The Geneva Bible

Patricia Serak 


In the history of the English Bible, the Geneva Bible of 1560 stands alone in innovation and impact. It is a Bible of "firsts." To name just some of its innovations, the Geneva Bible is the first English Bible to use contemporary verse divisions, the first to use italicized words where English required more than a literal Greek rendering, and the first English Bible translated completely from the Biblical languages.

However, the Geneva Bible is more than just a novelty in English Bible history. It is a Bible of profound impact. Some consider the Geneva Bible of 1560 to be "the most influential of the many English translations of the Scriptures." It was the most influential Bible of the 16th and 17th centuries in England, Scotland, and New England, and its theology and innovation are still impacting us today. The Geneva Bible’s influence has been estimated as "incalculable."

Not only was the Geneva Bible innovative and influential, it has a remarkable history. The Geneva Bible, named after the city where it was first published, was a product of vicious persecution of the English reformers. Its marginal notes edified the people and infuriated a King. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of the English Puritans and of the English speaking Protestants, and was brought to America by the Pilgrims.

The purpose of this paper is to review three aspects of the history of this landmark Bible; its report, rule, and role. The "report" of the Geneva Bible will describe its historical context and the Bible itself. The "rule" of the Geneva Bible will look at its popularity. The "role" of the Geneva Bible will examine its influence.

A range of historical reference materials and the Geneva Bible itself will be used to review the Geneva Bible from these three perspectives. While the different editions will be mentioned in the paper, the focus will be on the first edition of the whole Geneva Bible of 1560.

Geneva Bible: Historical Report

The Historical Stage

The historical context of the Geneva Bible was the reformation and a time of persecution in England. William Tyndale’s New Testament, the first New Testament printed in the English language, was published in 1526. The Bible in the language of the people and available to the people was a death threat to the corrupt Roman Catholic Church’s power and income.

The Roman Catholic Church sold the forgiveness of sins (indulgences) and the release of loved ones from "purgatory." Salvation was through works and donations. The necessity of an intervening priesthood between the people and God was (and still is) a central doctrine of the Church. The penalty of having a Tyndale New Testament was death by burning. Tyndale was hunted for 11 years and martyred in 1536.

Miles Coverdale (1438-1569) and John Rogers (c. 1500-1555), former assistants to Tyndale, continued Tyndale’s work. In 1535, Coverdale printed the first complete Bible in the English language (Coverdale Bible). Coverdale’s translation was basically Tyndale’s. In 1537, John Rogers printed a new version of the English Bible, under the pseudonym "Thomas Matthew" (Matthew’s Bible). The Matthew’s Bible was a combination of the Tyndale and Coverdale Old Testaments and the 1535 revision of the Tyndale New Testament.

Tyndale’s last words before his death, as reported in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, was a prayer: "Lord! open the King of England’s eyes." In 1538, two years later, Tyndale’s prayer was answered. Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s vice regent for ecclesiastical affairs, and Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, wanted an English Bible in the pulpit in all of the churches in England and an injunction to do so was issued to the clergy.

Miles Coverdale led a team to revise the Matthew’s Bible and eliminate the marginal notes, which became known as the Great Bible of 1539. It was so named because of its large size. By May 1540, the Great Bible was in each of the 8,500 parish churches in England and was authorized by King Henry VIII.

Henry VIII died in 1547 and was succeeded by his 10 year old son, King Edward VI. Edward died in 1553, opening the door for the bloody reign of his half-sister.

The Bible of Intended Victims

Mary I, the daughter of Henry VIII, became Queen of England in 1553. Known as "Bloody Mary", she was brutally determined to turn England back to Roman Catholicism. During her reign, the English Bibles placed in churches were burned, public reading of the Bible was forbidden, and the works of the reformers, such as Tyndale, Rogers, Coverdale and Cranmer, were forbidden. Even quotes from the Bible on church walls were banned.

Persecution was not limited to banning the English Bible. Mary persecuted any person who agreed with the reformers’ views or who attempted to circulate Scripture in English. John Rogers, who produced the Matthew’s Bible, was the first British reformer to be burned at the stake in 1555. Thomas Cranmer suffered the same fate later that same year. Almost three hundred people were burned to death during Mary’s regime, and many more were imprisoned and tortured.

Geneva a Refuge

Protestants by the hundreds fled England for the Continent during this time, known as the Marian exile. Geneva in Switzerland was a refuge for many. Geneva was a republic at the time controlled by John Calvin and Theodore Beza. Protestant theology prevailed in the city and John Calvin offered protection. Geneva was also a center for biblical textual scholarship at that time. For example, Robert Estienne’s Greek New Testament of 1551 and at least 22 editions of French Bibles were published in Geneva in the 1550’s.

