The forgotten translation – the Geneva Bible 1599

I have fallen in love quite unexpectedly with a translation of the Bible that, until a few months ago, I was unfamiliar with. Namely the Geneva Bible, dubbed by some “the forgotten translation.” It was fascinating to learn that around 90% of the King James Bible is identical to the Geneva translation, which preceded it by some half a century. I’ve fallen in love not only with the majestic sweep of the language, which inspired such literary greats as John Milton and Shakespeare, but with the beautifully humble commentary in the margins penned by the Reformers. It is an absolute treasure and I have ordered two copies from Christian Reader. The site have a very generous offer where if you buy one Geneva translation you receive the second free of charge.

To illustrate what I mean about the beauty of the commentary, I thought I’d give you the opening notes on Genesis 1:

1 God created the heaven and the earth. 3 The light and the darkness, 8 The firmament, 9 He separateth the water from the earth. 16 He createth the sun, the moon, and the stars. 21 He createth the fish, birds, beasts, 26 He createth man, and giveth him rule over all creatures, 29 And provideth nurture for man and beast.

I love the phrase “provideth nurture”: it is so gentle and kindly, reflective of God’s wonderful providence for man and animal alike. The noble characters of the Reformers shine through in their study notes, which were made so ordinary people could have the sense of Scripture opened to them.

I thought I’d reproduce an article on the history of the Geneva Bible, for those who are interested in reading a little more about it. The article was taken from a website devoted to the restoration of this particular translation:

Introduction to the 1599 Geneva Bible

By Dr. Marshall Foster, President of the Mayflower Institute
& Member of the 1599 Geneva Bible Advisory Board

The Geneva Bible has been the lost treasure of Christendom for almost 400 years. Nearly forgotten by the modern world, this version of the Holy Scriptures was translated and compiled by exiled reformers in Geneva (1557-1560) and stands alone in history as the force that transformed the English speaking world from the backwater of history to the center of civilization.

The 2006 edition is the first completely new publication of the Geneva Bible available in modern times. This Bible is going to press at the exact year that America is celebrating its 400th Birthday with the settlement of Jamestown. As the cornerstone of the American experiment, the Geneva Bible was surely aboard the three ships that sailed from England to Virginia in December of 1606. The famous New England Pilgrims relied on the Geneva Bible for comfort and strength on their 66 day voyage aboard the Mayflower in 1620, and needed its insights as they wrote the Mayflower Compact, the first compact constitutional government in history.

Setting the Stage

Barbarous England in 1557 was less than civilized. Over 300 men were burned at the stake by the Catholic tyrant, ‘Bloody Mary Tudor’, merely for promoting the English Reformation. Most of the semi-illiterate clergy (both Catholic and Protestant) in the established church compounded the problem, since most received their parish jobs as pay offs and often were incapable or unwilling to preach. The impoverished and spiritually starved masses frequently found solace in the bottle, while the Gentry class compromised their conscience and virtue to cater to the intrigues of the royal court.

Into this ‘trough of despair’ the light of God’s written Word began to liberate the English speaking nations as it penetrated the hearts and transformed the minds of the population. It is no exaggeration to say that the Geneva Bible was the central catalyst that catapulted England, Scotland and America out of slavish feudalism to the heights of Christian civilization.

As the first Bible to be read by the common people in English, the Geneva Bible spread self-government, free enterprise, education, virtue, protection of women and children and godly culture. John Knox used the Geneva Bible as he preached with power at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh and brought Scotland back from clan dominated, semi-pagan barbarity to Christian faith and liberty. The Geneva Bible provided the verses that made up the Soldier’s Pocket Bible carried by each man in Oliver Cromwell’s ‘model army’ as they defeated the armies of Charles I; then put him on trial for treason. And it was the Geneva Bible that was carried and read by the Pilgrims as they landed in the wilderness of America and reasoned the world’s first constitutional republic from its pages.

