The early seventeenth century was a time of unbridled creativity for English writers. Will Shakespeare was whacking out his best plays, while King James and Co. were working on a great Bible.
Shakespeare and King James were responsible for some of the English language’s most memorable phrases and proverbs, including, “many are called, but few are chosen,” and “to thine own self be true.”
Recently, I gave my kids a quiz where they had to identify the source of classic English quotes. (If you’re interested, here’s a link to the quiz. It’s a lot of fun.)
While preparing the quiz, I made some interesting discoveries. Consider the phrase, “he gave up the ghost.” Heard that one? Did it come from Shakespeare or the King James Bible?
“He gave up the ghost”
The expression refers to someone dying, as in “Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age” (Gen. 25:8). So if you guessed the phrase came from the 1611 version of the King James Bible, you are correct. The phrase appears several times in that Bible and most famously in the crucifixion scene of Luke 23:46:
And when Iesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: And hauing said thus, he gaue vp the ghost.
But that’s not where the phrase originated.
The gave-up-the-ghost phrase appeared in Shakespeare’s play King Henry VI, Part 3, which was written almost two decades before the KJV. In Act 2 scene 3, Richard Plantagenet says:
That stain’d their fetlocks in his smoking blood,
The noble gentleman gave up the ghost.
So Shakespeare said it first and this has led some to speculate that the KJV translators were inspired by the Bard.
They weren’t. The phrase was most likely coined some 80 years earlier by William Tyndale.
Tyndale is remembered as the first person to translate and print the Bible in English. In his translation of Luke 23:46, Tyndale wrote,
And Iesus cryed with a greate voyce and sayd: Father into thy hondes I comende my sprete. And when he thus had sayd he gave vp the goost.
William Tyndale said a lot of things first
By the time Shakespeare was born (in 1564), Tyndale himself had long given up the ghost having been martyred in 1536. Tyndale was executed for his controversial introduction of words and phrases that we use all the time. In fact, a lot of the kudos we give to the King James translators should really be given to Tyndale, for it was he who coined the following phrases:
• my brother’s keeper
• knock and it shall be opened unto you
• a moment in time
• fashion not yourselves to the world
• seek and ye shall find
• ask and it shall be given you
• judge not that ye be not judged
• the word of God which liveth and lasteth forever
• let there be light
• the powers that be
• the salt of the earth
• a law unto themselves
• it came to pass
• the signs of the times
• live, move and have our being
William Tyndale’s contribution to the English language and the modern church is not widely appreciated. Apart from coining beautiful phrases, he taught justification by faith and he understood the difference between the law and the gospel of grace:
The Law and the Gospel are two keys. The Law is the key that shutteth up all men under condemnation, and the Gospel is the key which opens the door and lets them out.
William Tyndale was executed on this day, 6 October, 485 years ago. He was strangled and burnt and he gave up the ghost.
Tyndale’s death was a great loss, but his life was a huge blessing for the English-speaking people. We are all in his debt.
Dig deeper with these study notes from Dr. Paul Ellis: