31 July 2018

Literary Titles Taken From the Bible

I discovered while studying literature as an undergraduate that many of the novels I was reading had titles taken from phrases in the Bible.

A list on goodreads.com of Book Titles Based on Lines from the Bible has several hundred possible titles. Here is some information on just a few.

The Sun Also Rises was a title that took Ernest Hemingway a while to select. The book was published in the UK in 1927 with the title Fiesta. After that, he decided on using a line from Ecclesiastes, which he also used as the novel's epigraph.

“What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.”

Corinthians (13:12) provides the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly,” which has been used by several novelists, but it was also the inspiration for A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, a novel about drug culture which was also made into a film by the same name.

Henry James used a Biblical reference for his novel The Golden Bowl which is also taken from Ecclesiastes (12:6): “…or the golden bowl be broken, …then shall the dust return to the earth as it was.”

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is a 1941 book. The words are by James Agee and the photographs are by Walker Evans. It documents the lives of impoverished tenant farmers during the Great Depression. The title is from a passage in the Wisdom of Sirach (44:1) that begins, "Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us".

The William Faulkner novel Absalom, Absalom! uses the Biblical story of Absalom, a son of David who rebelled against his father (then King of the Kingdom of Israel). Absalom was killed by one of David's generals, Joab, in violation of David's order to deal gently with his son. His death caused much heartbreak to David.

Faulkner also used a Bible reference from the Psalms for his title The Wild Palms. That book was later published under the title If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem and now is usually listed under both titles. Look at some of his other titles and you can see the influence: Light in August, and Go Down, Moses. 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck takes its title from the Bible's Land of Nod. This place mentioned in the Book of Genesis of the Hebrew Bible and is said to be located "on the east of Eden."It is the place where Cain was exiled by God after Cain had murdered his brother Abel.

Flannery O'Connor's novel The Violent Bear It Away  uses a verse from the translation in the Douay-Rheims Bible: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away" (Matthew 11:12).

Toni Morrison chose Song of Solomon as a title. Rather than being a verse from the Bible, it is a book of the Old Testament. The Song of Songs, also Song of Solomon or Canticles  is one of the scrolls) found in the last section of the Tanakh, known as the Ketuvim (or "Writings"), and a book of the Old Testament.

The Song of Songs is unique within the Hebrew bible as it shows no interest in Law or Covenant or Yahweh the God of Israel, nor does it teach or explore Wisdom like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes, but it celebrates sexual love, giving "the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy."  In modern Judaism the Song is read on the Sabbath during the Passover, which marks the beginning of the grain harvest as well as commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. Jewish tradition reads it as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, and Christianity sees it as an allegory of Christ and his "bride", the Church.

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