The Geneva Bible—A Forgotten Translation
By Awake! writer in New Zealand
DO YOU possess a compact Bible that you can hold comfortably and that has a typeface that is gentle on the eyes? Does its format make it easy to find the information you seek? If you answer yes to these questions, then you owe much to the Geneva Bible of 1560.
Few people today have heard of the Geneva Bible. Yet, this remarkable translation was a best-seller in its day. Its reputed textual accuracy, along with innovations in presentation and layout, made it the favorite of the reading public. The English dramatists Shakespeare and Marlowe used it as the source for their Bible quotations.
Just how did this popular 16th-century English Bible come to originate in the French-speaking Swiss city of Geneva? What were its unique features? What led to its demise? How do we continue to benefit from it today?
A Bible With New Features
The Geneva Bible was produced by a group of religious refugees who fled repression and possible execution in England when Mary Tudor came to power in 1553. These scholars were welcomed into Geneva’s Protestant community. With a well-established printing industry and an interest in Bible reading, Geneva was a place where Bible translation and production flourished.
The Geneva Bible, translated by William Whittingham and his assistants, appeared in 1560. Soon people were eagerly reading it in England. Easier to read than Bibles produced prior to it, this was the first Bible in English to contain numbered verse divisions, a system that is universally used today. Also included were running heads—a few key words at the top of each page to help readers find specific passages in the text below. In addition, rather than using the heavy Gothic typeface that was modeled on written script, a clear typeface similar to what is still preferred in English Bibles today was generally used.
Earlier Bibles, designed for reading from church lecterns, had been produced in the large and cumbersome folio size. The Geneva Bible was a handy edition about half the size of the folio volumes. This smaller Bible was not only well suited to personal reading and study but also far more affordable.
Striving After Textual Integrity
The Geneva Bible translators gave particular attention to retaining the flavor and sense of the original Hebrew. God’s name, Jehovah, appeared in a few places, including Exodus 6:3; 17:5; and Psalm 83:18. Words that the translators considered to be necessary additions were shown in italics, and text that had been added for grammatical clarity appeared in square brackets.
The Geneva Bible quickly became established as the official translation in Scotland. It was also widely used in England and is thought to be the translation taken by the Pilgrims on their famous 1620 voyage to what is now the United States. The Geneva Bible was taken to other British colonies—including the most distant, New Zealand. There, in 1845 a copy became part of the collection of Governor Sir George Grey.
The Contentious Marginal Notes
The extensive annotations in the Geneva Bible contributed to its enduring popularity among its readers. These were provided because the translators realized that the Bible had ‘hard places,’ or parts that were difficult to understand. Such marginal notes were not new. Tyndale had used them in his 1534 “New Testament.” Besides the marginal notes, the Geneva Bible contained illustrations, prefaces, and maps—all designed to enhance understanding. Bound with the text were genealogical tables, summaries, and even a section encouraging daily Bible reading.
Although they acknowledged the excellence of the translation in private, the hierarchy of the Church of England publicly objected to it because they considered the tone of the marginal notes to be radical. Matthew Parker, then Archbishop of Canterbury, called them “diverse prejudicial notes.” King James I considered the notes to be “very partial, untrue, seditious.” No wonder, since some of the notes challenged the “divine right” of kings!
The Demise of the Geneva Bible
In 1604, King James authorized a new translation, hoping to rid England forever of the Geneva Bible. Theological historian Alister McGrath states that “the greatest obstacle faced by the King James Version as it sought to establish itself in the seventeenth century was the continuing popularity of the Geneva Bible.” For many years the Geneva Bible was preferred by the public, and it remained the official Bible in Scotland. New editions continued to appear until 1644.
The British and Foreign Bible Society observed that an “examination of [the] King James’ Bible of 1611 shows that its translators . . . were influenced more by the Geneva than by any other English version.” Many innovations in presentation and renderings of the Geneva Bible were incorporated in the King James Version, including such distinct phrases as “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” and “Solomon in all his glory.”—Ecclesiastes 12:1; Matthew 6:29.
An Enduring Influence
Although eventually superseded by the Authorized Version, or King James Version, the Geneva Bible occupies an important place in literary history. Not only did it set new standards in translation and presentation but it remains a vital link in the chain of revision of English Bibles. It promoted Bible reading and study among a wide range of people who otherwise might not have had access to it.
By paving the way for the King James Bible, the Geneva Bible also ensured that certain Bible phrases made their way into literature and the English language. So although the Geneva Bible may for the most part be forgotten, it has certainly left its mark.
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Exodus 6:3, where God’s name appears
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All photos: Courtesy American Bible Society
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All photos: Courtesy American Bible Society