A blog written by Museum Remote Volunteer Amanda Ciccone.
Epping Forest District Museum has in their possession a Geneva Bible, also colloquially called a Breeches Bible, printed in London by Robert Barker, “Printer to the Queen’s most excellent Majesty” in 1600. It is oak-covered with metal corners and edges, and is in delicate shape, showing many years of usage. Historically speaking and as a piece of literature, it is a fascinating object.
The etymology of “Geneva” Bible comes from where it was written and initially printed. The scholars who wrote it were English Protestants driven out of Catholic England in the mid-1550s to Geneva, Switzerland where they found the freedom to write their own translation, heavily Calvinist in ideology. William Whittingham, one such English exile and a follower of Reformation leader John Knox, largely oversaw the project. The New Testament was printed in 1557 and the full edition, including a revised New Testament, in 1560, but was not printed in England until the 1570s. The Geneva Bible’s sources came from a variety of other Bible translations, ranging from English, the Vulgate (Latin), Greek and Hebrew. This was never an “authorised” Bible version in England, though it was very popular and influential.
“Breeches” Bible refers to a particular word choice that had not been used in earlier versions: in Genesis 3:7, instead of Adam and Eve making apurns/aprons for themselves to wear, as was used in the previous Great Bible, Coverdale, and Tyndale’s translations, in the Genevan, they are making breeches.
There are a few ways that this version is unique. For one, it was the first time in an English translation that chapters were divided into numbered verses. Secondly, the font was in Roman type rather than Blackletter. Thirdly, this version includes illustrations, charts and margins with commentary notes and summarisations. The EFD Museum Bible copy contains two “concordances” (alphabetical lists), for instance, of word translations and explanations. These formatting choices functioned for facilitated cross-referencing and comprehension.
The margin notes were controversial, for they were seen as containing antigovernment sentiments: Calvinists – and eventually Puritans – did not believe in the hierarchical structure that made up the Church of England. As a reaction to this fundamental difference in belief and the concern born out of it, the Bishops’ Bible was created in 1568 under Queen Elizabeth I, which was the next authorised Bible in England after the Great Bible under King Henry VIII.
The next significant English Bible translation that is often used to contrast the Geneva Bible is the King James Version (KJV) of 1611. It has been said that King James I also took issue with the Geneva version’s margin notes, calling them “seditious”. One example is in Exodus 1:19, where the corresponding margin note reads:
“Their disobedience herein [to the Pharaoh] was lawful, but their dissembling was evil.”
While it is easy to see how the direct lawful disobeying of a monarch put in text would cause an inflamed reaction, it is questionable the true extent to which King James disapproved the Geneva version, and to what degree this disapproval motivated the creation of the KJV. King James had only occupied the throne for less than one year, a succession which merged the Scottish and English crowns, when he convened the Puritans and the Church of England at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 with the objective of exploring further religious reforms. This is where plans to make a new Bible version first developed. The translators under King James consulted previous English translated Bibles, even the Geneva version, in writing the KJV.
The Geneva Bible was banned soon after the KJV was published in 1611, though it certainly did not disappear. The Geneva Bible is often called the Bible of Shakespeare, and it continued to be influential in the political turmoil that led to the English Civil War. This was even the Bible version that the Puritans carried across the Atlantic in 1620. It has been said that the failure that the Puritans saw of not being heard by King James at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 was what led to their separation from England, going first to the Netherlands, and eventually to the “New World”.
We can detect constant and varying levels of tension when studying the subject of Bible translations: that between language, the ethics of translating at all, accessibility to the public, and authority. Furthermore, we see a pattern of cause and effect: one Bible version causing another to develop, causing a reaction from one entity, which causes another Bible version to develop…and so on and so forth.
These themes are certainly at play in the evolution of the Geneva Bible. So significant this version has been, it is difficult to imagine certain historical events happening without it.
Daniell, David (2003). The Bible in English: its history and influence. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.
Forman, Rev. Dr. Charles C (1959). Four Early Bibles in Pilgrim Hall. Pilgrim Society Note, Series One, Number Nine.
McAfee, Cleland Boyd (1912). Lecture 1: Preparing the Way – The English Bible Before King James.
 This is not a consistent feature in every edition, however. In the Geneva Bible at EFD Museum, the margin notes are in Roman type, but not the verses, which are in Blackletter. This is also the case in one of the Geneva Bibles brought over by the Puritans to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.