The theological climate and scholarship made Geneva a natural for the English church leaders to study the text of the Bible. Moreover, a Bible was needed that could help educate the Protestants during their exile and that was appropriate for their worship. A group of exiled scholars who were part of the English church in Geneva began the creation of an English version of the Bible to meet their needs. That Bible became known as the Geneva Bible.

The Translation Begins: Geneva New Testament of 1557

The Geneva Bible was completed in two stages. The New Testament was published first on June 10, 1557. The identity of the Geneva Bible translators is not known for certain. They did not name themselves anywhere in the Bible.

However, most scholars agree that William Whittingham was primarily responsible for the New Testament. Whittingham was skilled in Hebrew and Greek as well as other languages and a leader in the English church at Geneva. Whittingham was related to John Calvin by marriage.

Whittingham used the Tyndale New Testament as his basic English text, most likely Jugge’s 1552 edition. The Greek texts were probably Estienne’s Greek New Testament of 1551 and Beza’s Greek New Testament of 1556. Hence, what is now called the Textus Receptus was the Greek New Testament used for the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva New Testament of 1557 Described

The Geneva New Testament of 1557 was a small, octavo edition in easier to read Roman type, rather than black letter (Gothic). It included numbered verses and explanatory and textual notes. Italics were used for interpolated words.

The preface of the New Testament contained a sixteen page letter from John Calvin regarding "Christ is the end of the Lawe." The preface also indicated the 1557 Geneva New Testament was "conferred diligently with the Greke, and the best approved translations" and included "diversities of readings and moste proffitable annotations of all harde places."

  • Letter to the "Simple Lambs" and "Arguments"

A letter to the reader was also included in the 1557 Geneva New Testament which indicated the translation was primarily directed to the "simple lambs" in the Church of Christ. The city of Geneva was also praised as a "store of heavenly learning." With the spelling modernized, it reads:

In the Church of Christ there are three kinds of men: some are malicious despisers of the Word and graces of God, who turn all things into poison, and a further hardening of their hearts. Others do not openly resist and contemn [condemn] the Gospel, because they are struck as it were in a trance with the majesty thereof, yet either they quarrel and cavel, or else deride and mock at whatsoever is done for the advancement of the same. The third sort are simple lambs which partly are already in the fold of Christ, and so willingly hear their Shepard’s voice, and partly wandering astray by ignorance tarry the time till the Shepherd find them and bring them unto His flock. To this kind of people in this translation I chiefly had respect, as moved unto zeal, counseled by the godly, and drawn by occasion, both of the place where God hath appointed us to dwell, and also to the store of heavenly learning and judgment which so abounded in the city of Geneva, that justly it may be called the patron and mirror of true religion and godliness.

At the beginning of the four Gospels was a summary of their teaching called an "argument." Summaries were also included at the beginning of Acts, the Epistles (except 2 and 3 John), and Revelation.

Other Interim Translations

Not always mentioned in the history of the Geneva Bible is that a translation of the Psalms into English was also published in Geneva in 1557. Anthony Gilby was probably the editor and translator, given his expertise in Hebrew. The Psalms included numbered verses and roman type. In 1559, the English translators with "moste joyful mindes and great diligence," published another edition of the Psalms in Geneva in honor of Elizabeth I when she was crowned Queen of England.

The Translation Completed: The Geneva Bible of 1560

The whole Geneva Bible was completed in 1560. The New Testament of 1557 was also revised for the Geneva Bible of 1560, probably by Whittingham. Whittingham is considered by most scholars as the general editor of the complete Geneva Bible.

Whittingham and others apparently remained in Geneva to finish the translation even after it was safe to return to England. Queen Mary died in November, 1558. Mary was succeeded by Elizabeth I and England was no longer dangerous for the reformers. Many of the exiles at Geneva did return to England at that time, but Whittingham and others stayed in Geneva a year and a half longer to complete the Geneva Bible.

A long list of men are cited as associated with Whittingham in the translation, including Miles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, William Cole, John Knox, William Kethe, Rowland Hall, John Pullain, John Bodley, John Baron, and William Williams.

The revised New Testament continued to follow Tyndale’s text, but gave more attention to Beza’s Latin text of 1556 than the 1557 version. The Great Bible was a significant basis for the Old Testament, and to a lesser degree the Coverdale and Matthew Bibles.

However, the Geneva Bible translators also translated from the original Hebrew. Tyndale had translated Genesis through 2 Chronicles and the book of Jonah from the original Hebrew into English before he died. The English reformers translated the remainder of the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew (Masoretic) text into English for the first time in the Geneva Bible of 1560.

