Geneva Tyndale Conference Papers

The Geneva English Bible: The Shocking Truth

© David Daniell
A lecture given at the Geneva Tyndale Conference in October 2001. Professor Daniell’s pioneering material on the Geneva Bibles will appear in greater detail in his forthcoming book The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (Yale UP, 1 May 2003).

page from Geneva Bible

The Geneva New Testament, 1557.

After the Great Bible of 1539, the next newly prepared English New Testament was printed in Geneva in June 1557. It marked both a great contrast to the Great Bible, and — though at first it might not seem so today — a long stride forward.

For one thing, it is small, an octavo for the hand or pocket (roughly the size of a Prayer Book in a church pew) as editions of the New Testament had been since Tyndale’s and Coverdale’s over twenty years before. That made a contrast to Henry VIII’s original huge folio Great Bible, or Matthew’s before that: but the contrast was not only in the pleasing small size. It is also handsome. For the first time, an English bible text was printed not in heavy ‘Gothic’ Black Letter in northern Europe by printers in Antwerp or London, but in Switzerland, by Conrad Badius, the son of the master-printer of Paris, in a clean, clear Roman, a French style also influenced by Italian printers trained in the more refined humanist manner.[1] Its pages are uncluttered, the text ruled off with red lines, with wide margins at the sides, top and bottom, giving an attractive sense of space. The paper shows signs of having been carefully selected: some surviving copies remain unusually fresh; one of the two copies in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the copy in Lambeth Palace Library, have paper of still remarkable whiteness, as no doubt do others. The neat notes, an average of two per page, are in the outer margins in roman, with occasional references in italic on inside margins. The thickest cluster of marginal notes accompanies the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel. Some pages, even of the Epistle to the Romans, have no notes at all. Also for the first time in an English Bible, while the traditional markers A,B,C, and so on are retained in the margins, the text is divided into numbered verses, following the Greek New Testament by Stephanus made in Geneva in 1551, ultimately from Pagninus’s edition of the Vulgate made at Lyon in 1527, though — also for the first time in this 1557 New Testament — each verse starts a fresh line with its number, whether it is the beginning a new sentence or not.[2] This again was new, for the first time outside Latin or Greek. Again for the first time in an English Bible, words not in the Greek, thought to be necessary additions for English clarity, are in italic.

The title page is another contrast to that of the Great Bible. Instead of announcing its authority by declaring it to be the result of ‘the diligent study of diverse excellent learned men, expert in the ... tongues’, it states:

The New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ. Conferred diligently with the Greek, and best approved translations. With the arguments, as well before the chapters, as for every Book and Epistle, also diversities of readings, and most profitable annotations of all hard places: whereunto is added a copious Table.

In other words, critical study is invited. Further, the title page does not announce absolute royal power, as in the Great Bible, in the later Bishops’ Bibles, and in the first KJV with massive constructions that block the entrance of the reader. It will be noticed that there are no names, unlike the central panel of KJV, where King James and Robert Barker are prominent. Here, inviting the reader in, is a small, simple engraving in the middle of the page. It is in the manner of an emblem, showing Time leading Truth up out of a cavern. Modern eyes are used to sixteenth-century Bible title pages being architecturally organised for essential weight, with pillars and statues. The crowded title page of Henry VIII’s Great Bible is dominated by the King (God, above him, has to squeeze to get in) and his largesse in giving — in Latin, note — the Verbum Dei to the inattentive people below. The title page of the King James Version of 1611 is essentially an unbroken wall forbidding entrance, dominated partly by two judgmental saints, Peter and Paul, but above all by the names of the King, James I, and the printer, Robert Barker. For printers making an English New Testament in the 1550s, the new style for this 1557 New Testament spoke strongly. This can be demonstrated. That very device was the inspiration for a pageant held in Cheapside at the celebration of Elizabeth’s succession. On 14 February 1558 the Queen proceeded to a place between two hills where there had been contrived a cave with a door and a lock. At her approach an old man, scythe in hand, and ‘having wings artificially made’, was seen to come forth. He was leading

a person of lesser stature than himself, which was finely and well apparelled, all clad in white silk, and directly over her head was set her name and title in Latin and English, Temporis filia, the Daughter of Time. Which two so appointed went forward toward the South-side of the pageant. And on her breast was written her proper name, which was Veritas, Truth, who held a book in her hand upon which was written verbum veritas, the word of Truth.

After a recitation by a small child ‘he reached the book to the Queen, who thereupon kissed it, held it aloft for all to see, and so ‘laid it upon her breast, with great thanks to the City therefor’ ... the Queen said that ‘she would often read over that book.’[3] One might have difficulty thinking of the slightly-built Queen clutching a massive folio or thick quarto and at the same time retaining her dignity. It is easy to contemplate that little 1557 New Testament volume as it was being ‘laid ... upon her breast’.

1557 and Geneva were both the time and the place for a new English translation. For twenty years, revisions of Olivetan’s French New Testament had been published in Geneva, revised by Calvin and Genevan ministers, the latest in 1556. Italian exiles there printed a revised Italian New Testament in 1555, on the way to a whole Bible. A revised New Testament in Spanish was printed there in 1556. The last new English Bible had been made, in England, eighteen years before, and that was Coverdale’s revision of his work four years before that, nearly a quarter of century distant.

