Do you know when the Bible was first translated into the English language? Partial translations of the Bible into Old English go back as far as the 7th century. The first complete translation of the Bible (into Middle English) was by the early English reformer John Wyclyffe in 1382.
William Tyndale started translating the Tyndale Bible into Early Modern English, but the Roman Catholic Church had him burned at the stake before he could finish. He had completed the New Testament and part of the Old Testament; his translation was completed by Miles Coverdale in 1535. This was the first translation into English from Greek and Hebrew manuscripts (along with the Latin Vulgate). Miles Coverdale used Tyndale’s work and his own translations to produce the Great Bible in 1539, the first authorized version by the new Church of England after the English Reformation.
The Geneva Bible was published in 1560, the Bishops Bible in 1568, and finally the Authorized King James Version in 1611. In this article, we will compare the Geneva Bible and the King James Version, both of which had a significant impact on the newly formed Protestant churches and the faith of believers who finally had their own Bible in their own language.
This Bible was translated and first published in Switzerland in 1560. Why Switzerland? Because Queen Mary I in England was persecuting Protestant leaders, causing many of them to flee to Geneva, Switzerland, where they were under the leadership of John Calvin. Some of these scholars translated the Geneva Bible, led by William Whittingham.
The reformers felt it was important that everybody have a Bible in their own language. In the past, people were accustomed to hearing the Bible read in church, but the Geneva Bible was meant for families and individuals to read at home, as well as to be read in church. The Geneva Bible was used in Geneva as well as England. It was carried to America by the Puritans on the Mayflower.
The Geneva Bible was the first mass-produced Bible printed on a mechanical printing press and made directly available to everyone (up until this time, usually only priests and scholars and some nobility had copies of the Bible). It was like our study Bibles of today, with study guides, cross-referencing, introductions to each Bible book, maps, tables, illustrations, and notes. Lots of notes! The margins of most pages contained notes on the material, written from the Calvinist perspective of the translators (and many written by John Calvin himself).
The 1560 edition of the Geneva Bible contained the Apocrypha books (a group of books written between 200 BC and AD 400, which are not considered inspired by most Protestant denominations). Most later editions did not. In editions that did contain the Apocrypha, the preface stated that these books did not have the authority and inspiration of the other books of the Bible but could be read for edification. Very few of the margin notes appeared in the Apocrypha books.
When King James I came to the throne, the Protestants had gained control of England and the Church of England needed a Bible for the churches and for the people. The Bishops Bible was being used in the churches, but many people had a Geneva Bible at home.
King James disliked the Geneva Bible, because he felt that the annotations in the margins were too Calvinist, and, more importantly, they questioned the authority of the bishops and of the king! The Bishops Bible was too grandiose in language and the translation work inferior.
The common people liked the notes and other study helps in the Geneva Bible because it helped them understand what they were reading. But King James wanted a Bible that did not have the Calvinist-slanted notes but rather reflected the episcopal church government. It needed to be simple enough for the common people to read (as was the Geneva Bible but not the Bishops Bible). He charged the translators to use the Bishops Bible as a guide.
The KJV was a revision of the Bishops Bible, but the 50 scholars who completed the translation consulted the Geneva Bible heavily and often followed the Geneva Bible’s translation. They even snuck in some of the notes from the Geneva Bible in some early editions!
The Authorized King James Version was completed and published in 1611 and contained the 39 books of the Old Testament, the 27 books of the New Testament, and 14 books of the Apocrypha.
At first, the King James Version was not selling well, as people were loyal to the Geneva Bible. Consequently, King James banned the printing of the Geneva Bible in England and later the archbishop banned the Geneva Bible being imported to England. Printing of the Geneva Bible continued surreptitiously in England.
Readability differences of the Geneva and KJV Bible
Geneva Bible translation
For its day, the Geneva Bible was considered much more readable than other English translations. It used a Roman font type that was easy to read and had the accompanying study notes. The forceful, vigorous language was authoritative and more interesting to readers. It has been said that because the Geneva Bible was so loved and read by the common people that it raised the literacy rates, changed the moral character of the people, and began shaping their speech, their thoughts, and their spirituality.
KJV Bible translation
The KJV was fairly similar to the Geneva Bible, although the Geneva Bible was more direct and used more modern language (for that day). However, at King James’ directive, the KJV did not contain all the study notes, illustrations, and other “extras” that the people loved.
Today, even after 400 years, the KJV is still among the most popular translations, beloved for its beautifully poetic language. However, many people today find the archaic English hard to comprehend, especially:
- ancient idioms (like “her hap was to light on” in Ruth 2:3), and
- word meanings which have changed over the centuries (like “conversation” which meant “behavior” in the 1600’s), and
- words that are no longer used at all in modern English (like “chambering,” “concupiscence,” and “outwent”).
Bible Gateway puts the KJV at 12+ grade reading level and age 17+.
