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Did Shakespeare translate psalms for the King James Bible?

13 September 2019

Write, if you have any answers to the questions listed at the end of this section, or to add to the answers given below


Looking recently, with my sister, through letters written in 1931 by my grandfather, the late Canon Nigel W. Paine, we came across the remark: “Tea at Marlingford [in Norfolk] where Lombe [the local squire] showed me a Bible found in the church dated 1611 — the year of the publication of the AV . . . by the way Cranwich says Shakespeare had a hand in the translation because he was 46 years of age in 1611 and the 46th word of the 46th Psalm is ‘shake’ and the 46th word from the end is ‘spear’.” I am aware that, according to Moore and Reid in The Making of the King James Bible, “There is one reason why the myth of Shakespeare being called in as a consultant is absurd, as Ben Jonson remarked, he had ‘small Latin and less Greek’, and presumably no Aramaic or Syriac at all.” Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary coincidence, if such it is, and possibly part of early conspiracy theory. Could any readers shed any more light?


Your answers: In his book Number Power (Heinemann, 1977), Keith Ellis records that Bishop Mark Hodson, writing in The Times in April 1976, drew attention to the cryptic use of “shake” and “spear” in Psalm 46. In Ellis’s view, Shakespeare used hidden meanings in his poems, as did Spenser, Milton, and Donne, among many others. The translation was completed in 1610, the year of Shakespeare’s 46th birthday. In Bishop Hodson’s view, Psalm 46 was translated by a fan of Shakespeare, and it was he who included this tribute to Shakespeare.

(The Revd) Christopher Miles
Hadlow, Tonbridge


Psalm 46 in the King James Version is actually a light revision of Coverdale’s version (1535) (the version included in the Book of Common Prayer). In Coverdale’s version, the word “shake” is the 46th word from the beginning, but the word “spear” is the 48th word from the end. The KJV puts “spear” into the position of 46th word from the end by omitting from v. 10 two small particles (“still” and “and”) that are not in fact in the Hebrew text. So it does seem that the alleged allusion to Shakespeare could have arisen by accident.

On the other hand, it is possible that the translator of Psalm 46 for the King James Bible, who would have been very familiar with Coverdale’s version, had noticed the potential for encoding a reference to Shakespeare. It would be the sort of literary trick that appealed to the Renaissance mind. But probably he could not have known, when working on his translation, that this Bible would be published in 1611. So Shakespeare’s age cannot be relevant. More to the point, perhaps, is the fact that Shakespeare’s name, in one spelling, has 4 + 6 letters (Shak + speare). Finally, the idea that Shakespeare himself translated the KJV of Psalm 46 makes little sense because the translation is largely taken over from Coverdale.

(Professor) Richard Bauckham


Your question: The then Bishops of Durham and Bath & Wells stood either side of the Queen at her Coronation. What is the procedure for determining which two bishops are chosen?

R. P.


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