Publication of the Geneva Bible Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Geneva Bible was a masterpiece of Humanist and Reformation scholarship, the people’s Bible of late seventeenth century England and the Bible that shaped the literary imaginations of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, and John Milton.

Summary of Event

The Geneva Bible is a symbol of the religious and cultural transformation of England in the sixteenth century. In England, as on the European continent, the critical philology of Renaissance Humanism, the spread of the printing press, and the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura (religious truth contained in Scripture alone) all fed demand for new vernacular translations of the Bible. Printing;and translation of Bible[Bible] In the 1520’, William Tyndale completed a translation of the New Testament into English and began work on the historical books of the Old Testament. Initially, Henry VIII prohibited the printing of Tyndale’s translations in England, with the result that the first printed edition of the New Testament in English was published in the German city of Worms. The king’s subsequent break with Rome soon opened the door to a Bible revolution, however. Bible;Geneva Geneva Bible Whittingham, William Calvin, John Beza, Theodore Henry VIII Edward VI Mary I Elizabeth I Tyndale, William Henry VIII (king of England) Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Coverdale, Miles Rogers, John Edward VI (king of England) Mary Tudor (queen of England) Whittingham, William Gilby, Anthony Knox, John Calvin, John Beza, Theodore Elizabeth I (queen of England) Bodley, John Bodley, John Parker, Matthew

Following the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, and archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer legalized and promoted biblical translations. In 1535, Miles Coverdale produced the first English translation of the entire Bible; in 1537, Tyndale’s associate John Rogers produced a second complete edition (under the name Thomas Matthew); and in 1539, Coverdale published a revision of this so-called Matthew’s Bible, which became known, because of its unwieldy size, as the Great Bible. Finally, in 1541, Henry VIII decreed that there be an English Bible in each parish church. During the brief reign of Edward VI, the government reaffirmed this decree and removed nearly all restrictions on English translations of the Bible. A veritable profusion of new editions of the Tyndale and Coverdale translations greeted the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in English in 1549.

With the accession of the Roman Catholic queen Mary I in July of 1553, the Bible revolution of the reigns of Henry VIII and Edward VI confronted the Counter-Reformation Counter-Reformation[CounterReformation];England . The publication of translations ceased and English Bibles were removed from parish churches. Increasing Protestant resistance soon led to increasing numbers of arrests and eventually the execution of more than three hundred Protestant church leaders, including Thomas Cranmer and John Rogers, the compiler of Matthew’s Bible.

Faced with mounting persecution, a group of gifted Protestant biblical scholars from Oxford and Cambridge—led by William Whittingham and including the Hebraist Anthony Gilby—joined the Scottish Reformer John Knox in the Swiss city of Geneva. Here they found John Calvin at work on his Old and New Testament commentaries and overseeing a revision of the French Bible. Here, too, they found Theodore Beza, perhaps the preeminent Protestant scholar of the Greek New Testament at that time. In 1559, the establishment of the Geneva Academy, with Beza as its first rector, secured the city’s position as a European center of biblical scholarship and translation.

Already, in 1557, Whittingham had finished a revision of the John Rogers edition of Tyndale’s New Testament. The same year, there appeared a translation of Psalms—sometimes attributed to Gilby—for English exile congregations to use in worship. The death of Mary I in November, 1558, and the willingness of her successor, Elizabeth I, once again to allow translations encouraged efforts to create a standard household Bible for Protestant England. With the support of Calvin and Beza and with financial help from the wealthy merchant John Bodley (whose son Thomas would later found Oxford’s Bodleian Library), Whittingham, Gilby, and a small group of “godly and learned brethren” remained in Geneva and completed their translation of the entire Bible. Sometime between April 10, 1560, the date of the preface, and May 30, 1560, the date Whittingham left Geneva to return to England, the printer Rowland Hall, another Marian exile, published the first complete English Geneva Bible.

Whittingham’s work was aptly named: One of its great achievements was to have enriched the English experience of reading Scripture with the Genevan Reformation of the Bible. The Geneva Bible’s five maps and the twenty-six woodcut illustrations are the work’s most obvious debts to its French predecessors. Like the French Geneva Bibles, the Bible that Whittingham produced used a roman font for greater clarity, divided the text into verses, and used italics where English syntax required the interpolation of words into the translation. Also like the French Geneva Bibles, the Bible that Whittingham and his colleagues produced enveloped the text with book and chapter summaries (or “arguments”), page headings, alternative literal translations, and a variety of historical and textual notes.

