By Louise Fiske
Several misconceptions surround the Geneva Bible; it was the Bible of the Puritans; 2 because of its obvious advantages it became the most popular version of the Bible as soon as it appeared, 3; it was generally published in Italic of roman letter.
On the first point, one should note that although Puritans may have preferred the Geneva Bible over the authorized translations. 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, the Bible they had used for many years.
Lancelot Andrews, 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’ Bible or the version he helped translate.
Of the more than fifty sermons Bishop Hall preached between 1611 and 1630, he used the Geneva Bible in twenty seven and the Bishops’ in only five. Bishops Laud and Carleton as well as Dean Williams all used the Geneva Bible as late as 1624.
Second, while it is true that the Geneva Bible was the most popular Bible throughout most of Shakespeare’s lifetime, it did not become so until 1576, when the first compete Geneva bible was published in England.
in 1561, queen Elizabeth gave John Bodley an exclusive patent to publish the Geneva bible for seven years, but the patent decreed that the Geneva bibles he published be in an edition approved by the bishops of Canterbury and London.
Archbishop Parker discouraged publication of the Geneva, since the return of Marian exiles eager for more through reform of the English Church was of concern to him, and he wanted an edition without the controversial notes of the Geneva. About 1564-65, well before the license expired, both Parker and Grindal recommended the renewal of Bodley’s license for another twelve years. But no Geneva Bibles were printed in England until Parker died in 1575 and a Geneva New Testament was published by Christopher Barker. The first complete Geneva Bible to be published in England appeared the following year.
Because of Parker’s policy toward the Geneva Bible, it got off to a slow start. Between 1560 and 1575, eighteen editions of the complete English Bible were published. Eight of these were Great Bibles, seven were Bishops’ but only three were Genevas, published in Geneva in 1560, 1562, and 1570. During the same period six editions of the Bishops’ New Testament and six Tyndale New Testaments appeared, but only two of the Geneva were published, one of these being the Geneva New Testament that was published in London for the first time in 1575.
Once the printing of the Geneva commenced in England, however, it outsold all other versions. Of the twenty seven editions of the complete Bible published in the decade from 1576-1585, twenty were Geneva Bibles while only seven were Bishops Bibles. No other version of the complete Bible was published during that time. From 1576, when the Geneva Bible first began to be printed in England, until 1611, when Shakespeare’s dramatic career was almost over and the King James Bible appeared, ninety two editions of the complete Bible were published in England. Eighty-one of these were Geneva Bibles, and eleven were Bishops Bibles. These statistics illustrate the relative availability of the various versions of the Bible during most of Shakespeare’s lifetime.
Finally, although the first seven edition of the Geneva Bible appeared in roman letter, almost as many editions of the Geneva were published in Black letter font.
The first Black letter editions appeared in 1578 in a huge folio edition, but black letter editions of the Geneva Bible appeared regularly thereafter. Between 1560 and 1616, when the last complete Geneva Bible was published in England, a total of ninety editions of the complete Geneva Bible appeared. Forty-four of these were in Roman and forty-six in black letter. More than half of these complete Geneva Bibles appeared in black letter. From a later point of view, it might seem that roman type was a distance advantage and an important reason for the popularity of the Geneva Bible.
The Geneva Bible is often called “The Breeches Bible” since Genesis 3.7 says that Adam and Eve sewed fig leaves together and made themselves “breeches” whereas other version of the day have “aprons” but “breeches Bible “ is hardly an appropriate name, especially since the Geneva Bible was not the only version of use “breeches” in that passage. Both Wycliff and Caxton’s Golden Legend (in which Caxton incorporates large portions of Scripture) used the term “breeches” in Genesis 3.7. Yet many persons are hardly aware that the “Breeches Bible “ is actually the Geneva; an inappropriate nickname has become more popular than the correct designation.
The last Geneva Bibles to be published in England appeared in 1616. In spite of its popularity, shortly after the Authorized Version appeared
, King James would no longer allow the Geneva Bible to be published in England, since he took exception to its notes. But after production ceased in England, thousands of Geneva Bibles were published on the continent and exported to England, often bearing the imprint of an English publisher. The last edition of the Geneva Bible was published in 1644 in Amsterdam, eighty four years after the translation appeared.