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What is the Geneva Bible?

Geneva Bible audio

The Geneva Bible is an early English translation of the Bible. Its name comes from the fact it was first published in Geneva in 1560. The work of Protestant exiles from England and Scotland, the Geneva Bible is well respected and was an important Bible in Scotland and England before and even after the King James Version was published in 1611. For some forty years after the King James Version was published, the Geneva Bible remained the most popular English translation of the Bible.

In 1553 Mary Tudor became Queen of England. As Queen she was committed to eliminating Protestant influences in England and restoring Roman Catholicism as the official religion. Under her rule there was a time of intense persecution of Protestants known as the Marian Persecutions, which earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” She had over 300 Protestant believers burned at the stake, and many others fled to other countries rather than face certain death for not supporting Roman Catholicism.

During this time period, several key English Protestant leaders fled to Geneva, Switzerland, to avoid the persecution in England. Among them were Miles Coverdale, John Foxe, Thomas Sampson, and William Whittingham. With the support of John Calvin and the Scottish Reformer John Knox, these English Reformers decided to publish an English Bible that was not dependent upon the approval of English royalty. Building upon earlier English translations such as those done by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale, the Geneva Bible was the first English translation in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from Hebrew manuscripts. Much of the translation work was done by William Whittingham, the brother-in-law of John Calvin.

In 1557 they published an English New Testament. A few years later, in 1560, the first edition of the Geneva Bible was published in Geneva, Switzerland, containing both the New and Old Testaments along with significant translation notes. This new English Bible was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth I, who had been crowned Queen of England in 1558 after the death of Queen Mary I. Under Queen Elizabeth, the persecution of Protestants stopped, and she began leading England back toward Protestantism. This led to later editions of the Geneva Bible being published in England beginning in 1576. In all, over 150 editions were published, with the 1644 version being the last.

Pre-dating the King James Version by 51 years, the Geneva Bible was one of the earliest mass-produced English Bibles commonly available to the public. It was the primary English Bible used by 16th-century English Protestant Reformers. William Shakespeare alluded to the Geneva Bible in his plays more than any other version. John Milton and John Bunyan also made use of the Geneva Bible.

Often considered one of the earliest examples of a study Bible, the Geneva Bible contained detailed notes, verse citations that allowed cross-referencing of passages, and also study aids such as book introductions, maps, and woodcut illustrations. It was printed in at least three different sizes and was reasonably affordable, costing less than a week’s wages even for the lowest paid workers.

The annotations or notes in the Geneva Bible were distinctly Calvinist and Puritan in character, which made the translation unpopular with some of the pro-government Church of England leaders as well as King James I. This led King James I to commission the new translation that would become known as the Authorized Version or the King James Bible. Surprisingly, though, some of the Geneva notes were found in a few editions of the King James Bible up to the 1715 version. The Geneva Bible was also seen as a threat to Roman Catholicism, as some of its notes, written by Protestant Reformers during a time of intense persecution by the Roman Catholic Church, are distinctly anti-Roman Catholic.

Eventually, the King James Version would replace the Geneva Bible as the most popular English translation. The Geneva Bible is a very important English translation and was the primary Bible used by many early settlers in America. In recent years it has gained popularity again, both because it is an excellent translation and because of its well-written study notes.

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What is the Geneva Bible?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022