Geneva Bible

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1599 Geneva Bible original frontispiece

The Geneva Bible was the first full-length translation of the Bible to be published in the English language. It sometimes called the "Bible of the Reformation." It was used heavily for concepts and terms that Shakespeare included in his works. The Puritans also used this translation, including those on the Mayflower. One hundred forty four editions were printed between 1560 and 1644.

The Geneva Bible was the first to divide chapters into verses. It includes extensive annotations and can be considered the first study bible.

King James outlawed the Geneva Bible,[1] which led to its virtual disappearance.[2] The Geneva Bible is now available in a hardcover edition published in 2006 by Tolle Lege Press.[3]


Tyndale's New Testament

The Roman Catholic Church had spread throughout the territory that was once part of the Western Roman Empire. Yet the Church reserved for its own clergy the right to own the written text of the Bible—and no European monarch permitted any of his subjects actually to possess a copy of the Bible printed in any language other than Latin.[4]

In 1526, William Tyndale began his first efforts to translate the Bible into English. For this defiance of the royal edicts then in force, the authorities pursued him. He fled to Germany, where he met Martin Luther, and from there to Belgium. There he produced a mechanically printed edition of the New Testament, and his friends smuggled 6,000 copies of it into England. Authorities in Belgium hunted him, arrested him, and imprisoned him in Vilvoorde, and on March 6, 1536, he was executed.[4]

Tyndale's New Testament did not reach the common man in England. It did, however, influence the English clergy and might have been an impetus behind the Reformation in England.[4] Significantly, Anne Boleyn was executed in the same year as was Tyndale—and subsequent to this, King Henry VIII began his sweeping purge of the monasteries in his realm.

Bloody Mary

In 1553, Queen Mary I acceded to the throne upon the death of her half-brother, Edward VI. This Catholic queen quickly earned the nickname "Bloody Mary" by her ruthless persecution of the English Reformers and her execution of 300 of them. Another 800 Reformers fled to the continent, where they gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, then known as John Calvin's "Protestant Rome."[5] There they set about creating an English-language version of the entire Bible, and one that would have no ties to any monarch, whether in England or elsewhere in Europe. Among the men involved in this project were William Whittingham, Miles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, John Knox, and Thomas Sampson.[4]

The First Edition

The Geneva translators avoided the Latin Bible version, or Vulgate, and sought access to the oldest and most authentic Hebrew and Greek manuscripts they could find. Their research benefited, ironically, from the Fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, an event that had forced many Christian clerics to flee the fallen city of Constantinople with their manuscripts in hand.

In 1557, Whittingham produced a revised edition of Tyndale's original New Testament. Then in 1560 the reformers produced the first edition of the Geneva Bible. This they dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, who by then had succeeded to the throne after the death of her sister, "Bloody Mary." Under Elizabeth's patronage, the Geneva Bible became the Bible of choice not merely for clergy but also for laity.[4]

Later Editions

From the beginning, the Geneva Bible was a study Bible, richly annotated and illustrated. The 1599 edition had the most extensive annotations of any of the Geneva Bibles, and a table of interpretations of (mainly Old Testament) proper names.

The Geneva Bible was highly popular in England, and indeed the Jamestown expeditionaries carried it to America in 1607. Likewise, the Pilgrims carried it with them to the Netherlands, where they had fled, and then to what later became their Plymouth colony (in modern Massachusetts) in 1620.

In 1604, shortly after his own accession to the throne, King James I commissioned his own version of the Bible, that would later come to be known as "The Bishop's Bible" or, more commonly, the Authorized Version. James' motive for promulgating his own version was simple: he did not want the people to have in hand a Bible with all the marginal notes that the Geneva Bible had. The reason was equally simple: those marginal notes might encourage lay readers not to credit James' overriding dogma of "the divine right of kings" that was central to his authority.[6]

This version was first published in 1611. A later king (Charles I) would take the first steps toward suppression of the Geneva Bible toward the end of his reign. In 1644, the Geneva Bible went out of print and would remain out of print for more than four hundred fifty years.