The first Geneva translators

After the coronation of Queen Mary on 19 July 1553, the great movement of Protestants to the continent in January and February 1554 happened before the most serious persecution got under way: the first burning, of John Rogers, maker of Matthew’s Bible, took place on 4 February 1555. In the eighteen months before that martyrdom, the migration was carefully organised. The dangers in England were real; the restrictions of Protestants began within a few days of Mary’s accession. Before Mary died in November 1558 over three hundred Protestants had been burned alive in England.

The work of preparation of this New Testament was anonymous. So was the Preface, which was less customary: evidence points to it being the singlehanded work of William Whittingham, an English gentleman and Oxford scholar. A manuscript Life of Whittingham in the Bodleian Library in Oxford tells of a group of ‘learned men’ in Geneva meeting to ‘peruse’ the existing English versions of the New Testament (thus making the first such revising committee in English Bible history.) The ‘learned men’ mentioned were indeed learned: Miles Coverdale; Christopher Goodman, another Oxford man from Brasenose and then Christ Church, who had become Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity; Anthony Gilbey; Thomas Sampson, from Oxford and Cambridge, who went on to be Dean of Christ Church, Oxford — he had most recently been close to the Hebrew scholar Immanuel Tremellius at Cambridge and Strasbourg; Dr William Cole; and William Whittingham himself. They were possibly joined in committee by John Knox, and certainly later for the whole Bible by William Kette (or Kethe), John Baron, John Pullain, John Bodley and W. Williams.[4] Knox had been chosen as minister from its first day by the English-speaking congregation at Geneva, but did not arrive there until September 1556. He left for Scotland in 1557, but returned early in 1558, finally departing in January 1559, having received the freedom of the city of Geneva.

If William Tyndale had survived, and gone to Geneva as a Marian exile in 1553 at the age of 59 — not an impossibility — he would have found a city humming with Bible activity. In many ways he would have been a happy man. Even more than in Antwerp, in his day the northern centre of translating and printing Scripture, he would have found areas of the city life of Geneva given to scholarship and fine printing (it is estimated that between 1550 and 1600 some two and a half thousand titles were printed in Geneva[5]). Much more, he would have found a new university at the heart of the work: the Academy of Geneva was formally inaugurated on 5 June 1555, with Theodore de Beze, or Beza, as its first rector. Geneva’s new Reformed university, with its new fields of knowledge and study, became rapidly famous for scholarly enterprise, which included the establishment of good texts of classical writers of all kinds — Virgil, Cicero, even Catullus — and translating them, as well as the Scriptures, into French, Italian and Spanish. Tyndale would have been content to be a senior engineer in that powerhouse.

How much the ‘learned men’ who were in Geneva contributed to the New Testament (as opposed to the whole Bible that followed) is unclear: there has been persistence in the statement, certainly implied in the Preface, that one man, Whittingham, did it all alone.

Prefatory matter by Calvin and Whittingham

Not only is the whole work anonymous; but how much Calvin associated himself with this New Testament, if he did at all, is also unclear. He apparently wrote an eight-page introductory Epistle, declaring with good Epistle-to-the-Romans force ‘that Christ is the end of the Law’, an important endorsement of this new work. Yet this Epistle Dedicatory is a translation of a piece written twenty years before, and Calvin’s second published work, his Preface (in Latin) to the New Testament in Olivetan’s Bible of 1535, the first French Protestant Bible (Olivetan was Calvin’s cousin). The unsigned three page address, probably by Whittingham, ‘To the Reader Mercy and peace through Christ our Saviour’ echoes Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man in its awareness of opposition to the Bible, and of Jesus’s Parable of the Sower at Matthew 13, Mark 4 and Luke 8. It continues:

For this cause we see that in the Church of Christ there are three kinds of men: some are malicious despisers of the word, and graces of God, who turn all things into poison, and a farther hardening of their hearts: others do not openly resist and contemn the Gospel, because they are stroken as it were in a trance with the majesty thereof, yet either they quarrel and cavil, or else deride and mock at whatsoever thing is done for the advancement of the same. The third sort are the simple lambs, which partly are already in the fold of Christ, and so hear willingly their Shepherd’s voice, and partly wandering astray by ignorance, tarry the time till the Shepherd find them and bring them unto his flock. To this kind of people, in this translation I chiefly had respect, as moved with zeal, counselled by the godly, and drawn by occasion, both of the place where God hath appointed us to dwell, and also of the store of heavenly learning and judgement, which so aboundeth in this city of Geneva, that justly it may be called the patron and mirror of true religion and godliness.[6]

On his annotations, Whittingham (if he was the author) risks a boast:

I have endeavoured so to profit all [help everyone] thereby, that both the learned and others might be holpen: for to my knowledge I have omitted nothing unexpounded, whereby he that is exercised in the Scriptures of God, might justly complain of hardness ...[7]

Indeed, so comprehensive has he been, that readers have no need of ‘the Commentaries’. He is rightly proud of his ‘arguments the summaries of the contents at the head of each book, or of the four Gospels together, made ‘with plainness and brevity’[8] to be understood and remembered, which ‘may serve instead of a Commentary to the Reader’.[9] The idea of such summaries was not new: Coverdale in 1535 had a page of ‘The first book of Moses, called Genesis what this book containeth’, though only that page: Matthew’s Bible had in the preliminary leaves two large pages of ‘The sum and content of all the holy Scripture ...’. What was in this 1557 volume was fresh.

