Geneva Bible—Accuracy

September 2, 2019
Posted in Bible, History
September 2, 2019 Robyn Van Eck

Geneva Bible—Accuracy

Why does Grammar of Grace use the Geneva Bible for its Bible translation?  It’s really obscure!  Well… actually, the Geneva Bible used not to be obscure.  It’s true that most of today’s Christians haven’t heard of it, but it turned the world upside down in its day.  Even secular historians count it as one of the most important documents in English history, because everybody was reading it. 

The choice of Bible translation for Grammar of Grace received a lot of consideration.  But in the end, the answer was never really was in doubt; again and again, the Geneva Bible was the clear winner.  

Why?  Well, there were two main reasons—accuracy and language.  Today I’ll share a bit about the Geneva Bible’s accuracy, and tomorrow we’ll discuss language.

The most important thing to consider when selecting one’s Bible translation is, of course, how accurately it expresses the original texts of the scriptures.  The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek; and God has providentially preserved those texts for us, throughout the ages.  We call this the doctrine of the Preservation of the Text.

It is God’s will that we then translate the scriptures into our common tongues—in our case, English!  But the translations are not supernaturally inspired, neither are they supernaturally preserved.  So, especially in a day in which, according to the American Bible Society, there are 900 versions of the Bible in English (complete or incomplete), it is necessary that we evaluate our translations for accuracy. 

And here is where I have to give you bad news… I’ve tried to find a way around saying this, but there’s nothing for it; if you love the Lord, you need to know this.  Not everyone who makes a Bible translation loves the Lord.  Some men do not love the Lord, and engage in the work of Bible translation not to lead men to the Lord, but to the contrary, with an eye toward changing God’s Word for their own purposes.

Such a man was King James.  Yes, the King James of the King James Bible.

During the Protestant Reformation, Christians were being killed all over Europe, wherever the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone had spread.  Christians were burned alive; entire villages were slaughtered; men, women, and children were tortured and killed for faith in Christ.

In God’s providence, those faithful ones who escaped persecution in their home countries found safe haven in Geneva, Switzerland, under the protection of John Calvin.  There were gathered Christians from Scotland, England, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Spain.  They formed little congregations there, each worshiping in their own tongues and studying the scriptures under Calvin’s insightful teaching.  John Knox, one of the leaders of the English-speaking congregation there described that period as “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.”  Calvin encouraged these refugees to prepare to return to their homelands as missionaries.  They undertook the task of translating the scriptures into their own tongues—a crime worthy of torture and death in their home countries; and indeed many of them, returning home with translated Bibles, would suffer those penalties.  These men and women were willing to give all for the glorious Gospel of Christ.

Prior to this time, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, and a few men after them had labored to produce an English translation of the Bible.  At last, at Geneva, everything was in place for the accurate completion of that blessed work; it would be called the Geneva Bible.  This Bible, and the translations into the other languages represented in Geneva, were the first to label the scriptures with chapter and verse numbers, to aid in Bible study.  They had notes in the margins, explaining difficult bits of translation or hard passages.  The title page reads, “The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and New Testament.  Translated According to the Ebrue and Greke, and conferred With the best translations in divers languages.  With Moste Profitable Annotations upon all the hard places, and other things of great importance as may appeare in the Epistle to the reader.”  I love that—“Moste Profitable Annotations upon all the hard places!”

The Geneva Bible was, obviously, banned.  But the more the king or queen tried to banish the English scriptures, the more they spread.  For example, in God’s providence, there was a famine in Britain, so hidden in barrels of grain, Geneva Bibles made their way across the English Channel.  It cost a year’s wages to purchase a Geneva Bible.  Can you imagine saving up $80,000 to buy anything that isn’t a house—indeed, just to buy a single Bible?  But the men of that time were overjoyed that—at a cost that was within their reach—they could purchase their very own copy of God’s Word.  Oh, for shame that in our day we count the Bible such a cheap thing that it lies unopened upon many a bookshelf!

When James became king, he was every bit as much of a Christian-In-Name-Only as his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been.  To be clear, when the Pilgrims fled to America, they were fleeing King James!  He hated Geneva Bibles, especially the margin notes, which taught (among other things) that if one’s ruler was in utter rebellion to God, it was one’s duty to obey God rather than man.  Remember, this was the time when some kings and queens were openly declaring that every “heretic” (that is to say, Christian) must be exterminated; these were not mere intellectual discussions but very real issues that men who were, say, mayors or soldiers, had to consider.

Eventually King James realized there was no winning the battle to rid his country of the Bibles.  So he settled upon a solution:  He would sponsor an Authorized Version of the Bible, which would be freely permitted in churches and homes in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales.  Thus Geneva Bibles would be replaced by his Authorized version of the Bible.

The committee chosen to create the new translation almost entirely plagiarized the Geneva Bible, but they got rid of the hateful margin notes and made a few changes to bring the English Bible more into agreement with the Roman Catholic Bible.  For example, in 1 Corinthians 13, the Greek scriptures teach that, love is patient; love is kind; etc.  But the Romish church translated that passage as charity is patient; charity is kind—and this was an important scripture that they used to support their doctrine of the necessity of good works for salvation.  On the whole, though, the KJV committee largely left the text alone, so if you’re familiar the KJV, the Geneva Bible will also seem very familiar.

