The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry

Posted: 30 December 2014
Updated: 16 December 2017

Why are religious texts (“The” Bible, “The” Torah, “The” Qu’ran) preceded by “The”?

Stack Exchange

Question from English Language & Usage on Stack Exchange

Although English is my first and only language, I’ve always wondered why religious texts are preceded by “the”, although they really can just be seen as pieces of literature (I’d rather not get into religion). Say I’m reading Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, I wouldn’t say,

I’ve been reading the Fahrenheit 451 a lot recently.

I would say,

I’ve been reading Fahrenheit 451 a lot recently.

But when I’m saying I’m reading a religious text, you have to put the in front of the religious text, otherwise it would sound incorrect (I’d say grammatically but I’m no grammar professional). It seems like putting the in front of a religious text is making it more/a higher version of a proper noun compared to other pieces of literature, if that makes any sense.

Why does this occur?

Edit: Just by the way, Fahrenheit 451 was just an example. Also, I don’t mean that they includedthe article the in the title, I meant that why do we call it that since they’re not explicitly in the title itself(i.e., written on the cover)

My answer

[Read, comment, and vote on my answer at Stack Exchange]

Because this is largely an issue of convention and only partially an issue of grammar, a full answer would be complex and would certainly have dissenting views. Therefore, I think it best to focus on the major driver of this convention: definitive articles.

As mentioned by the user, medica, “Bible” is derived from a word that simply means “book.” Not coincidentally, your other two examples comes from common words. “Quran” originally meant “to recite” because the first couple hundred years of those religious words were strictly an oral tradition, but once the words were written down, Quran took on a few new meanings, including “book.” “Torah” comes from torah, which means an instruction or a law.

In modern English, proper nouns are capitalized, but that convention has only been around for a relatively short time. Simply read the US Declaration of Independence to see that capitalization of nouns was not strict.

Therefore, for most of the history of the English language if one were speaking about the book written about the life of Jesus, simply saying “bible” would be ambiguous. By adding the the definitive article, the, it was more clear which bible the speaker meant. (I am purposely avoiding modern capitalization to emphasize the ambiguity that existed before the standardization of capitalization of nouns.)

If a definitive article can reduce ambiguity, then it seems likely that it will eventually become a convention.

There is one other common feature in your examples: the supremacy of the objects within their class. “The bible” theoretically still has ambiguity, but in a culture that considers one book superior to all other books, the ambiguity is nearly non-existent.

Frankly, however, the best answer to your question might be, “Because we have done it that way for a long time.”