The Geneva Bible (GNV) was published by puritan scholars in Geneva in the 16th century. The first full edition was published in 1560, and a revision followed in 1599. King James I, who ruled England from 1603-1625, is well-known for his statement that he did not like the puritan Bible, because the notes revealed “traitorous conceits,” or seditious views. The king’s words were prophetic: his own son Charles was beheaded at the hands of the puritans during their violent uprising in England, accused as a “tyrant” and a “traitor.”
Among other things, the revolutionary teachings that came out of Geneva – which were completely contrary to the teachings of Tyndale, Luther, Cranmer, or the early Reformers – advocated the right of lesser officials, called “magistrates,” to overthrow a king or queen, or any greater power, for “tyranny.” The revolution in England was preceded by a great deal of demagoguery against “tyrannical lordships” and so forth. The puritan goal was to, by force if need be, overthrow the monarchy, the bishops, and the English Church, in order to install themselves in power and build their “Restored Church.” Oliver Cromwell, who led the rebel armies, had a post-millennial vision of inaugurating the reign of Christ on earth. During the civil war, Cromwell’s troops were issued copies of “The Soldiers’ Pocket Bible,” containing excerpts from the GNV.
But before the trouble exploded in England, in an attempt to mitigate the revolutionary influence of the GNV, King James commissioned the Bible that is known by his name, the King James Version. He was adamant that it should contain no notes. However, it may have escaped his notice that the notes were not the only problem with the GNV. The biblical text itself had been changed in subtle ways that undermined the authority of the monarchy.
The GNV Old Testament was a revision of the Great Bible (GRT), which was itself based on the 1537 Matthew Bible (MB). But when it favoured their cause, the puritans departed from the GRT translation to follow other versions more closely, or to introduce a new translation of their own. Perhaps due to the influence of the puritans on the KJV translation committee, a few of the GNV revisions were replicated in the KJV. Psalm 76 below is an example. In the Matthew Bible, God was described as “wonderful” among the kings. “Wonderful” translated the Hebrew yawray. However, the GNV changed this in a way that portended only evil for a king, and the note was even worse (note, in 16th century English, a “prince” was a supreme ruler, a king, queen, or emperor):
MB & GRT Look, what ye promise unto the Lord your God, see that ye keep it, all ye that be round about him. Bring presents unto him that ought to be feared, which [who] taketh away the breath of princes, and is wonderful among the kings of the earth.
GNV 1599 Vow and perform unto the Lord your God, all ye that be round about him; let them bring presents unto him that ought to be feared. He shall *cut off the spirit of princes; he is terrible to the kings of the earth.
GNV note: The Hebrew word signifieth to vintage, or gather grapes; meaning, that he shall make the counsels and enterprises of wicked tyrants foolish and vain.
KJV Vow and pay unto the Lord your God: let all that be round about him bring presents unto him that ought to be feared. He shall cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth.
The GNV note suggests that it is a fruit of God’s harvest to make “foolish and vain” the works of “wicked tyrants.” Be that as it may, the simple fact is that such a note would alarm King James, especially considering that, for many years now, the puritans had been agitating to put down the “wicked tyrants” in England.
Below, Proverb 16:10 in the MB and GRT says simply that a king will not go wrong in judgement when he has “the prophecy.” I believe this means, when he has God’s word. But the GNV imposes an absolute duty on kings not to transgress in judgement. This sets up a standard that could be used – and which was used in England – to justify an uprising. The verse was further revised in the KJV, with an odd result:
MB & GRT When the prophecy is in the lips of the king, his mouth shall not go wrong in judgement.
GNV 1599 A divine sentence shall be in the lips of the king: his mouth shall not transgress in judgement.
KJV A divine sentence is in the lips of the king: his mouth transgresseth not in judgement.
The KJV revision above states that the king does not transgress in judgement, which, of course, is impossible. Kings are not infallible. It also conflicts with Psalm 76. Why would the Lord be terrible to, and cut off the spirit of, such a king? The MB and GRT are eminently superior translations for their common sense and how they glorify God.
In Proverb 20:2 below, the puritans changed the GRT to follow the Latin Vulgate, the Bible of the Roman Church (a thing they frequently did). Here the MB and GRT taught that the king ought to be feared, but the GNV robbed the monarch of this due. It might seem a small thing – and in itself, it is a small thing – but together with everything else, it contributed to undermining the honour and authority of the king. The GNV note then portrayed the offence of angering the king as wrong merely because it endangers the self:
MB & GRT The king ought to be feared as the roaring of a lion; whoso provoketh him unto anger, offendeth against his own soul.
GNV 1599 The fear of the king is like the roaring of a lion: he that provoketh him unto anger, *sinneth against his own soul.
GNV note: Putteth his life in danger.
KJV The fear of a king is as the roaring of a lion: whoso provoketh him to anger sinneth against his own soul.
In the next proverb, Geneva flipped the teaching to set a trap for princes. This was a new translation. The Latin Vulgate, Wycliffe Bible, MB, and GRT brought essentially the same message, but the GNV portrayed the evil as done by princes, and not against them. The KJV is again a strange revision:
MB & GRT To punish the innocent, and to smite the princes that give true judgement, are both evil.
GNV 1599 Surely it is not good to condemn the just, nor that the princes should smite such *for equity.
GNV note: For their well-doing.
KJV Also to punish the just is not good, nor to strike princes for equity.
Thus, in the GNV, there were many new translations that could be used against princes and kings. Part 2 of The Story of the Matthew Bible, due for release in late 2020, will review several of the notes in the GNV, which validate King James’ concerns about their seditious tendencies, and which confirm that the Geneva Bible was published in order to support and advance the puritan revolutionary cause.