Geneva Bible: Precursor to the King James

Posted on August 20, 2019


By David Ettinger

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Note: This is a news story I wrote way back in 2004, and of which I think lovers of the Holy Bible will find fascinating.

The Geneva Bible of 1560, though later eclipsed in popularity by the famous King James Bible of 1611, served in a crucial transitional role between the Tyndale Bibles of the 1530s and the King James Bible of 1611.

A new project – produced by Dirk Eichhorst of ESPER JOSLYN FILMS, LLC, and Dr. Herbert Samworth, in Orlando, Florida, and in cooperation with Sola Scriptura and the Van Kampen Collection, located in The Scriptorium: Centre for Biblical Antiquities – will give the Geneva Bible the honor it so fittingly deserves.

“Many people are familiar William Tyndale and the work he did to translate the Bible into English from the original Greek and Hebrew” said Eichhorst, who is in charge of the video and audio side of the project. “Likewise, most people are familiar with the King James Bible.”

But not so with the Geneva Bible.

“There’s a 75-year gap between Tyndale’s death and the printing of the King James,” Eichhorst said. “Within that period, the Geneva Bible was printed.”

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Making an Impact
The impact of the Geneva Bible was immediate, profound, and crucial. “It became one of the most – if not the most – popular Bibles in England for many years,” Eichhorst said.

There are several reasons for this.

“For one thing, it was the first widely read Bible printed in Roman type, which was easier to read. It was also the first Bible to have study notes.”

Additionally, the Geneva Bible was more convenient than all of its predecessors.

“It was smaller than most Bibles that were used in the church, so it was the perfect Bible for the common person.”

And there was one other perk offered by the Geneva Bible: It was the first full-version English Bible to contain verse divisions – a feature that we take for granted today, but one that has made our study of the Bible much easier.

Unfortunately, the Geneva Bible would eventually become known as a transitional Bible, but that was not the case during the height of its popularity, according to Samworth, Curator at The Holy Land Experience and scholastic director of the Geneva Bible project.

“The people who lived at that time would not look at [the Geneva] as transitional,” he said. “We say it’s transitional because we’re looking back at the King James and Tyndale versions. This just brings out the fact that there is this gap between those two.”

Of course, the scholars – William Whittingham, Anthony Gilby, and Thomas Sampson among them – working on the Geneva Bible had no concept or intention of creating a transitional work. On the contrary, they were moving forward in the progress of making the Bible available for all people.

“The people working on the Geneva Bible would have looked upon it as building on the foundation of Tyndale,” Samworth said. “Of course, they had no way of knowing what was going to happen when the King James came along.”

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A New Project is Born
With this in mind, Eichhorst and Samworth decided to throw themselves into the Geneva Bible project.

“We thought that would be a good Bible to focus on because it’s not as well-known and, thanks to the generosity of the Van Kampen family and the staff at Sola Scriptura, we do have access to a copy of it in the Van Kampen Collection,” Eichhorst said.

The Van Kampen Collection is the world’s largest private assemblage of biblical antiquities, with artifacts dating back 2,200 years before Christ.

“Herb and I had been talking about doing something with The Scriptorium for quite sometime,” Eichhorst said. “We liked the idea of doing something, and Herb came up with the idea: ‘Let’s tell the story of the Geneva Bible.’”

With that, the undertaking was launched. However, according to Samworth, the project is far more than just dusting off a piece of history and putting it in on display. The Geneva Bible – and what it has meant to so many – is, so to speak, worthy of praise.

“As Dirk mentioned, it was really the first English Bible that was called a study Bible,” Samworth said. “When William Tyndale worked on his Bible, he included notes in it, but those notes were just talking about Scripture, the place of the Bible, and topics such as that.”

One of those topics, according to Samworth, was contrasting the desire of Reformers to give the Bible to the people as opposed to the Roman Catholic Church, which withheld the Bible from people. So, then, how is the Geneva Bible different from the Tyndale Bible?

“The Geneva actually has notes that help explain the text,” Samworth said. “Therefore, it is a study Bible in the truest sense. In other words, it’s one thing to have the Bible, but another to appreciate the Bible.”

And to appreciate the Bible, you need to understand the Bible.

“That’s what the notes [in the Geneva] accomplished,” Samworth said.

The House of Tudor Connection
However, the accomplishment of this task was not just the brainstorm of one or two church leaders who decided that the people needed a deeper comprehension of what they were reading when they delved into the Scriptures.

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Henry VIII

“You’ve got to put it in the context of the whole English Reformation,” Samworth said. “King Henry VIII (Henry Tudor) had died, and his son – Edward VI – was king for six years and then he died. And now we have the new queen.”