The Geneva Bible, 1560

This compact volume, in size ‘a moderate quarto’,[10] with its excellent text generally always in roman type, the numbered verses set out in two columns, had in addition what amounted to an encyclopaedia of Bible information. It was very popular and successful indeed. It was a masterpiece of Renaissance scholarship and printing, and Reformation Bible-thoroughness.[11] Having been the people’s Bible in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it was driven out by political and commercial interests from 1611, and forced out of the public view from 1660. It was made an object of horror by the Victorian High Church, which invented for it a myth of unacceptably total and aggressive Calvinist colouring, not easy to refute as copies were scarce. That ‘shocking truth’ is still kept alive, as is the notion that Geneva Bibles were popularly disliked before 1600, for which there is no evidence. The value of this remarkable volume in all its wealth, and all its editions, and all its influence, was reduced to a single schoolchild snigger by referring to it only as ‘The Breeches Bible’, because in Genesis 3 Adam and Eve are given ‘breeches’ (as in Wyclif and Caxton’s Golden Legend, incidentally) instead of the KJV’s ‘aprons’.

The work of the Geneva Academy

The Academy of Geneva under Beza was based on the model established at Strasbourg. The aim was the specialised one of educating men, in large numbers: a learned ministry was always the goal of the reformers, in whatever country. The Academy began with 162 students, but five years later, in 1560, it had 1,500.[12]

The educational ideal was much broader than studying theology. The Strasbourg Academy had nine faculties, Geneva many more: the academics there became what would now be called ‘European leaders in a centre of excellence with best practice in teaching and research right across the humanities.’ In the last decades of the sixteenth century Geneva became for many distinguished Englishmen a necessary place in which to study. Beza’s scholars were the ‘specialist experts’ in the ‘humane’ work of editing ancient texts. The first texts that Calvin edited were classical, and his love for, and knowledge of, the Greek and Roman writers, were profound. The weightiest work, however, was the making of vernacular bibles from the best Hebrew and Greek texts.

The scholar-printers in Geneva — Robert Estienne, Conrad Badius, Jean Crespin, Jean Girard, Nicholas Barbier, Thomas Courteau, Jean Rivery — made 22 French Bibles.[13] This was the context in which there appeared in April 1560 the first English Geneva Bible.

Geneva printing in English

Two, at least, of the English exiles were printers. One of them, Rowland Hall, an original member of the Stationers’ Company in London, set up his press in Geneva in 1558. One of the ministers of the English Church at Geneva was the Hebrew scholar Anthony Gilbey. Another scholar was Thomas Sampson. William Whittingham, New Testament translator, was there. Miles Coverdale received permission to settle in Geneva in October 1558. The ‘simple lambs’ on the continent and in England, so helped by Whittingham’s New Testament, surely needed a complete Bible on the same model. It was begun a few months after the 1557 New Testament was published and continued, we are told, ‘for the space of two years and more day and night’.[14]

So the first Geneva Bible was made, printed by Hall in Geneva on his press in April 1560. The costs of the making were borne by the English congregation generally, and by one member in particular, the wealthy merchant John Bodley, whose son Thomas would later found the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Though Queen Mary had died on 17 November 1558, and all over the continent exiles (said to number 800 in total during Mary’s reign) returned to Protestant England under Good Queen Bess, some of the men who made the Geneva Bible remained there until it was completed in April 1560 —[15] probably Whittingham, Gilbey and Sampson, and probably Cole, Kethe and Baron. An early copy was presented to the Queen.

This remarkable volume, ‘the first great achievement in Elizabeth’s reign’,[16] printed in London and in Edinburgh after 1575, and always in large quantities, became at once the Bible of the English people. It remained so, through 140 editions — editions, not simple reprintings — before 1644. The New Testament was revised by Laurence Tomson in 1576, and new notes by ‘Junius’ replaced those to Revelation in 1599. In 1610, fifty years after the first making, all three versions were in full printing flood, 120 editions of all sizes having been made. It seemed that nothing would stop them. The translators working for King James after 1604, aiming ‘to make a good one, better’ referred to the Geneva versions, and in that wonderful long Preface to KJV, ‘The Translators to the Reader’, quoted Scripture almost always from a Geneva Bible. But politics ruled. Even the inception, in January 1604, of the 1611 KJV was a political act by reactionary bishops against Geneva Bibles. As will be seen, the large printing of that ‘King James’ version, in spite of its immediate unpopularity, was organised in order to push out the Geneva Bibles. Ugly and inaccurate quarto editions of the Geneva Bible, all falsely dated 1599, were printed in Amsterdam, and possibly elsewhere in the Low Countries, up to 1640, and smuggled into England and Scotland against Establishment wishes. The last with full text and notes in England was printed in 1644. Between 1642 and 1715, eight editions of KJV were published with Geneva notes, seven of them in folio, and two of them in one year (1679), statistics which tell their own story.

