The Geneva Bible and the Authorised Version Compared 3

By Matthew Vogan

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 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 grant 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 tyat Moses speak 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”.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.” (p203).

 “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.” (SL 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 if 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, pp. 193, 194). 

There is every reason 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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