The Geneva Bible and Authorised Version compared 1

By Matthew Vogan

The Geneva Bible was one of impeccable Reformation credentials. The main translator, William Whittingham, was even a brother-in-law to Calvin himself. Produced in Geneva by Reformers with the help of the best learning of the Reformed Churches, its marginal comments bore the hallmark of unflinching adherence to orthodox doctrine and readiness to suffer in the face of persecution.


So significant are the Reformation credentials of the Geneva Bible that some have regarded the Authorised Version as an Anglican backward step from the high point of this Reformed, Puritan translation. Some even suggest that this it was a deliberate endeavour on the part of the establishment to subvert this authentically Puritan translation. Can this be credited however?


Have we been passed on something that is less than The Reformation Bible in English? To put it in a less pejorative way: Which is the Bible that most fully reflects Reformation principles? These are searching and perhaps even troubling questions if we place the value that we ought upon possessing a translation that is as accurate as possible.


Some naturally have the desire to champion that which has been neglected. To some extent, the Geneva Bible is an unjustly forgotten translation; there are a considerable number of features (which we hope to consider later DV) that ought to make it better known.

Yet, the sharp contrast drawn between the Geneva and the Authorised Version is overdrawn. Such is their close similarity that it makes more sense to compare rather than contrast them. The comparison will reveal the degree to which the above assertions may or may not be true. It will disclose the amount that these translations may have in common. We will seek to ask seven key questions in order to make the comparison.

  1. What was the common heritage shared by these translations?

This will reveal the extent to which both are indebted to the previous translations of the Reformation period.


  1. What was the common source of these translations?

This will consider the providentially preserved texts of the Hebrew and Greek on which they drew.


  1. How did Providence bring about these translations?

We ought to consider the superintending providence of God in relation to both translations in order to value each.


  1. How did the Geneva Bible influence the Authorised Version?

Our enquiry will show that the Geneva was in fact the single greatest influence on the AV.


  1. Did the Authorised Version come short of the high standard of the Geneva Bible?

Some have made this claim; careful comparison, however, will put it to the test.


  1. What was the legacy of these translations?

We will have greater appreciation as we compare the impact they have had under the special providence of the Most High.


  1. Can we regard the replacement of the Geneva Bible as equivalent to modern replacements for the Authorised Version?

This is a very relevant question. It makes the whole subject highly applicable to us. Some want to undermine the AV by setting up an unfavourable contrast with the Geneva Bible which then allows them to champion a modern version in its stead. Others take the opposite tack in order to say that we ought to see modern versions as an improvement on the AV in the way that it improved on the Geneva. When carefully assessed the claim is not, however, valid.


  1. What was the common heritage shared by these translations?


William Tyndale and the Reformation Bible in English

The common heritage shared by the Geneva and the AV includes the fruit of William Tyndale’s astonishing gift for shaping the English language to fit the Hebrew and Greek original. He said, “I had no man to imitate, neither was helped with English of any that had interpreted the same or such like thing in the Scripture beforetime.”


The result was not simply a highly translation, but one that contained a simple, clear and rhythmical beauty. It is said that 83% of the AV New Testament derives from Tyndale’s translation. The proportion for the Geneva is similar. Familiar phrases from Tyndale come to us through the Geneva: “from time to time”; “fell flat on his face”; and “pour out your heart.” As David Daniell has put it:

Tyndale gave us our Bible language. No sets of words in English have ever been so deeply considered by so many good minds in our nation for so long, and then carried so far in space and time through the KJV (Bible in English, page 263).


Coverdale and Geneva

We should not, however, forget the contribution made by Coverdale who completed the Reformation English Bible. He used his knowledge of various languages to bring the full Bible into English. He wrote: “Though I could not do so well as I would, I thought it yet my duty to do my best and that with a good will” (page 68, Hammond). Whatever ability he possessed in the biblical languages, he was an excellent stylist in the English language with an unparalleled ear for words. David Daniell writes of Coverdale’s “incalculable shaping of the nation’s moral and religious sense through the reading aloud in every parish” from his translation (Bible in English page 218). Coverdale was especially able to capture the parallelism of the original Hebrew poetry. The familiar rhythms of the prose psalms owe a significant debt to his labours.