For 1500 years God had set the stage for the unleashing of His liberating Word. Catholic missionaries and monasteries had played a major role in civilizing the pagan tribes of Europe and establishing Christendom. But with no authoritative written Word from God in the people’s language, the abuse of power and the perversion of truth, by prelates and kings, became common place in the late Middle Ages. As the following history illustrates the providential invention of movable type, coupled with the Geneva Bible, brought His Book into the lives and homes of the English speaking world.

History of the Geneva Bible

It is hard for us in our day to realize that the Bible has only been available to the common Christian in his own language for 400 years. Before the printing of Luther’s German Bible in 1534 and the Geneva Bible in English, laymen, regardless of nationality, for 1500 years had never had a Bible of their own. The Church and kings kept all but clergy and Latin scholars from reading the Scripture. Since 1401, in England, it had been a capital crime to read the Bible in what a royal edict called the ‘vulgar tongue’ or the English language. In 1526, one young English scholar, William Tyndale, attempted to translate the Bible into English. He escaped to Germany and then to Belgium to fulfill a commitment made shortly after his conversion. Speaking to a Dublin cleric, Tyndale declared:

“If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that draggeth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”

Fulfilling his promise in that year, he translated and published the first-ever mechanically printed New Testament in the English language. Six thousand first-edition copies were smuggled back into England and lit a fire that could not be put out.

As a fugitive from King Henry VIII, Tyndale was captured and imprisoned in the Belgium castle of Vulroode. On March 6, 1536, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake as he proclaimed, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” His prayers were answered, as several translations based on Tyndale’s monumental work made their way to English pulpits, one of them paid for by this same king, in the years after Tyndale’s martyrdom. But these were pulpit Bibles for the clergy and still the people had no Bible they could afford and, for the most part, they could not read.

In 1553, at the death of Henry VIII’s Protestant son, Edward, at 16 years old, Mary Tudor ascended the throne and immediately married the Catholic King of Spain. She tried violently to stamp out the Reformation and force the people of England back to Roman Catholicism. She tried to burn all copies of the Bible in English and burned at the stake over 300 of the reformers, pastors and Bible translators. Thus she earned the well -deserved nickname ‘Bloody Mary’.

Queen Mary’s madness caused the Marian Exile which drove approximately 800 English scholars to the Continent. But God used this exodus to gather, in Geneva, a number of the finest biblical thinkers in history. Here, under the protection of John Calvin’s ‘little republic’, a team of scholars led by William Whittingham, and assisted by Miles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, John Knox, and Thomas Sampson, was free to collaborate. They produced a new English Bible that was not be beholden to any king or prelate – The Geneva Bible.

William Whittingham, John Calvin’s brother-in-law and an excellent scholar, led this impressive group as they produced the first English Translation from the original languages since William Tyndale’s revised New Testament of 1534. The reformers wanted a Bible for the English people that was not based on the less authentic Latin Vulgate which Queen Mary was sure to promote. They researched the most recently collected Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and translated directly into English. Whitingham’s completed revision of William Tyndale’s New Testament, including many annotations and commentaries, was published in 1557.

Almost immediately, work began on a revision of the whole Bible. The translation took over two years of toil night and day. They drew upon painstaking translation from the original languages, Theodore Beza’s work and other continental translations, such as Luther’s. The undertaking had the overseen and supported by reformers like John Knox and John Calvin. It was the first biblical translation produced by a committee rather than by one individual.

The completed Geneva Bible was published in 1560 and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth, who had succeeded her half sister, ‘Bloody Mary’, to the throne and, at least for political reasons, supported the break with the Church of Rome. The Bible was an instant success that captured the hearts of the people with its powerful, uncompromising prose and over 300,000 words of annotations in the margins to aid in personal study and understanding.

This unique 2006 edition of the 1599 version of the Geneva Bible uses Tomson’s revised New Testament (a later revision of Whitingham’s New Testament of 1557) and Junius’s annotated notes on ‘Revelation.’ The 1599 version has the most complete compilation of annotations of any of the Geneva editions. It also has a table of interpretations of proper names, which are chiefly found in the Old Testament, and a table of principle subjects contained in the Bible. The Books of Psalms are collected into English meters by Thomas Sternhold, John Hopkins and others as they were sung in the early churches. Also included, are the prayers used by the English congregations every morning and evening.

