The Geneva Bible
‘To the moste vertuous and noble Quene Elizabet, Quene of England, France, and Ireland, etc. Your humble subjects of the English Church at Geneva, with grace and peace from God the Father through Christ Jesus our Lord’.
So begins the introduction to the Bible translation that was for 140 years the Bible of virtually all the Puritans. The Pilgrim Fathers took it to the New World; Shakespeare quoted from it in his plays; Knox preached with it in his hand; Milton and Bunyan read it avidly for their poems and books; and Cromwell sent it into battle in the pack of his soldiers.
The Geneva Bible was conceived in the cruel struggle of the burning years of Mary Tudor, during which at least 270 Protestants died at the stake.
The preface, dated 450 years ago as 10 April 1560, includes the reminder: ‘except God by his worde dyd reigne in the heartes and soules, all mans diligence and indeuors [endeavours] were of none effect: for without this worde we can not discern between iustice and injurie, protection and oppression, wisdome and foolishnes, knollage and ignorance, good and evil’.
Sometime before 1560, a quarter of a century on from the death of England’s greatest Bible translator William Tyndale, the English exiles in Geneva determined on a new style translation of the entire Bible.
In the event, like all before them and many since, they relied heavily on the work of Tyndale. Coverdale had worked on Tyndale after the translator’s death and completed (from the Latin Vulgate) what remained to be translated.
By 1537, Matthew’s Bible, from the hand of John Rogers and largely using Tyndale and Coverdale, was circulating with the King’s ‘moost gracious lycence’, and two years later the Great Bible was available in England.
However, by July 1553, Mary Tudor was on the throne and many English reformers faced the choice of exile or the stake. Most of the exiles made their way to Geneva where John Calvin was encouraging a revision of the French Bible.
By 1557, William Whittingham, an Oxford scholar in Genevan exile, had produced a revision of the New Testament – a mix of Matthew’s, the Great Bible and the Latin. He added verses into the chapters, a system taken from Robert Estienne’s Greek New Testament published in Geneva six years earlier.
But this was only the hors d’oeuvre for something far better, and by 1560 after more than two years’ labour ‘day and night’ the Geneva Bible was published.
Their reasons for a new translation were straightforward. First, they were all in the right place, since Geneva was bursting with scholarly reformers at this time. Second, much of the Old Testament had not yet been translated from Hebrew, since Coverdale had translated from Latin the books Tyndale had not completed before his death. And third, they wanted to provide an excellent translation, together with a helpful commentary, all in one volume.
The Geneva Bible included the Apocrypha (a cluster of fourteen or fifteen books between the Old and New Testaments), as in fact did most translations until the eighteenth century.
However, the translators were careful to advise their readers that the Apocrypha is not received ‘by common consent’ to be read publicly in the churches, nor to prove any point of Christian religion unless it can be confirmed by the Scriptures; but it is useful for furthering our knowledge of history and ‘the instruction of godlie maners’.
There are four appendices at the close of the book – a table interpreting proper names in the Bible; a thematic index; a chronology from Adam to 1560, which amounted to 5534 years, 6 months and the ‘said odde ten dayes’; and, finally, a chronology from Paul’s conversion to his execution under the orders of Nero in ‘AD 70’.
Later editions added two ‘right profitable and fruitful concordances’. From the very first there were 33 illustrations, including a few helpful maps and drawings, such as Noah’s ark and Solomon’s temple.
Whittingham’s (or more correctly Estienne’s) New Testament verse division was retained and the Old Testament verses came from the 9th century AD Masoretes. Thus the Geneva Bible was the first Bible to publish the verse divisions that we use today. It was a study Bible – every book has a brief introduction and every chapter a short statement of contents.
In the introduction to the little book of Ruth, the comment is that in it ‘figuratively is set forthe the state of the Church which is subject to manifolde afflictions, and yet at length God giveth good and joyful yssue, teaching us to abide with pacience til God deliver us out of troubles’.
The introduction continues by acknowledging that, of course, it also has the purpose of showing how Jesus Christ is descended from David, and that Ruth, being a Moabite, assures us that Gentiles can be sanctified and joined with his people so that there is ‘one Shepefolde and one Shepherde’.
