Written with the poetic words and evocative language of Shakespeare's English, the King James Version (KJV) Bible has fashioned the expression and character of English Christianity for more than 400 years.
But where is the proof that William Shakespeare wrote King James' Bible?
So who wrote the King James Bible?
Well, the answer isn’t in the question. While King James 'authorised' the work of the 1611 translation, he didn’t write a word of it. Certainly he wanted to see an accurate English Bible, but his chief concern was for a text that leaned neither toward the Latin Bible nor the Puritan 'Geneva' Bible.
So who translated dusty Greek and Hebrew texts into the vibrant, living English of the KJV? Surely not the 47 scholars and theologians, appointed by the King. Learned men, they were, but not poets, and surely incapable of the rhythm of Psalm 23, the imagery of 1 Corinthians 13, the concise Beatitudes and universally memorable words of The Lord’s Prayer. So who, then?
"Do you know who Bill Shakespeare was, sonny? He’s the fella that wrote the King James Bible." - Walter 'Monk' McGinn (movie: Gangs of New York).
William Shakespeare and King James I
The emotional impact and craftsmanship of the King James Bible has all the hall marks of the greatest writer and poet of the day; a man with a deep connection to the spiritual and the divine gift of words that touched the hearts of ordinary people.
William Shakespeare, active during the translation years of 1604-1611, wrote Macbeth for the King and performed ‘last play’, The Tempest, around the time of the KJV’s publication. Shakespeare benefited from the King's patronage and approval - that Shakespeare kept his head on his shoulders to end of his life, is evidence of that.
Secret hallmark of a literary craftsman
Jacobean conspiracy theorists point to cryptic clues that Shakespeare was involved in writing the King James Bible. Shakespeare scholars reckon the poet and playwright to be about 46 during the later stages of the translation.
In the KJV translation of Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning is ‘shake’ and the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’. Ignoring the fact that the words also appear in older English Bibles from before to 1611, what other proof would anyone need?
If not William Shakespeare – who else?
Equally capable candidates for writing the KJV include Francis Bacon, John Donne and Ben Jonson. But the truth is, the scholarly and learned men of the translation committees were well capable of writing the King James Bible as we have it.
Naturally these men wanted their highest work to be presented in the highest devotional and emotional language of the day – the same poetic and dramatic language, spoken and written by William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and… by conscientious scholars and theologians.
The language of the King James is the carefully structured 'presentation' language of the day. Designed to carry meaning into memory when spoken or read, it has the weight and measure that we recognise as peculiarly Shakespearean.
Shakespeare's lasting KJV contribution
At the risk of devaluing his genius, Shakespeare's writing merely exemplifies the pinnacle of the Jacobean dramatic and poetic language widely used by his contemporaries.
Insisting that Shakespeare actually wrote the King James Bible in 1611 is like – 400 years from now, insisting that Alan Bennet wrote the Message Bible, or Stephen King wrote the NIV, Enid Blyton wrote the Good News Bible, JK Rowling the ICB and that the ESV is the work of Melvin Bragg or Stephen Fry – maybe both.
Shakespeare's real contribution to the King James Bible is his entire body of written work. Over four centuries the enduring popularity of his plays and poetry has kept alive 'Shakespeare's English' - the English of the King James Bible.
For 400 years Shakespeare has provided the 'secular' grammar and vocabulary companion to the language and imagary of the King James Bible, ensuring that when the works of Shakespeare went to Roy Plumley's desert island, so did the Bible.
"Lord! Open the King of England's eyes." - William Tyndale, 1536
The English Bible’s real secret author
There is, however, someone who deserves more credit than anyone for the actual words and phrases of the KJV. He’s the pioneer English translator who died for his commitment to translating God’s written words and wisdom into the English language. That man is William Tyndale.
Tyndale's 1524 translation was the first English Bible of the Reformation, the first to draw directly on Hebrew and Greek rather than Latin and the first to fully exploit the advantages of printing. His Bible defied the Latin Church and his opposition to Henry VIII’s divorce challenged the new English Church.
In 1536 he was betrayed, sentenced and executed. Tyndale’s reported dying prayer: “Lord! Open the King of England's eyes”, wouldn’t be answered until 1611.
In creating the King James’ Bible the college of scholars and theologians draw heavily on Tyndale’s original.Somewhere between 80 and 90% of the King James Version is from Tyndale’s work. Among the well known King James phrases and verses quoted today many, including Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers...”, are among the one third of the text taken word-for-word from William Tyndale’s Bible.
So who wrote the King James Bible? William Tyndale wrote it – or a very good part of it.
King James Bible: not-so-trivial files
Many Bible readers who prefer modern English translations consider the King James language old fashioned, even archaic. But like Shakespeare, the KJV translators were not afraid to use and even invent completely new words, such as 'contentment'. The KJV is the first recorded appearance in print of the word 'amazement' (1 Peter 3: 6).
Quick Guide to The King James (KJV) Bible
What is it?
- The English language translation of the Bible authorised by King James I in 1607.
- The classic English language Bible that can trace its roots back to Tyndale in 1536.
- The work of art that carried the faith of English speaking Christians to the world.
What will it do for me?
- Connect you to the earliest expressions of faith and belief in common English.
- Give you the Bible in lyrical and poetic language that’s recognisably sacred.
- Provide an understanding of the character and roots of English speaking spirituality.
May 2nd, 2012 - Posted & Written by Les Ellison