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The "Breeches Bible" a.k.a. the Geneva Bible

The "Breeches" Bible, is so-called for the reference in Genesis 3:7 to Adam and Eve clothing themselves in "breeches" made from fig leaves. This was not the first use of "breeches" for the Hebrew word more often translated as "aprons" (KJV) or "coverings" (NASB - New American Standard Bible); John Wyclif's Middle English Bible of the 1390's also used "brechis" in this verse.

The "Breeches" Bible is sometimes dismissed as an antiquarian oddity, but it is, in fact, among the books which have been influential in the development of modern English. Translated in Geneva by English refugees from the anti-Protestant reign (1553-1558) of Queen Mary - "bloody Mary" - it was first printed in its entirety in 1560. By its last printing in 1644 there had been more than 150 editions and the Geneva Bible had become THE household Bible for English-speaking Protestants. For many years it was much more widely used than was the King James version of 1611.

This is the Bible read by Shakespeare; this is the Bible read by John Milton and by John Donne and by John Bunyan. It is the Bible which came over on the Mayflower. This is the Bible, read and re-read, which helped in the development of the expressive and versatile language which is modern English.

A Little Background

Henry VIII, married in 1509 to a Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon, became the father of three short-lived sons and one surviving daughter - Mary - later to become Queen Mary I, a.k.a. "bloody Mary".

By the late 1520's Henry, frantic for a male heir, petitioned Rome to have his marriage to Catherine annulled. Pope Clement VII was, for many reasons, reluctant to do this. Henry was a strong-willed and persistent man and when one of his advisors, Thomas Cromwell, made the bold suggestion that Henry solve the problem by declaring himself supreme head of the Church in England (so much for papal supremacy) - that's just what he did. Henry was only the second Tudor king and did not want to be the last.

In 1533 Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn, a long-time interest of his. The year before, Thomas Cranmer, another of Henry's advisors, had been named Archbishop of Canterbury. He was, therefore, nominal head of the church in England and helped by quickly declaring Henry's marriage to Catherine to be invalid and that to Anne Boleyn valid. In addition Princess Mary was declared illegitimate. This marriage to Anne produced one surviving child - the Princess Elizabeth.

Henry still had no male heir, so Anne Boleyn's head rolled in 1536; ten days later Henry married again - this time to Jane Seymour, one of Queen Anne's ladies-in-waiting, and the Princess Elizabeth was also declared illegitimate.

The marriage to Jane Seymour produced a surviving son, Prince Edward, born in 1537; his mother, though, died soon after his birth. Henry married three more times - but no marriage produced surviving children. The last marriage to Catherine Parr, who actually survived Henry, had one good result in that he became reconciled with his daughters, Mary and Elizabeth; in 1544 they were both returned, after Prince Edward, to the line of succession.

Henry died in 1547 and his son, Edward, then nine years old, came to the throne. Six years later Edward died and was soon succeeded by his half-sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary was a devout Catholic, married to an equally devout Philip II of Spain, and quickly turned against the de facto Protestantism of her father and her half-brother.

There was in existence a statute,"De Heretico comburendo" of 1401 which had introduced into England the burning to death of heretics - and regarded as a heresy was the reading or even owning of a Bible in the vernacular.

Existing printed English bibles

In 1535 there had been printed in Antwerp a complete English bible done by Miles Coverdale, an Augustinian friar, whose views on religious matters had so changed that in 1528 he thought it safer to leave England. In 1537 Coverdale's bible, translated from German and Latin, not the original languages, was printed in London, first in folio with a dedication to Henry VIII and later that year in quarto, now with the statement "Set forth with the king's most gracious license". This is an astonishing change from less than a year before when William Tyndale was strangled and burned for having translated and, had printed, an English New Testament and part of the Old Testament.

William Tyndale (?1494-1536) was an ordained priest and a highly skilled linguist who much wanted to translate the New Testament. In 1523 he sought the support of the Bishop of London to do this. There was no support forthcoming and it was made clear that English translations were not wanted. In 1524 Tyndale prudently left England, went into hiding in Germany, and got to work.

By 1526 Tyndale's New Testament, freshly translated from the Greek, was being smuggled into England for those who wished to read scripture in English. Reaction of the clergy was quick and sharp. Sermons were preached against it and in the spring of 1527 the Archbishop of Canterbury asked his bishops to buy up as many copies as they could find so that the books could be burned. Of that first printing of 1526 only 2 complete copies remain. One was found in 1996 at Stuttgart during cataloging of the bible collection of the State Library of Wurttemberg. Another is in the British Library and a partial copy belongs to the Cathedral Library of St. Paul's in London.

