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The Geneva Bible is one of the most historically significant translations of the Bible in the English language, preceding the King James translation by 51 years. It was the primary Bible of the 16th Century Protestant movement and was the Bible used by William Shakespeare, John Knox, John Donne, and John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress. It was one of the Bibles taken to America on the Mayflower, it was used by many English Dissenters, and it was still respected by Oliver Cromwell's soldiers at the time of the English Civil War.
What makes this version of the Holy Bible singularly unique in world history is that, for the very first time, a mechanically-printed, mass-produced Bible was made available directly to the general public which came with a variety of scriptural study guides and aids (collectively called an apparatus), which included verse citations which allow the reader to cross – reference one verse with numerous relevant verses in the rest of the Bible, introductions to each book of the Bible which acted to summarize all of the material that each book would cover, maps, tables, woodcut illustrations, indexes, as well as other included features — all of which would eventually lead to the reputation of the Geneva Bible as history's very first study bible.
Because the language of the Geneva Bible was more forceful and vigorous, most readers preferred this version strongly over the Bishops' Bible, the translation authorised by the Church of England under Elizabeth I. In the words of Cleland Boyd McAfee, "it drove the Great Bible off the field by sheer power of excellence".
During the reign of Queen Mary I of England (1553 – 1558), a number of Protestant scholars fled from England to Geneva in Switzerland, which was then ruled as a republic in which John Calvin and Theodore Beza provided the primary spiritual and theological leadership. Among these scholars was William Whittingham, who would come to supervise what would become the effort to create the translation now known as the Geneva Bible, in collaboration with Myles Coverdale, Christopher Goodman, Anthony Gilby, Thomas Sampson, and Willian Cole – several of whom became prominent figures in the proto-Puritan Nonconformist faction of the Vestments controversy. Whittingham was directly responsible for the New Testament, which was complete and published in 1557, while Gilby oversaw the Old Testament.
The first full edition of this Bible, with a further revised New Testament, appeared in 1560, but it was not printed in England until 1575 (New Testament) and 1576 (complete Bible). Over 150 editions were issued; the last probably in 1644. The very first Bible printed in Scotland was a Geneva Bible, which was first issued in 1579. In fact, the involvement of Knox and Calvin in the creation of the Geneva Bible made it especially appealing in Scotland, where a law was passed in 1579 requiring every household of sufficient means to buy a copy.
Some editions from 1576 onwards included Tomson's revisions of the New Testament. Some editions from 1599 onwards used a new "Junius" version of the Book of Revelation, in which the notes were translated from a new Latin commentary by Junius on Revelation.
Like most English translations of the time, the Geneva Bible was translated from scholarly editions of the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures that comprise the Christian Old Testament. The English rendering was substantially based on the earlier translations by William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale (80-90% of the language in the Genevan New Testament is from Tyndale). However, the Geneva Bible was the first English version in which all of the Old Testament was translated directly from the Hebrew (cf. Coverdale Bible, Matthew's Bible).
The annotations which are an important part of the Geneva Bible were Calvinist and Puritan in character, and as such they were disliked by the ruling pro – government Protestants of the Church of England, as well as King James I, who commissioned the "Authorized Version," or King James Bible, in order to replace it. The Geneva Bible had also motivated the earlier production of the Bishops' Bible under Elizabeth I, for the same reason, and the later Rheims-Douai edition by the Catholic community. The Geneva Bible remained popular among Puritans and remained in widespread use until after the English Civil War. The Geneva notes were surprisingly included in a few editions of the King James version, even as late as 1715.
It has been stated by some[who?] that the Geneva Bible was the Bible present at the signing of the U. S. Declaration of Independence and the U. S. Constitution, because it was the Bible that the Puritans brought with them to America. However, the U. S. Library of Congress and the Independence National Historical Park both state that they do not know what version/translation of the Bible was present at these signings (Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania being the location of both of the signings).
The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to use verse numbers based on the work of Stephanus (Robert Estienne of Paris). It also had an elaborate system of commentary in marginal glosses. This annotation was done by Laurence Tomson, who translated (for the 1560 Geneva Bible) L'Oiseleur's notes on the Gospels, which themselves came from Camerarius. In 1576 Tomson added L'Oiseleur's notes for the Epistles, which came from Beza's Greek and Latin edition of the Bible (1565 and later). Beginning in 1599 Franciscus Junius' notes on Revelation were added, replacing the original notes deriving from John Bale and Heinrich Bullinger. Bale's The Image of both churches had a great impact on these notes as well as Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Both the Junius and Bullinger-Bale annotations are explicitly anti-Roman Catholic and representative of much popular Protestant apocalypticism during the Reformation.
The 1560 Geneva Bible was printed in Roman type—the style of type regularly used today—but many editions used the older black-letter ("Gothic") type. Of the various later English Bible translations, the next to use Roman type was the Douay-Rheims Bible of 1582 (New Testament) and 1609–10 (Old Testament).
The Geneva Bible was also issued in more convenient and affordable sizes than earlier versions. The 1560 Bible was in quarto format (218 × 139 mm type area), but pocketable octavo editions were also issued, and a few large folio editions. The New Testament was issued at various times in sizes from quarto down to 32º (the smallest, 70×39 mm type area ). In the late sixteenth century it is likely that the Geneva New Testament cost less than a week's wages even for the lowest-paid labourers.
The 1560 Geneva Bible contained a number of study aids, including woodcut illustrations, maps and explanatory 'tables', i.e. indexes of names and topics, in addition to the (in)famous marginal notes. Each book was preceded by an 'argument' or introduction, and each chapter by a list of contents giving verse numbers. Smaller-format editions might be unillustrated and lack the marginal notes, but some large folio editions had additional illustrations, such as one showing Adam and Eve, where Adam wears a typical Elizabethan beard and moustache.