Bible Translation differences between Geneva vs KJV
The Geneva Bible was translated from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available at that time. The translators closely followed the language of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. Unlike previous translations, the Old Testament section of the Bible was the first to be translated completely from the Hebrew Scriptures (past translations had used the Latin Vulgate – translating a translation).
The Geneva Bible was the first to divide chapters into the verses with numbers. Unlike the KJV, it had an extensive system of commentary and study notes printed in the margins.
For the Old Testament, translators used the 1524 Hebrew Rabbinic Bible by Daniel Bomberg and the Latin Vulgate. For the New Testament, they used the Textus Receptus, Theodore Beza’s 1588 Greek translation, and the Latin Vulgate. The Apocrypha books were translated from the Septuigent and the Vulgate.
Bible verse Comparison
(Geneva Bible verses are in the 1599 edition. King James verses are from the 1769 edition.)
Geneva: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requireth of thee: surely to do justly, and to love mercy, and to humble thyself, to walk with thy God.
KJV: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
Geneva: I Beseech you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye give up your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable serving of God.
KJV: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
1 John 4:16
Geneva: And we have known, and believed the love that God hath in us, God is love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him.
KJV: “And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”
1 Timothy 2:5
Geneva: “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, which is the man Christ Jesus.”
KJV: “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and man, which is the man Christ Jesus.”
Geneva: But I trusted in thee, O Lord: I said, Thou art my God.
Geneva: Therefore I say unto you, Whatsoever ye desire when ye pray, believe that ye shall have it, and it shall be done unto you.
KJV: Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
Geneva: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He maketh me to rest in green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.
He restoreth my soul, and leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his Name’s sake.
Yea, though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me: thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
Thou dost prepare a table before me in the sight of mine adversaries: thou dost anoint mine head with oil, and my cup runneth over.
Doubtless kindness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall remain a long season in the house of the Lord.
KJV: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.
Geneva: Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
KJV: Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian.
For the first 80 years or so after its first publication, the Geneva Bible was revised constantly, with about 150 editions up until 1644.
In 2006, a version of the 1599 edition was released by Tolle Lege Press with modern English spelling. It kept the original cross references and study notes by Calvinist leaders of the reformation.
- Cambridge University revised the KJV in 1629 and 163, eliminating printing errors and correcting minor translation issues. They also incorporated a more literal translation of some words and phrases into the text, that previously had been in margin notes.
- Two more revisions were conducted in 1760 by Cambridge University and in 1769 by Oxford University – correcting an enormous number of printing errors, updating spelling (like sinnes to sins), capitalization (holy Ghost to Holy Ghost), and standardized punctuation. The text of the 1769 edition is what you see in most KJV Bibles of today.
- As the church in England transitioned to more Puritan influence, the Parliament forbade reading the Apocrypha books in churches in 1644. Shortly after, editions of the KJV without these books were published, and most KJV editions since then don’t have them.
More recent Bible translations
- NIV (New International Version) isnumber 1 on the bestselling list, as of April 2021. It was first published in 1978 and translated by 100+ international scholars from 13 denominations. The NIV was a fresh translation, rather than a revision of a former translation. It is a “thought for thought” translation and also uses gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language. The NIV is considered second best for readability after the NLT, with an age 12+ reading level.
Here is Romans 12:1 in the NIV (compare with KJV and NASB above):
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”
- NLT (New Living Translation) is number 3 on the bestselling list (the KJV is #2) and is a translation/revision of the 1971 Living Bible paraphrase; considered the most easily readable translation. It is a “dynamic equivalence” (thought for thought) translation completed by over 90 scholars from many evangelical denominations. It uses gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language.
Here is Romans 12:1 in the NLT:
“And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.”
- ESV (English Standard Version) is number 4 on the bestselling list and is an “essentially literal” or word for word translation, considered second only to the New American Standard Version for accuracy in translating. The ESV is a revision of the 1971 Revised Standard Version (RSV) and is at a 10th grade reading level.
Here is Romans 12:1 in the ESV:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
The Geneva Bible and the King James Bible both played an enormous part in providing access to the Scripture in the English language to Christians in the 16th and 17th centuries, during and immediately following the Reformation. For the first time, families could read the Bible together at home, learning what it really said, and not just depending on an interpretation by a priest.
The Geneva Bible is actually still for sale today, in the 1560 and 1599 editions. You can read it online at Bible Gateway.
Both of these Bible translations were a gift to English-speaking people, enabling them to understand what it meant to be a Christian and how God wanted them to live.
All of us should own and daily use a Bible that we can easily understand so we can grow spiritually. If you want to check out and read different Bible versions online, you can go to the Bible Gateway site, which has 40+ English translations available (and in 100+ other languages), some with audio reading.
You can also try reading the Bible in different translations online at the Bible Hub website. Bible Hub has multiple translations with parallel readings for whole chapters as well as individual verses. You can also use the “interlinear” link to check out how close a verse adheres to the Greek or Hebrew in various translations.