A tale of two bibles: Rare Books masterclass

The origins and early history of the King James Bible are very much intertwined with that of the Puritan Geneva Bible (1560), on which it drew but which it also, eventually, displaced. At a masterclass on 20 May 2011, Helen Moore, fellow in English at Corpus Christi College and one of the curators of the exhibition, Manifold Greatness (at the Bodleian Library and Folger Library in 2011), showed two examples of the King James Bible from Bodleian collections; Bodleian Library Bib. Eng. 1613 e.1(2), an edition printed in London by Robert Barker (the printer of the first edition of this translation, two years earlier in 1611 — this 1613 black-letter quarto was a “He” bible repeating the error in Ruth 3:15 of one of the 1611 printings), and another edition printed in Amsterdam in 1672, Bodleian Library Bib. Eng. 1672 c.1(1).

Moore examined the paratextual elements which affected how the Bible was read, quoted, and taken as a spiritual guide by 17th-century readers. These include the illustrations drawing typological parallels between Old and New Testaments, annotations explaining the text, and concordances or tables helping readers to find reference in Scripture to particular topics.

KJB or Genevan?

King James I’s invitation to scholars to produce a new version of the bible was an attempt both to mollify Puritans in the Church of England who wished to promote greater knowledge of the Bible in English, and to replace the Geneva Bible, at that time the most popular English version. The Geneva Bible, conceived and produced by English Protestant exiles who had fled to Geneva to escape persecution during the reign of Mary I, reflected their theological and political ideas. James I’s instructions were that the new version should exclude commentary entirely. The “Rules to be Observed in Translation” drawn up for the translators of the KJB stated that “no marginall notes at all [were] to be affixed”. But examining the books themselves helped to prove Helen Moore’s point that bibliographical study questions this “anti-paternal” relationship of the Genevan bible to the KJB.

With the two editions from library collections to hand, Moore showed how looking at the contents of these books enabled a more detailed view of what contents circulated under the title page of the King James Bible. In both of these KJB editions, “Genevan” elements were evident; the woodcut title page of the first black-letter quarto edition, from 1613, was a close imitation of the title page of black-letter quarto editions of the Geneva Bible; extensive marginal annotations were printed in the 1672 Amsterdam edition, in defiance of James’s “no commentary” rule; the woodcut used as a title page vignette for the New Testament in the 1672 edition was copied from the Geneva Bible woodcut illustrations.

As a cultural phenomenon, elements of the “Genevan” Bible survived long after the advent of the version that was meant to replace it.

An exhibition catalogue, Manifold Greatness: the making of the King James Bible, edited by Helen Moore and Julian Reid, is published by the Bodleian Library.