Scholars vary on exactly what all of the sources were for the 1560 Geneva Bible. Westcott indicated the sources were the original text, the Great Bible, the Latin version of the Old Testament by Leo Juda, the Greek Latin Testament of Beza 1556 and 1559, and the French Bible version of Pierre Robert Olivetan revised in Geneva in 1558. Another scholar indicates the 1553 rather than the 1558 French Bible of Olivetan was used as well as Estienne’s own Bible published in Geneva in 1557 and the Hebrew-Latin Bible of Sebastian Muster of 1534-1535.

The Geneva Bible of 1560 Described

The 1560 Geneva Bible was a compact, quarto edition (6 ½ by 9 ¾ inches). It was printed with Roman type. The text was in two columns on each page with notes on the inside and outside of the page. The margin notes occasionally ran to the bottom of the page. There are notes on every page of the Geneva Bible, except for the Apocrypha. Like the other Bibles of its time, the Geneva Bible included the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testament, and so was comprised of 80 books. The printer was Rowland Hall.

  • Title Page and Table of Contents

The frontispiece (title page) to the Geneva Bible of 1560 is shown on the next page. Of note is that the Geneva Bible was translated "according to the Ebrue and Greke, and conferred with the best translations in diver langages." It also indicates the Bible has "moste profitable annotations upon all the hard places." There are three Scripture quotations on the title page. The verses speak comfort to believers in the perilous times of the Geneva Bible translation:

"Feare ye not, stand stil, and beholde the salvacion of the Lord, which he wiil shewe to you this day. Exod. 14, 13."

"Great are the troubles of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth them out of all, Psal. 34,19."

"The Lord shal fight for you: therefore holde you your peace, Exod 14, vers.14."

A list of the Old Testament, Apocrypha, and New Testament books follows the title page. An oddity of the Geneva Bible of 1560 is that the Apocryphal "Prayer of Manesseh" is placed after 2 Chronicles and before Ezra. In later Geneva Bible editions, it is indicated in the Table of Contents as "apocryphe," but the "Prayer of Manesseh" continued to be placed after 2 Chronicles among the canonical books.

Frontispiece to the Geneva Bible, 1560

After the list of books in the 1560 Geneva Bible, is a dedication to Queen Elizabeth, from "your humble subjects of the English Churche at Geneva." The dedication is almost four pages long and includes Scripture references and notes in the margin.

The dedication in the margin notes warns of "the enemies which labour to stay religion," and the letter lists the enemies as "Papistes," "worldings," and "ambicious prelates." The letter indicates God’s Word is needed for the reforming of religion and that without it "we can not discerne between justice, and injurie, protection and oppression, wisdome and foolishnes, knollage and ignorance, good and evil."

The dedication closes with a prayer that "you [Queen Elizabeth] may be able to builde up the ruines of God’s house to his glorie, the discharge of your conscience, and to the comfort of all them that love the comming of Christ Jesus our Lord." The dedication is dated, "From Geneva. 10. April 1560."

  • Letter to the Brethren: "Beloved in the Lord"

After the royal dedication is a letter to the reader. The letter is addressed "to our beloved in the Lord, the brethren of England, Scotland, Ireland, &c." The letter explains the translators felt the Bible needed to be "reformed" in light of new knowledge and that they worked day and night for over two years on the translation.

The various features of the version to help the reader are listed in the letter. For example, the Geneva Bible included annotations, variant readings, restoration of some of the original Hebrew names, verse numbers, interpolated words in italics, and 26 woodcuts and 5 maps. Arguments, or summaries, were at the beginning of each book and chapter. A notable word or sentence that was the "chief point" was at the top of every page (except the Apocrypha) to help with memorization and understanding.

As with the dedication to Queen Elizabeth, the dedication to the reader concludes with a prayer, asking that the reader would:

willingly receyve the worde of God, earnestly studie it and in all your life practise it, that you may now appeare in dede to be the people of God, not walking any more according to this worlde, but in the frutes of the Spirit, that God in us may be fully glorified through Christ Jesus our Lord, who lyveth and reigneth for ever. Amen. 10.April. 1560." From Geneva

  • Other "Helps"

After the New Testament, is a dictionary of about 950 proper names, mostly from the Old Testament, and their meanings. The reader is encouraged to choose their children’s names from this list as a "godly advertisement" rather than names that are the "signes and badges of idolatrie and heathenish impietie."

About 40 pages of Bible study tools come after the Dictionary of Proper Names. There is an alphabetical concordance of the "principal things" in the Bible, followed by a chronology chart from Adam to Christ. The Geneva Bible of 1560 concludes with a listing of Paul’s activities from his conversion to his death by beheading by Nero, indicated as covering 36 years.

What Was New

The 1560 Geneva Bible was a pioneer in many respects. The Bible of today was divided into chapters in the thirteenth century, but the division into verses belongs to the period of the printed Bible. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to use both modern chapter and verse divisions for the whole Bible. The New Testament verses in the Geneva Bible followed the verse divisions of Estienne’s 1551 Greek New Testament. Each verse was a new paragraph.

