The Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version Compared 2

By Matthew Vogan

We closed the last article by considering the hand of divine providence in bringing about the Geneva Bible. It is instructive to compare the providential way in which the Authorised Version came into existence.

The Providence of God in the Authorised Version Project

We observed that in 1601 King James VI of Scotland hinted at his desire for a revision of the Geneva Bible. Within two years the same king was making his way south to be crowned king of England, Wales and Ireland as well as Scotland. He was to be met by the puritan Millenary Petition, to which he responded by calling the Hampton Court Conference in 1604.

As we all no doubt well know, a revision of the English Bible was not on the agenda for discussion. The matter was brought up by John Reynolds (the leader of the Puritans) when many of their grievances appeared to be falling upon deaf ears. It appeared to both the king and the puritans that a new translation would be desirable in order to unite differences, and to remove a favourite criticism of the Roman Catholics that the Protestants could not agree on one translation.

James responded enthusiastically and also made known his dislike of the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible which he regarded as politically subversive. In the providence of God, however, what we might call a throwaway remark from the leader of the Puritans became the catalyst for a most significant endeavour and the heart of the king was in the hand of the Lord to turn it in this noble direction.

When we consider the matter carefully, the AV owes its origins to puritan initiative. In the process of translating, approximately a quarter of the forty-seven translators could be described as men of Puritan sympathies. This is significant when compared with the overall numbers of puritan ministers in the Church of England at the time – nearer 10%.

Providence had appointed the right time for such a project. The history of the Reformation English Bible can be compared to a river running deeper, wider and fuller until it reached this high watermark.

 1. A high watermark of biblical scholarship.

Scholarship in the Hebrew and Greek languages had come to their highest point since the recovery of this knowledge at the time of the Renaissance. It appears that this was what John Reynolds had in view in proposing a revision. It is worth noting the unique British expertise that existed in Hebrew at the time.

One writer noted that this was so much the case that unless a theologian could “understand handsomely well the Hebrew text, he is counted but a maimed, or as it were half a divine, especially in this learned age.”

Scholarship, especially Hebrew scholarship, had much improved in England since the mid-sixteenth century. The excellent continental scholars Fagius, Tremellius and Chevalier had been brought over to teach Hebrew at Cambridge, the early dictionaries and grammars upon which Tyndale and his successor depended had been revised or superseded, and there was more knowledge of the cognate languages, Aramaic and Syriac. Increasing familiarity with Jewish commentaries on the Old Testament was an important factor in bible study and translation. S.L. Greenslade, English Versions of the Bible A.D. 1525-1611, The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. S. L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), page 144.

2. A High watermark of doctrinal unity.

The Church of England was also still, largely speaking, genuinely united around a Reformed statement of doctrine. There were clear differences in practice, but Arminianism and other errors had not gained a foothold. The Calvinistic Lambeth Articles expressed the convictions of most. These would now be more fully embodied in the Irish Articles of 1615 and worked out more fully by the English representatives at the Synod of Dort (1618).

The main controversies within the Church of England at this time were not those relating to the way of salvation. Rather they concerned issues of church government, rites and liturgy that arose from the imposition of royal authority over the Church.

3. A high watermark of development within the English language.

David Daniell observes that the English language was at a peak in 1611. It was the era that Samuel Johnson called “the golden age of our language.” The English language was at a point in its development where it was possible to take the best of both past and present in order to reflect the key forms of the divine original accurately.

4. How did the Geneva Bible influence the AV?

The Geneva Bible was the single greatest influence on the King James Version, with approximately 19% of its text adopted unaltered as opposed to 4% of the Bishops Bible. Moreover, 18% of the whole Bible in the AV owed to Tyndale’s translation, which is significantly high. It is often said that 83% of the AV derived from Tyndale but this refers to the NT rather than the whole. Tyndale did not of course survive to translate all of the Scriptures. 39% was original to the AV translators.

Leland Ryken has assessed the influences accurately therefore in concluding that the Geneva Bible “contributed more than any other version to the King James Bible of 1611” (Worldly Saints, page 138). Gerald Hammond is likewise correct in asserting that “the Geneva Bible, not the Bishops’ Bible, became the foundation of the Authorised Version” (Making of the English Bible, page 144). This assessment makes it possible to understand David Daniell’s claim that when the AV preface states the translators’ aim to make one good [translation] better, they “were referring to the Geneva Bible,” and not the Bishops’ Bible. Indeed when the Preface itself quotes Scripture it is very often drawn from the Geneva Bible. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), page294.

The degree of similarity between the Geneva and the AV is clear when we look at a familiar passage such as Psalm 23 in the Geneva translation. The words that differ have been highlighted in bold

1 A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2 He maketh me to rest in green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.

3 He restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.

4 Yea, though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

5 Thou doest prepare a table before me in the sight of mine adversaries: thou doest anoint mine head with oil, and my cup runneth over.

