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Misconceptions About the Geneva Bible by Naseeb Shaheen
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Page 156

Misconceptions About the Geneva Bible
Naseeb Shaheen

The publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560 was a major event in the history of English Bibles. Produced by some of the best scholars of the day, it strongly influenced the King James version which appeared half a century later. Its influence on Shakespeare and his contemporaries is well known; whenever Shakespeare's biblical references can be traced to any one version, it is most often to the Geneva. Even the Catholic Douay-Rheims Bible adopted numerous Geneva readings.

The virtues of the Geneva, however, have given rise to several widely-held misconceptions: (1) As soon as it appeared in 1560, it became the most popular English Bible; (2) although a few editions were published in black letter, most editions appeared in roman; (3) it was the Bible of the Puritans.

The notion that the Geneva Bible "immediately won" widespread popularity and from the outset became the best seller is widespread. The Historical Catalogue of Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 says that the first edition, "appearing as it did in compact form, with roman type and verse divisions, obtained speedy and permanent popularity."[1] Other authorities say that once published, "the Geneva Bible leapt at once into deserved popularity," that it "immediately sprang into popularity."[2] In his Introduction to the facsimile of the 1560 Geneva Bible, Lloyd E. Berry says that by 1565, "the Geneva Bible had firmly established itself as the most popular Bible in England."[3]

Although it is true that the Geneva aroused a great deal of interest when it first appeared, it actually got off to a slow start. The Geneva Bible did not become the most widely-circulated version till after 1576, when for the first time it was allowed to be published in England. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth gave John Bodley (father of the founder of the Bodleian Library) an exclusive patent to publish the Geneva Bible for seven years, but the patent stipulated that the Geneva Bibles he published be in an edition approved by the Bishops of Canterbury and London.[4] Archbishop Parker discouraged publication of the Geneva, since the return of the Marian exiles eager for a more thorough reform of the English Church was a matter of concern to him, and


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he wanted an edition without the "bitter notes" of the Geneva. In 1564, well before the license expired, both Parker and Grindal recommended the renewal of Bodley's license for another twelve years. But no Geneva Bible came off the press in England till Parker died in 1575 and a Geneva New Testament was printed by Thomas Vautroullier and published by Christopher Barker (STC 2877; DMH 141). The first complete Geneva Bible to be published in England did not appear till the following year, 1576 (STC 2117; DMH 143). Between 1560 (when the Geneva first appeared) and 1575, 18 editions of the complete English Bible were published. Eight of these were Great Bibles,[5] seven were Bishops',[6] but only three were Genevas, these three being published in Geneva in 1560, 1562, and 1570.[7] During the same period, six editions of the Bishops' New Testament appeared,[8] six Tyndale New Testaments,[9] but only two of the Geneva, one of these being the Geneva New Testament published for the first time in London in 1575.[10]

Only after the printing of the Geneva commenced in England, did it outsell all other versions. Of the 27 editions of the complete Bible published in the decade from 1576 to 1585, 20 were Geneva Bibles while only 7 were Bishops' Bibles. No other versions of the complete English Bible were published during that time. The Geneva Bible was the most popular Bible throughout Shakespeare's lifetime. From 1576, when the Geneva first began to be printed in England, till 1611, when Shakespeare's dramatic career was almost over and the King James Bible appeared, a total of 92 editions of the complete Bible were published in England. Eighty-one of these were Geneva Bibles and 11 were Bishops' Bibles. But the Geneva Bible had to wait sixteen years before it became the most popular English Bible.[11]

A second misconception about the Geneva is that most editions were published in roman type rather than black letter. The comprehensive survey of English Bibles by Hugh Pope states that the majority of editions were in roman type, although "black letter type persisted in some editions; e.g. in those of 1589, 1592, and 1608, though the marginal notes remained in Roman type." In explaining the Geneva's popularity, Pope says: "Its clear type compared favorably with the old black letter."[12] Numerous other authorities stress the fact that the Geneva was published in roman letter, and imply that most if not all editions of the Geneva Bible had roman type.[13]