The 1560 Geneva Bible was the first Bible to depart from the black letter (gothic) type, and go to the easier to read Roman type. This was a daring move, as evidenced by the King James Bible of 1611 using the black letter type over fifty years later.

The format was also a first. Previous English Bibles were huge and expensive folios, suited only for church use. The Geneva Bible, in contrast, was typically published as a small quarto edition, that was both convenient for household use and priced within the people’s reach.

The Geneva Bible pioneered the use of italics for words that are not in the original language, but helpful for the English vernacular. This was not only innovative, but the use of italics for the interpolated words is a testimony to the integrity of the translators.

The totality of the "helps" of the 1560 Geneva Bible was also unique to English Bibles of the time. Other Bibles had notes, but the Geneva Bible had a host of aids to the reader. Not only were scholarly margin notes included, but as previously described, the Geneva Bible contained maps, name dictionaries, a concordance, and chronological charts.

The Geneva Bible was a first in several ways not generally known. The 1560 Geneva Bible was the first translation done by a committee of scholars versus by an individual. It was the first Bible completely translated from the original Hebrew and Greek.

The Geneva Bible was ahead of it’s time in the use of some readings, using the more modern word "love" for example in 1 Corinthians 13 versus the word "charity" in the King James Version. (Some words are more obscure than that of the KJV, though.) The Book of Hebrews is also indicated as from an anonymous author, while the tradition of the time attributed it to Paul.

Finally, the Geneva Bible was a "one and only" Bible in one respect. The 1557 New Testament was the only English translation published during the reign of "Bloody Mary."

Other Names

The Geneva Bible of 1560 was also known as the "Breeches Bible" because of the use of the word "breeches" in Genesis 3:7: "and they sewed fig tre leaves together, and made them selves breeches." While the earlier Wycliffe Bible versions and the translation of the Pentateuch contained in Voragine’s Golden Legend had also used the word "breeches," the "Breeches Bible" name became affixed to the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible also eventually became known as the "Pilgrim’s Bible" because it was the Bible the Pilgrims brought on the Mayflower to the New World in 1620.

Other Editions

The two other most significant editions of the Geneva Bible are the 1587 Tomson New Testament edition and the use of the notes of Franciscus Junius on Revelation from 1599 on. Also of note are the Geneva Bible editions of 1568-1570, which contain Calvin’s Catechism, and later editions which included Calvinistic doctrine as catechism.

Lawrence Tomson brought out a New Testament in 1576, based on Beza’s Greek and Latin New Testaments, and using Beza’s Latin New Testament notes. Tomson’s New Testament, including the margin notes, replaced the Geneva 1560 New Testament in a 1587 quarto edition of the Geneva Bible. While there were some changes in the biblical text, the major difference in the Tomson New Testament was in the margin notes. Some readers continued to prefer the Geneva Bible 1560 New Testament version. This resulted in some Geneva Bibles having the 1560 New Testament and notes and others having Tomson’s New Testament and notes, from 1587 on.

From 1599 on, Franciscus Junius’ notes on Revelation were inserted in all Tomson editions of the Geneva Bible instead of the original notes. Junius’ commentary reflected a great abhorrence to the Roman Catholic Church.

The 1568-1570 Geneva Bible editions included Calvin’s Catechism of 373 questions and answers. Many editions of the Geneva Bible published between 1579 and 1615 included twenty-three questions and answers that were clearly Calvinistic, covering "the doctrine of Predestination, the use of God’s word and Sacraments."

The last edition of the Geneva Bible was printed in Amsterdam in 1644.

Geneva Bible: Historical Rule

Having "reported" the 1560 Geneva Bible, in terms of its historical context and a description of the Bible itself, this next section will examine the "rule" of the Geneva Bible. The "rule" of the Geneva Bible will examine its popularity. How popular was the Geneva Bible and why was it popular?

Instant and Enduring Success

The Geneva Bible is said to have "immediately won, and retained, widespread popularity." It was the "household Bible" of English-speaking Protestants for three generations. In contrast to Great Bibles and Bishops’ Bibles "read out in the churches," Geneva Bibles "were read by the firesides." These citations of the popularity of the Geneva Bible are helpful, but is there an objective way to evaluate the popularity of the Geneva Bible?

One factual way to evaluate just how popular the Geneva Bible was is to look at the number of editions it had relative to other Bibles of its time. The chart below compares the Geneva and other English Bibles published from 1560 to 1611 (the year when the King James Version was published.) The Geneva Bible had over 120 editions in this time frame, about six times the number of editions of the next most published Bible, the Bishops’ Bible.