The influence of the Geneva Bible is incalculable. Before the London printings, it was freely in England in large enough numbers to stir Archbishop Parker into initiating his rival Bishops’ Bible in 1568. For over fifty years it was sometimes second to that in Anglican pulpits and on Anglican lecterns. Even so, a study of more than fifty sermons by bishops between 1611 and 1630, including Andrewes, the chief of the KJV revisers, and Laud, the enemy of all things evangelical, shows that in twenty-seven sermons the preacher took his text from the Geneva version, and only in five from the Bishops’.[17] Of the remaining twenty-odd, only about half quote from KJV, and half seem to have made their own version.[18]

The Geneva Bible was, however, the Bible of the English and the Scots at home, and in local reading-groups and ‘prophesyings’. What arrived in April 1560, and was rapidly developed, was the first complete study guide to the Bible in English, intended to illuminate at every point. In Scotland, the Edinburgh ‘Bassandyne Bible’ of 1579, the first Bible printed in Scotland, a straight reprint of the first Geneva Bible in folio, made in 1561, was ordered to be in each parish kirk. It was dedicated to ‘Prince James’ — so much for his reported claim at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 that he had only recently been shown a copy.

The triumph of the Geneva Old Testament text (and Apocrypha), can be shown in detail to be based on Coverdale’s revisions in the Great Bible, but now with corrections from the Hebrew and Latin, freshly compared with Leo Juda’s Latin version made in Zurich in 1543, and other helps — Geneva was rich in resources — particularly Olivetan’s frequently revised French Bible, from the 1559 revision of which the ‘Arguments’ before Job and Psalms were directly translated. The Geneva translators’ aim, successfully achieved, was to reproduce what the original says from Genesis to Malachi. It is more important to note that the KJV translators’ denial of marginal notes removed at a stroke that essential element of understanding Hebrew, the openness to engagement, the in-and-out movement between literal sense and meaning, the many kinds of explanations, which the Geneva annotators so constantly used. Often the best that King James’s workers could do was to lift ‘the literal Hebrew phrase from Geneva’s margin into its own text’.[19] Gerald Hammond writes:

These notes [in the Geneva Old Testament margins], constantly explaining and interpreting, have a significant effect upon the nature of the translation. Because the translators could always use them to clear up ambiguities, explain obscurities, and fill in ellipses, it meant that the actual translation could afford to retain, to a great degree, the ambiguities, obscurities, and ellipses of the original. While the margin is specific and discursive, the text can stand as an evocatively simple rendering of the Hebrew images and metaphors.[20]

Hammond’s fifty pages of examination of the Geneva translators at work with the Hebrew remain the best introduction to the subject.[21]

For what has often been overlooked is that the Geneva scholars translated the poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament into English from Hebrew for the first time. Working from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, they had, besides Coverdale’s two versions, the translations of Tyndale directly from Hebrew. But Coverdale thereafter, from Job to Malachi, half the Old Testament, did not translate from Hebrew.

The gain in the sense of Hebrew idiom in English is startling. In the Geneva Old Testament there are more notes in the poetic and prophetic books than in the narrative histories and laws. Here the Geneva translators show two advantages. First, the sheer strangeness of Hebrew poetry needs interpretative help if it is to mean anything in English, and they have felt free to use whatever kind of comment is best. Sometimes the literal meaning is in the text, and metaphor is in the margin, and sometimes the other way round — but in both cases the strategy is made clear. The KJV panels deserve commendation in their frequent preservation of Geneva’s richness of internal Scriptural reference. (The Geneva translators did not, of course, invent cross-referring; but they developed it.) This makes it all the more depressing that the KJV panels so dogmatically dropped all the Geneva notes.

The other advantage that the Geneva translators took for their poetic and prophetic books was the division into verses. Paragraphs suited Tyndale’s excellent understanding of Hebrew narrative drive. Hebrew poetry works differently. The complex and cumulative imagery, and above all the parallelisms, are more than weakened if printed as a paragraph.

Additional matter

Almost every chapter begins with a brief summary, numbered to verses, longer in the New Testament. Each Old Testament book begins with a quite extensive precis, ‘The Argument’. (It is not explained why Whittingham’s fine New Testament ‘Arguments’ were dropped.) Titles run across the top of every page, and summaries of every column. Books begin with an ornamental letter. There are pages of tables and concordances. There are maps, one at the beginning large, across a double page, and full of detail, followed, or enclosed, by a two-page ‘Description of CANAAN and the bordering Countries.’ The map presumes close and lengthy attention. Some pages later, a half-page map of a large area north of the Gulf, with a long note, explains ‘The Situation of the Garden of Eden.’ Before the New Testament is a map of the Holy Land. In Exodus and elsewhere, woodcut illustrations are inset where what is being described is particularly baffling, like the fittings of the Tabernacle or the clothing of the priests. At the beginning of 1 Kings, there are effectively five pages of pictures of, or relating to, the Temple. In 1560, the first edition had twenty-six engravings. In other words, the commonly repeated observation that there are no illustrations in Geneva Bible is not true.

