By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Many of the phrases we use in everyday English speech come from the Bible. Even ahead of the works of Shakespeare, the Bible has probably given us more useful expressions and quotations. Indeed, we use quotations from the Bible often without realising we’re quoting it: how many times have people used the phrases ‘apple of my eye’, ‘a man after my own heart’, ‘feet of clay’, or ‘put the words in someone’s mouth’ without realising they’re quoting the proverbial Good Book?
Below, we gather together, and introduce, some of the best, and best-known, quotations from the Bible.
‘Let There Be Light’.
Let’s begin this pick of Biblical quotations right at the beginning, in the Book of Genesis, with the account of the Creation. In Genesis 1:3, we are told that God decreed that there should be light, ‘and there was light’. Everything else follows from this.
‘Am I My Brother’s Keeper?’.
The first humans in the Bible are, of course, Adam and Eve. The first murder in the Bible is famously committed by their son, Cain, who kills his brother Abel. When God asks Cain where Abel has gone, this is Cain’s response. Cain is subsequently sent into exile in the ‘Land of Nod’.
‘An Eye for an Eye’.
The phrase ‘an eye for an eye’ has become well-known: it is found in Exodus 21:23–27, where it expresses the idea of reciprocal justice. It’s a forerunner to what was known in Roman times as lex talionis or the ‘law of retaliation’.
The Book of Ecclesiastes (which we have analysed in more detail here) contains much wisdom, despite its relative brevity. The Preacher who is the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything we do is ‘vanity’: empty, futile, and short-lived. It doesn’t matter if you’re wise or a fool, ultimately, because everyone ends up dying.
The author goes on to encourage wisdom as something to strive for in order to ensure a well-lived earthly life, but he is sceptical of whether it carries any long-term benefits beyond this life.
One of the most famous quotations from the Book of Ecclesiastes, along with ‘Vanity of Vanities’, this sentiment reveals the author’s determination to observe and accept the transience of all things:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up …
Throughout Ecclesiastes, the author’s advice might be aligned (tentatively) with Stoicism and Epicureanism: try to accept what you cannot change and control your response to things which should make you angry or unhappy, and strive to attain a moderate amount of pleasure from the simple things life affords you in the present moment.
‘Forgive Them, Father, For They Know Not What They Do’.
This quotation from the Crucifixion is found in Luke 23:34. Jesus asks God to forgive those who are killing him, because they are unaware that they are sacrificing the Son of God. The quotation reminds us that forgiveness is at the heart of Jesus’ teachings.
‘The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness’.
This is a phrase which is used in the New Testament in reference to John the Baptist. It is quoted from the Book of Isaiah. The expression has come to refer to a lone person speaking out about something while nobody pays attention to them; in this case, nobody believed John the Baptist when he announced the Messiah had come.
‘Ye Cannot Serve God and Mammon’.
Found in Matthew 6:24, this quotation is a warning that one cannot be pious but also cling to worldly wealth: ‘No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other, Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’
But what is ‘mammon’? In Hebrew, the word means ‘money’, but it came to refer to wealth more generally.
This famous quotation is found in Matthew 19:24. Although it’s been suggested that ‘camel’ is down to a mistranslation (and the original should have been ‘rope’, which would make sense in terms of attempting to thread something thick through a needle), ‘camel’ appears to have been exactly what Matthew (and Jesus) meant: the Babylonian Talmud, for instance, talks of an elephant passing through the eye of a needle.
Another theory suggests that ‘Eye of a Needle’ here refers to a small gate into Jerusalem, the idea being that a man riding a camel laden with all of his worldly riches would have to leave all of his goods outside. Again, there’s no evidence for this: Jesus means a literal needle here.
‘Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour As Thyself’.
Here we have a very famous Bible quotation. Jesus enjoins his disciples (in Mark 12:31): ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.’
‘Many That Are First Shall Be Last; and the Last Shall Be First’.
In Matthew 19:30 we find this utterance, which essentially rebuts the older Jewish idea that one’s standing in this life could determine one’s status with God. Instead, Jesus tells his followers that many who are rich and well-regarded in this life will not be so in heaven, while many who are downtrodden or poor in their worldly existence may be first in God’s kingdom.
‘Beware of False Prophets’.
From Matthew 7:15: ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’
Thus two well-known phrases – ‘beware of false prophets’ and ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ – appear to have their origins not only in the same sermon by Jesus but the same sentence from that sermon. (The phrase ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ is often attributed to Aesop, the ancient Greek fabulist, but although that fable is often included in modern editions of Aesop’s fables, there is little evidence that the story was written by him. Instead, the fable was probably a later invention, influenced by the passage from Matthew 7:15 just cited.)
‘By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them’.
Another quotation from the Gospels, this time from Matthew 7:16-20. This passage also contains the line: ‘Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.’
‘In the Beginning Was the Word’.
‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ These are among the most famous lines in the New Testament: they begin the Gospel of St. John.
‘The Word’ here is a translation of the ancient Greek Logos, so that John’s statement might be loosely paraphrased as ‘at the beginning of everything, there was the entity we know as God, who embodied, and created, the rational principle on which everything is founded’.
‘Suffer the Little Children to Come unto Me’.
A slightly elided version of the precise quotation found in Matthew 19:14: ‘But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.’
Children were widely considered to be insignificant in the patriarchal, adult-centred society of the time. Jesus, as so often in his preaching, is drawing attention to the innocence of young children and their place in heaven.
‘For Now We See Through a Glass, Darkly; But Then Face To Face’.
This quotation is from 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’
In this famous statement, St Paul reminds Christ’s followers that they will only understand God fully when they die and go to heaven.
Of course, there were dozens of other famous Bible quotations we could have included here, but this post would have ended up being three times as long as it is. For more classic quotations from the Bible, we recommend this list.