The Geneva Bible: The first really good English bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 30 May

The English-language bible of William Shakespeare, of John Bunyan, of John Donne, of the first colonists who founded the future American states—namely the pilgrim fathers who traveled aboard the Mayflower and founded Plymouth and Massachusetts—was not the King James Version. And no, this isn’t a knock on the KJV; it didn’t exist yet. It was first published in 1611, and this stuff predates it.

And some of it doesn’t. Despite the publication of the KJV, many people held onto that previous English translation and used it instead. Like Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan parliamentarian who overthrew King Charles Stuart in 1649, who published an assortment of 150 bible verses, called The Souldiers Pocket Bible, for his troops: The verses didn’t come from the KJV.

It’s called the Geneva Bible because it was translated in Geneva, Switzerland, by a team of Protestant scholars who fled England during the reign of Mary Tudor (as Queen Mary 1, 1553–58).

Geneva Bible title page
A Geneva Bible title page, published in London by John Barker in “1599.” That’s the date Barker put on all Geneva Bibles published after King James banned their production in 1611. Houston Baptist University

Tudor was a Roman Catholic. In part for political reasons, since her legitimacy as queen was based on it; in part for personal reasons, as she had been convinced by her Catholic family members she had to save England from the “heresy” of Protestantism. So Tudor started persecuting Protestants, particularly Protestants who had dared to translate the bible into English without Catholic permission. The persecution began with John Rogers, who had dared to revise the Tyndale Bible; he was burned to death in 1555. Protestant scholars decided it was safest to go into exile in a good Protestant country.

Since most educated Englishmen spoke French, where better than a French-speaking country? And since many of ’em were Calvinist, where better than the city Jean Calvin himself governed, Geneva? Several hundred Protestants thus became refugees in Geneva.

There were English-language bibles at the time, but not good ones. John Wycliffe's bible was only partially complete, and many Protestants still considered him heretic. William Tyndale made a pretty good translation of the New Testament, but he was also considered heretic, and executed for it in 1535. Myles Coverdale, who was neither a Greek nor Hebrew scholar, borrowed Tyndale’s NT, cobbled together an Old Testament from German bibles and the Vulgate, and published the Coverdale Bible in 1535; parts of it are still used in the Book of Common Prayer. And there’s that unfortunate John Rogers I just mentioned: He’d borrowed Tyndale’s NT, parts of Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s OTs, published it under the name “Thomas Matthew” in 1537, and it came to be called the Matthew Bible.

So since these refugees had time—and the resources of a whole lot of Protestant scholars who’d moved to Geneva under persecution—they decided to tackle a new bible.

The team who produced the bible.

Myles Coverdale had fled to Geneva with the rest of them, but it’s unlikely he had anything to do with the Geneva Bible. Like I said, he wasn’t a biblical languages scholar. But one of the notables who was there at the time was Robert Estienne, who was developing the then-current edition of the Textus Receptus. Estienne’s the guy who invented verse numbers.

William Whittingham, a polyglot Oxford student who later became John Calvin’s brother-in-law, started the ball rolling by publishing his English translation of the New Testament in 1557. He then put a team together to help him produce the entire bible; he concentrated on revising and improving his NT, while Hebrew scholar Anthony Gilby oversaw the Old Testament. These men had plenty of help from English scholars Christopher Goodman, a divinity professor; Thomas Sampson, a lawyer; and William Cole, a clergyman.

Instead of going with the traditional Latin renderings of Old Testament names, the translators tried to transliterate the Hebrew names: Eve was Heuáh, Isaac was Izhák, Joshua was i>Ioshúa. When the translators didn’t know what a word meant, they humbly said so: If they didn’t know what species a hargól or hagáb was, they transliterated the Hebrew words and tacked on a footnote, “These were certain kinds of grasshoppers, which are not now properly known.”

Mary died in 1558, and was succeeded by succeeded by her Protestant sister Elizabeth (as Queen Elizabeth 1, 1558–1603). It meant the English exiles could return… but the translators chose to stick around and finish their bible. John Bodley published it in Geneva in 1560, and it included a dedication to the new Queen Elizabeth. (The spelling has been updated, ’cause we standardized it in the 1700s):

To the most virtuous and noble Queen Elizabeth, Queen of England, France, and Ireland, etc. Your humble subjects of the English church at Geneva, wish grace and peace from God the Father through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Followed by a few pages of sucking up, as medievals tended to do to kings; comparing her to Zerubbabel who rebuilt the temple, and suggesting she put good Protestants in government jobs so they could “minister justice according to the word.”

Copies made their way to England and Scotland. Took a few years before the Geneva Bible was published there; the New Testament was finally published in 1575, and the whole bible the next year. But in Scotland it became huge. Church of Scotland founder John Knox, who had been in Geneva while the bible was produced, petitioned his king, James Stuart (reigning as King James 6, 1567-1625) to publish it, which he did in 1579—thus making the Geneva Bible the first bible published in Scotland.

More than that: Stuart required every household who could afford it, to buy one.

Geneva Bible at Mt 1
The Geneva Bible, opened to Matthew 1, facing a map of first-century Israel. Wikimedia

Why it was a big deal.