The preliminary matter in later editions can fill many pages, including thirty-two pages of charts of the genealogies of the patriarchs. Many editions begin with the full Book of Common Prayer, including, as standard, all the Psalms in Coverdale’s translation. So, between the covers, the complete Psalms appear three times: at the front, as Coverdale made them, in the Prayer Book; in the middle, as the Geneva translators made them; and at the end, as Sternhold and Hopkins made them.

The first edition began with an Epistle to the Queen, and an address, ‘To our beloved in the Lord the brethren of England, Scotland, Ireland &c ‘, both dated ‘From Geneva. 10. April 1560.’ The address is an expanded version of Whittingham’s to his New Testament.[22] Later editions added a twopage address ‘To the Christian Reader’, a poem and a prayer, and a full-page scheme of ‘How to take profit in reading of the Holy Scripture’.

The 1560 Geneva Bible has 33 illustrations, most of which went forward into most following editions: some later editions varied this.[23] Two of these are title page emblems, and five are maps four of them being spread over two pages. The rest are to illuminate details in the Tabernacle or Temple, or of the visions of Ezekiel, again one being spread over two pages. The intention is edification rather than titillation: unlike other Bibles of the time, there are no jolly pictures of a half-clad Potiphar’s wife reaching out to catch the coat of a fleeing Joseph, of David watching Bathsheba bathing, or a naked Susannah being spied on by lascivious elders.[24]

Between 1568 and the last printed in 1715 (a KJV with Geneva notes), it was precisely the Geneva Bible which carried the tradition forward. Tyndale’s Pentateuch had pictures, and his 1534 New Testament had a heavily illustrated Revelation. Continental Bibles were often lavishly illustrated. What historians should have noted is that there are no illustrations in the 1611 KJV, nor in the 1610 Douai Bible. The Reformation interest in pictures in Bibles became pushed to one side into the making of Children’s Bibles.[25]

The Geneva Bible notes

Throughout this volume the margins make what can best be described as a running commentary on the whole Bible. It has been commonplace among historians that the Geneva Bible had to be replaced in 1611, or was later absolutely to be rejected, because of the ‘unacceptable Calvinism’ of its notes. Nineteenth and twentieth-century rejection of the ‘objectionable Calvinism’ ignored the Elizabethan theological context, when Elizabeth’s court read Calvin, when the nation followed Calvin in much of its theology (as in the Book of Common Prayer, particularly the Thirty-Nine Articles), its philosophy and literature, as did Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare — Hamlet demands Calvin’s help in understanding the play.[26] It is important to recognise two things: first, that in sixteenth-century England Calvin’s emphasis on the word, living with the emphasis on the Word, contributed to the liberation of poetry, and particularly the flowering of drama; and second, that Calvin was not a ‘Calvinist’. Many of the fiercer doctrines were later developments. (What happened in South Africa throughout the twentieth century, in social deeds originating in the beliefs of the Dutch Reformed Church, should not be laid at the door of the Calvin of the Institutes.) Under Elizabeth, the works of John Calvin were much printed and bought. A translator of his sermons, Arthur Golding, first gave the world Ovid’s complete Metamorphoses in English verse (plundered by Shakespeare) in Calvin’s colours.

Ignorance of the period making the Geneva Bible ‘unacceptable’ because it is ‘Calvinist’ is one thing: distorting the Geneva Bible itself is quite another. Everyone knows that the Geneva marginal notes are ‘bitter’ and ‘regrettable’. Like most things that everyone knows, it is plain wrong.

The later history of the Geneva Bible

In histories written in the last 150 years, with some rare exceptions, the Geneva Bible has generally been treated briefly, if mentioned at all, and condemned. A complete list of such dismissals and omissions would be a long, sad and depressing revelation of ignorance or bias. It was too shockingly Calvinist for the British, who wisely rejected it. The overwhelming evidence is of overwhelming popularity at every level of British life. In 1868 and 1905, Bishop Westcott and W. A. Wright observed of the Geneva ‘marginal commentary ... if slightly tinged with Calvinistic doctrine, [it is] on the whole neither unjust nor illiberal.’

Let us look for a moment at the ‘failure’. In 1610, when it was fifty years old, it was, in three versions, apparently unstoppable. The publication figures show the opposite of ‘failure’. It was the Bible of the poets, politicians and preachers, even anti-’puritan’ preachers like Laud.

Distortion began with the report of King James’s seemingly hostile remarks at his Hampton Court Conference in 1604. At that conference there was apparently agreed denunciation of the badness of the Geneva Bibles. Closer observation reveals the heavy bias of the official reporter, Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London. Already noted was the Victorian reduction of this masterpiece of Renaissance and Reformation scholarship to a snigger in the term ‘Breeches Bible’, still current. The Victorian hostility to this version can be further shown.

