The Geneva & RV Prefaces on “Correcting” the Former Translations

Two years of research into English Bible history have yielded some surprising insights.

The past 650 years can be divided into four periods. During the first two, God’s word struggled for light. In the latter two, men took the former translations in hand in order to revise them. In particular, the Geneva Bible (1560) and Revised Version (1881-1894) were touted by their makers as badly needed “corrections” of earlier Bibles.

(1) The Lollard Period, from the late 14th century to the dawn of the Reformation.

The word of God was under open assault when Wycliffe and his men fought to give England her own Bible. Their Scriptures were laboriously written out by hand. Many people died in the Lollard persecutions.

(2) The Reformation Period, during the reign of King Henry VIII

After the invention of the printing press, and after a bloody battle in which many more people lost their lives, vernacular Scriptures were at last lawfully received in England. During this time we received three Bibles:

In 1535: The Coverdale Bible;

In 1537: The Matthew Bible, also known as Matthew’s version;

In 1539: The Great Bible

The Matthew Bible contained the combined translations of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale. Martin Luther’s influence on Coverdale should be noted: Coverdale translated mainly from Luther’s 1534 German version, and his Scriptures are remarkable for their Lutheran clarity. The Great Bible was a minimal revision of the Matthew Bible by Coverdale himself, commissioned to appease the conservatives and establish an English Bible in the Church.

Clarity was very important to Luther, Tyndale, and Coverdale. We are all familiar with Tyndale’s famous promise: if God spared his life, he would give England a Bible in her own language, and the boy who drives the plough would understand them. He succeeded. His Scriptures are actually easier to understand than the KJV, which came in the next century, due to his philosophy of translation. I call the Bibles of the Reformation period the “ploughboy Bibles.”

By the end of this period, the Great Bible was the official English version of the Church.

(3) The Literal Period, after an English Bible is established in the Church

The fight for God’s word was over, and the victory won. Now certain men took in hand the Scriptures we received in the Reformation, and changed them.

The Literal period was inaugurated by the Geneva Bible, a Puritan revision of the Great Bible. In their 1560 preface, the Puritans criticized the former translations as immature, imperfect, and even irreverent. Alas, a lot of people believed them (and still do). They said the Great Bible “required greatly” to be reviewed and corrected. Though Coverdale and Tyndale were of the same generation, and Coverdale was still living, they characterized their work as from “the infancy of those times.” They also claimed to have more perfect knowledge of the biblical languages, and a revelation of “clear light” from God:

Preface, 1560 Geneva Bible: We thought that we should bestow our labours and study in nothing which could be more acceptable to God and conformable to his Church than in the translating of the Holy Scriptures into our native tongue; the which thing, albeit that divers heretofore have endeavored to achieve [i.e. Tyndale and Coverdale], yet considering the infancy of those times and imperfect knowledge of the tongues, in respect of this ripe age and clear light which God hath now revealed, the translations required greatly to be perused and reformed. (This preface is reproduced in 1599 Geneva Bible, Tolle Lege edition. See p. xxvii.)

The Puritans employed a different translation technique; that is, an intensified literal approach, which, they said, “most reverently kept the propriety of the words.” Briefly, this meant following the words of Hebrew idioms even though English speakers could not understand the meaning. They departed from Tyndale’s and Luther’s translation emphasis, which put meaning first. The Puritans did, however, acknowledge that they had obscured the meaning, or as they put it, had made the Scriptures “hard in their ears that are not well practiced.” Therefore they added hundreds of edifications and commentaries:

Preface, 1560 Geneva Bible: Now as we have chiefly observed the sense, and labored always to restore it to all integrity: so have we most reverently kept the propriety of the words, considering that the Apostles who spake and wrote to the Gentiles in the Greek tongue, rather constrained them to the lively phrase of the Hebrew, than enterprised far by mollifying their language to speak as the Gentiles did. And for this and other causes we have in many places reserved the Hebrew phrase, notwithstanding that they may seem somewhat hard in their ears that are not well practiced and also delight in the sweet sounding phrases of the holy Scriptures. Yet lest either the simple should be discouraged, or the malicious have any occasion of just cavillation, seeing some translations read after one sort, and some after another, whereas all may serve to good purpose and edification, we have in the margent [margin] noted that diversity of speech or reading which may also seem agreeable to the mind of the holy Ghost, and proper for our language.