Humanity’s first printed bibles were huge. It is an anthology of 60+ books, y’know, and they hadn’t yet invented onionskin paper that ink wouldn’t bleed through. Hence the Gutenberg Bible was 16½ by 12 inches (42 × 30cm) on linen paper; so 66 pounds (30 kilos). The size alone made bibles crazy expensive, and the only people who could afford them were wealthy people and governments. Hence most of the time, bibles were only produced for churches. And usually printed with “blackletter type,” or Gothic type; what we call Old English lettering, which was heavy and formal, and a little hard to read.

The Geneva Bible, by contrast, was produced for the public. For individual, ordinary Christians. In ordinary, easily legible, Roman type.

Its dimensions were usually 5½ by 8½ inches (14 × 22cm), although sometimes twice that size for churches, and half that size for even more portability. In Scotland the price was fixed by law at 4 pounds, 13 shillings, 6 pence; that’s about $100 in today’s money, and at the time was less than an average week’s wages, which just about everyone could scrape together. Devout people especially.

It was the first bible to use verse numbers, and the first to use italics to indicate which words had to be added to the English text for clarity.

Unlike big giant church bibles, the Geneva Bible didn’t only contain the biblical text. It was the first English-language study bible. It has notes. If you couldn’t quite tell what a verse meant—or whether it was to be taken literally or not—the notes would tell you. Where Jesus said, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet,” Jn 13.14 the note added, “To serve one another”—lest people start going nuts with the foot-washing and miss the point.

There were maps. Illustrations. Cross-references. Footnotes. What biblical names meant. A glossary. A bible timeline. The apocrypha, in case you wanted to read ’em. And in later editions, metrical psalms, in case you wanted to sing them.

If you didn’t know anything about the bible and its history, you now had a bible which could get you up to speed about all these things. All you had to do was get literate—and if you were a devout Christian, now you had a very good reason to learn to read.

Geneva Bible at Ex 24-25
The Geneva Bible at Exodus 24-25. Check out the notes and cross references on the side, and the woodcuts of the “Arke of the Testimonie” and its cover the “propitiatorie.” Cherubs don’t look like that, but you generally get the idea. Houston Baptist University

The commentary was written by Laurence Tomson. He updated it twice: In the 1576 edition, he included Pierre L’Oiseleur’s notes on the gospels from the 1565 edition of Theodore Beza’s Greek/Latin Bible (which L’Oiseleur himself cribbed from Joachim Camerarius’s History of Jesus Christ). In the 1599 edition, he added Franciscus Junius’s notes on Revelation, replacing the original notes taken from John Bale and Heinrich Bullinger.

The notes as a whole made a massive impact on British Protestantism. It introduced them to Protestant theology, Calvinism in particular. It furthered the Puritan movement, which sought to make the Church of England more Protestant, and less of an English imitation of Catholicism. The Revelation notes introduced ’em to postmillennialism, the idea that if Christians got our act together and perfected things, it’d achieve God’s kingdom here on earth, and Jesus would return to take us to heaven. The Revelation notes were also heavily anti-Catholic, vengefully depicting the pope and his church as the Beast—as Protestants typically did in the 1500s, and some of ’em still do.

And another thing the notes taught, which had a big impact on British politics in the 1640s, was that the king is not above the Law. (It taught that because the bible teaches that.) Whenever kings descended into tyranny, the notes rightly objected. This became a great irritant to James Stuart of Scotland, who grew up in France and was a huge fan of their style of absolute monarchy. But largely thanks to the Geneva Bible, the Scots and English grew to reject the divine right of kings… paving the way for the Second Civil War, the overthrow and execution of Charles Stuart, and in the next century, the American Revolution.

Seventy editions of the Geneva Bible were published during Elizabeth Tudor’s reign. The Geneva Bible became the bible—the usual household bible of English-speaking Protestants. The reason so few of those old copies exist today? People wore them out. They read them to tatters.

When Elizabeth Tudor died in 1603, her cousin James Stuart inherited the throne of England, and combined his two kingdoms of Scotland and England, creating the United Kingdom. As the new head of the Church of England, Stuart called for the publication of yet another translation of the bible—one which would supposedly unify the Church of England with the Church of Scotland, same as he unified his kingdoms. One which also promoted Stuart’s agenda of getting rid of the pesky anti-tyranny notes in the Geneva Bible. The new version was forbidden to use the words “tyrant” and “tyranny,” and deliberately did not include any study notes. And once it was published in 1611, Stuart banned the publication of any more Geneva Bibles.

Puritans didn’t trust the new King James bible (for good reason), so demand for Geneva Bibles continued. They’d ship ’em in from Switzerland and the Netherlands if possible. But they didn’t need to: Robert Barker, who published King James Versions for the government, quietly kept publishing Geneva Bibles on the sly, marking their title page with “1599” instead of the actual year of publication. Puritans kept right on buying and using the Geneva Bible instead of the KJV. Including the many Puritans in the American colonies; don’t let the KJV’s worshipers tell you different.

The Geneva Bible turned Britain into a biblically literate island and culture. Not that it necessarily made ’em any more Christian. Puritans, trying to activate the millennium, got too politically-minded… and overthrew the king, passed overly strict laws, and basically alienated people as they sought earthly perfection instead of good fruit. (If that sounds familiar, it’s because history does have the bad habit of repeating itself.) After Parliament invited Charles Tudor II to became king of England in 1660, the Puritans fell out of favor and power… and the Geneva Bible did as well. The King James Version took its place.

Iffy politics and theology aside, I still find the Geneva Bible to be a really impressive undertaking, which is why I like to share its history.