For generations after its first printing, the Geneva Bible remained the Bible of hearth and personal study in England, Scotland and then in America. A 1579 Scottish edition of the Geneva version was the first Bible printed in Scotland and soon became the standard of the Scottish Kirk. The Scottish Parliament passed an act soon after the publication of the Geneva Bible in Scotland making it mandatory for every householder worth 300 marks and every yeoman and burgess worth 500 pounds to have a Bible in the ‘vulgar tongue’ in their homes, under a penalty of 10 pounds.

The Geneva Bible came to be called affectionately the ‘Breeches Bible.’ The term derives from the reference in Genesis 3:7 to Adam and Eve clothing themselves in ‘breeches’ made from fig leaves, a decidedly English term for God’s choice of clothes.

So popularity was the Geneva Bible that between 1560 and 1644 there were at least 144 editions were published, versus only 5 editions of the far inferior Bishops Bible. The Geneva Bible was driven from prominence only after the King James Authorized Version of 1611 was widely promoted by the King and the king’s Bishop Laud outlawed the printing of the Geneva Bible in the realm. When this version disappeared, the people complained that they “Could not see into the sense of Scripture for lack of the spectacles of those Genevan annotations.”

The Uniqueness of the Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible stands as one of the great achievements of Biblical scholarship. It is the Bible of ‘firsts’.

  • It was the first English Bible to be fully translated from the original languages. The fall of Constantinople (1453) had a providential benefit in the discovery of unknown Greek and Hebrew manuscripts of the Scriptures that were then brought to the West by Christians fleeing the Islamic onslaught. The obsession with antiquity during the Renaissance also brought other authentic documents and history to light by the time of the Geneva translation. The scholars in Geneva made full use of all the most accurate manuscripts to produce a Bible that can be trusted for its authenticity.
  • It was the first Bible translation to be printed in the easy to read Roman Type, rather than the older ‘Black Face’ Script. This new 2006 edition of the 1599 Geneva version takes the next step in re-typesetting the text in an easy-to-read form, rather than just offering a facsimile reproduction of a 16th Century edition. (Check with publisher on details of the layout changes.)
  • It was the first Bible to qualify as a study Bible with full notes, annotations and commentary from the foremost scholars of the era. The translators used these annotations to inform the reader about the original script, to clarify ambiguous meanings and for cross-referencing. It is a tribute to the intellectual integrity of the translators that they also used italics for the interpolated words that were not in the original language, but helpful for the English vernacular. This was also a first.
  • It was the first Bible ever to mark not only chapters, but to add verse numbers to each of the chapters. Imagine the ease this created in finding passages, memorization and recitation. This created a nation of Bible readers.
  • It was the first Bible to be printed in a small quarto edition, portable and affordable. This made it suitable for family use without expensive folios. Every Pilgrim family, for example, would have a Geneva Bible as the center of daily life.

Impact of the Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible literally helped create the modern English language which is the preaching and political language of the world today. With much credit to William Tyndale’s linguistic genius and the poetic mastery of Miles Coverdale with his earlier translation of the Poetic Books, the Geneva Bible became the central tool that sparked the literary excellence of the 17th and 18th Centuries in the English speaking world. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Milton, John Bunyan, the Puritans, who were considered history’s greatest expositors, and the Pilgrims as they came to America. It was the Bible that John Rolfe would have likely used in the conversion of Pocahontas at Jamestown in 1611.

The impact of the annotations and commentary in the Geneva Bible cannot be underestimated. It was the Calvinist notes of the Geneva Bible that infuriated King James I at Hampton Court in 1604 and caused him to authorize a group of Puritan scholars to produce a non-annotated version of the Bible for him. The excellent Authorized Version probably would never have been written had it not been for King James’s anger toward the Geneva Bible.

