From the time of its first publication in 1560, the ‘Geneva version’ of the English translation of the Bible enjoyed widespread popularity. It provided a clear, readable setting of the text, in formats which were, at least relatively, affordable (this Bible probably cost about seven shillings, unbound). Moreover, it supplied a wide variety of interpretative aids to its readers, especially in some later recensions which incorporated the notes to the New Testament of Laurence Tomson (1539–1608). From 1599, Tomson’s notes on the Book of Revelation were displaced by those of Franciscus Junius (1545–1602) in some editions. In addition to notes which clarified the sense of the text, and extensive cross-referencing, the Geneva Bible provided helpful tables, which gave order to scripture, and maps and diagrams which helped readers to picture the setting of biblical stories.
Much of the additional information to be found in the Geneva Bible derived from the scholarship of John Calvin and Theodore Beza, the leading figures of the first and second generations of the Reformation in Geneva itself, and the theological mentors of many reformed congregations across Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century, and thereafter. Thus, the map of the situation of Eden (displayed opposite), derived originally from an in-text map published in the 1553 French edition of Calvin’s commentary on the Book of Genesis. A copy of the map had first appeared in Bibles published in Geneva in 1560, amongst which was the first edition of the ‘Geneva version’ of the English Bible, prepared by English Protestant exiles in the city. The presence of maps from Calvin’s commentary on Genesis was one sign of the commitment of the editors of the Geneva Bible to a historical reading of the Bible. Maps which claimed to show the exact situation of places named in scripture seemed to prove that the Bible told a continuous story about the real world. They justified a literal reading of the text, by showing how it corresponded to presumed geographical facts.
However, the interpretative apparatus of the Geneva Bible proved controversial in the eyes of many readers, and criticisms were also made of the choices of words, in particular of ecclesiastical terms, made by the translators. Such criticism intensified in the years following the publication of the Authorized Version of 1611, whose clear text, with an apparatus limited to a selection of biblical cross-references, deliberately sought to eschew controversy. After 1616, Robert Barker, whose family had held the right to print the Geneva Bible in England since the first English edition of 1575, ceased to reprint the whole Bible in the Geneva version, concentrating instead on the publication of the Authorized Version, to which, as one of the King’s Printers, he also held the copyright. The existence of a continuing market for the Geneva Bible in England can, however, be inferred from a number of pirated editions, and from imports from Holland. Many of Hartlib’s correspondents would certainly have been aware of the readings given in the Geneva Bible, and most of them subscribed to the historical and literal principles for reading scripture which it embodied.