The Geneva Bible: The Reformers’ Bible

What exactly is the Geneva Bible and what is its significance?

The Geneva Bible was first published in 1560. It was the first translation to use chapter divisions and numbered verses and became the most popular version of its time because of the extensive marginal notes and annotations. Some of those notes were very controversial. They disturbed a powerful king and a dictatorial religion (Catholicism) that executed those who disagreed with Catholic theology.

The 1560 Geneva Bible was revolutionary. It was the most reader-friendly version of the Bible ever translated, with numerous innovations making it ideal for the common reader. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to use cross-references, and the first to have Bible chapters divided into numbered verses for easy reference and memorization. It was also the first English Bible to translate the Old Testament directly out of the Hebrew and the first to be printed in Roman (rather than Gothic) type for easy reading. It was the first English Bible published for the common man and the first “study Bible” with extensive notes by Reformers throughout to help explain and apply the text. It was also the Bible that the Pilgrims brought to America on the Mayflower.

The translation is the work of religious leaders exiled from England after the death of King Edward VI in 1553. Almost every chapter has marginal notes to create a greater understanding of scripture. The marginal notes often reflected Calvinistic and Protestant reformation influences, not yet accepted by the Church of England. King James I in the late 16th century pronounced the Geneva Bible marginal notes as being: “partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring of dangerous and traitorous conceits.” In every copy of each edition the word “breeches” rather than “aprons” was used in Genesis 3:7, which accounts for why the Geneva Bible is sometimes called the “Breeches” Bible. The Church of England never authorized or sanctioned the Geneva Bible. However, it was frequently used, without authority, both to read the scripture lessons, and to preach from. It was pre-eminent as a household Bible and continued so until the middle of the 17th century. The convenient size, cheap price, chapters divided into numbered verses, and extensive marginal notes were the cause of its popularity

As I said, the Geneva Bible angered a powerful king. It sailed with Christians across the Atlantic Ocean in 1607 to Jamestown, Virginia, and in 1620 with those aboard the Mayflower to Plymouth, Massachusetts. When the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they brought along necessary supplies, a consuming passion for advancing the Kingdom of Christ, and their most precious cargo —William Bradford’s copy of the Geneva Bible.

First, a little history: Mary I was Queen of England and Ireland from 1553 until her death in 1558, and her executions of Protestants caused her opponents to give her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” She was determined to roll back the progress of the Reformation and reinstate Catholicism. Bloody Mary persecuted Christians who had embraced the Protestant Reformation, even putting some to death like Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Lady Jane Grey, an English noblewoman who was put to death at the age of just seventeen. It was her persecution that caused the Marian Exile which drove 800 English scholars to exile in the European continent, where a number of them gathered in Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva, they found protection in the Genevan civil authorities. There, a team of scholars led by William Whittingham, and assisted by Miles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, John Knox, and Thomas Sampson, produced The Geneva Bible, based on Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and a revision of William Tyndale’s New Testament, which first appeared in 1526. The Geneva Bible New Testament was published in 1557, with the complete Bible appearing in 1560, and an updated and restored version appearing in 1599. It was the first English translation of the Bible without the stamp of approval of either English government officials or the Church of Rome. The Geneva Bible is a critical, yet almost completely forgotten part of the Protestant Reformation. It was a pure and accurate translation of the Holy Writ.

The creation of the Geneva Bible was a substantial undertaking. Its authors spent over two years, working diligently day and night by candlelight, to finish the translation and the commentaries. The entire project was funded by the exiled English congregation in Geneva, making the translation a work supported by the people and not by an authoritarian church or monarch.

While previous English translations failed to capture the hearts of the reading public, the Geneva Bible was instantly popular. Between 1560 and 1644 at least 144 editions appeared.

But the Geneva Bible was not popular with everyone. A note on Exodus 1:19 upset King James because it stated that the Hebrew midwives were right to disobey the Egyptian king’s orders.

In addition to being a threat to the nearly unlimited power and authority of the king of England, the Geneva Bible addressed the very powerful Catholic church in a note on Revelation 11:7.

Tyrants have always feared God’s Word, especially when it is translated so the average person can read, understand, and apply it to every area of life. What was true then is no less true today.

Since the sixteenth century, other Bible publishers have built on the wisdom of the Geneva Protestants. In fact, it is nearly impossible to find a version of the English Bible that does not include chapter and verse numbers, cross-references, Roman typography, and a translation from the original source languages in straightforward contemporary language – all of which were originally unique to the Geneva Bible.

At the time of the signing of the Constitution, the predominant language spoken in America was Scottish. When the Pilgrims came to what would become America, the only Bible used at that time was the Geneva Bible.