In the introduction to Proverbs we are encouraged to note that: ‘The wonderful love of God toward his Church is declared in this boke, forasmuche as the summe and essence of the whole Scriptures is here set forthe in these brief sentences, which partely conteine doctrine, and partely maners, and also exhortacions to bothe’.
Marginal notes and cross-references, many of which are perceptive, and all helpful, fill (and often overflow) both outside and inside margins.
For example, beside Genesis 1:3 the explanation for God creating light before the sun and the moon is given: ‘the light was made before either sunne or moone was created: therefore we must not attribute that to the creatures that are God’s instruments, which onely apperteneth to God’.
Some of the notes are clearly exposition. By Matthew 21:3 and the choice of a colt we read: ‘By this entrie Christ wolde shewe the state and condition of his kingdome, which is farre contrarie to the pope and glorie of the worlde’. Other notes are exegesis. A comment on Matthew 21:5’s ‘daughter of Sion’ informs us: ‘That is, the citie of Sion, or Jerusalem’.
Many notes are a warm pastoral application. Beside Genesis 8:1, where we read that God remembered ‘everie beast and all the cattel’, the translators add: ‘If God remember everie brute beast, what oght to be the assurance of his children?’ And other notes reveal the strong reformed theology of the translators in Calvin’s city.
Beside Isaiah 53:1 and the phrase ‘to whome is the arme of the Lord revealed?’ they add the theologically loaded comment: ‘Meaning that none can beleve, but whose hearts God toucheth with the virtue of his holie Spirit’. However, this Reformed theology is never introduced gratuitously.
Learning from Tyndale, the Geneva translators strove for a version that read well publicly and was easy to understand. Although the Geneva Bible was in the eighteenth century referred to dismissively as ‘the breeches Bible’, because in Genesis 3:7 ‘they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches’ (in fact, Wycliffe first introduced this word), it was a Bible for the people.
Like so many translations before and since, the translators struggled with Romans 3:25. Tyndale had consistently translated the Greek word hilasterion by ‘hath made a seat of mercy’ (1526 and 1534). Geneva opted for the more straightforward, but hardly more accurate ‘to be a reconciliation’. At least the King James Version got this one right, half a century later, with ‘to be a propitiation’.
Immediately the new translation arrived in England, it was received gladly by all who shared the Reformed faith, and was significantly influential among those who did not. The marginal exposition, exegesis, explanations and applications thrilled many readers and illuminated the text, in the same proportion that they annoyed James and many of his Catholic bishops.
The ensuing, at least 144 editions speak sufficiently of its popularity, and every Protestant home would own a copy if they could possibly afford it. A Scottish edition of 1579 was the first Bible to be printed in Scotland.
All agreed that it was an excellent translation, and the translation from the Old Testament Hebrew judged to be exemplary. Even those who hated some of the more outspoken marginal comments admitted its excellence. Matthew Parker, the Archbishop of Canterbury responsible for the struggling-to-catch-up Bishop’s Bible, recognised its value and saw nothing but good in a ‘diversity of translations and readings’.
It is a matter of fact that Tyndale had begun with notes, but thought better of it. Without the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible, it is possible that there would have been no ‘Authorised Version’ of King James!
The Geneva Bible was the Bible version read avidly by the Puritans who were steeped in a proper understanding of the Scriptures. The marginal notes are far more of a help than hindrance, and can be read with great benefit and enjoyment even today.
The anti-papal comments are few and far between until we reach the final book of the Bible, where, as we would expect, the pope and his clergy are the antichrist. However, even here, apart from a passing reference at Revelation 2:24 to ‘Anabaptists, Libertines, Papists, Arians etc’, the reference to the pope and Rome do not begin until Revelation 9, and overall they are found against just 6.4 per cent of the total verses in Revelation.
The Geneva Bible reigned supreme for half a century and, as late as 1640, an edition appeared in Amsterdam without the Apocrypha. After this, its popularity continued.
The 1643 Soldier’s Pocket Bible, stowed in the pack of every parliamentary soldier, consisted of selections from the Geneva Bible. Fifty thousand copies of this were even printed for the use of Federal troops during the American Civil War. The final edition of the Geneva Bible was printed a year later.
Perhaps strong supporters of the King James 1611 Bible ought really to set up their standard on the Geneva Bible as successors of the Protestant and Puritan Reformers?