So why does the Geneva Bible pass the accuracy test?  The men who translated the Geneva were willing to—and several actually did—give their lives for the sake of delivering the Word of God accurately to English speakers.  They were devoted to doing this well.  And they did.

I’ve used it for years, and I have found it to agree with the original Greek and Hebrew scriptures better than any translation I’ve ever used before (and I’ve long been discerning about my translation choices!).  I believe it is the best English translation we have.  

That’s not to say it’s perfect; no translation ever can perfectly convey the full sense of one language into another.  But it’s quite good.

That’s also not to say that all other translations are bad.  I spent many a profitable year growing in Christ using my NASB, for example.

But what’s up with the Middle English?  No matter how accurate it is, isn’t it better to learn the scriptures in the everyday language that we speak?  Stay tuned for Part 2!

By the way, what do you think the Pilgrims took with them on the Mayflower?  You’d better believe it!  The Bible present at the spiritual foundation of our country was the Geneva Bible.

Have you spent any time using the Geneva Bible?  How have you liked it?

Thanks for dropping by; please keep us in prayer!

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Comments (12)

  1. Alexander Hudspeth

    I love the Geneva Bible! The margin notes are so VERY informative and shed a bright light on Reformation thought.

    But, did you mean to say that the Geneva Bible is written in Middle English?

    Middle English was the language of Chaucer, and it predated the printing press by about 50 years; when Caxton fired up his press in London around 1475, he pretty much invented Early Modern English.

    Calvin and other translators (as well as Shakespeare and, Later, Milton) used Early Modern English, years after the Caxton Press.

    • Robyn Van Eck

      Thanks for the comment; I love the margin notes, too! LOL, yes, you’re completely right; read on to Part 2! 😉

      • Dana Brinkmeier

        I really enjoyed your website and the insightful biblical information thereunto expressed. This is the first time I have seen said website. I have two original Geneva Bibles…a 1592 and 1605 [and complete early King James from 1622 and 1634 ] Both Geneva’s are complete except general title page is extant on the earlier version. I love these Bibles. as there is a special anointing on them ! I study them daily. The margin notes are so helpful in understanding what the scholars of five centuries ago were thinking as they were doing their best to bring Gods Word to the masses. while being persecuted in the extreme. I will be 77 years of age in two weeks and have been in the Word since age 9. I Have multiple university degrees and have taught Sunday school classes and Evangelism Explosion programs to present the Gospel to those who would hear Gods Word. God Bless you and your family and will see you in Glory at the Marriage supper of the Lamb, with our Savior Jesus Christ. whose Name is above all names !

        • Robyn Van Eck

          Thank you for the kind words. Wow, you have some wonderful treasures!! But the most blessed of all, the Word of God living in our hearts – amen, what a joy to look forward to that heavenly meeting in glory! Thank you so much for your faithfulness to our Lord and encouragement.

          • Dana Brinkmeier

            Thank you Robyn !…and we both know that it is in Him that. we live and move an have our being….and it is Christ who lives in and through us !…what a blessing to know our creator. who is also. the creator of the universe lives in us ! May God richly bless your Ministry ! Dana

    • Simon Parsons

      How does the Geneva Bible compare to the Orthodox study Bible. I find their study notes very helpful. Thank you in advance and God Bless your work.
      God Bless,
      Simon parsons

      • Robyn Van Eck

        Hi Simon,
        Thank you for the kind words. I haven’t studied the Orthodox Study Bible myself, but speaking from the Geneva Bible perspective, I can see that there will be a good contrast of perspectives between the Geneva Bible and the Orthodox SB.
        The texts of the scriptures themselves will have a lot of differences, because the Old Testament in the Orthodox SB is translated from a Greek translation (so it went from Hebrew to Greek to English), and the Geneva is translated directly from the Hebrew into English; likewise, the New Testament in the Orthodox SB is NKJV, in which Wescott and Hort began "correcting" the Textus Receptus Greek New Testament text according to their modern progressive sensibilities, and the Geneva Bible is translated directly from the original Textus Receptus.
        As for the study notes, what a great idea to take writings from the early church fathers, and place them in with scriptural texts as if the early church fathers had worked together to make a Bible commentary! The modern editors who compiled those notes are subject to their own modern biases, though, so be on guard against early church fathers’ writings being taken out of context (a common practice in modern times, hopefully not a problem here, but always good to watch out for). It sounds like the Orthodox Study Bible would be a great tool to use to help introduce us to many of the writings of the early church fathers; I hope the sources are always listed so we can look up the context for deeper reading.
        God bless you,

  2. Jessica

    Is the Geneva Bible actually the most accurate over the King James Bible? I have the NIV Bible and it’s easy to read and understand, but if there’s a more accurate translation close to the original written Bible, I do want to get it.

