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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

The Geneva Bible

Chapters 11-12 from the Book of RevelationChapters 11-12 from the Book of RevelationChapters 12-13 from the Book of RevelationChapters 12-13 from the Book of RevelationTwo notable events in the year 1549 – the publication of the Book of Common Prayer and a royal decree by the boy king Edward VI that the Epistle and Gospel lessons in the communion service should be read in English – may be seen as landmarks in the story of the Bible in England; from this time onwards, the brief return to Catholicism of Mary’s reign (1553–8) apart, the English people were to attend church services delivered in their own language.

No new Biblical translations were printed in England during Mary’s reign, but many leading Protestant scholars gravitated towards Geneva, the city of the prominent reformers Jean Calvin and Theodore Beza, and here in 1560 a new English Bible, known as the Geneva Bible, was produced by a group of English Calvinists, under the leadership of William Whittingham (1524?–1579), and dedicated to the new queen, Elizabeth I.

The Geneva Bible drew heavily on Tyndale’s translation for its rendering of the New Testament; for the Old Testament it represents a more thorough revision, the translators making close study of the Hebrew originals so as to harmonise their version stylistically and idiomatically with the Hebrew language:

... we have in many places reserved the Hebrew phrases, notwithstanding that they may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well practised and also delight in the sweet sounding phrases of the Holy Scriptures [Translators’preface].

It was the first English Bible to divide the text into the verses with which we are familiar today.

The Geneva Bible immediately won widespread approval and popularity, particularly in Scotland, where it wasofficially ‘appointed to be read in churches’, and with English readers who shared the translators’ Puritan views. Produced in a portable octavo format suitable for home reading, it went through numerous editions throughout Elizabeth’s reign and was the Bible known to Shakespeare. A glance at many well known passages shows how many of the phrases we now associate with the King James Bible are in fact found in the Geneva version.

On display is a 1594 edition of the Geneva Bible, opened to show chapters 11–13 of the Book of Revelation.The marginal notes, strongly Calvinist in tone, explicitly identify the ‘beast that commeth out of the bottomlesse pit’ with the Catholic Church.

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