In the approximately 40 years from 1575 to 1618, at least one new edition of the Geneva Bible was published each year. Even after the King James Version of 1611 appeared, over 60 editions of the Geneva Bible were published (including New Testament only editions).

Another fact attesting to the popularity of the Geneva Bible is its use in the Soldiers’ Pocket Bible, printed for Cromwell’s soldiers in 1643. The Soldiers’ Pocket Bible contains 122 texts, with all but one from the Geneva Bible.

In Scotland, the Geneva Bible was immediately embraced by the people and remained popular for a long time. The Geneva Bible from its introduction was the Bible appointed to be read in churches in Scotland. The Church of Scotland was reformed in 1560, the year the Geneva Bible was published, and was the natural choice of Scottish reformer John Knox. John Knox had been an exile in Geneva and may have participated in the translation. Long after the King James Version of 1611, the Geneva Bible continued to be used in some areas of Scotland.

Reasons for the Geneva Bible’s Success

Four major factors have been identified as possibly explaining the popular success of the Geneva Bible of 1560:

  1. The marginal notes.
  2. It was printed in more legible type and in a smaller, easier to handle size.
  3. It was the first use of verse division for the entire English Bible.
  4. The Old Testament followed the Hebrew more than previous Bibles

While all of these factors (and more) played a role in the success of the 1560 Geneva Bible, the margin notes were probably the single greatest factor in the Geneva Bible’s popularity and will be examined in detail first. Specifically, the nature of the notes and how they relate to the Geneva Bible’s popularity will be looked at.

The superior translation of the Old Testament as a factor in the Geneva Bible’s success will be covered second. The question to be addressed is: In what respects was the translation superior?

After the margin notes and Old Testament translation, the role of the timing of the Geneva Bible’s introduction relative to its success will be looked at briefly. The Geneva Bible’s print type, Bible size, and verse divisions have already been covered and do not require fuller explanation.

The Geneva Bible Notes

There are different kinds of margin notes in the Geneva Bible. The marginal notes contain both annotations and application. Ample Scripture cross-references are also included in the margins.

The dedication to the reader in the 1560 Geneva Bible explains the notes as "brief annotations upon all the hard places, aswel for the understanding of suche wordes as are obscure, and for the declaration of the text, as for the application of the same as may moste apperteine to Gods glorie and the edification of his Churche."

Examples of annotations, applications, Calvinism, and anti-Catholicism in the notes will be looked at in turn.

  • Geneva Bible Notes: Annotations

The annotations (explanatory comments) are often simply factual. For example, the "newe cloth" in Matthew 9:16 is explained as "or, rawe and undressed" in the margin. The "firmamente" that God called heaven in Genesis 1:8 is explained in the margin as "the region of the ayre, and all that is above us."

Facts that provide deeper understanding are also in the Geneva Bible notes. For instance, the note on the dove and the olive leaf in Genesis 8:11, explains that the dove’s olive leaf "was the sign that the waters were muche diminished, for the olives growe not on the hie mountaines."

Basic Christian doctrine is generally clearly, and sometimes even poetically, stated in the 1560 Geneva Bible. For example, the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is stated in the margin note of Genesis 1:1 as: "First of all, and before that any creature was, God made heaven and earth of nothing."

For comparison, the notes on two other popular study Bibles of today were compared on this doctrine. The NIV Study Bible touches on creation ex nihilo in the note on Genesis 1:3 by stating, "Merely by speaking, God brought all things into being." This is hardly as clear as the Geneva Bible’s "God made heaven and earth of nothing."

The MacArthur Study Bible does better, specifically referencing ex nihilo in the Genesis 1:1-2:3 summary notes and stating, "context demands in no uncertain terms that this was a creation without preexisting material," followed by a list of other supporting Scripture references. Nevertheless, the Geneva Bible’s "God made heaven and earth of nothing" seems much plainer than "a creation without preexisting material."

The annotations of the 1560 Geneva Bible also identify the secular authors quoted in the New Testament. Paul’s statement to the Athenians about what their own poets have said in Acts 17:28, is attributed "as Aratus & others" in the note. Another illustration is the margin note regarding one of the "Cretian prophets" stating Cretians are always liars, evil beasts and slow bellies in Titus 1:12 as from being recited from "Epimenides the Philosopher, or Poet."

Variant readings are occasionally given in the annotations in both the Old and New Testaments. A puzzling feature of the 1560 Geneva Bibles is that a number of the alternative readings are found in Codex Bezae (oldest known bi-lingual, Greek and Latin, New Testament manuscript from about either A.D. 450 or A. D. 550).

For example, the margin note for Acts 19:9 indicates that Paul preached at Ephesus "from five a clocke unto ten," which is the Greek translation of Codex Bezae. Since Theodore Beza did not get this codex until 1562, the source of the variant readings is problematic. One hypothesis is that Whittingham and the other translators got information about the Codex Bezae readings from the margins of Estienne’s Greek New Testament of 1550.

