How the Bard found his way into the Scriptures

(The London Times, 23 April 1976)

If you look up Psalm 46 in the Authorized Version of the Bible and count 46 words from the beginning of the psalm, you will find that you have arrived at the word "shake". Now, discounting the word "Selah", count 46 words from the end of the psalm and the word revealed is "spear". This astonishing cryptogram is virtually unknown. Psalm 46, 46th word from the beginning, 46th word from the end "Shakespear".

And what makes this hidden message so fascinating and for a lover of Shakespeare so important, is the date when the translated version of the psalm was so arranged as to admit it.

The work of translation which resulted in the Authorized Version was begun shortly after King James VI of Scotland came to the throne of England. He succeeded Queen Elizabeth in 1603. The Hampton Court conference was in 1604 and there at the suggestion of the president of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, it was decided to make a new translation of the Bible. The work was done quickly. It began in 1607 and took two years and nine months to prepare for the press. It was therefore receiving its final drafting and polishing in 1610. Shakespeare was born in 1564, so in 1610 he was 46 years old. To honour Shakespeare on his 46th birthday the translators, or some of them, placed this cryptogram in Psalm 46, 46th word from the beginning, 46th word from the end. Does this seem very improbable to you? I find it so strange and yet delightful that I set myself some questions to which I shall offer simple and brief preliminary answers. Might the cryptogram be fortuitous? Who were the translators? Would scholars of integrity do such a thing? What light does it throw on Shakespeare in his contemporary scene and does it add anything to our knowledge of Shakespeare as a man of faith? Finally, how did I find the cryptogram?

To the first question I answer an absolutely certain No. The cryptogram is deliberately contrived. The two main translations in English before the Authorized Version were the Great Bible in 1539 and the Bishops' Bible in 1568. The Great Bible of Henry VIII was based on earlier works of Tyndale, Coverdale and "Matthew". We are told that crowds flocked to read it or hear it read in the churches where it was ordered to be set up. The psalms in our prayer books are from the Great Bible. The Bishops' Bible was the version which the translators of the Authorized Version were told to take as the basis of their work. Indeed we know that in 1607 40 large copies of the Bishops' Bible were ordered for the translators. This was their main source book as they diligently compared and revised the text.

What do we find about Psalm 46 in these earlier versions? The word "shake" comes as the 46th word from the beginning of the psalm in the Great Bible but 47th in the Bishops' Bible. But in both these versions the word "spear" is the 48th from the end. Thus the Great Bible gives 46/48, the Bishops' Bible 47/48. Only the Authorized Version gives 46/46. I feel able to say positively that this is no chance arrangement of words.

Who were the translators who though up this device? Very little has been known about them, or rather the way in which they went about their work until as recently as 1973 when a manuscript was discovered in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and was printed under the title: Translating for King James. This fascinating work is the notebook of one of the translators, John Boys. It adds considerably to our meagre knowledge of a glorious page in the history of English Literature. There were six groups of translators. Two at Westminster, two at Cambridge and two at Oxford. John Boys tells us that the first Cambridge company was responsible for "1 Chronicles, with the rest of the story and the hagiography viz, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Canticles and Ecclesiastes. Alas we do not know much about this company. None of the seven deans were to be found in it. John Boys was in the second Cambridge company but he names eight men in the first team beginning with a Mr Lively and ending with a Mr Binge.

It may be that the work of setting the cryptogram was perpetrated by Dr Miles Smith the Orientalist, a prebendary of Hereford and Exeter and later Bishop of Gloucester, and Thomas Bilson who was Bishop of Winchester. These two men supplied the finishing touches and saw the work through the press. What we do know is that the body of translators was made up of some of the wisest and ablest men of their time. There were 48 of them. They included Bishop Launcelot Andrewes, at that time Dean of Westminster, the Regius Professor of Hebrew and Greek, Bedwell, who was the greatest Arabic scholar in Europe and Sir Henry Saville, reputed to be the most learned layman of his time. Great men, modest men, of whom it was said that they "were greater in other men's eyes than their own, and sought the truth rather than their own praise." Would these scholars have been likely to plant a cryptogram in the sacred scriptures? Would they have allowed themselves to change a sequence of words in order to indulge a whim? I make two points in answer. One is that cryptograms were a natural part of the literary apparatus of the time. The usual form that a cryptogram took in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was for letters of the alphabet to be transposed or numerals substituted for letters, but Francis Bacon said that cryptograms might be in whole words rather than individual letters. Second, I find that these men did not have to make any material change to achieve their object. Two words only needed to be omitted: "then" and the definite article "the". The word "then" had been in all the earlier versions but I think you will agree that it is not missed when omitted. The sentence ran: "Be still then and know that I am the Lord" thus the Bishops' Bible. The Authorized Version has: "Be still and know that I am God". Two words are saved and the number of words from the end of the psalm is reduced to the required 46.

