Lord Gave the Word: Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (8) The Golden Age of the English Bible (3) The Bishop’s Bible


            The Bishops’ Bible, by the very fact of its existence as well as in the manner of its translations, testifies to the deep division within the Church of England in the time after the death of  Bloody Mary and the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I. It was a challenge to the popular supremacy gained by the Geneva Bible after its importation from the continent to England in 1560. Some who should know better would like to assure us that the Bishops’ Bible and the Geneva should not be seen as rivals to each other, but as two peacefully co-existing translations, each operating within its own sphere in the lives of church-going, Bible-reading English people of this time. “One should not see these two versions necessarily as rivals: people would expect to hear one [read aloud publicly] in church and use the other at home.”[1] The former—the one read in church—refers to the Bishops’ Bible after its printing in 1568, the latter to the Geneva Bible.

In fact, rivals are exactly what they were. The Geneva Bible arose from a theological framework and an ecclesiastical attitude that Elizabeth I abhorred—and that is not too strong a word—and in which abhorrence she was joined by many of the bishops of the Anglican Church that she founded. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of those who wanted the English Reformation to proceed even farther than it had in the days of Edward VI under Archbishop Cranmer, that is, to become a Calvinistic institution in government as well as in doctrine. Due to the superior quality of its translation, its various pictorial and illustrative assistants to the text, and its marginal notes, it was extremely popular among the people. The Bishops’ Bible, in the designs of those who engineered and executed its production, would oppose this perceived radicalism from above as the Bible of the Anglican hierarchy who wished to maintain and walk the ‘middle way’ (Latin: via media) between the two light-and-dark extremes of Romanism and Calvinistic Protestantism.

Revival of a Failed Project

            The origins and idea of the Bishops’ Bible actually go back to the days of Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer. In 1542, five years before his death and in a period of increasing reaction against the Reformation, Henry had suggested to Cranmer that he and some of the other bishops revise the Great Bible—which was then the official church Bible—according to their liking. Cranmer approved of the idea and divided up the Bible text among himself and several bishops whom he chose to assist him. But the project floundered after several stormy meetings between those bishops who wanted as impenetrable an English translation as possible (because they did not want the people to read and understand) and those who favored a true revision in the tradition of Wycliffe and Tyndale. The project fell by the wayside, not to be revived for 20 years.

In 1562, after the turbulence left in the wake of Bloody Mary was somewhat becalmed by the strong hand of Elizabeth I, the project revived under Elizabeth’s hand-picked, “first and most tolerant”[2] Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker. Parker, although thought to be secretly an admirer of the Geneva Bible, was alarmed at its unforeseen, massive popularity in England when it arrived from the Continent in 1560. Although not actually printed in England until the 1570s—Parker saw to that—the Geneva Bible was smuggled in and sold among the folk on a scale not seen since Tyndale’s New Testament in the 1520s and 30s. Cause for alarm was, first, that the Great Bible was shown to be at serious fault in several places by the superior translation of the Geneva Bible. The Great Bible had survived the reign of Bloody Mary more or less unscathed as the licensed Bible for reading in church; many churches still had their ponderous pulpit volumes. But the Geneva showed them to be inaccurate especially in the Old Testament, where Coverdale’s scant knowledge of Hebrew had forced him to rely more on the Latin and German. Second, Parker disparaged the Geneva Bible as invasive: it came from outside England. This clearly silly objection neatly overlooked the fact that Englishmen in exile had produced this “invasive” English Bible, as well as the fact that the licensed Great Bible had been first printed in Paris. But both of these reasons were a smoke-screen for the real reason that Parker, the Queen, and virtually the entire Anglican hierarchy opposed the Geneva Bible with its overtly Calvinistic marginal notes. The theology of these notes and of those who had chosen and written them was not the theology and character that Parker wanted for the Church of England. Another Bible “of more Anglican character”[3] was needed. Taking his inspiration from 20 years earlier, Parker hoped to succeed where Cranmer had failed.