This elaborate textual apparatus allowed Whittingham and his colleagues to provide a more faithful translation of Old Testament Hebrew, even as they strove to make the text more accessible to the nonspecialist reader. Indeed, the Geneva Bible provided the first translation of the poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament directly into English (and not, as in Coverdale’s Bible, through the intermediary of the Latin Vulgate). The elaborate apparatus also allowed the Geneva Bible to extend significantly the scope of concordances. Most important, the apparatus had an edifying function. It encouraged readers to move back and forth between the literal sense and the theological meaning of the text. In effect, it made them active participants in a community of interpretation.

Although the Geneva Bible would ultimately prove far more popular than its predecessors, it was met with initial resistance. While John Bodley received a patent to print the Geneva Bible in England, that patent was subject to the approval of the archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Parker, however, was already busy commissioning a Bishops’ Bible intended to serve a moderate Elizabethan religious settlement. Thus, from 1560 to 1575, the Geneva Bible was printed only in Geneva and the accepted English Bible remained the parish church’s large folio volume of either the older Great Bible or the new Bishops’ Bible.


With the death of Matthew Parker in 1575, the primary obstacle to publication of the Geneva Bible in England was eliminated. Handy and relatively inexpensive quarto editions of the Geneva Bible began to be printed in London. Over the next ten years alone, there were twenty editions of the Geneva Bible. In all between 1560 and 1611, a Geneva Bible that never received formal authorization would go through more than 120 editions, compared with a mere 7 editions for the Great Bible and 22 editions of the Bishops’ Bible. In sum, Whittingham and his associates had succeeded in creating a family Bible that popularized and secured the Reformation in England. It was from this “people’s Bible,” literary scholars generally agree, that Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, John Bunyan, and John Milton drew the majority of their Scriptural references.

Across its many editions, the Geneva Bible would undergo significant changes. In 1576, for example, Laurence Tomson revised Whittingham’s New Testament according to Beza’s 1565 critical edition of the Greek text. From 1599, many editions also contained a new translation of Revelation based on the work of the Huguenot François du Jon (Franciscus Junius). With these textual changes came changes in the Geneva Bible’s famous notes. Annotations that in 1560 had been largely exegetical and only generally Protestant spoke more and more the particular language of Reformed theology and Presbyterian church polity. As a consequence, the Geneva Bible, while still cited in sermons or scholarship by establishment figures like Parker, gradually became more closely associated with the Puritan Puritans movement and a culture of religious dissent. Moreover, the fact that the notes borrowed from Beza a willingness to justify armed resistance to tyrannical authority placed the Geneva Bible on the side of a culture of political dissent as well. When, in 1604, King James I commissioned a new translation of the Bible, he expressly condemned the Geneva Bible’s notes as “seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous, and traitorous conceits.”

In 1611, the Authorized Version was published, and in 1616, Archbishop William Laud prohibited the publication of the Geneva Bible in England. Nevertheless, for a generation, editions published in Amsterdam continued to hold their own with the Authorized Version. In 1620, the Geneva Bible accompanied the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. In 1643, during the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell drew on the Geneva Bible for the Soldiers’ Pocket Bible that he supplied to the New Model Army. The Geneva Bible lived on even in the translation that came to replace it. The King James Version owed nearly 20 percent of its text and such memorable phrases as “through a glass darkly” to that great achievement of the Marian exiles.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Lloyd E. Introduction to The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition, edited by Lloyd E. Berry. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969. An important essay on the Geneva Bible by the editor of its modern facsimile reprint.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Daniell, David. The Bible in English: Its History and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. Ambitious survey of the religious, cultural, and linguistic effects of over three thousand English translations of the Bible, from its first appearance in England in the fourth century to American English versions in the twenty-first.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Reformation of the Bible, the Bible of the Reformation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996. Explores the mutual influence of the Bible upon the Reformation and of the intellectual, political, and cultural forces of the Reformation upon the Bible.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Price, David, and Charles C. Ryrie. Let It Go Among Our People: An Illustrated History of the English Bible from John Wyclif to the King James Version. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2004. Illustrated history of the translation and production of the Bible in English, written to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the commission of the King James Bible.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

May, 1539: Six Articles of Henry VIII

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

May, 1559-Aug., 1561: Scottish Reformation

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History