Virginia Woolf ’s father, Sir Leslie Stephen, whose multi-volume Dictionary of National Biography, became, with the Oxford English Dictionary, the eighth and ninth wonders of the world is not without blame. Some of the biographical essays in Sir Leslie’s DNB revealed, to put it mildly, marked bias: Two of the worst entries, not previously noted, are those by ‘Miss Bradley’ about the Marian exiles who made the Geneva Bible. Christopher Goodman is ‘said to have become Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity’. ‘Said to have become?’ That is like saying ‘Mary Tudor is said to have become Queen of England’. The ‘violence’ of his ‘very acrimonious tracts ... was generally disapproved.’ On his commentary on Amos, ‘so bitter was the feeling’ that Goodman ‘did not dare to return’. For this extraordinary statement, no evidence is given: her case is weakened by the absence of any record of any such commentary, by Goodman or anyone else. There is no mention of all his work on the Geneva Bible. It does get ten words in her entry on Anthony Gilbey, described as ‘one of the most acrimonious and illiberal writers ...’ of ‘two original works of bitter invective.’ ‘Bitter’ is used of Thomas Sampson, though there, as in the entries for William Cole and William Kethe, the Geneva Bible is ignored. This is all in the supposedly standard reference work, DNB.

Readers in later ages need not feel smug, however. The hostility to the Geneva Bible persists. It is possible to accumulate pages of references to books (and broadcasts) in which what has become the standard negative description is stated, or in which the Geneva Bible and its massive popularity have been omitted. Here, to avoid tedium, are but two random examples from the later twentieth century. A useful survey published in 1992, dealing thoroughly under the heading of ‘Reformation-era English translations’, with Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew’s, the Great Bible, KJV and so on, even discussing the fragments from William Roye, and official failed attempts, makes absolutely no mention whatsoever of any Geneva Bible.[27]

The few lines about the Geneva Bible in a popular history of the English Bible published in 1996 conclude with the remark, ‘Its notes and commentary, for all their scholarliness, were peppered with barbs and ill will.’[28] ‘Peppered’ is simply untrue.

Hebrew into English for the first time

Most significant is the most sophisticated element of all in the 1560 complete Bible. Here, in the second half of the Old Testament, is the translation into English of the twenty-five books after the end of 2 Chronicles, for the first time directly with reference to the Hebrew.

How this important fact has been allowed to be obscured is an enigma. The Geneva translators used the Hebraist Tyndale closely for the first half of the Old Testament. Throughout, they had an eye to Coverdale in his own 1535 Bible, as transmitted also through Matthews Bible of 1537, and the revision of it that he made into Henry Vlll’s Great Bible. But Coverdale knew no Hebrew. Attempts to challenge his own statement and show that he did, all fail, and quickly. The books from Ezra to Malachi were translated from the Hebrew into English by no one else before 1560. Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilbey and their colleagues were first. They were, it is now clear, exceptional Hebrew scholars. They were the first to use at first hand the Hebrew commentary of David Kimshi, followed in those readings in many places in KJV.[29] They had also a remarkable, almost Tyndalian, grasp of English; the knowledge to use available helps in at least five languages (Aramaic, Latin, Greek, German and French); and the ability to work fast. Why are they not better known?

A translation of Hebrew poetry demands marginal notes. The impression given by the authorities who insisted that they be absent (from the Great Bible, the Bishops’ Bible and KJV) is that they are political and ‘bitter’, and only political and ‘bitter’. This judgement is passed down, still, from writer to modern writer, obviously without any of them having studied even a page.

A faithful translation of Hebrew poetry deals in ellipses and ambiguities, and downright obscurities. The margins can make plain, and can also open up. There can be — and in the Geneva Bible there was — a continual and fruitful dialogue between text and margins. The KJV’s occasional printing of the literal sense of a Hebrew metaphor is not adequate. Stripping away Geneva’s marginal notes to the prophets can produce in a reader of KJV a nearly total lack of understanding, something often close to gibberish, though one has not been encouraged to say so.

An example of purely factual help, entirely as KJV fell open at random, is Hosea 12:11.

Is there iniquity in Gilead? surely they are vanity: they sacrifice bullocks in Gilgal; yea, their altars are as heaps in the furrows of the fields.

Read out at Morning Prayer, those words might not convey very much. The Geneva text is identical, except that it italicises only the second are, and gives the final word as ‘field’. Whereas, however, the margin of KJV has cross-references to 4:15 and 9:15, which are simply to the presence of ‘Gilgal’ in the text, the Geneva margin has:

The people thought that no man durst have spoken against Gilead, that holy place, and yet the Prophet sayeth, that all their religion was but vanity.

The poetic and prophetic books which make up those twenty-five are for the most part in Hebrew which is difficult to very difficult. Even so, half a century later the work of Goodman and Gilbey and the others was good enough to be taken forward into KJV, when King James’s revisers were not following the inferior Bishops’ Bible. Four entire centuries later, their work was good enough to be the basis of quite a number of modern versions.

