William Shakespeare: His role as a King James Bible translator

It would seem unlikely that a man who wrote Romeo and Juliet, and Othello would be ignored by the translation committee to participate in the translation of the King’s Bible.

VANCOUVER, Wa, July 16, 2011— It would seem unlikely that a man who wrote Romeo and Juliet, Measure for measure, Twelfth Night, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Othello, and Richard II would be ignored by the translation committee to participate in the translation of the King’s Bible.

He was at the apex of his writing acumen in 1604 when the KJV was initiated.

An interesting story involving Shakespeare (1564-1616) as a possible translator of Psalm 46 has become a part of historical lore.

If you count in the KJV 46 words from the beginning, you arrive at the word shake in the phrase, “the mountains shake.” If you count 46 words from the end backwards you arrive at the word speare” in the phrase, “cutteth the speare in sunder.”

Shakespeare was baptized in 1564 (birth date unknown) this would make him about 46 years old, if baptized as an infant, when the KJV was published. Does this invite the imagination to surmise that William Shakespeare the greatest writer in English literature translated some of the Psalms?

While the coincidence is tantalizing, there is no factual data that supports Shakespeare as a translator of the KJV.

William Shakespeare’s religious affiliation is an ongoing debate among scholars. It has long been argued that he was a Roman Catholic and there is some evidence to support the possibility.

Shakespeare’s parents were devout Catholic.  Many of his associates in his early years were also known Catholics. For supporters of this view his writings show sympathy with Catholic teaching. Along with his Catholic sister, Susanna much of his estate was bequeathed to known Roman Catholics.

Those arguing for his leanings toward the Anglican faith point out when he quotes from the Bible in his plays, he refers to various sixteenth century Protestant translations. He was married in an Anglican Church, his children were baptized in an Anglican Church, and he was buried in the chancel of Holy Trinity, Anglican Church.  

Certainly, if Shakespeare were a known Roman catholic, he would not be invited to participate in the Protestant King James Bible. The only known translators were Protestant Anglicans or Puritans.

If Shakespeare were an Anglican, he would not necessarily be invited to do translation work. One of the principles of the translation committed was that every Greek and Hebrew word would have an equivalent English word. While they were instructed to follow the Bishops’ Bible, they certainly consulted the Greek and Hebrew languages of the original Bible.

Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare, the King's playwrite, may have put his pen to the translation, but it has not be definitively proven

Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare, the King’s playwrite, may have put his pen to the translation, but it has not be definitively proven

 

There is no evidence that Shakespeare had any working knowledge of the original languages. Even though some grammar schools taught Greek, it would be insufficient for Bible translation.

All of the translators were churchmen and most were on University faculties and/or bishops of noted churches. They were men devoted to the task of building churches and ministering to their flocks. Shakespeare would simply not have been qualified on any level.

Among the lists of translators Shakespeare’s name never occurs. The conclusion is simple: Shakespeare did not participate in the translation of the King James Version. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that the translators of the King James Version saw the same new possibilities of English language expression and employed it fluently to great success.

None of the translation principles called for attention to style—so no real reason for a writer of Shakespeare’s ability.  The real mystery of the King James Bible is, “How did a large committee of translators with multiple editors and revisers achieve such a wonderful and magnificent piece of literature that has stood the test of time?”



 


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Donald L. Brake, Sr.

Donald L. Brake, Ph.D., is Dean Emeritus of Multnomah Biblical Seminary, past president of Jerusalem University College, Israel; author of A Visual History of the English Bible: The Tumultuous Tale of The World’s Bestselling Book; Baker Books, 2008 (a 2009 ECPA Christian Book Award finalist), A Visual History of the King James Bible: The Dramatic Tale of the World’s Best-Known Translation, Baker Books, 2011, A Royal Monument of English Literature: The King James Bible 1611, Credo House Publishers, 2011; and antiquarian collector with his extensive collection of rare and significant Bibles and artifacts currently at the Dunham Bible Museum, Houston Baptist University, Houston, Texas.

www.credocommunications.net/kjv

Contact Donald L. Brake, Sr.

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