• David Lee Brown

The Geneva Bible, a Brief History



The Geneva Bible was one of the great triumphs of the protestant reformation. It was primarily derived from the translations of William Tyndale, who was the first translator to locate and use ancient manuscripts in his English translation. Earlier translations were direct translations of the Latin Vulgate. Tyndale was a master of 8 languages, including Hebrew and Greek. His translation still represents about 90% of the current King James Version. Almost all of the Geneva Bible was Tyndale’s translation.

The Geneva Bible was proceeded by the Coverdale, Matthews and the Great Bible which were all English translations. The Geneva Bible was completed in 1560 and printed in Geneva Switzerland and then revised in 1599. You may ask, why were they printed in Geneva? Well, during the reign of Queen Mary I of England (1553–58), also known as “Bloody Mary” the protestants were persecuted. She ordered the entire British Empire to convert to Catholicism. Anyone that was found with a Bible written in the English language was killed. Hundreds were burned at the stake. Many protestant scholars fled England at that time and settled temporarily in Geneva, Switzerland.

Several years before Mary took over it was still illegal to have a Bible printed in the English language. It was during the time before Mary that Tyndale was put to death for translating the Bible into English. He was strangled, burned at the stake, and the remaining fragments of his body were buried. Later, I believe during the Reign of Mary, his remains were dug up, pulverized and thrown into a nearby river. They didn’t like him very much. Tyndale was a persecuted and unappreciated genius who died a horrible martyr’s death in 1536.

These scholars that survived Bloody Mary came together to produce the Geneva Bible. It could be referred to as the first study Bible. It was an easy to carry, easy to read masterpiece that had numerous marginal notes to help the reader understand the scripture. That made it the most popular English version of the Bible up to about 1690 and then it’s popularity began to be superseded by the King James Version, known in England as the Authorized Version. Even though the Geneva Bible was losing ground it was still popular through the mid 1800 and was even carried into battle by soldiers during the American Civil War, April 1861- April 1865.

The Geneva Bible was the primary version of the Bible of the puritans. It was on the Mayflower when the ship landed in Portsmouth Massachusetts in 1620. It was a huge part of the lives of the original colonists of America and was carried by the original explorers of America as they explored, founded towns and established our original 13 colonies.

The Last printing of the Geneva Bible occurred in 1644. These Bibles became family Bibles that were passed down to following generations and a few originals are still in museums and private collections. Modern reprints of the Geneva Bible are available for purchase right now, and it’s available at www.biblegateway.com to read online, free of charge.

The Geneva Bible is the Bible that was quoted by William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, and John Bunyan, who was the author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” These great authors, that helped to mold the English language were strongly influenced by the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible remained the most popular version of the Bible until about 1690, when the King James Version became the most popular. Due to the unequaled quality and literary eloquence of the King James Version (KJV) it is the overwhelming Bible of choice in the English-speaking world today. It is losing ground to the NIV and ESV which are easier to read but have little eloquence (expressiveness, persuasiveness) as compared to the KJV.

I enjoy looking up verses in the Geneva Bible as I study my KJV, just to get the insight of the original translator’s thoughts as listed in their notes. I also like to compare verses to increase my knowledge base. While my preferred Bible is the KJV, mining other Bible versions for insights is worth the effort, as long as you understand that the KJV is the gold standard English version and it should be the last word pertaining to conflicting translations.

Look over the Geneva Bible and see what you think. After all, it was the Bible of choice for over 130 years, and for some American colonists, the Bible of choice for over 200 years.


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