Enough has been written perhaps barely to suggest the wonderful richness of Geneva’s Old Testament. Britain was truly blessed in the men who made it. They make a notable contrast with the experience of KJV. The first two and a quarter pages of KJV are to modern eyes almost unbearably oleaginous flattery of ‘The Most High and Mighty Prince James, by the Grace of God, King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, Etc’, extending even to naming him, doubly erroneously, with one meaning blasphemous, ‘Author of the work’. Such oil and butter were lacking from the dedication of the Geneva Bible to Queen Elizabeth. Ever after, that odd fellow James lives on everyone’s lips, as the 1611 version has carried his name, particularly in America, where he is often raised to impossible authorship of the translation and to an even more impossible sainthood. The makers of the 1560 Geneva Bible remain out of sight, in the shadows. We are not even certain how many, or who, they were. They were clearly fine Hebrew scholars. There seem to have been not many of them, perhaps no more than two or three Hebraists. Their sense of ministry, of what ‘the lambs’ needed, and in what kind of English, was strong. They did all their work in three years

Isaiah 40 as an example

There is space here for only one fuller illustration of their excellence. Isaiah chapter 40 is the beginning of the words of an unknown prophet, a poet and man of genius, whose name or details we do not know, except that he was with the people in captivity in Babylon. From the position of his writing, chapters 40-55 in Isaiah, he is named most prosaically ‘Second Isaiah’, or ‘Deutero-Isaiah’. What follows here is the Geneva Bible rendering of the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40 and then some of the remaining twenty in the chapter, with a selection of the marginal notes. Tyndale did not live to translate any of the poetic books — Job, Psalms, or the prophets (except Jonah). The last time these verses had appeared in English had been in Miles Coverdale’s revision for the Great Bible of 1539 of his Bible of 1535, made from five contemporary versions: Coverdale knew no Hebrew. This is the first time that these words have been in English direct from the Hebrew. Moreover, Coverdale had written in long paragraphs. The Geneva translators both numbered the verses and separated them out, so that Hebrewpoetry- in-English is immediately visible, and even audible. Moreover again, it is English poetry that these undeclared translators, working in a room in a house somewhere in Geneva, achieved. ‘The crooked shall be straight, and the rough places plain’ is not only accurate to the Hebrew but it is fine English, in rhythm, and in the increasing chime of the parallel words ‘crooked — rough’/ ‘shall ... straight’/ ‘places plain’. Not for nothing did Handel’s librettist, the gifted Jennens, working with these words as they had been taken over almost exactly into KJV, understand how well the verses would go with music, nor Handel fail to set them, in Messiah, so that many people cannot hear them without also hearing tenor solo, choir and orchestra. But the point is the musical poetry, and that it is here in the Geneva Bible in English for the first time, and for the first time, directly from the Hebrew.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, will your God say.

2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 A voice crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord: make straight in the desert a path for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be straight, and the rough places plain.

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

6 A voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the grace thereof is as the flower of the field.

7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.

8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain: O Jerusalem, that bringeth good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength: lift it up, be not afraid: say unto the cities of Judah, Behold, your God. ...

11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall guide them with young. ...

18 To whom will ye liken God? Or what similitude will ye set upon him? ...

22 He sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers, he stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in.

23 He bringeth the princes to nothing, and maketh the judges of the earth, as vanity. ...

26 Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, and bringeth out their armies by number, and calleth them all by names? by the greatness of his power and mighty strength nothing faileth.

27 Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgement is passed over my God?

28 Knowest thou not? or hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord hath created the ends of the earth? he neither fainteth, nor is weary: there is no searching of his understanding.

29 But he giveth strength unto him that fainteth, and unto him that hath no strength, he increaseth power.

30 Even the young men shall faint, and be weary, and the young men shall stumble and fall.

31 But they that wait upon the Lord, shall renew their strength: they shall lift up the wings as the eagles: they shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk, and not faint.

The first marginal note, to ‘Comfort ye’, is

This is a consolation for the Church, assuring them that they shall be never destitute of Prophets, whereby he exhorteth the true ministers of God that then were, and those also that should come after him, to comfort the poor and afflicted, and to assure them of their deliverance both of body and soul.

Five notes later, to ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’, is:

Meaning Cyrus and Darius which should deliver Gods people out of captivity, and make them a ready way to Jerusalem: and this was fully accomplished, when John the Baptist brought tidings of Jesus Christ’s coming, who was the true deliverer of his Church from sin and Satan, Matthew 3.3.

Two notes later, to ‘All flesh shall see it together’, is:

This miracle shall be so great, that it shall be known through all the world.

The final note to the chapter, out of 32, against ‘Even the young men shall faint’, is

They that trust in their own virtue, & do not acknowledge that all cometh of God.

What the chapter is about is the power of God, the sovereignty of God, the impossibility of ‘figuring’ the scale of him, as the heading to the Geneva page has it, and yet his concern for his people cosmically, strategically and personally. This is the point of the Hebrew now in English. This is the point of the Geneva Bible.