An admirable quality of the translators as reflected in their annotations is that unknown Hebrew words are stated as such. An example is the Hebrew names of certain animals in Leviticus 11. These unknown animal names are simply transliterated from the Hebrew and noted in the margin as "not now proprely knowen."

In summary, the clarity and scholarship of the explanatory notes very likely contributed to the Geneva Bible’s popularity.

  • Geneva Bible Notes: Applications

Along side the explanatory notes in the Geneva Bible, are many devout applications, which no doubt played a role in the Bible’s success. A typical example is the margin note for the straight and wide gate of Matthew 7:13, which states: "we must overcome and mortifie our affections, if we wil be true disciples of Christ." Peter’s claim at the Lord’s Supper that he would never be offended, even though everyone else would (Matthew 26:33), has the note: "This declareth, what danger it is to trust to muche to our owne strength."

  • Calvinism in the Notes

Calvinistic doctrine is found in the 1560 Geneva Bible notes, as would be expected. An example of a Calvinistic note is that on Romans 9:15: "As the onelie wil and purpose of God is the chief cause of election, and reprobacion: so his fre mercie in Christ is an inferiour cause of salvation, and the hardening of the heart an inferiour cause of damnacion." Calvinist doctrine likely helped the Geneva Bible’s popularity, standing in contrast to Roman Catholicism’s false teachings on salvation and church authority.

How many of the notes of the 1560 Geneva Bible are Calvinistic is a matter of debate today. To what extent the Geneva Bible notes are Calvinistic without Scriptural support also remains unsettled among scholars.

F.F. Bruce’s view is that the notes overall are "unashamedly Calvinistic in doctrine, and therefore offensive to readers who find Calvinism offensive." H. W. Hoare goes so far as to call the literary character of the Geneva Bible a "Calvinist manifesto."

However, it’s been estimated that of the approximately 250 explanatory notes to Romans, not more than ten of them are unmistakably Calvinistic in doctrine. David Daniell, in The Bible in English, posits that the English political establishment of the early 1600’s and later writers, purposely called the Geneva Bible notes "Calvinist" in a blanket fashion, in order to nullify their impact. Daniell writes:

So the Bible is not just to be ‘read in churches,’ as the title-page of KJV has it. … The later vilification of marginal notes, especially by the politicians controlling King James in the early 1600s, was from fear of the working of this sovereign God in places outside the fence of what was narrowly understood as the only apostolic Christianity. The notes they knew were in the Geneva Bibles: they had to be wiped out. Writers in later ages, looking for a term of abuse, called them ‘Calvinist.’

The Thomson New Testament notes (Beza’s notes) that replaced the New Testament notes in the 1560 Geneva Bible in many editions from 1587 and forward were more strongly Calvinistic. As with the 1560 edition notes, whether they are unjustly Calvinistic is arguable.

  • Anti-Catholicism in the Notes?

The notes in the Geneva Bible are often said to be "anti-Roman" and "anti-papal." The Geneva Bible notes did expose the errors of the Roman Catholic Church, such as its system of sacraments. Anti-Catholic notes would certainly have enhanced the Geneva Bible’s popularity; it was the time of the reformation.

The question is: how extensive and how untrue are the anti-Catholic notes? Answering those questions is beyond the scope of this paper. A few comments follow.

The general consensus among scholars is that directly anti-Catholic notes are not that extensive in the 1560 Geneva Bible. Most agree that the notes are explicitly anti-Papal in the 1560 version to a great extent only in Revelation. For example, the beast from the bottomless pit in Rev. 11:7 is explained as "the Pope, which hath his power out of hell and cometh thence." The comment on Revelation 17:4 identifies the scarlet clad woman who rides the beast as "the Antichrist, that is, the Pope with the whole bodie of his filthie creatures."

How untrue some of the anti-papal notes are is unresolved. While the Geneva Bible Revelation 17:4 note is anti-papal, it is not without Biblical support. In fact, it’s interesting to note that Dave Hunt in his 1994 book, A Woman Rides the Beast, also relates the woman in Revelation 17 to the Roman Catholic Church.

Not surprisingly, the Geneva Bible was never authorized for use in the Roman Catholic Church in England.

  • Still Famous

The Geneva Bible’s notes are still famous, partly because they infuriated James I. James became King of England following Elizabeth’s death in 1603. When a resolution was made at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 for a new translation of the whole bible, James was quick to approve it.