Modern Editions

In 2003, L. L. Brown and Company published an edition of the 1599 Geneva Bible.[7] This edition included the Apocrypha and a metrical rendition of the Book of Psalms originally intended to encourage their recitation in church.

In January 2004 a group of concerned American individuals and organizations formed the 1599 Geneva Bible Restoration Project to restore and republish the richly annotated 1599 edition. Seventeen organizations and 270 individuals and families contributed funds for the project.[8] The Project acquired the rights to the L. L. Brown copy, but omitted the Apocrypha and metrical Psalms and sought as much as possible to authenticate the original text as printed in 1599. The Tolle Lege edition makes no attempt to "modernize" the text, other than to update some of the spelling. Instead of "translating" the many out-dated words, it includes a glossary intended more as a guide than as a hard-and-fast body of rules. The editors state in their front matter that they wished to deliver an edition as close in meaning to the original as practicable.


The Text

Foster[4] states that the Geneva translators relied heavily on manuscripts originally brought to Geneva by Christians fleeing the conquering Ottoman Turks in 1453. Random comparisons between the New Testament and the Nestlé-Aland Greek New Testament and its critical apparatus[9] support that claim. The Geneva text tends to follow the so-called Byzantine family of manuscripts at certain points at which the original Greek text is in dispute.

Likewise, the Old Testament Geneva text appears to follow the Masoretic Text prepared by the Hebrew "Masoretes" of the latter part of the second century AD, and pays no homage to the Septuagint of Ptolemy I Soter of Alexandria.

Distinction from the Authorized Version

The Geneva Bible is often called the "Breeches Bible" because of its rendition of Genesis 3:7 (KJV). The Geneva text[10] reads as follows:

Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.

In fact, if any version of the Bible, printed or electronic, does not translate Genesis 3:7 in the words quoted above, then it is not a Geneva Bible.

The differences in the actual text between the Geneva and Authorized Versions are minor. Nevertheless, they are critical to distinguishing the Geneva Bible from the Authorized Version or any other version.

The Marginal Notes

The copious marginal notes are the key feature of the Geneva Bible, and its key difference from the Authorized Version, which has no such notes. As Foster[4] stated, the Geneva Bible is the first true study Bible. Its translators sought to explain to the common man not only what the Bible said but also what it meant.

These notes are highly revealing of the mind-set of the Geneva editors. For that reason they are at least as valuable as a source of insight into Reformation thinking as they are as explanatory text of the Bible itself.


The Geneva editors regarded their Bible as literal history. This included the history of creation, the genealogy of the pre-Flood Patriarchs,[11] and the full history and exact time-line of the ancient Jews. Some of their notes beg explanation—for example, their counting of the "four hundred years" of oppression of the Israelites[12] as beginning with the birth of Isaac and not with the entry of Jacob into Egypt. This, however, is a minor quibble.


Though they took their Bible history literally, they did not take prophecy nearly as literally. This is especially true as regards eschatology (literally, "the last words"). Like their friend and protector John Calvin, the Geneva editors held to the following doctrines:

  1. Covenant theology. This holds that the covenant promises originally made to Abraham and his direct lineal descendants the Israelites no longer apply to them, but apply instead to the Church. By "Church" they did not mean any one denomination, but rather the whole body of Christian believers.
  2. Postmillennialism. This holds that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will take place after the "thousand years" of imprisonment of Satan.[13]
  3. Preterism. This holds that the prophecies mentioned in Revelation 4-19 , Daniel 7-12 , Zechariah 12 , and elsewhere, had already been fulfilled at the time of their writing.