Gerald Hammond, the wisest writer on the Geneva Old Testament, observed of it that it was so good that it might reasonably have stood as the definitive English version, as the KJV was destined to do for three hundred years.[30] There is indeed something shocking about the Geneva English Bible. It is not its Calvinism, which in the theology of the supremacy of the sovereignty of God is its glory: nor its supposed failure, which is a lie. What is shocking is, from 1611, the systematic destruction of it for political, and above all, crude commercial, reasons.

It could never, however, be destroyed. Now, apart from some copies in private hands or specialist libraries, it only exists with the full notes for twenty- first century readers in two modern facsimiles (of the 1560 and 1602 editions) both also generally confined to libraries, and the first of them long out of print.[31] But it is still alive. So much of it went, flatly against King James’s wishes, into the KJV, a story still untold. It affected our greatest writers, Shakespeare and Milton. It lit the beacon of liberty in the English seventeenth century. Its notes were even added to seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury KJVs. The Geneva Bible was ‘killed’: but it is alive.

Tyndale, on an early page in his Obedience of a Christian Man, wrote about the power of God. He explained how the enemies of Christ had the power to arrest Christ, to put him on trial and condemn him to death, with the whole might of Roman and Jewish law, and crucify him.

Finally when they had done all they could and that they thought sufficient, and when Christ was in the heart of the earth and so many bills and poleaxes about him, to keep him down, and when it was past man’s help: then holp God. When man could not bring him again, God’s truth fetched him again.[32]

Notes and References (Endnotes)

[1]For the first time, that is, apart from Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy in Tyndale’s 1530 Pentateuch.
[2]‘The Hebrew Old Testament had long been divided into verses, but not chapters; the New Testament into chapters, not verses. The compilation of dictionaries and concordances led inevitably to chapter and verse divisions in both by the 1550s.’ (Gerald Hammond, The Making of the English Bible, (Manchester, 1982), 238).
[3]John Nichols, The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth (1823), l. 35.
[4]Christina H. Garrett, The Marian Exiles (CUP, 1938), passim.
[5]Paul Chaix, Alain Dufour and Gustave Moeckli, Les Livres Imprimes a Geneve de 1550 a1600 (1959).
[6]Printed in A. W. Pollard Records of the English Bible (OUP, 1911), 275-6.
[7]Pollard, 277.
[8]Pollard, 278.
[9]Pollard, 277.
[10]B.F. Westcott, A General View of the History of the English Bible, 3rd. edit. revised W. A. Wright (Macmillan, 1905), 93.
[11]The best general account remains the 28 pages of introduction by Lloyd E. Berry to the facsimile of the 1560 Geneva Bible published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 1969. Thorough as he was, Berry remarked how much remained to be done; little has changed since 1969. Lewis Lupton left unfinished at his death in 1995 his 25-volume, lavishly illustrated but curiously produced, The History of the Geneva Bible (The Olive Tree Press, 1968 foll.): though one commends the intention, the title is misleading, as a great deal of pre-Reformation and Reformation English Bible material is described volume by volume, not always accurately.
[12]Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1991), 394-5.
[13]Berry, 7. See also Paul Chaix, Alain Dufour and Gustave Moeckli, Les Livres Imprimes a Geneve de 1550 a 1600 (1959).
[14]Pollard, 280.
[15]Some evidence from a letter from Miles Coverdale to William Cole: Alexander, ii, and Mozley, Coverdale, 316.
[16]Gerald Hammond, The Making of the English Bible (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1982), 89.
[17]See Randall T.Davidson, ‘The Authorisation of the English Bible’, Macmillan’s Magazine, xliv (1881), 436-444.
[18]Randall T Davidson, quoted by Berry, 19.
[19]Hammond, 101.
[20]Hammond, 106
[21]Hammond, chapters 4 and 5, pp. 89-136.
[22]It is reprinted in Pollard, 279-83.
[23]The 1602 folio edition, for example, has a dozen illustrations in the early chapters of Exodus.
[24]See Ruth B. Bottigheimer, The Bible for Children: From the Age of Gutenberg to the Present (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1996), 116 foll.
[25]Bottigheimer, passim.
[26]Alan Sinfield, ‘Hamlet’s Special Providence’, Shakespeare Survey, 33, (1980), 89-97.
[27]R.H.Worth Jr., Bible Translations: A History through Source Books (Jefferson NC, 1992). In a small-print note ‘Breeches Bibles’ are mentioned in a collection of ‘Singular Renderings’: otherwise there is no mention at all.
[28]Mary Metzner Tramell and William G.Dawley, The Reforming Power of the Scriptures (Boston, Mass.: The Christian Science Publishing Society 1996), 163.
[29]Berry, 11. See David Daiches, The King James Version (1941), 179 foll. For their translation methods see David Alexander, 100-175.
[30]Hammond, 137.
[31]Berry, op. cit; and The Geneva Bible: The Annotated New Testament, 1602 edition, ed. by Gerald T. Sheppard (New York: The Pilgrim Press, 1989)
[32]Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man (Penguin Classics, 2000), 5.

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