Did Shakespeare Help Write the King James Bible?

As a child, growing up in an independent Baptist church that used, preached and taught from the King James Bible, I recall occasions in which a relative of ours who did not share our reverence for it, would attempt to undermine our reliance on it by spinning the yarn that William Shakespeare helped translate the KJV, and while doing so, hid some “Easter eggs” in the text of Psalm 46. The phenomenon to which he referred was the fact that the 46th word from the beginning of the psalm is the word “shake” (v. 3) and the 46th word from the end of the psalm is the word “spear” (v. 9). I can’t speak for my parents, but I always found this idea to be ludicrous, even as a child. As much as I’ve searched the internet for explanations, the following from Doug Kutilek makes a few interesting points that demonstrates how far-fetched this religious urban legend is.

The following is from As I See It Volume 5, Number 2, February 2002:

One of the wonders of the internet is how easily it facilitates the dissemination of utterly false and fictitious, or at best highly dubious, information. Whole books have been written about such “urban legends” (you know–the alligators reportedly in the sewers of New York City, and the supposedly “Satanic” nature of the venerable Proctor & Gamble “man in the moon” logo).

Well, not to be out-done by the “children of this world,” Christians also have their “urban legends.” One of these that has been circulating in cyber-space involves the great British playwright William Shakespeare and the famous King James Version of the Bible. The story goes as follows:

The KJV translators reportedly (so this legend has it) consulted Shakespeare, a renowned master of English style, as they were doing their translation work, and to acknowledge surreptitiously, not openly, his part in the work (it would have been scandalous to have a mere actor and author of stage plays participating in the important and sacred work of Bible translation), they translated–or perhaps allowed him to translate (depending on which version of the legend is being told), his complete ignorance of Hebrew notwithstanding–a part of Psalm 46 in a particular way. If one turns to that Psalm, he will discover that the 46th word from the beginning of the Psalm (ignoring the title, which does in fact form a part of the inspired text) is the word “shake.” And if one counts words from the end of the Psalm, the 46th word from the end (ignoring the final word of the Psalm, the Hebrew word selah–again a part of the inspired text) is the word “speare.” So, the 46th word from the beginning and the 46th word from the end of the 46th Psalm are “shake” and “speare.” An apparently remarkable coincidence, to be sure. And the unstated implication is that this somehow adds to the prestige, dignity and authority of the KJV over all other English Bible versions.

But against the theory is the apparent complete absence of any contemporary positive evidence associating the bard of Stratford-on-Avon with the KJV translation committee and its work. Certainly the lengthy account of Shakespeare in the authoritative Dictionary of National Biography, authored by the editor of the work, Sir Sydney Lee, betrays no such knowledge. Nor can I find any reference to the same in several other works on Shakespeare consulted, nor indeed in various standard histories of the English Bible. This is not to say that it is thereby absolutely disproved, though the happenings in Shakespeare’s life in the period 1604 to 1611 (when the KJV was in preparation) are fairly well-known to history, and any part the most famous of English authors might have had in the production of the most famous of English Bible translations could scarcely have gone unnoticed and unreported.

The novelty of the coincidence of the “46s” and “Shakespeare” is not quite so remarkable as it might seem at first blush. The Geneva Bible of 1560 (published 4 years before Shakespeare’s birth and therefore certainly uninfluenced by him in any way–indeed, he was influenced by it) was the Bible most commonly used in the English-speaking world during the far greater part of Shakespeare’s active writing career (he died in 1616, having virtually retired some years earlier; all but 3 of his many plays and the whole of his poetry being commonly ascribed to the years before 1611). It was also the English Bible version most closely followed by the KJV translators in their revision work.

An examination of the Geneva version of Psalm 46 reveals that both words “shake” and “speare” occur in the relevant verses (3 and 9), as in the KJV, though with a slightly different word count. “Shake” is the 48th, rather than 46th, word from the beginning of the Psalm (ignoring the title) and “speare” is the 44th word from the end of the Psalm (or 45th, depending on whether “selah” is excluded from or included in the count). It seems quite probable that the KJV picked up its use of “shake” and “speare” in the 3rd and 9th verses respectively from the prior Geneva Bible (the precise wording of Psalm 46 in the Geneva and the KJV is usually identical, with a relative few differences). Further it is entirely within reason that by merest accident these words ended up 46th from the beginning and end of the Psalm (ignoring the problem counting “selah” causes for the hypothesis).

Since the “official” basis for the KJV revision was the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, a check of the wording and word counts in that version of Psalm 46 would be of interest for comparative purposes, but unfortunately I have no access to it, and must remain in the dark for now as to its precise wording.

If it could actually be established with certainty, or with at least a high degree of probability that the Shakespeare really was “honored” by the translators in the KJV of Psalm 46 in the manner suggested, whether or not he had any part whatsoever in the actual production of that translation, it would make for an interesting footnote. However, until such proof is forthcoming, it is best to leave this with the other “urban legends” of our time.

3 responses

  1. Dear Cap’n Headknowledge:

    I ran across your blog after posting on this theory. Not only can the idea be left in the urban legend dust, it can also be thoroughly debunked.

    J. Karl Franson conclusively did so in 1977. If you’re interested (or if your readers are), you can find my summary of his argument here:

    http://bardfilm.blogspot.com/2011/09/which-psalm-in-king-james-version-of.html

    Happy 400th anniversary of the KJV to you!

    kj (Bardfilm)

    1. Is there a way to access Franson’s work, or does your summary cover all the same points as his research?

      Thanks for the link and the info.

  2. Franson’s article is very brief–my own post pretty much covered it. But feel free to e-mail me–I’ll send you a .pdf of the article (or you can get it as a .pdf if you have access to the MLA Bibliography).

    Take care!

    kj

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