6 Doubtless kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall remain a long season in the house of the Lord.


The Geneva bible was the first translation to introduce numbered verse divisions, which the AV inherited. The benefits of distinct verses helped in Bible study and exposition, and a variety of other contexts. As Gerald Hammond observes, in a poetic passage like Psalm 23 the verse divisions make each unit of poetry self-contained. The way in which lines of Hebrew poetry echo each other as parallelisms becomes much clearer (Hammond, page 113). It also helped the translation process by providing more manageable units of text and giving a tighter more powerful focus on every word.

The Geneva Bible gave the English people not only a verse-divided, thoughtfully annotated, easily acquired and portable version of the Scriptures, but one whose translation itself was the equal in scholarship of anything that had appeared on the continent, and whose style was, in more than its basics, the style of the Authorised Version. (Hammond page 135-6).

The Geneva Bible made the modern Bible what it is in its very layout and presentation. To look at a Geneva Bible is to see something recognisably similar to our modern Bibles. It used a modern roman typeface for the first time rather than a medieval gothic style lettering. It was also cheaply produced in a compact, portable form in order to make it as widely accessible as possible. The page layout has a margin, cross references, chapter headings, page headings. It was also the first translation to use the valuable feature of the AV where words that have been supplied to complete the sense but not strictly in the original are noted in italics. With its marginal comments, a concordance, reading plan as well as explanations of the weights and measurements used in the Bible it was, in many ways, the original study bible. It was also the first Bible to be published with metrical psalms appended. 


The Geneva translators stated that their aim was to be as literal as possible. They even aimed at reproducing the qualities of the Hebrew and Greek in English so as to aim at a sort of Biblical English. This was the constant aim of the Reformation translators in English, and it was consummately achieved in the AV. The Geneva translators acknowledged that such phrases “may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well practiced” but the implication was that practice would make perfect. It was not shaped towards the lowest level of society yet it was overwhelmingly popular there as everywhere else. Sometimes, however, the translators kept the most literal phrase for the margin. They were conscious that they were providing the Bible now for individual Bible study as much as for reading in Church and that they had to provide extra help for those reading at home.

5. Did the AV come short of the high standard of the Geneva Bible?

In the previous article we referred to some relatively common unfavourable comparisons made between the Geneva and the AV. The prejudice most frequently alleged is that the whole agenda behind the AV was A political act by reactionary bishops against the Geneva Bible. When we consider the facts more closely, however, this case does not stand up to scrutiny. There were not an inordinate number of bishops on the translation committee as there had been with the Bishops Bible. The rules given to the translators clearly required them to use the Bishops Bible as their base text and to diverge from it as little as possible. It is evident, however, from what we have considered above, that they did not do this but rather gave preference to the Geneva Bible itself.

Another line of argument is that the very use of the word “bishop” in translating the Pastoral Epistles gives evidence of a deliberate attempt to protect Episcopalianism. But when we look up the Geneva Bible in a passage such as 1 Timothy 3:1, we can see that it too uses “bishop.” The AV cannot therefore be charged with introducing this word as if the translators manifested an episcopal bias. Further, the AV also follows the Geneva in adopting “overseers” in Acts 20:28 to translate the word episkopoi, elsewhere translated as bishop.

Our conviction is – and we believe that the close comparison of GB and AV will reveal this – that rather than coming short of the Geneva, the AV attains to a yet higher standard of translation. 


Although they often reproduced the original Hebrew or Greek in English faithfully, the Geneva translators were (as mentioned previously) far more likely to put the most literal form into the margin rather than the text. For instance the AV in Genesis 2:17 reads “in the day that thou eatest thereof”. In the Geneva this is “whensoever thou eatest,” with the margin containing the literal reading “in the day.”

Genesis 23:1 reads “And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: these were the years of the life of Sarah” (AV). The Geneva has “When Sarah was an hundred twenty and seven year old (so long lived she).” The margin has the words “the years of the life of Sarah.” Not only is the AV rendering more literal, it also sounds more poetic. Another instance from the life of Abraham is in Genesis 15:12 “an horror of great darkness fell upon him” (AV). In the Geneva this is “a very fearful darkness fell upon him” while the margin notes “a fear of great darkness.”

Perhaps we take literal renderings for granted in the AV such as 1 Samuel 23:16 “Jonathan went to David and strengthened his hand in God.” The Geneva renders this “Jonathan went to David and comforted him in God,” but it notes in the margin the literal phrase “his hand.” We can see what Gerald Hammond meant in relation to the AV in observing that “its word order is for many verses at a time the word order of the original and it translates the great majority of Hebrew idioms literally.”

