Do you know the precise origin of the following textually related quotations?
- The Bible is like a stream of running water in which a lamb may walk and an elephant may swim.
- The Bible is like a body of water in which a child may wade and an elephant may swim.
Photo © Olivier Blaise
I’ve heard this quoted in many sermons (sometimes with “drown” swapped for “swim”), and I’ve seen it quoted in many books (sometimes in commentaries on John’s Gospel). It vividly illustrates that some parts of the Bible are simple and straightforward and that others require the highest level of historical and theological integration. Most people, however, quote this without attributing a source (e.g., “it has been said that”). Others attribute it (almost always without documentation) to Augustine, Gregory the Great, or John Owen.
After looking into this a bit (with the help of my friend Mark Snoeberger), I think that the original source of this quotation is from Gregory the Great’s commentary on Job (Moral. inscr. 4 [CCL 143:6]):
Scripture is like a river again, broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim.
That translates the Latin original, included here with more context (note the bold words):
Habet in publico unde parvulos nutriat, servat in secreto unde mentes sublimium in admiratione suspendat. Quasi quidam quippe est fluvius ut ita dixerim planus et altus in quo et agnus ambulet, et elephas natet.
Cf. John Moorhead (Gregory the Great [Routledge, 2005], pp. 21, 161n41):
In a famous image, Gregory explains that the Bible is like a river in which a lamb can walk and an elephant swim.
Gp ad Leand. 4. This memorable image gains in force because Gregory again uses sounds, in this case a sequence of vowels, to emphasise the point: agnus ambulet et elephas natet. This expression occurs in a letter to a distant friend, rather than in a work originally delivered orally, suggesting that Gregory expected even his written words to be apprehended aurally.
Does anyone know if this quotation predates Gregory the Great?
Update: Here’s video of an elephant swimming.