What new light does this throw on Shakespeare in his contemporary scene? Does it tell us anything about Shakespeare as a man of faith? I have not the time nor, let me hasten to add, the ability to make any profound observations on these important questions. But one can say without fear of contradiction that it is clear that some of the greatest scholars of that period knew Shakespeare and, even more important, that they wanted to honour him in a very special and permanent way. It follows surely that they must have greatly admired him and I would guess had considerable affection for him. You would not place such a cryptogram in your work as a translator unless you felt a special warmth towards the person that you were honouring in this way. These translators were the leading Christians and churchmen of Shakespeare's day. I hardly think they would have used the Scriptures for the purpose of honouring Shakespeare unless they felt that he was a man both upright and religious.I should say that they must have known him not only as a great playwright and poet (1610 was the year the sonnets were first published), but also as a friend. They knew he would enjoy with an amused pleasure, this charming little tribute.

This cryptogram came to be known by me a few years ago by a friend who said that his father uses it to illustrate the truth that even in the most familiar words or scenes there may lie hidden messages which unless we possess the right key, are never disclosed to us. Millions of people through the ages have recited or read Psalm 46 (Luther had been inspired by it to write his glorious hymn Ein Feste Burg some half a century before the Authorized Version). But to few of those who have used the Authorized Version has this message of affection and honour for the world's greatest poet been disclosed. Surely the fact must have been known for a while after it was first devised. Later it was lost. Otherwise such a significant cryptogram would be familiar to all students and at the very least be found in some works of reference. I cannot even find it in the written works of the Great Director of Souls who used it as an illusration and told it to his son.

So in many ways it remains for me a mystery. But it does not reduce its significance.

Bishop Mark Hodson



By way of a response to this article the following letter to the editor appeared in The Times, 25 April 1976:


The Shakespeare cryptogram in Psalm 46 of the Authorized Version is even more remarkable than Bishop Hodson allows, for both the changes from the Bishops' Bible in Verse 10 were inevitably dictated by the closer adherence of the AV to the 'original tongues'. The word 'then' was bound to be omitted as having no equivalent in the Hebrew text, and the substitution of 'God' for 'the Lord' follows the consistent practice of the AV to use 'God' for elohim and 'the Lord' for the tetragrammaton.

If, then, the 46/46 count was thus predestined, only one conclusion seems possible: the whole thing is an example of divine providence, foreseeing not only Shakespeare's birth in 1564 (a multiple of 46!) but also the completion of Psalm 46 in the Authorized Version in time for his 46th birthday. (But why was not 'Selah' allowed to count, to put the 46/46 beyond doubt, when 'asunder' for 'in sunder' in Verse 9 would have done the trick ?)

Yours etc.




Conclusion: It is strange that Bishop Hodson - having ruled out any suggestion that such remarkable happenings involving the number 46 might reasonably be attributed to chance - offers just one possible explanation viz, that men conspired to bring about this amazing confluence. And this despite the fact that, in the Great Bible of 1539 - some 25 years before the birth of Shakespeare - the two words 'shake' and 'spear' were already at, or close to, the final positions they were to occupy in the AV. In his letter, L.A.Moritz [Professor of Classics, University College of Wales, Cardiff] clearly sets out the logic which inevitably led to the changes made to the Bishops' Bible - the order of the day being that the AV text was to be a fair translation 'out of the original tongues' (as specified on the title page of the AV).

A careful assessment of the facts therefore suggests that Bishop Hodson's explanation lacks conviction; thus, only one conclusion seems possible: the whole thing is an example of divine providence; of supernatural 'intelligent design' !

Vernon Jenkins MSc


Return to index (otherbiblecode)

Return to index (whatabeginning)