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The Biography of the Bible

Ernest Sutherland Bates

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This is a narrative of the development of the Bible, from the earliest manuscripts to the 20th century. It includes the story of the translation of the Bible into English, the 'Higher Criticism' of the 19th century, and presents the Bible in historical and social context.

This book has 92 pages in the PDF version, and was originally published in 1937.

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Excerpt from 'The Biography of the Bible'

A GREAT BOOK is a living organism. Months, years, or centuries may go into its gestation. When finally composed and written down, it can be said to be born, but only born. It then grows and develops through the interpretations of generation after generation of readers, critics, editors, and translators, each adding something, great or little, to its expanding magnitude.

The life of the Bible, above all other books, is a life made up of countless lives, embodying their joys and agonies, their visions, their defeats and aspirations. Four thousand years cling about it. A full millennium of myths and legends passed into it; another millennium was consumed in the writing; bitter battles over canon and creed occupied a third; a fourth has seen the ever-continuing translations into modern tongues.

No individual, no Caesar or Napoleon, has had such a part in the world's history as this book. Wars, reformations, martyrdoms, religions, lie heavy on its head; men fought and died over its meaning; down through the ages it has continued to evolve, affecting for good and also for ill millions and millions of lives.

Not until the fourth century A.D. was it called the Bible. Saint John Chrysostom, the golden-mouthed, well deserved that sobriquet when he named the collection of Jewish and Christian sacred scriptures the Bible—one book, the Book. For in spite of the length of time consumed in its creation and in spite of the greatest diversity in the literary and moral value of the various parts, the unity of the Bible is its most compelling feature, so compelling that centuries after the original work was completed, when men of other races and languages sat down to translate the Bible, although they usually collaborated in large groups, nevertheless under the spell of the original they often found themselves writing as one man. This unusual and significant literary phenomenon appeared even in the Septuagint of the first translators, the legendary two and seventy Jewish elders of Alexandria who, according to the tale, in two and seventy days of the third century B.C. rendered the Old Testament into Greek. In all these cases, the quality of the translation sprang from the quality of the original.

When one asks, however, just wherein resides this unity, so evident to sense that it has always been overemphasized rather than underemphasized, the answer is not easy. The older and still customary explanation that it consists in a definite type of religion maintained from first to last will not bear scrutiny. The religion of the earliest parts of the Old Testament is a tribal religion, strong and stern, intolerant, only half ethical and not even consistently monotheistic; the Prophets introduced nothing less than a religious and moral revolution; the later books of the Old Testament reveal the conflict between humanistic and nationalistic aspirations; and the coming of Christianity brought so great a change that the Jews themselves could not accept it. Yet all these varying attitudes are expressed fully and powerfully in the Bible.

Nor can one say with truth that the Bible is unified because it is always inspired by some religious viewpoint, however divergent the successive viewpoints may be. The collection of love lyrics known as the Song of Songs is purely secular, and the greater part of Ecclesiastes is a work of skeptical philosophy. Yet these are included, and one feels that the pattern is not broken.

The one enduring characteristic which does mark the Bible from first to last is a pronounced attitude of mind that reveals itself in literary style and content.

The content of the Bible is Man. Alone among the ancient nations, the Jews accepted Man as the object of chief interest. Their religion, while in all its manifold forms preaching absolute submission to God, in another way made God himself subordinate to Man; where half of the Greek myths deal with the doings of the gods among themselves, gods who think only occasionally of the creatures of a day on earth, Jehovah is shown as making the destiny of Man his chief concern. Where the pagan gods are transparent personifications of natural phenomena gradually humanized, Jehovah is fundamentally Man himself gradually idealized to the height of human imaginings of good.

The content furthermore is Average Man. There are no Homeric heroes in the Bible. Abraham is brave and cowardly by turns, Jacob is loyal and a trickster, Joseph indulges in the vainglorious babblings of youth, the noblehearted David under the influence of lust will cause the murder of a devoted servitor, Solomon's wisdom cannot keep him from debauchery. As a result, where Agamemnon and Achilles and all the highborn heroes of Greek tragedy move us but aesthetically, our spirits are touched simply and directly by our sorrowful twin brothers who acted so like ourselves centuries ago. We can find Abraham in the flesh on a Vermont farm, meet Jacob in the streets of New York, encounter Joseph in any gentle but pampered favorite child, and discover degenerate Solomons in night clubs from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast.

Finally, the content is Collective Man. Behind these sharply defined individuals, one is always conscious of their ancestors, and stretching before them one sees the long line of their descendants. A compensatory dignity accrues to the persons in the tale from their relation to the social whole. The group, the nation, and ultimately all mankind form a perpetual background against which the characters stand out the more plainly but into which they eventually merge and their relation to which constitutes the criterion of their conduct.

From this interest in the average man and the collective man springs the democratic and revolutionary character of the Bible. The constant admonitions to heed the poor, the widow, and the orphan; the diatribes against the corruptions of the court, the law, the men of power and wealth; the ever-repeated pleas for social justice; to the extent that these have entered into the thought of the world we have in the first instance to thank the Bible.

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