In 1530 Tyndale's translation of the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament) was published and the next year his translation of the book of Jonah. Tyndale had moved to Antwerp and continued work on translating the rest of the Old Testament.

In the spring of 1535 a young Englishman, Henry Phillips, turned up in Antwerp and struck up a friendship with Tyndale. Apparently Phillips had made a deal with both English and Imperial authorities to have Tyndale arrested and his papers confiscated. It worked and Tyndale was imprisoned for 16 months. In October of 1536 William Tyndale was strangled - regarded as merciful in recognition of his standing as a scholar - and his body then burned. Fortunately his manuscript of the rest of the Old Testament had been removed and was saved.

Mary ordered English bibles to be burned and thousands were; soon not only bibles, but Protestants and, even those who supported the use of English bibles, were being burned. It has been estimated that during her five-year reign (1553-1558) nearly three hundred people were burned at the stake or beheaded; more were tortured or imprisoned. Many clergymen and academics left for the continent - often to Frankfurt and later to Geneva, then a republic under the control of the French theologian known in English as John Calvin. With a critical mass of scholars present in Geneva it was soon decided to produce a new English bible.

Poor Tyndale - under the decree of 1408 his translations were illegal in England, even up to the time of his death in 1536. Yet the twists and turns of Henry VIII's thinking and acts made acceptable Coverdale's translation of 1535. Coverdale's translation is now of "historical interest"; Tyndale's words live on, and resonate through our language, thanks to the Geneva "Breeches" Bible. Phrases such as let there be light, my brother's keeper, salt of the earth, ye of little faith, signs of the times - these are Tyndale's.

The Geneva Bible

The goal in Geneva was production of an entire English bible which turned out to be largely based upon Tyndale's work. The New Testament, owing much to Tyndale's New Testament of 1526, was published in Geneva in 1557.

Queen Mary died in November of 1558 and was succeeded by her half-sister Elizabeth who would hold the throne for the next 45 years. The Geneva group did not immediately return to England, but worked toward completion of the Old Testament. Tyndale had developed a good knowledge of Hebrew and had completed translation from Genesis through 2nd Chronicles, and the Book of Jonah, before he was imprisoned. This left the last few historical books and the poetic and prophetic books to be done. The complete bible was printed in Geneva in 1560 and was equipped with a dedication to Elizabeth from your humble subjects of the English Churche at Geneva.

This new bible had a great deal to offer English readers.

  • it is a good translation and easy to read - even now
  • it is the first English bible to have the text clearly divided into chapters and verses
  • it was printed in a Roman typeface - "cleaner" and clearer than blackletter - although there are later editions in blackletter
  • it was much easier to handle - a large quarto rather than the great folios intended for reading from a lectern
  • there are maps and illustrations, there is a concordance and there are chronological charts
  • there are marginal notes - explanations and comments - lots and lots of them. As the translators said, the moste profitable annotations upon all the hard places.
For the first time the average person could own a Bible and have it available to read. Most importantly, there is the good and readable text; with the ancillary material, the Geneva Bible is encyclopedic and amounts to a complete home-study course of the Bible. If a household owned only one book this was it. Until well into the 17th century the "Breeches" Bible was the bible of choice and introduced many speakers of English to the reading of the language. It was the bible of the home and of the family.

What happened to it? From its first printing there were English clergymen and many others who were uncomfortable with the marginal notes - too Calvinist, too strongly-worded, too anti-this, too anti-something else. In 1603 Elizabeth I died and was succeeded by a rather distant relative, James I, then James VI of Scotland.

James was not a fool - he wrote the first criticism in English of smoking - but he did believe in absolute autocracy and in the divine right of kings. He certainly found many of the marginal notes in the Geneva Bible to be very unpalatable; indeed some of them criticized kings and suggested that they need not always be obeyed. He was soon approached by leading English clergy who, for a good many years, had wanted a "new" Bible - what they were after was one which lacked the offending notes. They wanted something which we, 400 years later, might refer to as "politically correct". That was OK with James; after several years of work by a committee of 54 scholars the replacement Bible, i.e. the King James version appeared.

The notes of the "Breeches" Bible are gone, but much of the text of the KJV is still the words of William Tyndale, in some places smoothed, in others amended. Thanks to the "breeches" bible of Geneva, those words lit up the 17th century and live on. They still beg to be read aloud. William Tyndale is said to have been, at least as much as was Shakespeare, an architect of the English language. His words and his language greatly influenced those who founded the American colonies and then the United States.


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