1599 Geneva Bible on CD-ROM
*This version is in Olde English with the notes in Olde English
About the 1599 Geneva Bible
It is a new year and a new beginning, a time to decide who we will be in 2016. Bibles have beginnings too! In printed Bibles, before the “in the beginning” of Genesis 1:1 is another beginning of the Bible: the title page. In a world new to printed vernacular Bibles, title pages communicated where the Bible was printed, and what it contained—all important information in the tumultuous era of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The title pages of the Geneva Bible and the King James Bible are full of rich imagery that reflect the worldview of their translators, patrons, and printers.
The Geneva Bible was first published in 1560 in Geneva in modern day Switzerland. Geneva was a Protestant haven, home to the French theologian John Calvin, and to several Marian Exiles. These exiles were English Protestants who fled after the Catholic Mary I became queen of England. The Marian Exiles saw themselves as the defenders of the Protestant faith, resisting what they saw as the political and spiritual tyranny of Mary. They also believed the Bible was their primary source of religious authority, not the queen or the Catholic Church. The Geneva Bible was the exiles’ new translation of the Bible into English.
The Geneva Bible’s quite wordy title page proclaims that it is “The Bible and Holy Scriptures Conteyned in the Olde and Newe Testament. Translated according to the Ebrue and Greek...With moste Profitable annotations upon all the hard places....” This Bible was translated from the Hebrew and Greek; the Geneva Bible was especially unique in this regard. It was the first English translation to use the Hebrew for the poetic and prophetic books of the Old Testament. Protestant scholars desired to “return to the sources,” the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, to create a new translation, instead of re-using the centuries-old Latin translation. The title page also indicates that this Bible will include “most Profitable annotations” that provide interpretation of the biblical text, or notes on the translation. These notes included anti-monarchical and anti-clerical comments, which made the Geneva Bible unpopular with English monarchs and the Church of England.
The title page also includes a woodcut of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. Moses stands with his staff, parting the waters, with the Egyptian chariots and soldiers approaching the defenseless Israelites. This scene had significant meaning for the Marian Exiles; they saw their experience as parallel to the story of the Israelites in Exodus. The crossing of the Red Sea signaled the deliverance of the Israelites from the bondage of slavery and the tyranny of the pharaoh. Similarly, the English Protestants saw themselves as a people enslaved and oppressed under the Catholicism of Mary’s reign.
The woodcut is surrounded by the words of perseverance from Psalm 34: 19: “Great are the troubles of the righteous: but ye Lord deliverseth him out of them all,” and Exodus 14:14: “The Lord shal fight for you; therefore holde you your peace.” The title page also proudly declares the Bible was printed at Geneva, identifying the Bible with the Protestant movement in Geneva. All these aspects communicate that this is not the Bible of the Catholic English queen, but the Bible of the English Protestants.
The King James Bible was published in 1611 partly as a response to the popularity of the Geneva Bible. Commissioned by King James I and translated by scholars for over seven years, the King James Bible stands as the most influential English Bible ever produced. The top of the title page depicts the Trinity: the Father, represented by the divine name in Hebrew; the Spirit as a dove; and the Son, as the triumphant lamb. The Trinity is accompanied by the sun, perhaps a symbol of King James. A dedicatory letter to the king, included after the title page, compared him to “the Sunne in his strength” who drove away the “mists” of false religion.
These images reminded the reader that their king, with God’s blessing, was the true spiritual leader of England, shown through his patronage of this Bible. Various biblical figures are shown; Moses and Aaron stand as columns, with the four Gospel writers shown in the four corners. The twelve apostles appear at the top of the title page. The surprising inclusion of a pelican (that looks like a goose), found at the bottom of the page, symbolizes Jesus as Redeemer, as pelicans will wound themselves to let their blood nourish their young. The title page also notes that this Bible was “appointed to be read in Churches,” and printed by “Robert Barker, Printer to the Kings.” This emphasized that this Bible was the authoritative version, approved by the church and the king, rather than the Geneva Bible favored by the Puritan nonconformist movement.
Just by opening the cover of a Bible, one can learn why, how, and when a Bible was made. We invite you, as the New Year commences, to engage with the Bible, perhaps even beginning with the title page! For as Maria from The Sound of Music put it, “...start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”