That queen, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the one who would forever be known as “Bloody Mary.”

“It was her goal to bring the church back into communion and fellowship with Rome,” Samworth said.

Of course, Henry was the king who broke from the Roman Catholic Church and began what was to become the Church of England and the Reformation era. Many in the Church of England saw Queen Mary’s efforts to return England to Catholic “rule” as a huge step backward and a threat to the “common” Christian’s effort to study the Bible in the privacy of his or her own home.

“You have people in Geneva who want to see the Reformation carried along and continuing in England,” Samworth said, adding that things were looking pretty dark in England. “People were being burned at the stake [as per Mary’s inclination to destroy the proponents of the Reformation]. “There were more and more reactionary laws attempting to bring the Church back into communion with Rome.”

But many church leaders were not in line with Mary’s wishes – especially those in Geneva.

“They felt that if they could build on Tyndale’s work and give the people a Bible they could study and understand, the faithful of England would be able to see the difference between what the Bible says is true worship of God and what was now being forced upon them again,” Samworth said.

With that, plans on a massive scale were made for a new version of the Bible that would set the direction of the Reformation for years to come.

Bible by Committee
However, the task for creating this new version of the Bible was so challenging that one man alone would not be able to do it.

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Queen Mary

“It was a committee,” Eichhorst said. “The Geneva was the first Bible produced by a group of men as opposed to just one man, such as William Tyndale translating by himself.”

“Tyndale,” Samworth added, “may have had one or two helpers, but he pretty much worked alone.”

Interestingly, the men who worked on the Geneva Bible hardly fit the image we often have today of “ivory castle” scholars.

“In some sense, they were fugitives from England,” Samworth said. “But in another sense, they were in the well-protected, safe environment of Geneva. In England, Tyndale, on the other hand, had to watch where he went.”

“In other words,” Eichhorst added, “the [committee] was made up of men who had fled to Geneva because of the danger in England.”

Because of this, Geneva became the center of Europe’s Reform activities. Church leader John Knox called the city of Geneva the “most perfect school of Christ.”

Working as a group, the Geneva committee produced a Bible that would have a tremendous impact on its readers.

“The Geneva Bible was a more accurate translation than the Tyndale,” Eichhorst said.

True, Samworth agreed, but primarily because of the work that had come before.

“They [the Geneva committee] were being aided by the advances of the day and the additional manuscripts made available to them [and not to Tyndale],” he said. “They had a very good Greek text, and excellent Latin and French translations. You have to remember that when the translators translated, they didn’t just sit there with a Greek text and write directly to English. They would consult every help they could find – Latin, French, German.”

According to Samworth, it is no surprise that a group of scholars working together could produce so powerful a work.

“The Bible tells us that there is safety in a multitude of counselors,” he said. “It’s a wonderful thing when you can bounce ideas, alternate translations, and have others who can stimulate you and help you as opposed to one man, no matter how gifted he is. We can never speak too highly of Tyndale’s work, but there is safety – and more accuracy – in a committee.”

And speaking of Tyndale, it is also important to remember that it was never the goal of the Geneva committee to make the Tyndale Bible obsolete. In fact, just the opposite is true.

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Edward VI

“The whole idea of Bible translation,” Samworth said, “is to build upon another’s work. There was recognition that what had been done before was really wonderful. Therefore, the Geneva committee was not trying to split with Tyndale, but to make their translation even better.”

Perfect Timing
Not only was the Geneva Bible an “even better” version than the Tyndale Bible, but it also came along at just the right time.

“You have to keep in mind the year 1537,” Samworth said. “Before that year, the Bible in English was illegal. So, all during Tyndale’s lifetime, all the work he did was basically illegal.”

And, sadly, Tyndale would not live to see the sweeping changes that would make his Bible a staple of English Christian homes.

“It was only after Tyndale’s death [at the stake] – a year after, in fact – that Henry VIII permitted the Bible to circulate freely,” Samworth said. “The Bibles that had previously been circulated in England had done so illegally. There were networks of people who smuggled them in.”

Under Henry, however, such covert operations were no longer needed.

“Therefore, there was much more accessibility to Bibles and the freedom to print them in a smaller size,” Samworth said.

And that was crucial.

“Because the Geneva could be printed in a smaller size,” Samworth explained, “it would be less expensive” – a welcome blessing for cash-strapped “commoners.”

All of which takes us back to Queen Mary. If wanting to restore England to the good graces of the Roman Catholic Church, wouldn’t she have tried to squash distributing a Bible to the common man? She probably wanted to, Samworth said, but it just wasn’t practical.

