearly / A Scanner Darkly / In a Mirror, Darkly / etc" — apparently derived from 1 Corinthians 13:12 — and came away with a profound realization of how influential the Bible has been in making prominent certain literary constructions and phrases, even as perhaps its practical influence in society is declining. Every so often I've thought I've chanced across most of them, but as I keep reading, I keep finding more.

So I thought that perhaps I might start the "definitive" collation of famous Biblical phrases and constructions on English L & U SE, with (metaphorical) bonus points given for examples that are obscure and ill-remembered, or ones that give an engaging account of the usage's history. Of course, the example I'll seed this thread with, the "time to kill / time to heal...time to build / time to tear down" construction, from Ecclesiastes 3:3, is familiar enough to almost be hackneyed; can anyone else do better?

EDIT: I think it would make for a richer thread if everyone limited themselves to one phrase or construction at a time, and provided a little background that exemplifies how that example provides shared cultural context. See my comment below for a brief example.

  • I came across a great example of the use of a Biblical literary phrase to create insight beyond comparable idioms just today, reading the news. As I was reading an obituary of J. Paul Getty III, it mentioned details of a past ransoming attempt that his grandfather, the famous J. Paul Getty, almost refused to pay for even when his grandson had his ear cut off. Curious to find insight into the nature of such a man, I visited Wikipedia, which quoted him as saying: "The meek shall inherit the Earth, but not its mineral rights." Could arguably any other phrasing have provided so much context?
    – Uticensis
    Feb 9, 2011 at 0:25
  • 1
    one example per answer might make for a "richer thread", but this isn't a thread. Stackexchange sites are for questions which have answers, not for discussions. To put it another way, if a question doesn't have a single "best answer", then it might need rephrasing, or it may not belong on this site at all.
    – Marthaª
    Feb 9, 2011 at 1:35

7 Answers 7

  • Get thee behind me
  • Walk on water
  • Turn water into wine

From: http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_did_the_Bible_influence_the_English_Language

  • the apple of my eye - Psalm 17:8
  • the salt of the earth - Matt 5:13
  • the sun shines on the righteous - Matt 5:45
  • seek and you shall find - Matt 7:7
  • a little bird told me - Eccl 10:20
  • eat, drink and be merry - Luke 12:19
  • a doubting Thomas - John 20:27
  • a Judas (goat) - Luke 6:16
  • old wives' tales- 1Tim 4:7
  • returning like the prodigal son - Luke 15:11-24
  • wolf in sheep's clothing - Matt 7:15
  • a leopard can't change its spots - Jer 13:23
  • to escape by the skin of your teeth - Job 19:19-20
  • scapegoat - Lev 16:9-10
  • the sweat of your brow - Gen 3:17,19
  • red sky at night, shepherd's delight; red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning - Matt 16:1-3
  • the blind leading the blind - Matt 15:14
  • spare the rod, spoil the child - Prov 13:24
  • going the extra mile - Matt 5:41
  • their left hand doesn't know what their right hand is doing - Matt 5:3-4
  • practice what you preach - Matt 23:2-3
  • the writing's on the wall - Dan 5:5-6
  • casting pearls before swine - Matt 7:6

Let me answer with a reference and an entry or three.

Wide as the Waters : The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, by Benson Bobrick, largely answers your question. Bobrick shows that Wm. Tyndale crafted the phrase

The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. (Matt 26:41)

In 1940, Allied troops were trapped at Dunkirk, but they reported their resolve to England with only three words:

But if not...

This is a quote from Daniel 3:18, showing the resolve of the three young men, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah (who were renamed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) to not bow down to the image of King Nebuchadnezzar, because of their trust in God.

This verse is often misquoted:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

(I Timothy 6:10) Many omit "the love of" and say "Money is the root of all evil."

Another misquote is "Pride goeth before the fall." Proverbs 16:18 says

Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.

The King James Version probably translated wide of the mark with

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14)

The New International Version was closer with

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

"Good will toward men" is very popular at Christmas, but the NIV captured a nuance that it is not all men with whom God is pleased; rather, those who are pleasing to God.

  • Thanks very much for the book reference. The historical anecdote is great, too; it's crazy that as short as that sentence is, it can carry so much weight as a result of the immense cultural context the Bible provides, even across many generations. It's like the one "pop-culture" reference that never goes out of style! Only Shakespeare compares, really.
    – Uticensis
    Feb 8, 2011 at 22:25
  • I think you could probably list every verse in the book of Proverbs... Spare the rod and spoil the child, etc.
    – oosterwal
    Feb 8, 2011 at 23:38

Under the sun

Repeated about 30 times in Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth)


I'm going to have to go with Thou shalt not.


Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

Apparently based on Matthew 7:12 "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them." But not exclusively - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Golden_Rule#Christianity


Apple of my eye

"...Keep me as the apple of your eye" Psalm 17:8 and other places.


Here's another very obscure English word that derives directly from the Bible: Onanism.

Feel free to read Genesis 38 for the full story.

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