Geneva Bible

"With most profitable annotations upon all the hard places"

The oldest book within the Special Collections of Deakin University Library is a fine example of a Geneva Bible, published in London in 1599. The Geneva Bible was first published in Geneva in 1560 and its most significant feature is mentioned in the title page which reads: ''The Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures contained in the Olde and Newe Testament, translated according to the Ebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the best translations in divers languages. With most profitable annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance ...''

The Geneva Bible recognized that the Scriptures contained many 'hard places' and in order for people to engage directly with the word of God, explanatory and illustrative material needed to be included which would provide clarification and ensure that misunderstandings did not arise. Thus it included prefaces and annotations in plain English, as well as maps and illustrations. It was an immensely influential work, being the Bible used by Shakespeare, Bunyan and other Elizabethan writers and the Bible the Puritans would take with them to America.


During the brief reign of Mary I, Henry VIII's Roman Catholic daughter, many English Protestants fled from her reprisals (the nature of which led to her being called 'Bloody Mary') to Europe where there were many strongholds of the Reformed Church. Geneva in particular was noted as a centre of Biblical scholarship and the home of John Calvin (1509-64), a leading Protestant intellectual.

It was there in 1560 that William Whittingham (c.1524-1579), in collaboration with a number of other scholars, produced a new English Bible. It was based in part on previous editions and translations but paid meticulous attention to the original texts.

At the time it was the most scholarly bible to have been produced, as well as being the most accurate and well annotated. Its simple Roman typeface and portable (quarto) format contributed to its popularity, as did its annotations, maps and illustrations. It was the first Bible in English to be divided into chapters and have numbered verse divisions, and it quickly won popular acceptance as the Bible of English speaking Protestants.
However the annotations, which helped make the Geneva Bible so popular, contained remarks guaranteed to upset church authorities, especially those of the Catholic faith. Many religious observances were rejected as being servile and almost anything involving elaborate ritual was dismissed as superstition. Rome was regarded as another Sodom or Gomorrah, where ungodliness reigned.

Ironically, it wasn't the offence to religious authorities that was to be the ultimate downfall of the Geneva Bible, but its affront to royal susceptibilities. After years of uneasy truce between Protestants and Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I, the Protestant and Scottish King James I succeeded to the throne. He too wanted to preserve the peace between religions, but he found the Geneva Bible too much to stomach, calling it the 'worst of all' English translations. The reason for his concern was not religious but political.

The annotations, which not only provided elucidation on points of theology, also offered political comments which could be seen to have relevance to current situations. James was a fervent believer in the divine right of kings; however the Geneva Bible made its position on that matter perfectly clear and this can be seen in, for example, the annotation on Daniel being thrown into the lions' den for disobeying his king (Daniel 6:22): ''For he disobeyed the King's wicked commandment in order to obey God, and so he did no injury to the king, who ought to command nothing by which God would be dishonoured.'' There are many other similar examples of the Geneva Bible's support for those who disobey kings when there is conflict with the will of God. James could not tolerate this and he felt that the easiest way to overcome the popularity of the Geneva Bible was to support a new translation, thus in 1611 the King James Bible was born.

Publishing History

The Geneva Bible was first published in 1560 by Rowland Hall in Geneva and it was the presence of this place name on the title page that led to its common name. It is also often known as the 'Breeches' Bible, as the word is used in Genesis 3:7: ''Then the eyes of both [Adam and Eve] were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sowed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.'' However this term had actually been used in previous translations of the Bible.

The popularity of the Geneva Bible was such that between 1560 and 1644 it went through 140 editions, 60 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I alone. It was imported into England from Geneva until 1575, at which time it was published in England by Christopher Barker, who became royal printer and managed to gain an exclusive patent to publish Bibles and other royal and government works. Barker produced a composite edition of the Geneva Bible in 1578 which included modifications to the translation of the New Testament by Lawrence Tomson and notes which were based on commentaries by Theodore Beza, a Genevan theologian.

Many other editions and variations were published until 1616 when its publication in England was no longer permitted. Interestingly, it was the increased tension between Puritans (a radical Protestant movement) and Anglicans, rather than Catholics and Protestants, which led to this ban. Puritans strongly supported the Geneva Bible, but the more mainstream and establishment Anglicans, who supported the role of the monarch as head of the church, disliked the translation. It continued to be imported from the Netherlands until 1644, when the last known edition was published.


Bobrick, Benson The Making of the English Bible, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2001.
Greenslade, S.L. ed. The Cambridge History of the Bible: the West from the Reformation to the present day, Cambridge University Press, 1963.
McGrath, Alister In the Beginning: the story of the King James Bible, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2001.

Kristen Thornton
is responsible for the contents of this page.