Anti-Catholic sentiment

The Geneva editors infused their notes with many attacks against the Roman Catholic Church—hardly a surprise considering the persecution in which the RCC, and Queen Mary I, were then engaging. The most striking attack against Rome is the handling of the prophecy of the Two Witnesses in Jerusalem[14] The Bible says, of course, that two men prophesied for 1,260 days in the court of the Temple of Jerusalem. The Geneva notes say instead that the two witnesses stand for "ministers" of the Word of God that are outside of the RCC, and that the 1,260 days are actually 1,260 years that began with the Crucifixion (which they assumed had taken place in AD 33 or 34) and ended with the accession to the papacy of Pope Boniface VIII (r. 1294-1303). Boniface was famous for issuing a papal bull stating that, to be saved, every man had to be a member of the RCC—and the Geneva notes further accused Boniface of obtaining his office by fraud. The notes on other verses in Revelation go further: they identify the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church with the Beast of Revelation 13 .[15]

Royal authority and its limits

The Geneva editors, in their notes, spoke of limits on royal authority, and this is probably why James I specifically ordered a translation of the Bible without annotation. He construed any limit on royal authority as a challenge to his own authority. For example, the note for Exodus 1:19 (KJV) says the following of the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed the Pharaoh in refusing to kill Hebrew boy-children at birth:[16]

Their disobedience herein was lawful, but their dissembling evil.
The very notion that the disobedience of a royal command might be a lawful act would be anathema to a king who believed that he ruled by divine right and answered only to God and not to any of his subjects.[6] The footnote for Exodus 1:22 (KJV) would surely have been worse:
When tyrants cannot prevail by craft, they burst forth into open rage.

The firm belief of the editors of the Tolle Lege edition is that these marginal notes were the catalyst not only for the furtherance (such as it was) of the reformation in England, but also, and more to the point, for the political revolutions in the English-speaking world[4]—presumably beginning with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and continuing with the American Revolution of 1776-83. They hold this belief even though the Geneva Bible ceased printing in 1644, long before William and Mary and more than a century before the American Revolution. Brown[6] points out that the Church of England retained all of the trappings and hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, the chief difference being that the Archbishop of Canterbury answered no longer to the Pope of Rome but directly to the British crown.


  1. Edwards the Exegete: Biblical Interpretation and Anglo-Protestant Culture on the Edge of the Enlightenment
  2. Kirk Cameron Endorses Geneva Bible
  3. Lillback, Peter A., DeMar, Gary D., Federer, William J., et al. 1599 Geneva Bible: The Holy Scriptures Contained in the Old and New Testaments. White Hall, WV, USA: Tolle Lege Press, 2006. 1400 pp., cloth. ISBN 0975484699. Also available in black (ISBN 0975484613) and calfskin (ISBN 0975484621) leather-bound editions.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Foster, Marshall. "The History and Impact of the Geneva Bible." 1599 Geneva Bible, op. cit., pp. xxiii to xxvi.
  5. Authors unknown. "John Calvin (1509-1564)" Switzerland Is Yours, Micheloud and Cie, 2006. Retrieved November 2, 2007.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Brown, Michael H. "Introduction to the Geneva Bible for the historic Baptist faith." The Reformed Reader, 1988. Retrieved November 2, 2007. Brown's essay is a scathing indictment of Kings James and Charles and of the Church of England that they headed. It is also flawed on account of the almost vitriolic argumentum ad hominem that Brown employs against James and his successors and allies. At the time of his writing, the Geneva Bible remained out of print, and this might have informed his bitterness. Whether he would have written a more refined essay had he known that the Geneva Bible would one day be published once again, is perhaps impossible to determine.
  7. The 1599 Geneva Bible. Ozark, MO: L. L. Brown Publishing, 2003. Cited in Preface, 1599 Geneva Bible, Tolle Lege Press, op. cit., pp. xix-xx.
  8. "1599 Geneva Bible Restoration Project," 1599 Geneva Bible, op. cit., pp. v to xvii.
  9. Aland, Barbara, Aland, Kurt, Karavidopoulos, Johannes, Martini, Carlo M., and Metzger, Bruce M., eds. The Greek New Testament. Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2001. With "A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament," by Barclay M. Newman, Jr. 219 pages, leather. ISBN 3438051133
  10. 1599 Geneva Bible, Tolle Lege Press, op. cit., p. 6
  11. Genesis 5
  12. Genesis 15:13
  13. Revelation 20:1-3
  14. Revelation 11:1-14
  15. The original Greek word is therion, which means not merely a wild animal but a murdering and ravening one.
  16. 1599 Geneva Bible, Tolle Lege Press, op. cit., p. 60

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See also