James indicated some of the Geneva Bible notes were "very partial, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits." He gave two examples. One was the note on Exodus 1:17 that indicated the Hebrew midwives were right to disobey the Egyptian king’s command to kill all of the male babies. The other was the note on 2 Chronicles 15:16 which said that King Asa’s mother should have been killed rather than just removed from power for her idolatry. It is supposed that these notes irritated James because, in his mind, they encouraged civil disobedience and put his deceased mother, Mary Queen of Scots, in a bad light. The Geneva Bible notes therefore were a reason both for the Bible’s success and for its downfall.

The Old Testament Translation: "A Conspicuous Advance"

Having examined the nature of the Geneva Bible notes, the next factor to be looked at in the Geneva Bible’s popularity is the quality of the Old Testament translation. H. W. Hoare, a scholar from the early 1900’s describes the translation as, "… terse, and vigorous in style; literal, and yet boldly idiomatic, the Genevan version was at once a conspicuous advance on all the Biblical labours that had preceded it, and an edition which could fairly claim to be well abreast of the soundest, contemporary scholarship."

One reason the Old Testament translation of the 1560 Geneva Bible was "a conspicuous advance" is that it was more in accordance with the original Hebrew. As previously mentioned, the Geneva Bible was the first English Bible translated from the Hebrew from Ezra through the end of the Old Testament (except for Jonah), resulting in a superior translation for these books.

Evidence of the scholarship is that spelling and accentuation of names in the Old Testament were done in line with the original Hebrew in the Geneva Bible. For example, Eve is spelled Heváh and Abel is spelled Hábel.

As Hoare stated, the translation was "literal, yet boldly idiomatic." Compare, for example, the Geneva Bibles rendering of Judges 15: 8 "He smote them hippe and thigh" to that of Coverdale: "both upon the shulders and loynes."

The beautiful rhythm of Isaiah 40 in English in the King James Version, which is true to the Hebrew, is from the Geneva Bible. Consider, for instance, Isaiah 40:4 in the KJV, which is taken directly from the Geneva Bible: "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain." Other examples of "literal and lyrical" original Old Testament renderings of the Geneva translators used by the KJV are: "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth" (Eccl. 12:1) and "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, all is vanity" (Eccl. 12:8).

In the Fullness of Time

Timing also played a role in the popularity of the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible of 1560 was introduced in England in a highly opportune time relative to the amount of secular literature and the Bible-reading habits of the people.

There was a dearth of literature at that time. The only generally available books, besides the Bible, were the Prayer Book, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and Calvin’s Institutes. One scholar puts it into interesting perspective, noting: "Shakespeare was not yet born. Spencer was but six years old, and Bacon in his cradle."

In combination with the absence of secular reading material, Bible-reading habits were becoming entrenched among the large and growing Protestant segment. Thus, in the providence of God, a lack of alternative reading material and good Bible-reading habits, helped fuel the Geneva Bible’s success.

Geneva Bible: Historical Role

Having examined the Geneva Bible’s historical "report" (context and description) and "rule" (popularity), the next and final section will look at the "role" of the Geneva Bible, in terms of its impact. What is the overall historical influence of the Geneva Bible? How important is the Geneva Bible in the chain of the English Bible?

Historical Impact of the Geneva Bible

The Geneva Bible influenced the literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. John Stubbs, and other Puritan writers, generally used only the Geneva Bible in their works. The Geneva Bible affected some of England’s greatest writers, including John Bunyan, Shakespeare, and Milton, and so impacted the culture.

From 1596 on, Shakespeare for the most part used the Geneva Bible in his plays. Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes both reveal the influence of the theology of the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible also influenced sermon literature. The English reformers, Puritans, separatists, and even some Bishops, all used the Geneva Bible in their sermons.

The establishment and growth of Protestantism and Calvinistic theology were greatly influenced by the Geneva Bible. The false doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church were clearly exposed in the margin notes. Calvinism was not only presented in the margin notes of the Geneva Bible, but also in the catechisms that were included in later editions. Thus, the Geneva Bible affected the ecclesiastical and theological beliefs of England and Scotland, as well as the culture.

The Geneva Bible was the Biblical foundation of what was to become America. The Protestantism of the Geneva Bible notes and the Geneva Bible itself spread to America, and had a lasting influence. The Geneva Bible was probably the Bible of Jamestown. It’s likely that John Rolfe used a Geneva Bible to teach Pocahontas (Matoaka) about Jesus Christ. It was the Geneva Bible that the Pilgrims brought on the Mayflower in 1620. Historians have evidence that the Geneva Bible was used extensively in New England and exclusively by the Plymouth Colony.

The Geneva Bible in the English Bible Chain

The Geneva Bible stimulated both the appearance and the demise of the Bishops’ Bible. Reading the Great Bible in the church became impossible after the publication of the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible was too obviously a superior translation. The Bishops’ Bible of 1568 was the church’s answer to the Geneva Bible. However, among other issues, the scholarship of the Bishops’ Bible was not on par with the Geneva Bible, and it was never able to compete with the Geneva Bible.

