Dr. Naomi Wolf: My Mind Blown by 1560 Geneva Bible

I was searching for the earliest English translation of the Bible from the Hebrew — because, of course, I am seeking guidance and comfort in a time of chaos and crisis. The Great Bible is the earliest translation. But the 1560 Geneva Bible, which I have been reading, has completely astonished me.

It was compiled by Protestant dissidents who had fled England under Queen Mary Tudor’s (“Bloody Mary’s”) reign — seeking to avoid martyrdom. They put together this translation from the Hebrew while gathered in Switzerland. They wrote it so that anyone literate could understand it — and added, for the first time, cross-references and marginal notes, and even maps.

This version is the one used by William Shakespeare, John Donne, John Milton — but also by the Puritans, and by our own Founders.

As I read it, I understood why the Geneva Bible was banned by King James, who commissioned the official — beautiful but state-sanctioned — King James Version. The Geneva Bible is incredibly subversive and liberating, and awe-inspiring, just as the original Hebrew is transformational and liberating and awe-inspiring. Reading it, I understood why the Puritans would give up everything and sail across unknown seas to create a sacred community in the wilderness. I understood what gave our Founders the courage to challenge the greatest Empire on earth at that time.

I also saw that many mistranslations appeared in later editions of the Bible (I read Hebrew, a skill set I never thought I would use again) — I call attention to some here in the 1966 Jerusalem Bible. Stunning mistranslations, most of which tend to serve to remove people from intimacy with God and to foreground the need for institutions and intermediaries.

I never felt compelled by the Hebrew Bible before, when reading other translations; it was hard to feel connected to the Being that seemed Quixotic, distant and even irrational. But in this version, the Geneva Bible, we have a God who longs for a communion with humans, and we have a much less lonely, much less punitive set of circumstances in which human development is meant to unfold. In later translations, God is made much more abstract, and much more rigidly judgmental; and priests and religious institutions are foregrounded. In this early version (and in the Hebrew), it is a heart-wrenching, challenging love story between the Lord and his creation, human beings. A very very serious relationship; but very very intimate and tender.

I’ll be reading it right through, on audio, as it is hard to find on audio and it is hard to read directly if you don’t happen to have been trained in Elizabethan typography (oddly enough, I had to take that class to get my Oxford MPhil. Like my Hebrew familiarity, I never thought I would use that skill set again; but life is funny that way.)


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