The Geneva Bible, 1560 Edition

This review is a long time in the making, considerably longer than this site has been around.  Back in the late 90s, I bought what I thought was my first copy of The Geneva Bible.  I failed to notice the tag at the bottom of the cover that read “KJV,” which renders that volume completely moot for purposes of comparison and contrast.  It wasn’t until 2007 that I was able to find an actual facsimile print of the 1560 edition Geneva Bible that I was able to do the kind of exploration I wished to do.  So, I’ve been whittling away at this in private for a decade.  That’s about a quarter of my life, which is noteworthy when you consider I’m neither a Christian nor a religious scholar, at least not professionally.  I’ve spent most of my life in the study of comparative religion and about half of it in studies of angelology.  Combined with my studies into the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of what attracted me to this book in the first place.

To truly appreciate this the way I do, you’ll want to know some history on it.  This was the first Bible printed mechanically and mass produced.  It was one of the first printed in English, and it used such forceful and elegant language that it supplanted Henry VIII’s Great Bible of 1539 simply due to popular demand.  These things made it the primary Bible in use during the Protestant Reformation.  When it was printed, Spanish conquistadors were exploring the Americas.  The year this was printed, Scotland rejected Papal authority, beginning the Scottish Reformation.  Queen Elizabeth I had taken the English throne less than two years before.  This version of the Bible preceded the King James Version by half a century.  It was the Bible of William Shakespeare (though he was likely a closet Catholic), Oliver Cromwell, and John Donne to name but a few.  There were several Bibles that made their way to the American continent on board the Mayflower; this was one of them.  This, not the KJV, was the version most preferred by the American Founding Fathers, making it central to many of the ideals of the Revolution.  When you know what’s inside, it’s easy to see why.

Being mass produced, the Geneva Bible was readily available to the general public who were eager to understand what all that was back there between the he said / she said of the Catholic and Protestant regimes that kept torching one another throughout the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.  With this Bible came several study guides, verse citations with references, introductions to each book of the Bible, maps, tables, and even woodcut illustrations.  All this, and poetic verbiage too.  It was created by a laundry list of respected and no infamous Protestant scholars who escaped to Geneva, Switzerland (then being ruled as as republic), during the reign of Mary I.  It was largely translated from Hebrew Scriptures (it was the first complete English translation of the Old Testament) and Greek editions of the New Testament.  It is, in a word, a sublime piece of literature, a great artifact of history, and one of the most controversial tomes ever produced.

What makes this controversial, and thus being the primary reason I wanted to read it for myself, had less to do with the text itself and more to do with the notes in the margins.  These notes are the reasons that there is a King James Version, and they are the reason this was the Bible of choice of the American Founding Fathers.  You see, The Geneva Bible, being an English print by the people for the people, was produced with the concept of a wider body of the public becoming responsible for bringing about God’s Kingdom on Earth.  That meant the rulers had to be wise enough to rule, and those who were being ruled had to be wise enough to understand why and how that was going to happen.  The notes I speak of were called by James I “very partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits…”  In other words, the republicanism of Geneva dared to tell ruling monarchs how to rule well and in accordance with the will of God, and it dared to suggest that a king was not needed as neither the head of the church nor of the state.  James was having no one beneath his station make such claims.  Being the petulant little troll he is, he commissioned his own Bible a year after he took the throne, and after much brow beating and micro-managing, his version was ready to go a mere seven years later.  The Geneva Bible was banned and forbidden to print, though it was still printed as late as 1625.  It was an idea whose time had come, and the zeitgeist it reshaped is still in play to this day.

To hold this book in your hand, even with a modern binding, is touch history in a way no classically bound KJV can do for a person.  The facsimile printing means that the letter u looks like a v (and vice versa), an s looks like looks like an f, and several words use variant spellings because the English language was still in great deal of flux at the time and would continue to be so well after the age of Shakespeare.  That’s also part of why I wanted to compare it to the KJV I’ve got, to see how the language changed from one edition to the next.  Because I can, here are some samples I photographed from my own copy.

Yes, you see this correctly.  In addition to the Old and New Testaments, this edition of The Geneva Bible comes complete with translations of the Apocrypha!  Yet another selling point for me because I could compare them to my version from the Catholic Bible.  See, unlike the Church Fathers, the scholars and printers of this version believed in full disclosure of every surviving book from the Bible.  I sometimes wonder to think what might have been had the scrolls found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 had been included here in a more complete version, but that’s another tale for another time.

For anyone who appreciates history or religion on any level, and especially those with intent to study such things, this is a remarkable book to own.  It’s challenging in the extreme to try to read it if you’re unaccustomed to the print style, to say nothing of the linguistic gymnastics you’ll need to develop.  But as one who’s now done it, I can tell you it’s time well spent if you have the desire to go through it.

5 stars

8 thoughts on “The Geneva Bible, 1560 Edition

  1. What a treat! When I was 6 or 7 I discovered the first part of Genesis in RSV and read it over and over, for some reason while hiding in the cupboard under the stairs. I’ll never forget the exhilaration of discovering beauty in art for the first time. I still love the stories and the language without which of either it is difficult to understand our culture.

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    • For me it was always a confrontation early on. I didn’t discover the beauty of any of it until years later, but it made a world of difference in appreciation and understanding, just as it did with Shakespeare. I think the Bard actually helped me to unlock this, now that I think about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very cool. I find Bible translation fascinating, and while working on my Masters degree I took quite a few electives that allowed me to study English Bible translation history, translation theory, textual (“lower”) criticism, canonicity, etc..

    In hyper-conservative Christian circles the “KJV 1611” often receives undue reverence as the ONLY true and accurate Bible translation (all others are, of course, demonic counterfeits). Most KJV-only types don’t even know of the existence of the important and influential Geneva Bible or other Bible’s in the “Tyndale Stream” that predate the KJV. The KJVO position is completely untenable historically or theologically, and having a variety of translations to compare (“seditious” footnotes and all) is a huge benefit to those who cannot read the original languages.

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    • That’s the kind of scholarship I don’t have, though I have to admit, it grows more fascinating to me every year. To think about what kind of debate and consideration goes into something like that…

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      • There are some good resources regarding this kind of scholarship for the New Testament at http://www.ntresources.com (click the “resources” link to get to the good stuff). This site was run by my favorite seminary prof (Dr. Rodney Decker) who passed away a few years ago…someone else is maintaining the site now and a few of the links are broken, but there’s a lot of good info here. Some of it is very scholarly and may go over the head of someone not already into this (e.g. stuff on Koine Greek verbal aspect), but a lot of it is basic enough for the average person who does not have a background in it.

        What most people have read/heard about topics like textual criticism (dealing with variations between manuscripts) and canonicity (what books belong in the Bible) comes from the radical skeptic perspective best represented by Bart Ehrman (“Misquoting Jesus” “Lost Christianities” etc.). The resources linked on this page are more on the traditional-to-moderate side of the spectrum.

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