PITTSBURGH — The return of a rare Bible to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is more than a homecoming — it is a reminder that the Geneva Bible has been part of this country’s religious heritage since the beginning.
“It is the quintessential American Bible, even though it was produced by and for Englishmen,” said Ryan McDermott, associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.
The 1615 “Breeches Bible” that was returned to Pittsburgh in April — ending a theft case dating to the 1990s — was an edition of the Geneva Bible that was first published in 1560, McDermott said.
Tolle Lege Press, of Dallas, Georgia, released a modern version of the 1599 Geneva Bible in 2006.
Although it was later overshadowed by the King James Version, the Geneva Bible is often called the Bible of “firsts” — the first study Bible to contain copious notes in the margins; the first full English Bible to be translated from the original Greek and Hebrew; the first English Bible to have chapter-and-verse numbering; and the first to be printed in more affordable personal copies.
The Geneva Bible doesn’t have the modern constituency of the King James Version, but its influence, especially on early American history, is without question, McDermott said.
“This is the Bible that is behind the liberationist ideology of the early American colonists,” he said. “It’s the Bible that John Winthrop owned. It was taken on the Mayflower. It’s sort of the founding Bible of the United States.”
(Winthrop was a Puritan founder of New England and the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.)
The Geneva Bible has its origins in the 16th-century English Reformation and the reign of Queen Mary I, whose suppression of Protestants forced some of the movement’s leaders to flee to the city-state of Geneva on the European mainland.
A group of Protestant biblical scholars influenced by the reformer John Calvin, then the spiritual and political leader of Geneva, worked on the translation in the 1540s and ‘50s.
“They were asylum seekers who had run away from Queen Mary. They were on the radical fringe of not only early modern Christianity but of the Protestant Reformation,” McDermott said. “It was a very Calvinist form of Protestantism that these Protestants who produced the Geneva Bible were involved in.”
The first full edition of the Geneva Bible came out in 1560, although it was not printed in England until 1576 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
What set the Geneva Bible apart from other official English versions of the time were its marginal study notes, which were heavily Reformed Protestant and even anti-monarchical in tone and content, McDermott said.
“These notes are at times incendiary. At times they advocate for the just overthrow of a king,” he said, noting that the biblical text sometimes translates the word king as tyrant.
For that reason, the Geneva Bible fell out of favor with King James I, who convened a committee of scholars to begin working on a new English translation. What became known as the King James, or Authorized, Version was based heavily on the Geneva Bible but more in conformity to the Church of England, McDermott said.
“A lot of the famous phrases we know from the King James Version we know already from the Geneva Bible,” he said.
Examples include Psalm 23:4 (“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”) and 1 Corinthians 13:12 (“For now we see through a glass darkly.”)
Although eventually surpassed by the King James Version, the Geneva Bible remained a popular favorite through its last printing about 1644, especially among the sectarians known as the Puritans.
“Even after the prominence of the King James Version, there were many English Christians who felt it was full of theological heresy and who insisted on using the truly Reformed translation,” he said. “All the Puritans, including the first colonists of the United States, used it. One of the things they wanted to purify was the King James Version, so the Geneva Bible was their Bible of choice.”
The Geneva Bible also was the Bible of William Shakespeare, John Milton and John Bunyan, author of “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
Because of its notes, genealogies and illustrations, the Geneva Bible was very much a “living Bible,” McDermott said.
The Breeches Edition recently returned to Pittsburgh also had an attached hymnal known as a metrical Psalter — the book of Psalms set to musical notation, he said.
“It’s clearly a book that’s made for serious church and household use — for communal worship, prayer and singing,” McDermott said. “It wasn’t the kind of Bible you buy just to put on the shelf and put birthdays in — it was meant to be used.”
The Breeches Edition was so named because of its unusual translation of Genesis 3:7, which it stated as: “Then the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.” (See breakout.)
The Pittsburgh edition has the names of two 18th-century owners written on one of the blank pages — John and Ellin Richards, who recorded the births of their sons, William (3-26-1749) and John (1-13-1749/50), said Jeremy Bangs, director of the American Pilgrim Museum in Leiden, Netherlands.
Other than the Richards’ entry, Bangs said he is unaware of the Bible’s history prior to its acquisition by the Carnegie Library. The Leiden museum acquired the Bible in 2015 and reported it to Pittsburgh authorities upon learning of the theft in 2018.
Bangs said another unusual feature of the Bible is an illustration page showing the mutual relations of the tribes of Israel.
“What is interesting about the illustration is that it provides coats-of-arms for the different tribes, which is an indication of how 16th- and 17th-century people in England conceived society, thinking that, of course, those people must have had coats-of-arms like all the important people in their own modern society,” Bangs said.