Coverdale was also to work on the Genevan translation project. Besides, the work done in English, the Geneva Bible made significant use of Reformation translations such as Pierre Olievetan’s French Bible and various Latin bibles.


The AV

Fifty years separate the work of the AV and the Geneva translators, a greater interval compared to several decades. By the time the AV was being translated, moreover, there had been almost a century of Reformation endeavour in doctrine and translation in almost all other European languages and various further Latin translations. The AV translators had the advantage of that which had gone before – including the Geneva. Thus, the title page acknowledges freely that it was “diligently compared with the former translations”. The Preface states:


Truly (good Christian Reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, … but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against.” “For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already…the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if anything be halting, or superfluous, or not so agreeable to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place.


Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and later thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, if we, building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen by their labours, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they [the earlier translators], we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.


The AV translators synthesised the best of all the previous translations into English, blending together their sometimes opposing tendencies. Benson Bobrick shows how this was achieved:


In a cumulative way, all the virtues of the various translations which preceded it were gathered up. Tyndale had coined words and phrases like ‘peace maker,’ ‘passover,’ ‘long-suffering,’ ‘scapegoat,’ ‘the Lord’s Anointed,’ ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ ‘filthy lucre,’ ‘the salt of the earth,’ and ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ Coverdale, ‘tender mercies,’ ‘respect of persons,’ ‘lovingkindness,’ ‘pride of life,’ ‘enter thou into the joy of the Lord,’ ‘the valley of the shadow of death;’ the Geneva Bible, ‘Vanity of vanities,; ‘except a man be born again,’ ‘smite them hip and thigh,’ ‘remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,’ ‘Solomon in all his glory,’ ‘a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump,’ and other unforgettable turn of phrase. From the Bishops’ Bible came: ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness,’ ‘less than the least of all the saints,’ ‘Sufficient unto the day, is the evil thereof,’ and ‘Rend your hearts and not your garments.’ And from the Second Wycliffe version came ‘gave up the ghost,’ ‘well stricken in age,’ ‘held his peace,’ ‘three score and ten,’ ‘strait is the gate and narrow the way,’ and ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ (Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired, 2002, page 258).


“The KJV ‘was no sudden miracle but rather the harvesting or refining of the previous century’s experience in translating the Bible into English. Tyndale, Coverdale, and their successors stand behind it,’” quoting Craig R. Thompson, Ryken, English, page 60. As Gerald Hammond observes, the AV can justly be described as “a Bible which took ninety years to make.” It was the crowning masterpiece of God’s work of Reformation in the British Isles.


  1. What was the common source of these translations?

The Geneva and AV both derived from a common source in terms of the Greek and Hebrew of the biblical texts. They used printed editions of the Greek manuscripts known as the Received Text. These texts only became widely available due to two events in history. The first was the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Many Greek scholars fled that city for Western Europe and brought with them the preserved knowledge and documents of Greek civilisation that helped spark the Renaissance. Crucially they brought the NT manuscripts preserved by God’s special providence in the constant use of the Greek Church. Erasmus was to use the work of scholars from Byzantium, as well as their material in publishing the first edition of the Greek New Testament in 1516. This in turn helped the Reformation recovery of truth from the original languages of Scripture.


Printing was only possible because these events coincided with the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in 1439. He produced a printed Latin Bible in 1455 and a Hebrew Bible was first printed around 30 years later.


Key scholars in Geneva such as Robert Estienne (Stephanus) and Theodore Beza refined the work that Erasmus had begun. Thus, the AV translators had access to the standard text produced by Beza in 1598 while the Geneva did not. The differences were not significant, however, in comparison with the editions of the Greek New Testament favoured by critical scholars today, which are based on very different manuscripts. The Reformation Greek New Testament was the Received Text which represented the manuscripts which had been preserved in the Church down through the centuries.


