Here is an Introductory post on this subject.
What we know today as the Bible crystallized into the sacred book of Christianity in the fourth century. At that time the bishops set the canon and closed it. In the ages that followed it was carefully guarded, copied, studied and used by those who controlled the destiny of the Christian Church; it remained largely unavaliable to non-professionals.
The development of vernacular languages and the invention of printing put the Bible for the first time in the hands of ordinary laymen. The Protestant Reformation increased the availability of scripture to all believers. The resulting proliferation of interpretations dismayed Luther and Calvin as well as the old Church authorities. The reaction of the religious establishment to the wide use and diverse interpretations of the Bible caused a century of turmoil and violence (See CHAPTER SEVEN)
In England this instability reached its crisis in the l7th Century Civil War with the beheading of Charles I and the establishment of a commonwealth under non-Conformist direction. For a few brief years government censorship of printing stopped, which led to an explosion of spiritual creativity, largely inspired by non-Conformist biblical interpretations.
The fascinating story of the radical groups active in the years l640-50 is vividly and ably recounted by Christopher Hill in A World Turned Upside Down. His title is apt; the radical social, political, and spiritual ideas of the various religious groups shook the fabric of English society much as the New Testament church had turned the Roman world upside down.
Look at three of these radical ideas:
1. The Levellers and Diggers took the Hebrew doctrine of the Jubilee as biblical guidance for breaking up the land enclosures which had disinherited and made homeless thousands of English yeomen; Isaiah had also condemned the immoral amassing of real property to control wealth. The New Light Quakers emphasized the direct creative relationship between man and God without intermediaries; all the Lord's people were prophets as Moses had wished.
The Ranters understood Paul's doctrine of justification by faith to signal the end of all laws. They gave a radical freedom to the believer to follow his conscience in every particular of conduct; their spiritual descendants are the modern anarchists A.L.Morton in The Everlasting Gospel claimed that Blake was the last and best of the Ranters.
People have called Blake many things; Northrup Frye called him a "Bible soaked Protestant". He descended from the line of English non-Conformists who refused to read the Bible in the establishment way and insisted on attaching their own interpretation to it.
(A good example of Blake's commentary on the Bible comes at the beginning of the little book of Thel:
Where might the golden bowl come from? Look here. What is Blake saying here? Can you find love in a golden bowl? To grasp this lesson you have to understand that Revelations is poetry and Thel is poetry, which means the Lord may give us a great variety of meanings of Revelations 5 and of Thel, and of how they relate to one another. Think about it. If you get an idea, a new vision, share it. That's the way we learn Blake-- and the Bible.
Continuing on a few lines we come to The Lilly of the valley? Well who might that be? Look at an old hymn :
"He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star, He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
Look again at the context:" "and gentle hear the voice Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time: The Lilly of the valley". Without question Blake speaks of the saviour, talking to our heroine and opening the spiritual and material realms to her. Blake has shared with us his vision of Christ-- one of many that came to him through his long life. Does he enrich our understanding of Christ? Yes, yes, I say.
With the Restoration in 1660 the contest in England over the biblical meaning of the Christian faith slowed to a virtual halt. Society came to attach less and less importance to such matters. In the century that followed the shapers of opinion fell increasingly under the influence of the materialism of Newton and Locke--faith in the five senses rather than in the metaphysical visions of the past.
Francis Bacon had written of a second scripture to which men might more fruitfully address their attention. Paine called it the Bible of Nature; writing his Age of Reason in the language of the common man he demolished the Hebrew Bible as a tissue of fabrications, which it certainly is to a reason confined to the five senses.
Since that time the Bible has remained a best seller, but used more often as an item of household furniture than as a book. In our day it has become unfashionable even for that purpose. But for Blake the Bible was the primary and continuous fountain for the ideas contained in his art.
To anyone truly interested in the Bible one of the big issues concerns the canon--did God close it? When he finished with John of Patmos, did he stop speaking? Did he assume that men would thereafter hear his voice and experience his presence only through the mediation of the sacred page? The orthodox, explicitly or tacitly, answer these questions in the affirmative; Blake and his dissenter friends gave a resounding no.
On the authority of the New Light Blake believed that his visions had the same sort of authenticity as those of Isaiah and Ezekiel. Some believers may see such effrontery as a sacrilegious depreciation of the Bible, but the many who worship the Bible without reading it depreciate it more than Blake did. Blake denied to the Bible any exclusive form of authority; he saw that as the urizenic monstrosity, the Book of Brass:
"PAGE 80 And Urizen Read in his book of brass in sounding tones Listen O Daughters to my voice Listen to the Words of Wisdom So shall [ye] govern over all let Moral Duty tune your tongue But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone To bring the shadow of Enitharmon beneath our wondrous tree That Los may Evaporate like smoke & be no more Draw down Enitharmon to the Spectre of Urthona And let him have dominion over Los the terrible shade Compell the poor to live upon a Crust of bread by soft mild arts Smile when they frown frown when they smile & when a man looks pale With labour & abstinence say he looks healthy & happy And when his children Sicken let them die there are enough Born even too many & our Earth will be overrun Without these arts If you would make the poor live with temper With pomp give every crust of bread you give with gracious cunning Magnify small gifts reduce the man to want a gift & then give with pomp t Say he smiles if you hear him sigh If pale say he is ruddy Preach temperance say he is overgorgd & drowns his wit In strong drink tho you know that bread & water are all He can afford Flatter his wife pity his children till we can Reduce all to our will as spaniels are taught with art"
(Four Zoas 7a-80:2-21; Erdman 355)