The 1560 Geneva Bible continued to be an important factor in the English Bible chain over 50 years after it was first published. The Geneva Bible was an important impetus behind the publication of the 1611 King James Bible. As previously stated, King James readily approved a new version that would be without the irritating Geneva Bible notes.

The Geneva Bible not only stimulated the production of the 1611 King James Bible, it influenced the sacred text. The King James Bible text itself was influenced more by the Geneva Bible than any other version. It’s estimated that 19% of the King James Bible finished text is from the Geneva Bible, as shown in the chart below.

King James Bible – Percentage of Material From Earlier Versions

An odd fact testifying to the influence of the Geneva Bible is that the letter from the translators to the reader in the preface of the King James Version of 1611 uses Scripture from the Geneva Bible.

One scholar feels the Geneva Bible was purposely "killed," more than naturally superseded by the King James Version, implying the Geneva Bible’s influence was stymied. David Daniell asserts the Geneva Bible was "driven out by political and commercial interests from 1611, and forced out of the public view from 1660."

An obvious influence of the Geneva Bible is the number of its "firsts" that continue to be used almost 450 years later in today’s English Bibles. Our modern verse divisions are a legacy of the Geneva Bible. John 3:16 was first "known" as John 3:16 in English in the Geneva Bible. Italics are still used for interpolated words in some versions, such as the King James and New King James. Committees, rather than one individual, worked on modern translations, such as the NIV and New King James.


Every Bible in the English Bible chain has a story, but the report, rule, and role of the Geneva Bible is truly remarkable. Its historical backdrop of persecution, martyrdom, and exile during the reformation is both sobering and fascinating.

The Geneva Bible was first a Bible of good scholarship. The scholarship of the Geneva Bible was the most advanced of its time. It was translated completely from the Biblical languages. In the Old Testament, the translation retains the literal meaning of the Hebrew, while capturing its poetry.

The Geneva Bible was a Bible of bold innovation. Among it’s most notable innovations are that it was the first English Bible with verse divisions through out, the first with Roman type, the first to use italics for interpolated words, and the first English Bible wholly translated from the original Biblical languages.

The Geneva Bible margin notes played a key role in its rise to popularity and eventually in its demise. The notes are still famous and are still controversial. The notes are either Calvinistic and anti-papal, or simply Biblical, depending on your theology and hermeneutics.

The Geneva Bible notes helped establish Protestantism in England, and eventually in America. The Geneva Bible was not only the Bible of the English reformers, but of the Pilgrims, as well.

The Geneva Bible influenced later versions of the Bible, including the King James Version, and great writers, such as William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Bunyan. Small in size, the Geneva Bible was great in impact.

While much has been written about the Geneva Bible, there are still opportunities for further research. The richest area to be mined is the marginal notes. The greatest need seems to be an objective, comprehensive, and systematic analysis of the theology of the notes.

While some work has been done on the note’s theology, such as by David Daniell, in The Bible in English, thoroughness is lacking. Systematically studying the theology of the notes could be illuminating in understanding the doctrinal development of Protestantism and contemporary dogmatic theology, such as covenant theology.

Another way the Geneva Bible notes could be mined is to compare them to the notes of popular contemporary study Bibles. A comparison of the notes could reveal areas of Protestant doctrinal drift.

The true nature of the demise of the Geneva Bible would also be an interesting historical analysis. Was it driven out by political and commercial interests or superseded by a better translation? Research on this topic could provide insights into the Bible publishing and marketing practices of our time.


Berry, Lloyd. "Introduction" in The Geneva Bible: A facsimile of the 1560 edition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969.

Bible: Geneva Version 1560. Digital reproduction from Lazarus Ministry Press, 1998.

Brown, David & Noah, William. "Introduction" in 1560 Geneva New Testament with Modern Spelling. Murfreesbory, Tennessee: Avalon, 2005.

Bruce, F.F., The English Bible. Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Daniell, David. The Bible in English. Great Britain: Yale University Press, 2003.

Eason, Charles, The Genevan Bible. Dublin: Eason & Sons, 1937.

"English Bible History" online article available from

EnnsPaul. The Moody Handbook of Theology. Chicago: Moody, 1989.

Geisler, Norman L. and Nix , Willian E. A General Introduction to the Bible, rev. ed. Chicago: Moody, 1986.

"Geneva Bible" online article available from

"Geneva Bible" online article available from

Hoare, H. W., The Evolution of the English Bible. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1902,

Hunt, Dave. A Woman Rides the Beast. EugeneOregon: Harvest House, 1994.

Kenyon, Frederic. Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1895.

Metzger, Bruce. "The Geneva Bible of 1560" in Theology Today – Vol 17, No. 3 Oct. 1960.


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