BOOK REVIEW / From the great bran-tub of dissent: 'The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution' - Christopher Hill: Allen Lane/Penguin, 25 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IN THE beginning was the Word. But, apart from the very educated and the very rich, few were able to read it. Then came the invention of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation. And the Bible began to speak with many tongues.

In the 1520s and 1530s, William Tyndale translated the New Testament into English. He was first strangled and then burnt at the stake for his pains. But the word was out. The Geneva Bible appeared in 1560, the Authorised Version 51 years later. By 1640, over a million copies of the scriptures had been published in this country, some of them costing no more than a couple of shillings.

As Christopher Hill acknowledges, one result of all this was a more united and self-conscious nation. The availability of a vernacular Bible fostered English nationalism, just as the Authorised Version's popularity in both Scotland and England helped over the years to forge a broader sense of British identity. Yet this dramatically increased access to the scriptures also acted as a sword to divide.

Men and women discovered, in Hill's pithy phrase, that the Bible was 'a huge bran-tub from which anything might be drawn'. And in the context of the civil wars, the bran-tub became an armoury. Like so many other Protestant peoples, the English - and subsequently the British - saw themselves as another Israel. It followed that lessons of history drawn from the Old Testament must apply likewise to themselves. Opponents of Charles I noted darkly how few good kings were to be found in the Bible, and how God urged his chosen people to avoid them. 'Let not England become a house of bondage, a second Egypt,' thundered one parliamentary preacher. And 'Egypt', like 'Babylon', became convenient shorthand for any threatening power that was also perceived as decadent, whether it was the Caroline court or France and Spain.

The Bible was a fund of powerful metaphors and images which helped individuals make sense of their current dilemmas. Charles I became the 'Man of Blood', while 'Antichrist' was applied to the Pope, the Anglican episcopacy and ultimately to Oliver Cromwell. The more radical found even the Bible's silences illuminating. How could large landed estates, primogeniture and an established church be legitimate when the Scriptures mentioned them not?

Setting out and explaining these myriad borrowings from the Bible plays to all of Christopher Hill's conspicuous and well-known strengths: his non-conformist background, his massive familiarity with the Bible, his matchless knowledge of 17th-century printed sources, and his impressive sympathy with dissident minds. And because he has written profusely on literature as well as on history, he is acutely sensitive to the uses of language. This emerges in his section on the literary impact of the Bible, but also in a quite brilliant chapter devoted to how 17th-century Englishmen understood Isaiah's promise: 'thou shalt be like a watered garden'. Anyone interested in the centrality of gardening to English culture should read this chapter.

Yet in this - Christopher Hill's 20th book - there are also, arguably, the drawbacks that have characterised some of the previous 19. As he admits, he is not primarily concerned with the 'strictly religious' uses to which the Bible was put. Those millions of men and women who drew on it for spiritual guidance only, or who treasured it as a salve for hardship or - unable to read themselves - relied on orthodox interpretations from the pulpit, receive little discussion here. And because he focuses instead on Puritan and radical readings, Hill's estimate of both the Bible's cultural and political significance is foreshortened.

He suggests that by the end of the 17th century the Bible had lost much of its authority, and that the new age of reason - however irrational it in fact was - had become more pragmatic. Yet long after the Puritan Revolution was dead and officially buried, polite culture remained saturated with Biblical references: just look at the words of Handel's oratorios. And 18th-century radicalism, on both sides of the Atlantic, drew inspiration as much from religious as from secular sources.

So I cannot agree with Hill's conclusion that the Bible's sheer versatility prevented it from becoming a revolutionary text to equal Rousseau or Marx. On the contrary: it was precisely because successive generations found they could plunder the Bible in numberless and contradictory ways that its political utility and dynamism outlasted both The Social Contract and Das Kapital.