Camden Theological Library

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Geneva 'Breeches' Bible 1599

Posted on 23 November 2009 wgleeson

Breeches Bible

To help celebrate the 500th birthday of John Calvin, and in association with the United Theological College 'Calvin 500: Calvin Goes Public' Conference at the Centre for Ministry, Camden Theological College was proud to display a 1599 Geneva 'Breeches' Bible.

The Bible is part of the NSW/ACT Synod Archives collection, and was kindly loaned to the Library for display during the conference.

The Geneva Bible (sometimes known as the ‘Breeches Bible’ for its reference to Adam and Eve clothing themselves in ‘breeches’ made from fig leaves in Genesis 3:7) was the first English edition of the Bible to be translated from the Greek and Hebrew texts.

Breeches Bible

It was the first Bible published with detailed notes, annotations and commentaries, to which theologians like John Calvin, John Knox and Theodore Beza contributed.

Breeches Bible

What makes this Bible even more extraordinary is that is was printed in a small volume and was inexpensive, and accessible to almost all literate people

The Geneva Bible was first published in its entirety in Geneva, Switzerland in 1560

Although the text was translated from the original languages, it relies too on the translations by people like Tyndale and Luther.

Breeches Bible - NT cover page

Calvin, Knox and Beza are all thought to have contributed to the text of the Geneva Bible, with William Wittingham (Calvin’s brother-in-law) overseeing translation of the New Testament in 1557 and Anthony Gilby overseeing translation of the Old Testament which was added, with complete notes in 1560.

It was the first Bible to have been translated by a ‘committee’ rather than an individual.

Breeches Bible

The Geneva Bible was “silently approved” by Queen Elizabeth I, who allowed, but did not endorse, publication of the Bible in London in 1575.  The reaction was somewhat more emphatic in Scotland, where it was written into law that any householder worth more than 300 Scottish Merks (AU$30) must have a copy in their homes.

Between 1560 and 1644 there were approximately 160 editions of the Geneva Bible printed.

Breeches Bible on display

The popularity of the Geneva Bible grew until its printing was outlawed in 1644 in favour of the King James Authorized Version.

Although facsimile prints were made, the Geneva Bible was not re-printed until 2006.

Breeches Bible on display
Opening of the Breeches Bible/Calvin Display - L-R: Wesley Gleeson (CTL), William Emilsen (Church History UTC), Moira Bryant (Library Manager, CTL), Randall Zachman (Keynote speaker Calvin500 Conference).


Where could I have been?

We don't know much about the history of the individual Bible that we had on display, but imagine what could  have happened during a history of 410 years…

  • I could have been used by Shakespeare who from 1599 used the Geneva Bible text and notes in some of his most famous plays such as Hamlet, Othello and Measure for Measure, the title of which is from the Sermon on the Mount. 
  • I could have been used by John Donne in his poetical and other works leading up to his taking orders in 1615.
  • I could have been given to Oliver Cromwell at his birth in 1599 and used in to influence his spiritual and political life as he led the New Model Army in the English Civil War.  I could also have been carried by a soldier of this army into battle.
  • I could have been used to assist the editors of the King James Authorised Version published in 1611.
  • I could have been handed down to John Bunyan to inspire the Pilgrim’s Progress.
  • I could have sailed on the Mayflower to America and helped the passengers on board to deal with four bitter months of winter trapped in Cape Cod before they settled in Plymouth in 1621.
  • I could have been purchased by a common woman, shared with family and friends, nurturing the faith of many people over many years, having not been used by anyone notable or done anything of historical significance, but helping people grow in Faith, Hope and Love… 

Judging by the dog-eared pages, the occasional water stain, the notes written and stuck within the covers and the state of the spine, it is obvious that this very book has had a very important history in the lives of many Christian people over the last 410 years…


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