The Geneva Bible on the Coming of Christ on a Donkey

It’s been a long journey to understand the changes the Geneva Puritans made to the Bible. I’m still learning.

The real primary version of the Geneva Bible (“GB”) was the Matthew Bible (“MB”). The MB was the combined work of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. Then their friend John Rogers added commentaries and published the MB in 1537. It went on to be progressively revised as shown:

Matthew Bible (1537: Tyndale, Coverdale, and Rogers)
          ↓
Great Bible (1539: Reviser Myles Coverdale)
          ↓
Geneva Bible (1560: Revisers William Whittingham with Puritan Church leaders in Geneva)

The Puritans based many of their revisions on the teaching of John Calvin. They significantly changed the Scriptures, commentaries, and chapter summaries. What are chapter summaries? They are brief introductions to each chapter of the books of the Bible which explain the main topic or topics. John Rogers wrote the chapter summaries for the MB, which the Great Bible kept for the most part. However, the GB often changed them. One disturbingly consistent change was to substitute “the Church” for Christ.

An issue that emerges upon a careful comparison of summaries is how the GB handled prophecies of the Messiah. I’ll give one example only. It doesn’t seem too serious at first, but on deeper enquiry reveals a terrible error. Compare:

Chapter summaries on Zechariah 9:
Matthew and Great Bibles: The conversion of the Gentiles. The coming of Christ sitting on an ass.
Geneva Bible: The threatenings of the Gentiles. The coming of Christ.

Why did the GB cut out the prophecy about Jesus? It didn’t smell right to me.

I found the answer in a 16th century book written by Dr. Aegidius Hunnius, a Lutheran professor at the Wittenberg Academy in Germany. He wrote a confutation of Calvin in 1593 entitled The Judaizing Calvin. Back then, Calvin’s unorthodoxy was better known, and it was a real concern to the Lutherans. Hunnius showed what Calvin taught, which explains the omission. It is not a happy explanation:

When Zechariah says, “See! Your King comes to you riding on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” the evangelists take the words ‘donkey’ and ‘colt’ in their proper meaning, without any ambiguity whatsoever…. But Calvin … put forth another interpretation:

[Calvin said] “It is certainly true that the words of the prophet are metaphorical, when he says that the King will come riding on a donkey. This is a figurative saying. For the prophet understands that Christ would be a rather poorly known man who does not extol himself above the common measure of the multitudes. This is the genuine sense. This is true, but nevertheless it does not hinder Christ from also putting forth an example of this when he mounts that donkey.”[1]

In other words, Calvin says this was NOT a prophecy – it was just a figurative way of speaking! Later, Jesus supposedly decided to act it out by using a donkey. But it gets worse. According to Calvin, Jesus’ purpose in doing this was to show that he wanted to be considered a common man, not above the multitudes, and even that he would be “poorly known.” But for one, Jesus is not poorly known – not to His, at least. Further, he never taught that he was “common.” He showed us that he was humble, but that is a totally different thing. But see how the devil uses false semantics. ‘Humble’ does not mean ‘common.’ Jesus indeed modeled humility, but he exalted himself as uncommon: the uncommonly humble and at the same time most high Lord and King of Israel, Master, Chief Shepherd, and Son of God. And he also that that he must be obeyed: “Ye call me Lord and Master, and so I am,” he said, (Joh. 3:13).

When Hunnius concluded on this section, he did not mince words:

Indeed, Calvin always seems to feel that deep, innate itch to twist the Word of God, so that with his figurative language and metaphors, the good-for-nothing deceives the more pious mind in such a serious and lofty matter, as charlatans mislead people with their tricks and deceit.[2]

The little-known unorthodox teachings of Calvin seem to be forgotten and lost in history, but their fruit is manifest in the Geneva Bible.

[1] Aegidius Hunnius, The Judaizing Calvin, translated by Rev. Paul A. Rydecki. Link to buy: The Judaizing Calvin

[2] Ibid., page 66.

For the fascinating story of the making of the Matthew Bible, go here for more information about our book.