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Although it is true that the first seven editions of the complete Geneva Bible appeared in roman letter, there was a great demand for black letter editions and, of the many editions published in England, more appeared in black letter than in roman. The first black letter edition appeared in 1578 when a huge folio edition was printed (STC 2123; DMH 154), and black letter editions appeared regularly thereafter. During the first twenty years that the Geneva Bible was published in England from 1576-95, 24 editions appeared in black letter against 19 in roman.[14] Between 1560, when the Geneva first appeared, and 1616, when the last complete Geneva Bible was published in England, a total of 90 editions of the complete Geneva Bible appeared. Forty-six of these were in black letter and 44 in roman.[15] Clearly, roman type was not the prime reason for the popularity of the Geneva, for black letter editions seem to have been in greater demand in England. Only if we include the editions published outside of England in our count would the roman letter editions slightly outnumber the black.

Finally, although the Puritans preferred the Geneva Bible over the authorized translations of the day, so did many Anglicans. Not a few of these were bishops and archbishops. Even after the Authorized Version of 1611 was published, many bishops continued to use the Geneva Bible. Lancelot Andrews, though not only a bishop but also one of the translators of the 1611 Authorized Version, almost always preached from the Geneva Bible and rarely from either the Bishops' or the version he helped translate. Of over 50 sermons preached by Bishop Hall between 1611 and 1630, Hall used the Geneva Bible in 27 of the sermons and the Bishops' in only five. Bishops Laud and Carleton as well as Dean Williams all used the Geneva Bible as late as 1624. In the sixteenth century, Babington, Bishop of Worcester; George Abbot, afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury; John King, afterwards Bishop of London; Richard Hooker and Archbishop Whitgift, all used the Geneva Bible.[16] Even the numerous Scripture quotations in the lengthy translators' letter to the reader which prefaced the Authorized Version of 1611 were made from the Geneva rather than from the Bishops' Bible. Thus, use of the Geneva is by no means an indication of one's religious convictions.



By T. H. Darlow and H. F. Moule, revised by A. S. Herbert (1968), entry 107. Hereafter referred to as DMH.


James Baikie, The English Bible and Its Story (1928), p. 242; Ira Maurice Price, The Ancestry of Our English Bible, 3rd revised edition (New York: Harper, 1956), p. 263. See also Frederick F. Bruce, The English Bible (1961), pp. 91-92.


"Introduction to the Facsimile Edition," in The Geneva Bible: A Facsimile of the 1560 Edition (1969), p. 13.


Alfred W. Pollard, ed., Records of the English Bible (1911; rpt. 1974), pp. 284-285.


DMH 110, 117, 119, 120, 122, 127, 128, 129.


DMH 125, 126, 132, 135, 137, 139, 140.


DMH 107, 116, 130.


DMH 123, 124, 133, 134, 136, 142.


DMH 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 121.


DMH 109, 141.


See DMH 143 to 308. I have carefully checked the entries in DMH against those in the forthcoming 2nd ed. of the Short-Title Catalogue. I am grateful to the Bibliographical Society (London) for sending me pre-publication proofs of the section on Bibles in the revised Short-Title Catalogue.


Hugh Pope, English Versions of the Bible (1952; rpt. 1972), pp. 222, 229.


See, for example, James Baikie, p. 240; Ira M. Price, p. 263. These speak of the Geneva's "substitution of our modern Roman type for the picturesque but inconvenient black letter of the Great Bible," and of its "abandonment of black letter for the plain, simple roman type."


The 24 black letter editions are: DMH 154, 159, 160, 164, 165, 170, 174, 178, 179, 182, 183, 187, 190, 197, 199, 200, 201, 210, 211, 219, 220, 221, 222, and 225. The 19 editions in roman letter are: DMH 143, 144, 148, 149, 161, 171, 173, 184, 191, 194, 195, 205, 206, 208, 212, 215, 218, 223, and 226. (The Short-Title Catalogue does not indicate whether a volume was published in black or roman letter.)


This count does not include the 7 (possibly 8) "1599" editions of the Geneva Bible that were published on the Continent during the first half of the seventeenth century, but which were spuriously set forth as having been printed in London in 1599. All 7 editions were in roman type. Nor does it include the 3 editions published in Edinburgh in 1579, 1601, and 1610, all of which were in roman type.


Brooke Foss Westcott, A General View of the History of the English Bible, 3rd revised edition (1922), p. 107, n. 1.