No doubt the 1611 authorized translation will get a lot of press next year. The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible is a significant one; but, arguably, there is a more significant translation that evangelicals should thank God for. It’s the Geneva Bible, first published in 1560, exactly 450 years ago.
‘The Geneva Bible has been the lost treasure of Christendom for nearly 400 years.’ History has tried to relegate the Geneva Bible to the wastelands. It’s time for us to reclaim its place in the spread of the gospel in the English speaking world. When King James I of England agreed to call the Hampton Court conference in 1604 he was presented with a list of demands by the puritan, John Reynolds. This millenary petition made several claims for reforms. None of them, however, was for a new translation of the Bible, for they already had a perfectly decent one! In an ironic twist, the one concrete outcome of the conference would be agreement for a new translation. The Authorized Bible project was born.
It’s no surprise James wanted a new Bible. The Geneva Bible was more than a translation. It was an educational tool and its marginal notes ‘educated a people and infuriated a King’. Why was this King, educated in protestant Scotland, so against the existing Bible?
The English Bible
The history of the English Bible is pretty well recorded. Tyndale’s New Testament had been published in exile during the reign of King Henry VIII in 1526 and many copies smuggled into the country. Tyndale’s English translation earned the wrath of the Catholic King. Tyndale was eventually arrested and, after a twelve month incarceration, was burnt at the stake as a heretic in 1536. His legacy lived on, however, and King Henry VIII was persuaded that an English Bible would reinforce his eventual break with Rome. Miles Coverdale edited the Great Bible (so called because of its size) in 1539 which Henry placed in every church in England. This Bible was largely based on the work of John Rogers who two years earlier had published a complete English Bible under the pseudonym Thomas Matthews (the ‘Matthews’ Bible).
The short reign of Queen Mary (1553-1558) sent many English protestants into exile. Mary banned English Bibles and John Rogers became the first protestant martyr. These exiles found a natural home in Geneva – and it was there that work began in earnest on an English translation which would serve the exiles abroad. This was its first purpose – the original edition was for the ‘simple lambs’ of the church in Geneva.
More than a translation
Therefore, the team of translators set out to explain the Bible as well as translate it. The work was probably led by Greek and Hebrew scholar William Whittingham, though none of the translators ever formally identify themselves in the Geneva Bible itself. The work was encouraged by John Calvin and John Knox.
The whole Bible was completed and published in 1560. The New Testament borrowed heavily from Tyndale’s text, but was freshly referenced to the two Greek editions then available. We are less certain about the Hebrew sources, though no doubt the work built on Tyndale’s half-completed Old Testament (Genesis to Chronicles). Scholars generally agree that it was a good translation.
The text as a whole was arguably superior to the later King James version (which drew heavily on the Geneva wording). For example, the translators adopted the word ‘love’ to translate the Greek word agape in 1 Corinthians 13, a policy which the authorized translators reversed. The book of Hebrews was attributed to an unknown author (against the strong opinion of Pauline authorship at the time).
The published version made it clear that the translation came from the original language: Hebrew names were retained; variant readings were shown in the margin; additional English words needed to make sense of an essentially literal translation were shown in italics (these last two were Bible translation ‘firsts’).
Alongside the text were a large collection of what we might call Bible helps: maps, dictionaries, summaries, and, most significantly, marginal notes. These notes acted as a kind of commentary on the text. They are mostly brief and to the point. The book of Romans, for example, contains 250 such notes. A good example is the note on Romans 3:27:
The Law of faith is the gospel which offereth salvation with condition (if thou believeth) which condition also Christ freely giveth to us. So the condition of the Law is (if thou doeth all these things) that which only Christ hath fulfilled for us.
The notes became the most significant addition to the Geneva Bible – and the cause of its downfall because of their unpopularity with the King. They reinforced the teaching of the puritans in exile, meaning that the Bible ‘takes its place among the factors which explain the Calvinist flavour of Elizabethan Anglicanism’.
The Bible and the explanatory notes were regularly read in homes up and down the country. Thus, a generation grew up with the Scripture being read and explained, probably on a daily basis. It is difficult to over-estimate the effect this must have had on the spread of the reformation at a popular level.
Not the King’s favourite!
King James objected to those notes which he felt were too anti-Catholic or too pro-Calvin but his greatest ire was reserved for those which he considered to encourage treason. A note against Exodus 1:17 identifies that the Hebrew midwives were right to disobey Pharaoh’s order, and another against 2 Chronicles 15:16 implies that King Asa’s mother should properly have been executed for her idolatry, rather than simply deposed. He said:
I profess I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English; but I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst. The notes are very partial, untrue, seditious and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.
No wonder then that the authorized translation project was born. Its brief states ‘that a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes’ (italics added).
It may have been understandably unpopular with the King, but the translation proved a hit with the public. Between 1560 and 1644, over 140 editions (not just printings) were published; the translation continued to be in use for forty years after the 1611 version was produced. Oliver Cromwell’s Soldier’s Pocket Bible contained 122 texts of which all but one were quoted from the Geneva Bible. It was the translation of Shakespeare, quoted (some claim) over 1,000 times in his plays. Most ironically, the original preface to the King James Bible has all its Bible quotes taken from the Geneva Bible! The Geneva Bible was exported successfully to America and as much as 200 years later it was the translation given to Civil War soldiers.
An ongoing legacy?
How can we rekindle the legacy of the Geneva Bible? Its time has come and gone (though we ought to be thankful to God for it). And yet, it marked an era where families gathered together to read the word of God and discuss it. This impact was great – how wonderful it would be for the message of the gospel to ring out in homes as Christian families once more read the Bible together. Perhaps it is not too late for a new generation to grow up who are steeped in the Scriptures through this method – like young Timothy who was ‘from childhood acquainted with the sacred writings which were able to make him wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2 Tim. 3:15).
Adrian Reynolds is Director of Ministry for The Proclamation Trust.
This article first appeared in the Proclamation Trust Resource Guide 2010/11, copies of which are available free of charge from [email protected]
 Dr Marshall Foster, President of the Mayflower Institute, speaking about the influence of the Geneva Bible.
 Patricia Serak: An historical report on the Geneva Bible, Logos Communication Consortium Inc.
 The most comprehensive analysis is by David Daniell, The Bible in English (Yale, 2003, ISBN 978-0300099300). More accessible, however, and a great defence of the inspiration of the Scriptures is Brian Edwards’ Nothing but the truth (Evangelical Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0852346143).
 AG Dickens, The English Reformation (Fontana, 1964) p393.