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The Geneva Bible

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Date January 14, 2011

In Geneva, 450 years ago, a new version of the Bible in English began to come off the printing presses. For the first time, English-speaking people in the British Isles could purchase a Bible in their own tongue translated, in its entirety, directly from the original Hebrew and Greek – a notable milestone on the road begun by William Tyndale, who famously intended to make it possible for a ploughboy to know more of the Scripture than the learned man who claimed that it was better to be without God’s law than the Pope’s.

Tyndale was to find it impossible to carry out his intention in his native England, such was the opposition of the pre-Reformation Church to the Word of God. It was in exile on the Continent that Tyndale translated the New Testament directly from Greek into English. Copies of the New Testament were smuggled in large numbers into England and Scotland from 1526 onwards. The bishops let loose a wave of persecution against those who were caught with these prohibited volumes. Bishop Tunstall railed because ‘in the English tongue that pestiferous and most pernicious poison [was] dispersed throughout all our dioceses of London in great number’.1 Ploughboys in England and Scotland could now learn the truths of Scripture, although there would have been serious problems with affordability and literacy. A historian of Bible translations into English comments: ‘Puzzlement about how the English became so quickly Protestant . . . can be solved by considering the arrival of the whole of Paul’s Epistles in print and in English.’ This is true, but a further factor – which secular historians ignore – must be borne in mind: God blessed his own Word.

Tyndale went on to render the Hebrew of the Old Testament into English, beginning with the Books of Moses. These began to appear in 1530 and could be bought either separately or all five bound up together. In the years that followed, before his arrest on 21 May 1535, Tyndale translated the other historical books, from Joshua to 2 Chronicles, and also Jonah. Although all Tyndale’s property was seized, his translations were elsewhere, safe for future publication. In October 1536 this man, to whom English-speakers owe so much, was led out to die in Vilvorde, near Brussels; as a distinguished scholar, he was burnt only after being strangled. In 1550 Princess Elizabeth’s tutor rode through Vilvorde and appropriately noted the spot ‘where worthy William Tyndale was unworthily put to death’.

The first complete English Bible became available in October 1535, probably printed in Cologne; it was the work of Myles Coverdale. He depended heavily on Tyndale for the New Testament and the first five books of the Old; the remainder is translated, not from the original languages, but from Latin and German. In 1537 ‘Matthew’s Bible’ appeared, for which John Rogers, a colleague of Tyndale, was responsible. Based partly on Coverdale’s Bible, it used some of Tyndale’s translations which had not yet appeared in print. It also included marginal notes based on those which Pierre Robert Olivetan, John Calvin’s cousin, had contributed to a French translation of the Scriptures. The Great Bible of 1539 was a revision of Matthew’s Bible, but without notes. Its second edition contained a preface by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the title page indicated royal approval.

All this took place during Henry VIII’s reign. He died in 1547 and was followed on the throne by his son Edward VI, under whom Protestantism grew in strength. Edward died in 1553 and was succeeded by his sister Mary, who enthusiastically reintroduced Romanism. While some leading churchmen remained in England and suffered martyrdom, others fled to the Continent, some of them gathering in Geneva. In the 20 years to 1557 several revisions of Olivetan’s French New Testament had been published in Geneva as well as translations into Italian and Spanish, making the city a European centre for Bible printing. There, in 1560, what we know as the Geneva Bible was published, translated directly from the original languages throughout.

Although Queen Mary died in 1558 and the Protestant exiles began thereafter to return home, some remained in Geneva till they had finished what has been described as ‘the first great achievement in Elizabeth’s reign’.2 John Knox may have been involved in the work until he returned finally to Scotland in 1559, but the leading figure was William Whittingham. He had been a Fellow of Oxford University and seems to have married Calvin’s sister or sister-in-law. After his return to England he eventually became Dean of Durham and died in 1579.

Already in 1557 Whittingham had single-handedly produced a new version of the New Testament, but largely based on Tyndale’s work. It was the first version to use italics to indicate words added to make the translation clear. It was produced in a modern typeface, which made it much easier to read, in contrast to the Black Letter type, which imitated a handwritten script, used in earlier versions. The New Testament also contained a preface translated from one which Calvin had contributed to the first Protestant Bible in French. In his own preface, Whittingham indicates those whom he particularly had in view in publishing this New Testament: ‘the simple lambs [who would have included Tyndale’s ploughboy], which partly are already in the fold of Christ, and so hear willingly their Shepherd’s voice, and partly wandering astray by ignorance, tarry the time till the Shepherd find them and bring them into His flock’.

The Geneva Bible is probably best known for its extensive explanatory notes, in the margins and sometimes continuing on to the bottom of the page – what someone has called a ‘portable library of divinity’.3 There is a strong argument for having the Word of God printed without accompanying comment – especially in an age when many have other helps, such as commentaries, readily accessible. But for the ordinary reader that was not the case in 1560, when these Bibles first came ashore in the ports of the British Isles. The notes were plain, simple comments to help the ploughboy and others to understand Scripture. For example, beside John 6:63: ‘It is the Spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, are Spirit and life’, there appears the note: ‘The flesh of Christ doth therefore quicken us, because He that is man is God: which mystery is only comprehended by faith, which is the gift of God, proper only to the elect’.4

Such comments appeared in many Bible translations of the time, and a later translation might utilise those that had appeared in an earlier one, even in another language. They no doubt did much good to the people when the Scriptures had only recently become available in their own tongue and when God-sent ministers were by no means plentiful. Another feature of the Geneva Bible, beginning with the New Testament of 1557, was the introduction, entitled the Argument, supplied for each book of the Bible.5

The Geneva Bible (first printed in Scotland in 1575) was to prove extremely popular, passing through hundreds of printings before its influence waned later in the seventeenth century, after the publication of the Authorised Version in 1611. It was a huge tribute to the excellence of the Geneva Bible that the translators of the AV had as their aim ‘to make a good [Bible] better’. Let us be thankful for the privilege of having God’s Word in our own tongue.


  1. Quoted in David Daniell, The Bible in English (Yale University Press, 2003), p 144.
  2. Quoted in Daniell, The Bible in English, p 294.
  3. Quoted in Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (Clarendon Press, 1991), reprint, p 365.
  4. Quoted in Daniell, The Bible in English, p 280.
  5. These have being gathered together by the Banner of Truth Trust and published under the title, A Reformation Guide to Scripture. The publicity material for this little volume refers to the ‘sheer excellence’ of the Geneva Bible and comments that ‘the prologues present in a succinct and pithy way the . . . theme of each book.’

Kenneth D. Macleod is pastor of the Free Presbyterian Church in Leverburgh on the Isle of Harris. He is the editor of The Free Presbyterian Magazine, from the December 2010 issue of which the above editorial has been taken with permission.

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