The Geneva Bible of 1560 - A History

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2009 13 Pages

Didactics - English - Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Historical Background

3. The Making and the Form of the Geneva Bible

4. Popularity and Spreading

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction

“ Translation is the art of failure ” Umberto Eco With this phrase, Eco probably tried to express the difficulties of moving between literal and idiomatic translation. For centuries this question has been a crossroad for many translators of all genres. This decision seems especially difficult to make if one has to translate the most popular book of the Western world, the Bible. After all, these scriptures contain the word of God; they are the basis of our ethics and the premises for our peaceful co-existence within our culture, whether the single person of this culture is religious or not. Furthermore, there were times when this book had an enormous political influence and when the interpretation of the original scriptures hence became a tightrope walk:

The history of Bible translations in England started with the spread of Christianity. Throughout the middle ages, many scholars attempted the task of translating the Holy Scriptures into the English tongue; few of them were accepted by the Christian authorities, however. The word of God was supposed to be spread and thus interpreted by God’s representatives on Earth only, the clergy, who were capable of reading the Latin translations. The authority of the church, in short, was not to be challenged. At the end of the middle ages, the European Renaissance brought the Reformation and with that a time of rapid process as well as political and religious challenges. Within this turmoil of power shifts and development, even more Christian communities and beliefs were formed, such as Lutheran Protestantism, Presbyterianism or Calvinism. The translation (and interpretation) of the Bible hence became a popular instrument all over Europe for expressing ones ethos.

One of these translations had an enormous impact on the Anglo-American world, not only because it was a very fine translation (very far from failure), but also because of its composition it was that it became an immediate success. The Geneva Bible of 1560, written by political exiles during the reign of Mary I, influenced not only the common English people, but also the Scottish one, and very likely the future American people to a greater extent. The present paper is intended to present the history of the Geneva Bible, starting with a detailed approach to the historical background of Renaissance England, then explaining the making of the Bible, and with that of course explaining the convenient composition of it, and finally presenting the historical facts which highlight the high popularity within, and influence of the Geneva Bible on the Anglo-American community.

2. Historical Background

In order to understand the political and religious circumstances under which the Geneva Bible was written one has to go back a little further in time. The reformation in England started with the formation of the Church of England under Henry VIII. The break with Rome was a necessity for King Henry, for it was the only way he could get divorced from, or more precisely, get the marriage to his Queen Catherine of Aragon, annulled, and get married to Anne Boleyn. This was a highly political act, because in Tudor England every monarch had, due to the politically charged conquest of the throne by Henry Tudor (Henry VII), to legitimize his or her regency - and King Henry VIII needed a male heir to do so (cf. Suerbaum 2007: 44). Since Catherine of Aragon seemed to be infertile after the birth of her only daughter, Mary, Henry decided to marry his pregnant mistress, Anne, with whom he was desperately in love. He surely did not want to be a reformer, but the dispute over the annulment soon developed its own dynamics and with the Act of Supremacy in 1534 Henry eventually became the Pope’s substitute as head of the national church. Although the doctrine remained quintessentially Catholic, the break with Rome gave way to parts of religious life which had more Protestant tendencies. One of them was the issue of Bible translation (in 1536 Tyndale’s Bible became mandatory in English churches) and the use of English during church services (cf. Suerbaum 2007: 83 ff.). So because of his anti-Papal attitude, Henry VIII unconsciously supported reformist movements in England, which were to be expanded during the reign of his son.

When Henry VIII died, his first (and only) male heir became King: Edward VI. He was the son of Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour. When he ascended the throne he was only nine years old, and he unfortunately already died at the age of fifteen. The actual ruling between 1547 and 1553 in England was thus done by the most powerful members of the Privy Council, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and later John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (cf. Suerbaum 2007: 95 ff.). Somerset loosened certain regulations concerning religious discussions which were formerly treated as heresy or treason. This in turn gave way to a number of Protestant ideas throughout the kingdom. Protestant theologians came to England in order to teach their ideas - a lot of them from the circles around Zwingli or Calvin. Also higher ranks of the Church, as for example the mitre, were staffed with people of increasing Protestant attitude (cf. Suerbaum 2007: 96 ff.). Furthermore, the structure of the Church on the one hand allowed any possible religious content, whether Catholicism, Swiss or Lutheran Protestantism, but demanded uniformity of doctrine and liturgy on the other. Next to the Act of Supremacy, which described the relationship between monarch and church, the Act of Uniformity was passed, which forbid any other than the decreed religion. The instrument for both of the Acts was the Common Book of Prayer, which consisted of all the rules of doctrine, liturgy, and public prayers. This was thoroughly Protestant and set a seal on the abolishment of the Catholic belief (cf. Suerbaum 2007: 97 ff.).

With the accession of Mary I, however, these reforms came to an abrupt end. Henry VIII’s first daughter forcefully gained the English throne from Lady Jane Grey who was nominated by Edward VI as an heir. Lady Jane Grey only ruled for nine days before Mary Tudor gathered an army, arrested her and got her executed. Mary’s main goal throughout her reign was the reinstallation of Catholicism in England.



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ISBN (Book)
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University of Heidelberg
Bible Translation Geneva Protestantism

Title: The Geneva Bible of 1560 - A History