The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible presented a systematic biblical worldview that centered on the Sovereignty of God over all of His creation, including the church and the king. This unique Biblical emphasis, though politically dangerous, was one of the great contributions of John Calvin’s influence on the English Reformers. For example, the marginal note in the Geneva Bible for Exodus 1:9 indicated that the Hebrew midwives were correct in disobeying the orders of the Egyptian King. King James railed against such interpretation, calling it ‘seditious.’ The tyrant knew that if the people could hold him accountable to God’s Word, his days as a ‘Divine Right’ king were numbered. Calvin and the reformers were not going to change the clear meaning of Scripture to cater to the whims of king or Pope. The Geneva Bible began the unstoppable march to liberty in England, Scotland and America.

The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible, along with all of its other unique qualities, led the whole English speaking world away from the ignorance, heresy and tyranny of the Middle Ages into a full understanding of God’s Kingdom ruling over all. Calvin and the English reformers who followed in his footsteps and who wrote the Geneva Bible, expounded the whole council of God concerning the liberating doctrines of sola scriptura- the Word of God alone as inspired and directional for our lives and culture, sola fide – faith alone as our only means of justification before God, sola christus – Christ alone as our only mediator, lord and king, sola gratia – grace alone as our only hope of salvation and sanctification, and soli deo Gloria – God alone receiving the glory He is due in heaven and on earth, not king or pope.

These theological articles listed above may seem rudimentary or innocuous when merely listed. But when they were systematically taught from Scripture and applied to life, as was done in the commentary in the Geneva Bible, whole nations were transformed. The knowledge of and obedience to God’s written Word led to constitutional, limited government, the end of slavery and the caste system, free enterprise and private property, the Puritan work-ethic which inspired the scientific and industrial revolutions, wholesome, uplifting literature along with cultural optimism and development.

The bold innovations of the Geneva Bible impact our world even today. Because of its readable type, cross references, verse divisions, and commentary, the Geneva Bible became the foundation for what we call group Bible study. It became the catalyst for individuals to learn to read and study God’s Word as they understood the liberating doctrine of the ‘priesthood of all believers.’ It became common in Puritan England for lay leaders to expound the Word and for others to make commentary and discuss its meaning. This may be taken for granted in our time, but such discussion was forbidden in the organized medieval church before this time and was also limited because the people had no Bible and could not read.

The Geneva Bible’s Application for Today

The Geneva Bible was providentially unleashed upon a dark, discouraged, downtrodden English speaking world. Just when it looked as if the Machiavellian, Divine Right kings, such as the Tudors of England, were about to drive Christendom back to the days of Caesar worship, a Bible appeared that set the stage for a Christian Reformation of life and culture the likes of which the world had never seen. By the time of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, just 28 years after the first printing of the Geneva Bible, it was already being said of the English that they were becoming a ‘people of the Book.’ The results of a people reading and obeying the Word of God were the explosion of faith, character, the first missionary movement in history, literature, economic blessing, and political and religious freedom.

Almost 500 years later, our culture is once again desperate for the Truth. Most have forgotten the great lessons of the Reformation and the Biblical theology that buttressed the greatest accomplishments of Western Civilization. We fervently pray that the re-introduction of this powerful tool of godly dominion, the Geneva Bible, will, with God’s favor, light the fires for another powerful reformation. As we read this sacred volume, let us remember the sacrifice of the persecuted scholars on the shores of Lake Geneva.

John Calvin, in exile in Geneva, surrounded by pagan kings, wars, and a corrupt Roman church, said these optimistic words about the spread of God’s Word.

“Whatever resistance we see today offered by almost all the world to the progress of the truth, we must not doubt that our Lord will come at last to break through all the undertakings of men and make a passage for His Word. Let us hope boldly, then, more than we can understand; He will still surpass our opinion and our hope.”

May we be inspired from His Word, as our spiritual forbears were, to be fearlessly optimistic about the power of His Gospel and the furtherance of His Kingdom on earth.

“For unto us a Childe is borne, and unto us a sonne is given: and the government and peace shal have none end: he shall sit upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdome, to order it, and to establish it with judgement and with justice, from hence forthe, and for ever: the zeale of the Lorde of hostes wil performe this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7) – 1599 Geneva Bible

Marshall Foster, D.D.

One thought on “The forgotten translation – the Geneva Bible 1599

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s