From 1560 until well into the seventeenth century, the Geneva Bible was the most widely read translation of the Christian scriptures into English. Itself building upon but surpassing the prior efforts of William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale, the Geneva Bible exerted a strong influence on the language of the King James text and through it on English translations down to the present day.
The Geneva Bible, as its name suggests, was a project conceived of and carried out in exile, by a group of English exiles who fled Queen Mary’s reign for safety in the Swiss bastion of Calvinist thought. Surrounded by likeminded scholars who themselves translated the scriptures into languages such as French and Italian, the Geneva Bible was very much a group effort, although most scholars credit William Whittingham with oversight of the project as a whole.
Several characteristics of the Geneva Bible accounted for its popularity and legacy. It was the first English translation to subdivide scripture into verses, which made it easy for readers to follow the extensive cross-references. The editors also included extensive annotations, providing — to give two examples — a richly christological interpretation of the Old Testament and a sharply anti-Catholic reading of the Book of Revelation. As Femke Molekamp explains in an essay included in the recently published Oxford Handbook of the Bible in Early Modern England, many of these textual aids were adapted from the “paratexts” in a recently completed French translation of the scriptures in Geneva.
The Geneva Bible’s introductory epistles give a clear sense of the commitments that animated the project. They understood the diffusion of the scriptures in English as a key element of building the “Lord’s Temple, the house of God, the Church of Christ.” In an epistle to Queen Elizabeth, they explained that this building up of Christ’s church requires two things: 1) “that we have a lively and steadfast faith in Christ Jesus, who must dwell in our hearts, as the only means and assurance of our salvation, for he is the ladder that reaches from the earth to heaven.” 2) “that our faith bring forth good fruits, so that our godly conversation may serve as a witness to confirm our election, and be an example to all others.”
A second prefatory epistle addressed Christians in the British Isles and observed “how hard a thing it is to understand the holy Scriptures.” The obscurity of certain passages in the Old Testament in particular created grave difficulties for the “simple reader.” Thus the extensive apparatus of the Geneva Bible, the figures and notes, the maps and tables, the woodcut illustrations.The headings for individual books very much guide the “simple reader” through the Bible. The “argument” (the term used by the editors) for Genesis informs that after Adam and Eve’s fall, God “for his own mercy’s sake restored him to life, and confirmed him in the same by his promises of Christ to come, by whom he should overcome Satan, death and hell.” As Molekamp observes, for Calvin and his followers there was one covenant of grace “uniting the covenants of the Old and New Testament, through Christ.” Many editions of the Geneva Bible urged readers to “marke and consider … [the] coherence of the text, how it hangeth together.” For readers of the Geneva Bible, the story of the Church begins with Abraham, when God chooses ancient patriarchs “to be his Church,” which he preserves throughout history.
In the “argument” prefacing the Psalms, for example, readers learn that “here is Christ our only redeemer, and mediator most evidently described.” Likewise, the introduction to “an excellent song, which was Solomon’s,” informs that is an allegory of the “perfect love of Jesus Christ, the true Solomon and King of peace, and the faithful soul or his church.” Such christological readings of the Old Testament, of course, are hardly original to these Protestant translators. They represent ancient and venerable Christian traditions of interpretation. They stand out, however, to one no longer used to such a robustly christological reading of the Old Testament in sermons or biblical scholarship.
The Geneva Bible’s notes became more virulently anti-Catholic as they were revised later in the sixteenth century. James I reputedly disliked the notes for the anti-monarchical conclusions in certain spots. Thus, the King James appeared with some cross-references but without annotations. It eventually supplanted the Geneva Bible, but not for some time. Shakespeare, for example, was more familiar with the Geneva Bible than other available versions. And the separatists who founded Plymouth Colony in 1620 initially used the Geneva Bible as well.
For some time, there have been several excellent facsimiles of the Geneva Bible, both in its original and later editions. One can now find it online as well. To dip into its pages is to enter the world of early modern Bible translation and reading, an exciting and tendentious world, one worth stepping into, if only to remind us that contemporary methods of reading scripture are not the only way.