“Observations respected”: The Method of a Bad Translation

            The method of translation of the Bishops’ Bible reveals much about the character and mind of Matthew Parker and the bishops who assisted him in the project. The first is a phobia of sparking any sort of controversy through offensive or sharp language. This meant no sharply Calvinistic marginal notes. According to a list of “Observations respected”—a set of rules for the bishops who were translating to follow—the bishops were not to “mar their margins with ‘bitter notes.’” This is not to say there were to be no marginal notes at all. Cross-references to other scriptural passages, as well as alternate readings for certain Hebrew and Greek words were copiously set down. Archbishop Parker was responsible for Genesis, Exodus, Matthew, Mark, all of Paul’s Epistles except 1 Corinthians, and the Epistle to the Hebrews. He took several of the non-controversial notes from the Geneva Bible, notes whose function was to explain the location of a certain place or the meaning of a name or some other informative function, and placed them in the margins of these books. Other bishops followed suit. But the bishops rejected any notes that gave a clear sound of Calvinism, which would not only give something to the Puritans in terms of doctrinal concession, but would also spark too great a blast from Rome.

In addition to eschewing “bitter notes,” the bishops were to take as much liberty as necessary to alter any words which for their “lightness or obscenity” might offend sensitive minds. It is difficult to see their being able to do this without then doing great injustice to the original languages. How is one to translate a passage such as Genesis 38, which is so full of “sensitive” material that one would hardly dare to include it in Holy Writ if it were not already there, so that nothing that might offend sensitive minds remains? As God would have it, it fell to Archbishop Parker to wrestle with this problem, responsible as he was for the Book of Genesis. How he went about solving it, in the privacy of his own study, is something he took to his grave.

Besides refusing all “bitter notes” and altering offensive words to make them palatable to all (with the result that they are palatable to none), the bishop-translators were to mark “unedifying” passages so that they could be passed over in the public reading of the Bible in church. What in God’s word is unedifying? The bishops could give only one definite answer: the genealogies—those long lists of names which trace the covenant line of God’s people from Adam to Christ. This is not a point to be lightly passed over. Note that these church leaders, scared senseless of giving any sort of offense to man, think it no great matter to take in hand to offend against God’s word and God himself in their appraisal of certain passages of Holy Scripture as “unedifying.” For if we, reader, will muzzle God’s word so that none are offended at our witnessing of that word, then though the whole world were at peace with us and our words praised by all as the most irenic to be heard—we may then be confident of the fearful reality that we have God against us. For God will have his word witnessed in all its parts. “All scripture,” writes the Apostle Paul to Timothy, “is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). The bishop-translators then and their spiritual descendants today are of a different mind.

“Bread on Wet Faces:” A Doomed Translation

These three great injunctions underpinned the whole thought and process of the bishops as they labored for over six years at their task. This condemned the end result to bland, pompous, and unedifying mediocrity, at best, and complete failure at worst. The translators ostensibly were to follow the text of the Great Bible as closely as possible, except where it differed from the truth of the original. But when it came to working with the original Hebrew and Greek, especially Hebrew, many of the bishops were patently inferior in the quality and vitality of their scholarship to the Geneva translators. To this end, they adopted strange translation tactics. Representative is the testimony of the Bishop of Rochester, E. Guest (his full first name would be disclosed if it could be discovered), responsible for the Psalms:

Where in the New Testament one piece of a Psalm is reported, I translate it in the Psalms according to the translation thereof in the New Testament, for the avoiding of the offence         that may rise to the people upon divers [different] translations.

Whereupon one scholar comments sharply:

This, even to put it kindly, is folly. The ‘offence’ is imaginary. Moreover, did the bishop   not know that quotations from the Psalms in the New Testament Psalms were not from         the Hebrew but from the Septuagint Greek? In printing the Psalms, wrenching them away     from the Hebrew—and only in certain places, which also happen to be especially     significant—is a mad way to work. [4]

Some of the bishops responsible for Old Testament books did have in their several dioceses men who were competent in the Hebrew. In some cases, the work was given to these men, and the bishops took the credit. The Bishops of Norwich and Chichester, John Parkhurst and William Barlow, respectively, have special cause for shame. Apparently, they could, would, or did do nothing since the Apocrypha, for which they were responsible, in the first edition of the Bishops’ Bible is exactly that of the Great Bible, which had been translated by Miles Coverdale from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the Hebrew.