The comparison is also clear in Exodus 32:32, a very moving passage where Moses is interceding for Israel. There is an abrupt pause in the words that Moses speaks, and many see a need to add words to complete the sense. The Geneva does this but adds italics to show this in a way that modern translations do not. “Therefore now, if thou pardon their sin, thy mercy shall appear (italics): but if thou wilt not, I pray thee, rase me out of thy book.” It is unlikely that additional words are, however, needed. It seems that the direct speech is being reported as it took place. It is an incomplete sentence because he recognises both the enormity of their sin and that there is no reason inherent in the people of Israel for them to be forgiven.

There is also a dramatic pause after Moses requests forgiveness on behalf of Israel while he steps forward to present not their, but his, destruction as the alternative. “Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin-; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book” (AV). The AV relays the power and force of the intercession that Moses makes.

Such comparisons are evident in the New Testament also. In 1 Peter 1:7 for instance we find the phrase “that the trial of your faith … might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” The question of interpretation relates to the words “unto praise” and to whom the praise would be directed. Since it is “your faith,” should it also be “your praise”? Or is the praise to God alone? As Ward Allen notes the Geneva and the Bishop’s Bible had added extra words such as “your” or “to be unto you” in order to interpret the praise as accruing to the believer. The AV, however, followed Tyndale in translating the words simply as they are in the Greek without additions. The translators record the alternatives in their notes: “that is to say, praise of God, or your praise” (see: They believed that the grammar of the Greek gave no authority for making explicit either interpretation. This was not a desire for obscurity, however, but a refusal to impose interpretation in translation.

Romans 12:3 provides another example, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” The notes left by the AV translators show that they were aware of a double meaning here in the Greek word which literally means to have high thoughts. “These words condemn both arrogance and inquisitiveness: inquisitiveness truly both in inquiring into subtle things, and in pursuing those things which do not pertain to us and our office.” Previous translations had either rendered it that none should esteem themselves more than they ought or that they ought not to be wise overmuch. Thus the Geneva says “no man presume to understand above that which is meet to understand.” The words “more highly” in the AV were not in previous translations but besides being the most literal option they allow for both possible meanings.

More literal renderings

Some of the examples given above hint at the fact that the Geneva occasionally does more than translate, sometimes it strays towards interpretation. The following examples from the Epistle of James demonstrate this. James 1:17 reads “shadowing by turning” (GB) rather than “shadow of turning” (AV). James 2:6 contains “oppress you by tyrannie” rather than simply “oppress you.” There is “warm yourselves, fill your bellies” (GB) rather than “be warmed and filled” (2:16). In James 5:11 the Geneva reads “what end the Lord made,” rather than “the end of the Lord.”

The AV also removed some of the inaccuracies of Geneva Bible. In Hebrews 4:11, Geneva had the term “disobedience;” it really should be “unbelief.” John 1:3 is also unsatisfactory. Geneva reads “All things were made by it [rather than Him, i.e. Christ], and without it nothing was made that was made.” Daniel 9:26 is another important verse that is frequently mistranslated. The Geneva reads “shall Messiah be slain, and shall have nothing.” It should be “cut off but not for himself” as an important reference to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. 

Greater Majesty in translation

The Tyndale Bible and the Geneva Bible had their own beauty and character, but the AV is a significant improvement in this area. It is important to remember that this beauty was achieved, not at the expense of accuracy, but rather as a consequence of greater accuracy. The result was what McGrath calls “eloquence by accident” (page 203).

“… it is sometimes forgotten that the effect of the translation depends ultimately on the qualities of the original, and that the majority of its variants result not from literary taste but from the advance of scholarship” (S.L. Greenslade).

It may be that the AV translators had a greater sense of how the translation would sound to the ear compared to many others. It certainly conforms itself entirely to the natural way that someone reads English by placing the syllable stresses in the appropriate places. Most fluent English speakers use similar patterns of stress, putting emphasis in the same places.

One aspect that assists this is the heavier and more deliberate punctuation used in the AV. There is a greater use of colons, semi-colons and full stops to indicate how it should be read. This clear punctuation creates rhythms that influence reading. Ordinarily a stress position for the purposes of reading would be a semi-colon, colon, full stop but never usually a comma. Yet the Geneva mostly uses commas.

Where there are two clauses, the Geneva Bible tends to render these of equal length, but in the AV the second is longer. This creates a different emphasis. Creating more stresses renders more “peaks and valleys” in the prose and produces a poetical result with more beats and rhythm as the language flows. I recall hearing a minister not used to reading the AV remark how easily it flowed without practice and effort. It carries the reader along with it. Listen to Psalm 105:8:

Geneva: He hath alway remembered his covenant and promise, that he made to a thousand generations.

AV: He hath remembered his covenant for ever: the word which he commanded to a thousand generations.

Consider closely also the differences Genesis 1:1-2

Geneva: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.”

AV: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”

The changes are slight but increase accuracy and rhythm at the same time. “It is as solemn and orderly as the beginning of a steady and majestic march” (Adam Nicholson, God’s Secretaries, pages 193,194). There is every reason, then, to believe that the AV raised the bar for translation yet higher and, as they expressed it themselves, made a very good translation even better.

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