We have set out to create a beautiful, functional, modernized version of the Geneva Bible, the English Bible translated in Geneva under the direction of John Calvin in 1560.
Surprisingly, although this is one of the most important historical translations of the Bible into English, translated before the King James Version, and was popular with the Puritans, nobody reads this Bible anymore. What is the story of this translation and why was it forgotten?
The story of the translation of a complete Bible into English begins with Tyndale. Tyndale famously vowed that he would make sure that even a lowly plowboy would be able to know more Scripture than the average theologian. He translated the entire New Testament, the Pentateuch, and various other books in the Old Testament before he was captured by the authorities and executed.
However, before he was strangled at the stake, changes had already taken place in his native land. Henry VIII, king of England, broke from the Roman Catholic Church, famously so that he could divorce his wife. Tyndale’s own friend Miles Coverdale managed to get the king to authorize an English translation of the Bible based largely upon Tyndale’s translation. It was published in 1539, and the king commanded that large copies be displayed in churches.
Despite that, the situation in England was precarious. After Henry VIII and his son died, the very Catholic Mary brought the nation back to Catholicism and killed the most prominent Protestant leaders. Anyone who wanted to escape martyrdom had to flee to the European continent. Many English Protestants fled to Geneva, where John Calvin was reforming the city and making it increasingly Protestant. While there, the English exiles made a new and improved English translation. The translators were William Whitingham (an Englishman who married Calvin’s sister), Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, and Miles Coverdale.
Although the Geneva Bible built upon Tyndale and the Great Bible, it was a huge advance in scholarship, and it was very much the first reader-friendly text. It was the first with chapter/verse divisions, the first with a legible font and a reasonable size, the first with italics to show what words were not in the original languages, and the first to include maps, marginal notes, chronologies and indices. Most exciting of all, it was the first Bible entirely translated from the Hebrew and the Greek. It was a book suitable, not just for displaying in churches, but for family reading.
And read it they did. For the next few centuries, the Geneva Bible would be the English Bible. In 1579 the Scottish parliament commanded that every household with adequate means should buy a Geneva Bible. When the Pilgrims went to America, they took Geneva Bibles with them. When the Puritans fought in the English civil war, it was the English Bible they took into battle. It was the Bible for brave men, and it was the Bible for families.
However, the Geneva Bible lost in the long run, and it was due to all those helpful marginal notes. Several of them spoke very fiercely about the right of subjects to resist their king, and King James was not happy with this and commissioned a new translation. However, his translation did not catch on and we might still be reading Geneva Bibles to this day, if it were not for the fact that the English Civil War happened. Rebels tended to use the Geneva Bible, and royalists both used the King James Bible and at times banned it. The Church of England promoted their Bible and after they won the war, the translation that got imported to the English colonies was, not surprisingly, the King James Bible. It was the authorized version indeed.
So why modernize this old translation after so many years? If we were to simply reprint the Geneva Bible, even with spelling modernizations, it would be a unreadable, comic, and useful only for scholars. Nobody would be undistracted when they read: “And after those days we trussed up our fardels, and went up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:15). And certainly not at this: “[I saw] one like unto the son of man, clothed with a garment down to the feet, and girded about the paps with a golden girdle” (Rev. 1:13).
So in this translation, we have tried to remove anything archaic. “Thees” and “thous” are replaced with “you.” Subjects are often put before verbs, and words like “garner,” (barn) “firk,” (measure), and “habergeon” (breastplate) are all replaced with their modern equivalents. We have consulted new translations and occasionally changed it if we knew the translation was obviously inaccurate (for some reason, “rejoice” is given for “boast” in several of Paul’s epistles). The original intention of the translators of the Geneva Bible was not to create a relic to be appreciated for its heritage. They wanted people to read the word of God and to think about what it was said. We have the same goal.
But even with all that said, why another Bible when we have the NKJV, the NIV, the NASB, and the ESV? In the first place, why not? Nobody ever got hurt reading another translation of Scripture. Furthermore, the King James version built on top of the Geneva Bible: it’s good to remember that the King James Bible was one of many translations, particularly given how much we tend to revere it nowadays. But all this aside, this is the Bible of our fathers. Many of the Puritans used this Bible, and lived by it. For that reason, it’s worth reading and putting on our shelves.
The word of God is a two-edged sword that discerns the thoughts and desires of the heart. If you come to this book, God will give Himself to you. We pray that by reading it in faith it will do the same thing for you that it did for your fathers who went before you, living and dying with faith in Jesus Christ.
The MGB Team,
Soli Deo Gloria