But the Bishops’ Bible did not escape entirely the influence of the Geneva Bible…the Geneva was just too good. As we noted, Archbishop Parker included some of its informative notes and alternate readings in the margins of his translations. Edwin Sandys, Bishop of Worcester, put extensive alternate readings from the Geneva Bible in his translations of Kings and Chronicles. Edmund Grindal, Bishop of London and responsible for the 12 Minor Prophets, did the same. The entire biblical text was divided into verses and chapters, as was Geneva’s. The absolutely massive first edition of the Bishops’ Bible contained tables of dates, calendars, and other illustrations in abundance: “124 distinct woodblock illustrations, and four maps, three of them taken from the 1560 Geneva Bible.”[5]

However, the bishop-translators might have all been a bit more diligent to incorporate patently superior readings from the Geneva Bible into their work. Their own substitutes were pompous, verbose, even grotesque. The one example virtually every historian of the English Bible lifts up for especial humiliation, and with good reason, is Ecclesiastes 11:1a. Geneva has, which the Authorized Version borrowed, “Cast thy bread upon the waters.” The Bishops’ Bible disfigured this to, “Lay thy bread upon wet faces.” The unfortunate bishop who produced this clearly had in mind the idea of the surface of the water as its face, and that face of the water is certainly wet. But here the effect is gross. The Bishop of Rochester neglected Geneva’s beautiful opening to Psalm 23, again mostly taken into the AV, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to rest in green pasture, and leadeth me by the still waters.” He made it windy: “God is my shepherd, therefore can I lack nothing. He will cause me to repose myself in pasture full of grass, and he will lead me unto calm waters.”  Clearly, Geneva’s were the better letter-men, both in Hebrew and in English.

Geneva’s Unworthy Rival: Paving the Way for the Authorized Version

With all these things against it, and besides the fact that everybody who cared to read the Bible in England, including Queen Elizabeth I, had already purchased a copy—or several—of the Geneva Bible, the handwriting was on the wall for the Bishops’ Bible ere it ever came to the press. In 1568 (Parker had parceled out the text for translation in 1562) it was published and presented to the Queen. To be sure, what met her eyes was a volume almost as massive as Archbishop Parker who carried it. It dwarfed the Great Bible of 1541. Its opulence was unprecedented, with carved ornamentation on the covers and binding, lavishly executed initial letters for each book and chapter, flattering portraits of Queen Elizabeth and her principal ministers of state, and other “eye-candy.” The volume displayed all the glamour episcopal Anglicanism could muster.

But all the glitz was a cover for the fact that the text itself was uniformly of a poor and even wretched quality. Not only was the translation bad, the whole text was also not uniform. No general conference of all the bishop-translators had been held after each had done his own individual work, in which they could compare notes and review each other’s work. Parker, who undeniably worked very hard at his bit and did a fair job of superintending the process, nevertheless did not go over the final text and seems in the end more interested in compensating the printer, Richard Jugge, for the massive job he had done. More importantly, Parker ensured that the 12-year extension he had previously authorized for the printing of the Geneva Bible did not go through, in order to give the new Bible a clear and lone shot at the playing field.

Small wonder it must be, then, that when Parker requested the Queen that the bishops’ new Bible might have her “gracious favor, license, and protection,”[6] Elizabeth refused it. Some have suggested her political sensibilities prevented her from granting favor either to the Puritans or to the bishops. Others are of the opinion that the Queen, a scholar in her own right, recognized the brilliance of the Geneva translation and refused to give her stamp of approval to the lesser scholarship and ability on display in the Bishops’ Bible. Whatever the reason, her license was withheld, and the bishops had to promote their new Bible on their own. Every cathedral, church, and chapel, as well as every bishop’s residence, was ordered to purchase a copy and display it prominently for public reading.

In the end, the evidence against Archbishop Parker—evidence that should bury the protestations of those who know better that the Geneva and Bishops’ Bibles “should not be seen necessarily as rivals”—is condemning in the extreme.

To the very end of his life, Parker used his control…to prevent the Geneva version being printed in England…it seems certain that the Archbishop cared little for providing Bibles      for private reading. He saw and met the need of suitable editions for the service of the   church…but he did not trust the people with cheap editions of the Bible.[7]


And the aim was “for political reasons, to oppose Geneva, even as it grew in force and influence, and eventually to kill it outright.”[8] Clearly, the Bishops’ Bible was Geneva’s arch-rival. But it was not a worthy adversary. Another one, the last of the great English Bibles, was yet to come: the Authorized Version of 1611.



[1] Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, ed. Helen Moore and Julian Reid (Oxford, UK: Bodleian Library, 2011), 36.

[2] Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 195.

[3] Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 181.

[4] David Daniell, The Bible in English: Its History and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003), 339–340.

[5] Ibid, 343.

[6] Bobrick, Wide as the Waters, 184.

[7] Quoted in Daniell, The Bible in English, 347.

[8] Ibid.