    • Robyn Van Eck

      I apologize in advance for the long answer. Believe it or not, I’m strongly holding myself back from writing more; this is a topic I love, and that I have spent a lot of time studying!

      The KJV and Geneva are both really good translations. The Geneva translators were all men suffering persecution and willing to die for the faith; they had no agenda apart from bringing the accurate, true Word of God to their people. They were also really intelligent, well-educated, and had great resources – such as John Calvin, John Knox, and many other devoted Reformers from different countries – there with them when they had tricky translation or interpretation questions to work on. And they kept improving it! The first edition was completed in 1560, and then they kept making little improvements year after year. (The biggest change was the expansion of the margin notes. I recommend the 1599 Geneva Bible, because the notes are MUCH more detailed.)

      The KJV, in some ways, is a continuation of that tale of continually refining the translation; but in some other ways it was a definite step backward. The KJV committee had a lot of committed Christians who had suffered persecution, who were the real deal – loving the Lord and working to translate as accurately as they could. But it also had some members of a more Roman Catholic persuasion, who wanted to bridge some of the differences between the protestant Bible translations and the (less accurate) Roman Catholic Latin Vulgate. I think there are a few improvements in translation with the KJV, and also some downgrades in translation. IMO, I’d rather have the honest shortcomings of the Geneva Bible over the intentional changes in the KJV, so our family uses Geneva. But they’re both good.

      Part of it is that they’re almost exactly alike. I grew up on KJV, read the Bible through as a teen with the NIV, and kept reading and growing in the Lord as a young adult with the NASB. The Geneva is almost exactly like the old KJV; it’s very familiar to me from my KJV childhood. Marshall Foster used to say that that KJV is 90% plagiarism of the Geneva. To be more generous, perhaps they just did a lot of simply saying, "Yup, this is perfect." (As Isaac Newton said, we "stand on the shoulders" of those who came before us – the Geneva translators stood on the shoulders of Tyndale, who stood on Luther’s shoulders!)

      Special Note: The Doctrine of the Preservation of the Text. The important thing is to choose an English Bible that is a translation of the original Greek New Testament (called the Textus Receptus) and the Hebrew Old Testament (the Masoretic). In the late 1800s, a couple of men named Wescott & Hort started doubting that God had preserved the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts down through the ages. They argued that if an archaeological finding was made containing a modified scripture text, then that revealed that the Greek text (or Hebrew) that we Christians have been using must have been "corrupted" over the years, and that the Greek or Hebrew text should be "fixed" by using the text in the dusty fragment that was rejected and abandoned in a storage jar 2,000 years ago. I’m simplifying the story a LOT, but that’s the essence of it. If we believe the Doctrine of the Preservation of the Text, then we believe that God has overseen and helped Christians over the past 2,000 years, to hand down the original Greek & Hebrew texts from one generation to the next.

      The point of that is to say that pretty much every Bible translation since 1880 has been translated from the Critical Texts of the Greek NT and Hebrew OT. Those are the Greek NT/Hebrew OT that have been "fixed" to correct for all of the mistakes that these experts believe have crept into the Bible over that past 2,000 years. The Critical Texts are constantly changing, based on new archaeological discoveries year by year. Both the Geneva & the KJV were translated from the Textus Receptus Greek and Masoretic Hebrew. Two books that available for free online, that are very useful for discovering if a translation is based on the TR Greek + Masoretic Hebrew vs. the Critical Texts, are:

      One final item of note: The Geneva Bible margin notes. The Geneva Bible was the first "study Bible", and its margin notes were probably more influential than Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and The Pilgrim’s Progress! They just don’t get mentioned, because they’re not a separate book. They are AMAZING. I thought I knew what a great study Bible was, but the Geneva Bible is better than any other one I’ve seen. And that is actually "the rest of the story"… The reason why King James hated the Geneva Bible so much was because of the excellent margin notes. Folks were understanding the Bible – and that was causing him trouble! The whole point of the KJV was to replace the Geneva Bible with a Bible that had no margin notes. So. While the notes aren’t inspired, obviously, if that’s a helpful thing you’d like to have available, then that will probably tip you to Geneva.

      One last word – a story. When I learned that my beloved NASB wasn’t translated from the Divinely-preserved Greek & Hebrew, but had sneaky changes in it from the critical texts – after I’d already switched from NIV to NASB for better accuracy years earlier! – well, it was eye-opening. And confusing. Because I also remembered all of the spiritual growth that had occurred in my life with the NASB, even though it had some false stuff in it. I prayed about these things, of course. Then one day, I realized that these Bibles that have negative changes still have a lot of unadulterated stuff, and those accurate parts are still the Word of God, living, and active, and POWERFUL! I may have been confused and led astray by some changed-around things, but God in His mercy used all of the True stuff to work His grace in my life, by His wonderful Holy Spirit.

  3. Karrie Joy St. Clair

    Thank you for this article. I have been studying the origin of the Bible. The Geneva Bible seems to be the most accurate from the original Codex Sinaiticus. I compare even recent translations of the Bible and they differ in so many ways. Take Genesis 19 for example, when in verse 2 shows various translations, some not pertaining at all to original scripture. Thank you.

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