The following paragraphs are taken from the article “English Versions” by Sir Frederic G. Kenyon in the Dictionary of the Bible edited by James Hastings, and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons of New York in 1909.

The Great Bible (1539-1541)

The fact that Taverner was invited to revise Matthew’s Bible almost immediately after its publication shows that it was not universally regarded as successful; but there were in addition other reasons why those who had promoted the circulation and authorization of Matthew’s Bible should be anxious to see it superseded. As stated above, it was highly controversial in character, and bore plentiful evidence of its origin from Tyndale. Cromwell and Cranmer had, no doubt, been careful not to call Henry’s attention to these circumstances; but they might at any time be brought to his notice, when their own position would become highly precarious. It is, indeed, strange that they ever embarked on so risky an enterprise. However that may be, they lost little time in inviting Coverdale to undertake a complete revision of the whole, which was ready for the press early in 1538. The printing was begun by Regnault of Paris, where more sumptuous typography was possible than in England. In spite, however, of the assent of the French king having been obtained, the Inquisition intervened, stopped the printing, and seized the sheets. Some of the sheets, however, had previously been got away to England; others were re-purchased from a tradesman to whom they had been sold; and ultimately, under Cromwell’s direction, printers and presses were transported from Paris to London, and the work completed there by Grafton and Whitchurch, whose imprint stands on the magnificent title-page (traditionally ascribed to Holbein) depicting the dissemination of the Scriptures from the hands of Henry, through the instrumentality of Cromwell and Cranmer, to the general mass of the loyal and rejoicing populace. [A special copy on vellum, with illuminations, was prepared for Cromwell himself, and is now in the library of St. John’s College, Cambridge.]

The first edition of the Great Bible appeared in April 1539, and an injunction was issued by Cromwell that a copy of it should be set up in every parish church. It was consequently the first (and only) English Bible formally authorized for public use; and contemporary evidence proves that it was welcomed and read with avidity. No doubt, as at an earlier day (Philippians 2:15), some read the gospel “of envy and stife, and some also of good will”; but in one way or another, for edification or for controversy, the reading of the Bible took a firm hold on the people of England, a hold which has never since been relaxed, and which had much to do with the stable foundation of the Protestant church in this country. Nor was the translation, though still falling short of the perfection reached three-quarters of a century later, unworthy of its position. It had many positive merits, and marked a distinct advance upon all its predecessors. Coverdale, though without the force and originality, or even the scholarship, of Tyndale, had some of the more valuable gifts of a translator, and was well qualified to make the best use of the labors of his predecessors. He had scholarship enough to choose and follow the best authorities, he had a happy gift of smooth and effective phraseology, and his whole heart was in his work. As the basis of his revision he had Tyndale’s work and his own previous version; and these he revised with reference to the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, with special assistance in the Old Testament from the Latin translation by Sebastian Münster published in 1534-35 (a work decidedly superior to the Zurich Bible, which had been his principal guide in 1534), while in the New Testament he made considerable use of Erasmus. With regard to the use of ecclesiastical terms, he followed his own previous example, against Tyndale, in retaining the familiar Latin phrases; and he introduced a considerable number of words and sentences from the Vulgate, which do not appear in the Hebrew or Greek. The text is divided into five sections — (1) Pentateuch, (2) Joshua — Job, (3) Psalms — Malachi, (4) Apocrypha, here entitled “Hagiographa,” though quite different from the books to which that term is applied in the Hebrew Bible, (5) New Testament, in which the traditional order of the books is restored in place of Luther’s. Coverdale intended to add a commentary at the end, and with this view inserted various marks in the margins, the purpose of which he explains in the Prologue; but he was unable to obtain the sanction of the Privy Council for these, and after standing in the margin for three editions the sign-post marks were withdrawn.

The first edition was exhausted within twelve months, and in April 1540 a second edition appeared, this time with a prologue by Cranmer (from which fact the Great Bible is sometimes known as Cranmer’s Bible, though he had no part in the translation). Two more editions followed in July and November, the latter (Cromwell having now been overthrown and executed) appearing under the nominal patronage of bishops Tunstall and Heath. In 1541 three editions were issued. None of these editions was a simple reprint. The Prophets, in particular, were carefully revised with the help of Münster for the second edition. The fourth edition (November 1540) and its successors revert in part to the first. These seven editions spread the knowledge of the Bible in a sound, though not perfect, version broadcast through the land; and one portion of it has never lost its place in our liturgy. In the first Prayer Book of Edward VI the Psalter (like the other Scripture passages) was taken from the Great Bible. In 1662, when the other passages were taken from the version of 1611, a special exception was made of the Psalter, on account of the familiarity which it had achieved, and consequently Coverdale’s version has held its place in the Book of Common Prayer to this day, and it is in his words that the Psalms have become the familiar household treasures of the English people.

With the appearance of the Great Bible comes the first pause in the rapid sequence of vernacular versions set on foot by Tyndale. The English Bible was now fully authorized, and accessible to every Englishman in his parish church; and the translation, both in style and in scholarship, was fairly abreast of the attainments and requirements of the age. We hear no more, therefore, at present of further revisions of it. Another circumstance which may have contributed to the same result was the reaction of Henry in his latter years against Protestantism. There was talk in Convocation about a translation to be made by the bishops, which anticipated the plan of the Bible of 1568 [the Bishops’ Bible]; and Cranmer prompted Henry to transfer the work to the universities, which anticipated a vital part of the plan of the Bible of 1611; but nothing came of either project. The only practical steps taken were in the direction of the destruction of the earlier versions. In 1543 a proclamation was issued against Tyndale’s versions, and requiring the obliteration of all notes; in 1546 Coverdale’s New Testament was likewise prohibited. The anti-Protestant reaction, however, was soon terminated by Henry’s death (January 1547); and during the reign of Edward VI, though no new translation (except a small part of the Gospels by Sir J. Cheke) was attempted, many new editions of Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, and the Great Bible issued from the press. The accession of Mary naturally put a stop to the printing and circulation of vernacular Bibles in England; and, during the attempt to put the clock back by force, Rogers and Cranmer followed Tyndale to the stake, while Coverdale was imprisoned, but was released, and took refuge at Geneva.

Frederic G. Kenyon

Continue with the article: Geneva Bible.