  1. How did Providence bring about these translations?

The hand of Providence can be seen in the production of the Geneva. The Most High brought together in one place those who might not otherwise have had time to work alongside each other or else would have been prevented by significant distance.


Specimen conditions – ideal location

Although these men were driven into exile though persecution, providence provided them a haven that afforded specimen conditions for the work of translation. Indeed it has been said that Geneva was the ideal location to produce a new translation. Gerald Hammond notes that ironically “a great deal of the credit” for the Geneva should go to Mary Tudor. “It was her wholehearted persecution of the English Protestants which meant that Geneva … was well stocked with English refugees who had both example and opportunity to make a new version of the Bible.”


Nearly 1,000 Puritans fled from England to Geneva at this time. Geneva was not only the centre of Reformed Protestantism at the time, it was also a centre of biblical scholarship in the 1550s with more than 20 editions of the New and Old Testaments and complete Bibles in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish being produced. The best scholar-printers in Europe were there.


With men such as Beza producing work of renowned biblical scholarship it was “a power-house of textual research and translation into European vernaculars, of secular classics as well as of Scripture” (Daniell). Thus the Geneva Bible became “a locus of Renaissance and Reformation scholarship, a triumph of textual, theological, and linguistic excellencies, universally admired” (David Daniell, Introduction to Tyndale’s New Testament, xii)


Geneva Translators acknowledged their debt to Providence

The Geneva translators acknowledged their readiness to make use of the unique situation God had brought about:


Seeing the great opportunity and occasions, which God presented unto us in this church, by reason of so many godly and learned men and such diversities of translations in divers tongues, we undertook this great and wonderful work … which now God according to his divine providence and mercy hath directed to a most prosperous end.


Others had engaged in this work of translation into English before, “yet, considering the infancy of those times, and imperfect knowledge of the tongues, in respect of this ripe age and clear light which God hath now revealed, the translations required greatly to be perused and reformed.” Here the translators refer to the fact that Tyndale had only translated around the first half of the Old Testament from Hebrew. The rest was translated by John Rogers and Miles Coverdale, but their limited expertise meant that the work needed improving.


The title page to the Geneva Bible visually recorded the way that providence had effected deliverance for the people of God in sweeping Mary Tudor off the throne. An illustration depicts Moses and the children of Israel standing at the banks of the Red Sea, hemmed in by mountains on either side, with Pharaoh’s chariots and soldiers bearing down upon them. A way of deliverance is opened up suddenly and remarkably with the destruction of God’s enemies.

While the Geneva Bible was published after the death of Mary Tudor, it was a project undertaken during the time of persecution. The fact they completed this work in around three years is certainly remarkable. It was ready at exactly the right time to serve the new period of reformation in both England and Scotland.


Some have noted that it was an opportune time in that reading material (whether secular or religious) was not yet widely available. The books most widely obtainable besides the Bible were the Prayer Book and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This helped the Geneva Bible to become widely read. The physical evidence of the copies of the Geneva Bible that have survived shows that they were literally read to bits.


With its explanatory notes and helps to private reading, it was overwhelmingly popular. The forthright assertions in the notes could be rather unsettling for those in authority, and Elizabeth soon set about getting the Bishops to produce in 1568 their own translation which was not of high quality nor widely used.


In Scotland, however, the Geneva Bible (particularly with its metrical psalms appended) became a crucial means of establishing the Reformation. It was the official Bible version authorised by the Church and Parliament in 1576. The first printing in Scotland in 1579 was authorised by James VI of Scotland.


By 1601, however, it was agreed in the Scottish Church that revision was required. King James was particularly keen on this because of the notes that favoured resistance against tyrannical monarchs. No progress was made, however, but the seed of a significant project had been sown in the mind of the king.


(To be continued)

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