In other words, God’s word, now “restored to all integrity,” was no longer plain for the ploughboy. Everywhere in the margins of the book were added “diversities of speech or reading” to explain the difficult translations, with also “edifications … proper for our language” of the uncertain “lively” and “sweet sounding” phrases. (So much for the perspicuity of Scripture. It seems ironic, to make the word of God harder to understand, and then insist on its perspicuity, as the Puritans did.)

As time would tell, the notes and commentaries of the Geneva Bible inflamed people against the English Church, and so the Bishops’ and King James Bibles were commissioned to allay its influence. These versions proceeded of a genuine unifying spirit, and eventually the KJV did bring a good measure of stability to Christendom, however the KJV revisers carried on the Puritan literal tradition.

(3) The Modern Period: from the Revised Version until now

In the late 1800s, the Revised Version came along, the work of Westcott and Hort with certain other academics. These scholars offered criticisms of the former work that were similar in kind to those of the Puritans. In their New Testament preface, they said the KJV was produced in the infancy of time, as it were, when we still had much to learn, and they also had new light: this time, it was their superior manuscripts and critical skills. Also, they rebuked the manner of expression of the KJV – in particular “variety of expression” – as “hardly… faithful.” They intensified literalism and adherence to the propriety of words in their own fashion:

RV 1895 preface to NT: Of the many points of interest connected with the Translation of 1611, two require special notice; first, the Greek Text which it appears to have represented; and secondly, the character of the Translation itself …

… 1. All [their “guides”] were founded for the most part on manuscripts of late date, few in number, and used with little critical skill. But in those days, it could hardly have been otherwise. Nearly all the more ancient of the documentary evidence have become known only within the last two centuries … While therefore it has long been the opinion of all scholars that the commonly received text needed thorough revision, it is but recently that materials have been acquired for executing such a work with even approximate completeness.…

… 2. they [the KJV committee members] profess in their Preface to have studiously adopted a variety of expression which would now be deemed hardly consistent with the requirements of faithful translation…. it cannot be doubted that they carried this liberty too far, and that the studied avoidance of uniformity in the rendering of the same words, even when occurring in the same context, is one of the blemishes in their work.

And thus the members of King James’ translation team now joined Tyndale and Coverdale in the company of translators whose work required greatly to be reviewed and corrected.

Interestingly, the Westcott and Hort committee, also like the Geneva revisers, added alternate readings in the margins. However these gave alternate meanings, whereas the Geneva Bible (apparently) focused on re-wording and clarifying the passage. Now the ploughboy had to make up his own mind about what the Scriptures might actually have meant.

All this raises many questions, including whether the later revisions really did improve the Scriptures, and, especially, the merits and demerits of the literalistic technique espoused by the Puritans and Westcott and Hort. The Story of the Matthew Bible, especially Part Two, will consider some of the questions. We will see what Luther and Tyndale, not to mention also Hilary, St. Jerome (who gave us the Latin Vulgate Bible), and John Purvey (one of Wycliffe’s top translators), had to say about the best approach to Bible translation. For now, I close simply with some quotations from these men:

Purvey: First it is to know that the best translating is… to translate after the sentence [meaning], and not only after the words.

Luther: Many know-it-alls, and even some pious souls, may take offense. But what is the point of needlessly adhering so scrupulously and stubbornly to words which one cannot understand anyway? Whoever would speak German must not use Hebrew style. Rather, he must see to it – once he understands the Hebrew author – that he concentrates on the sense of the text … [and] once he has the German words to serve the purpose, let him drop the Hebrew words and express the meaning freely in the best German he knows.

Hilary: We enter the faith by the meaning of what has been said.

Jerome: The gospel is not in the words of Scripture, but in the meaning.

© Ruth Magnusson Davis, October, 2017.