“That’s a fascinating thing. Her father [Henry VIII] had declared that the Bible was legal, and her half-brother [Edward VI] really promoted the Reformation cause.”

That’s all well and good, but Mary – clinging to the faith of her mother – was a staunch opponent of the Reformation.

“It’s interesting that Mary did not seek to prevent the sale of Bibles,” Samworth said. “She recognized that there come times in history when you can’t go back. In other words, when it came to the English people now having a Bible, there was no way you could return to pre-1537 practices.”

Changing Winds
So what became of the vast popularity the Geneva Bible had been enjoying for more than a half-century?

Queen Elizabeth

Well, for one thing, a rival sprung up. In 1558, Henry’s second daughter, Elizabeth, became Queen of England. Ten years later, in 1568, Elizabeth had developed a dislike for some of the notes in the Geneva Bible and would not allow it to be placed in English churches. She encouraged her bishops to revise the Great Bible of 1539. With that, a new Bible, the aptly named Bishop’s Bible, was born.

“So, at that point,” Samworth said, “you had two Bibles competing. The Geneva was far better than the Bishop’s Bible, and was still the most popular.”

And just what were some of the Geneva Bible notes that Queen Elizabeth found so disagreeable?

“She was opposed to the notes that cut against her view of herself as a divine-right ruler,” Samworth said. “The notes she opposed weren’t so much theological as they were political. For example, in the Book of Exodus, where the Hebrew midwives were ordered to drown the male children, there’s a note that says: ‘Their [the midwives’] disobedience in this was lawful, but their deception is evil.’ In other words, their actions were right, but they lied to the king. That bothered Elizabeth.”

Another Geneva note Elizabeth found distasteful was one in reference to King Asa, who, according to 2 Chronicles, had the queen mother being deposed for being an idolatress.

“The note said: ‘. . . in this he showed that he lacked zeal, for she should have died,’” Samworth said. “This was a sore spot for Elizabeth because it was striking out against divine right.”

Though most popular in the hearts of the people, the Geneva was to fall victim to even more politics. Following the death of Elizabeth in 1603, King James the VI ascended to the throne.

“After James became king,” Samworth explained, “a conference was held in 1604 at Hampton Court. One of the things that was decided there was to produce a new version of the Scriptures to settle the rivalry between the Geneva and Bishop Bibles.”

And this despite the fact that James had been raised on the Geneva Bible!

This was how the King James Bible came about, and it made its debut in 1611 – but not to rave reviews.

“Interestingly,” Samworth said, “when the King James Bible was first printed, nobody liked it.”

And there’s a simple reason for this.

“In my opinion, the Geneva Bible IS superior,” Samworth said. “The men who worked on the Geneva Bible were tremendous translators. The King James Bible traces its lineage back through the Bishop’s Bible and that was not a very good Bible.”

Also, the King James Bible didn’t have study notes to help the people more thoroughly understand the Scriptures.

“For the average person who wants to know both God and the Scriptures better,” Samworth added, “the Geneva Bible was the Bible of the Puritan, the Pilgrim, and the Separatist. It was the Bible that came over on the Mayflower. It was a far better choice.”

King James Bible

The public agreed
The King James Bible, contrary to what many people may think, did not sell well, Samworth said. Though not happy with minimal sales of his namesake Bible, England’s King did little to intervene.

“It was tough for King James,” Samworth said. “First of all, he was following a very popular and powerful monarch [Elizabeth]. Also, he was from Scotland. He did not want to go against what the public wanted and, therefore, allowed the Geneva Bible to outsell the one named for him.”

As a result, the Geneva Bible continued in its popularity, and would do so through King James’ death in 1625. Then things changed.

Beginning of the End
James’ son, Charles I, took over the throne, and he was not as reluctant as his father to stir up the populace. Working with William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the King made sweeping changes in which version of the Bible the faithful of England would be using.

“Both men believed in uniformity of state and uniformity of Church,” Samworth said. “One way to do that was to have just one version of the Bible.”

To accomplish this goal, Laud put a ban on printing the Geneva Bible in England and banned imports of the Bible from publishing houses in other countries.

“King Charles declared that the King James Bible was the one the people were going to use,” Samworth said.

Because of King Charles’ actions, the Geneva Bible began to wane in popularity, with the last edition published in Amsterdam in 1644.

“I can’t prove this,” Samworth said, “but I believe that had the Geneva Bible not contained those notes – the ones Queen Elizabeth so disliked – we may have never had a King James Bible.”