The greatest distinction of the Geneva Bible, however, is the extensive collection of marginal notes that it contains. Prominent Reformation leaders such as John Calvin, John Knox, Miles Coverdale, William Whittingham, Theodore Beza, and Anthony Gilby wrote the majority of these notes in order to explain and interpret the scriptures. The notes comprise nearly 300,000 words, or nearly one-third the length of the Bible itself, and they are justifiably considered the most complete source of Protestant religious thought available. The Geneva Bible was the predominant English translation during the period in which the English and Scottish Reformations gained great impetus. Iain Murray, in his classic work on revival and the interpretation of prophecy, The Puritan Hope, notes, “… the two groups in England and Scotland developed along parallel lines, like two streams originating at one fountain. The fountain was not so much Geneva, as the Bible which the exiles newly translated and issued with many marginal notes… it was read in every Presbyterian and Puritan home in both realms”

The Cambridge Geneva Bible of 1591 was the edition carried by the Pilgrims when they fled to America. As such, it directly provided much of the genius and inspiration which carried those courageous and faithful souls through their trials, and provided the spiritual, intellectual, and legal basis for the establishment and flourishing of the colonies. Thus, it became the foundation for the establishment of the American nation.

All the marginal commentaries were finished by 1599, making the 1599 edition of the Geneva Bible the most complete study aid for Biblical scholars and students. This edition does not contain the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha’s notes are minimal or absent in other editions. Additional highlights of this edition include maps of the Exodus route and Joshua’s distribution of land, a name and subject index, and Psalms sung by the English congregation in Geneva.

Owing to the marginal notes and the superior quality of the translation, the Geneva Bible became the most widely read and influential English Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was continually printed from 1560 to 1644 in over 200 different editions. It was the Bible of choice for many of the greatest writers, thinkers, and historical figures of the Reformation era. William Shakespeare’s plays and the writings of John Milton and John Bunyan were clearly influenced by the Geneva Bible. It was the primary Bible of 16th-century English Protestantism and was used by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, John Knox, John Donne, and John Bunyan. Oliver Cromwell issued a pamphlet containing excerpts from the Geneva Bible to his troops during the English Civil War. When the Pilgrims set sail on the Mayflower they took with them exclusively the Geneva Bible. A superb translation, it was the product of the best Protestant scholars of the day and became the Bible of choice for many of the greatest writers and thinkers of that time.

The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible enraged the Catholic Church since the notes deemed the act of confession to men – the Catholic Bishops – as unjustified by Holy Script. Man should confess to God only; man’s private life was man’s private life. The notes also infuriated King James, since they allowed disobedience to tyrannical kings. King James went so far as to make ownership of the Geneva Bible a felony. He then proceeded to make his own version of the Bible, but without the marginal notes that had so disturbed him. Consequently, during King James’s reign, and into the reign of Charles I, the Geneva Bible was gradually replaced by the King James Bible.

All but forgotten today, the Geneva Bible was the most widely read and influential English Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries.

With its variety of scriptural study guides and aids—which included cross-reference verse citations, introductions to each book of the Bible, maps, tables, woodcut illustrations, indexes, and other features—the Geneva Bible is regarded as history’s first study Bible.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, wrote: “Let not Geneva be forgotten or despised. Religious liberty owes it most respect.” Between 1560 and 1599, 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.

The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible into English, preceding the King James Version by 51 years. It was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower. The Geneva Bible was used by many English Dissenters, and it was still respected by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers at the time of the English Civil War. This version of the Bible is significant because, for the first time, a mechanically printed, mass-produced Bible was made available directly to the general public.

The Geneva Bible is unique among all other Bibles. Translated by the best Protestant scholars of the day, it’s a version born directly out of the religious conflict of the Reformation. And, though sadly little-known today, The Geneva Bible became one of the most popular translations of its time.

The Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible—written with clear readability and comprehension in mind—was not only the first Bible to use chapters and numbered verses, but it was also filled with extensive marginal notes. These notes, written by Reformation leaders including John Calvin, were intended to help explain and interpret the Scriptures for the average reader.

The Geneva Bible’s extensive study notes were included to explain and interpret the scriptures for the common people, and were considered to be a threat to Big Government, which makes this version of the Bible more relevant than today than any other version! Why? King James frowned on what he considered to be seditious marginal notes on key political texts. A marginal note for Exodus 1:9 indicated that the Hebrew midwives were correct in disobeying the Egyptian king’s orders, and a note for 2 Chronicles 15:16 said that King Asa should have had his mother executed and not merely deposed for the crime of worshipping an idol. The King James Version of the Bible grew out of the king’s distaste for these brief but potent doctrinal commentaries. He considered the marginal notes to be a political threat to his kingdom.

In 2006, Tolle Lege Press released a version of the 1599 Geneva Bible with modern spellings and punctuation as part of its 1599 Geneva Bible restoration project. The original cross-references were retained as well as the study notes by the Protestant Reformation leaders. In addition, the Old English glossary was included in the updated version. Download in a variety of formats such as PDF, Mobi, and ePub here: 1599 Geneva Bible Patriot Edition With Notes. If you wish to have a printed edition you can order it here.

This edition of the 1599 Geneva Bible and Notes contains the original language (Old English) so there will be an archaic spelling of words and odd grammar.

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