Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Want to Buy a Bible?

cimg0740-2304x1728by Revilo P. Oliver

IF YOU HAVE PAID any attention to English drama, you have read the Duchess of Malfi, by Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary. You may even have seen one of the rare productions of that deeply moving tragedy. And you remember the horrible scene in which a group of madmen, placed in an apartment next to the one in which the Duchess is confined, so that their uproar will prevent sleep at night and obtund her ears by day, are sent into her presence and rave, each yelling out the revelation he wants to communicate to the world. One of them, you remember, proclaims, “We are only to be saved by the Helvetian translation.” (The episode ends when the Duchess mistakes for one of the madmen the assassin whom her brothers have sent to strangle her.)

You recognized the allusion to what is called the Geneva Bible, and recognized that allusion as another gibe at the Puritans, such as a madman’s earlier disclosure of the scatological composition of the syrup that a clever apothecary sells to the Puritans to soothe their throats when they become hoarse with perpetual ranting and exhortation.

Although the Calvinistic translation of the Bible was extremely popular in its day — a bibliographer found in two English collections a hundred and forty editions (reprintings) of it published between 1560 and 1644, and there were probably scores of printings that escaped the collectors — you would probably have to go to a large library to see a copy of it today, although everyone knows one passage in it, the passage in Genesis in which we are told that when Adam and Eve discovered they were naked, “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves breeches,” thus anticipating today’s feminine styles.

That is apt to give the impression that the “Breeches Bible” is just a curiosity, like the very rare and expensive copies of Bibles in which Yahweh commands “Thou shalt commit adultery” (thus anticipating the creed of so many evangelicals today) or predicts, with unwonted accuracy, “the unrighteous shall inherit the kingdom of God,” or states a sad truism, “The fool has said in his heart there is a god.” (1) But that is to ignore the importance of the Genevan Bible in the long and gloomy history of Christian fantasies about their superstition.

(footnote 1. There are many more curiosities of this kind. You may sympathize with Seventeenth-Century printers and proof-readers, but it was in the 1920s, as I recall, that a highly reputed publisher issued a large edition of the Bible with supplemental material, including a list of the degrees of kinship within which marriage was forbidden by the Church of England. This included a surely unnecessary prohibition: “a man may not marry his grandmother’s wife.”)

I was astonished the other day to discover that the Geneva Bible is back in print in a photographically enlarged reproduction of an edition of 1599, which contains the text of the translation and the accompanying mass of marginal notes that interpret the text in strictly Calvinistic terms. The republication, said to weigh 6 1/2 pounds, may be obtained for $120.00 from the National Christians in Ocala, Florida, who describe it as “certainly the cornerstone of our forefathers[‘] faith and of our heritage.” So, if you are interested in the sad history of Western Christianity, here is your chance to own a very significant edition of the Bible, which, you may be sure, your Christian friends have never seen.

The advertisement for this new edition, however, is simply breath-taking, It begins

‘In 1557, a then unknown clergyman, John Calvin, undertook to translate the complete Bible into English. Calvin’s Bible, which came to be known as the Geneva Bible, was printed from 1560 to 1644 in over 200 different printings.’

This is so typical a consequence of religious fervor that I must comment on it.

[1] In 1557 Calvin was the most famous heresiarch in Europe. He was the virtual dictator of Geneva, which he had made a theocracy, ruled by God, who, however, was busy elsewhere and had named Calvin as his Vice-Regent. From this fortress of holiness he launched verbal lightning-bolts against the Anabaptists, the Lutherans, the Roman Catholics, and all other servants of Satan, and he had attained even greater and extraordinary celebrity in 1553 by covertly exposing the pseudonym under which Michael Servetus had concealed his authorship of Christianismi restitutio, insuring his conviction by supplying as a specimen of his handwriting a letter that Servetus had written under the impression that in Calvin he was addressing a friendly fellow Protestant, and when Servetus escaped from prison and passed through Geneva on his way to a refuge in Germany, having him arrested and burned at the stake. (2) In 1557, Calvin may have been the most famous man in all of Europe.

(footnote 2. Calvin’s admirers make much of the fact that he was so tender-hearted that he suggested (but did not command) that Servetus be decapitated instead of roasted alive. Servetus was a man of some scientific attainments, having evidently been the first to discover the circulation of blood in the human body and a number of other facts, but he unfortunately shared the current infatuation with religion, took the Christian’s story-book seriously, and tried to imagine ways to explain away its innumerable internal contradictions.)

[2] Calvin never translated the Bible or any considerable part of it into any language. (3)

(footnote 3. It is true that a dishonest printer once published under Calvin’s name a reprinting of a Huguenot translation into French by a certain Pierre Olivétan.)

[3] Calvin never wrote anything in English, a language of which he was totally ignorant. He was born Jean Cauun (the spelling of the name in legal documents) (4) and French, his native tongue, was the only language he used in addition to Latin. Having received a good education, he decided that the family name should be Chauvin, which he then Latinized, calling himself Iohannes Calvinus, since he was something of a Humanist (his first publication was a commentary on Seneca’s De clementia) and wrote by preference in Latin, the language in which he published, under the cover of a pseudonym, his Institutiones Christianae (1536), which outline the theological fantasies from which he never subsequently deviated.

(footnote 4. Some contend that the name was originally Cohen. There is no proof of this, which may be only a surmise based on the fact that Calvin devised a thoroughly Judaized form of Christianity.)

[4] The guess about 200 printings may be substantially correct — the only plausible statement in the quotation.

The advertisement goes on to assure us that

‘The Geneva Bible was the Bible of choice for William Shakespeare and John Milton. The 1599 edition was the Bible the Pilgrims were holding when they stepped on Plymouth Rock. … This Bible [is] the foundation stone upon which our Christian American Republic was laid.’

Welladay! Christians are incorrigible, so we must note that Shakespeare (whether he was the actor or the Earl of Oxford), like Webster, whose opinion I indicated above, and everyone connected with the theatre, detested the Puritans and all their works, since attending theatrical performances was high on those fanatics’ list of deadly sins for which Yahweh ordained drastic punishment. I do not recall having read anything in which Milton expresses an opinion about translations of the Bible, but he was a Puritan. The Pilgrims probably did have a copy of the Geneva Bible, which was extremely popular in England, where it was proscribed by law and possession of a copy was sometimes treated as a felony. Many of the founders of the United States (e.g., George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin — assuming that he was not really an atheist) were Deists; many more were, at least nominally, Anglicans, who would have spurned the Puritans’ seditious version of their holy book; and even many of the influential descendants of the Puritans in New England (e.g., John Adams) had abandoned Calvinism. The American Republic, which lasted until 1861, was based on political abstention from every variety of religion.

The Geneva Bible is an English version made by William Whittington (5) and two of his friends, Puritans who, perhaps resisting a temptation to become glorious martyrs at an early age, hied themselves to Geneva, perceiving that the climate in England was not healthful for them during the reign of Queen Mary. Their translation of the “Old Testament” was based on the English version approved by King Henry VIII (often called the ‘Great Bible’ or ‘Cranmer’s Bible’), revised with the aid of three Latin translations, especially that by Sebastian Münster (1534), and Calvinistic ideas; the “New Testament” was Tyndale’s version, revised with the aid of Beza’s Latin translation (1542). (6) It is unlikely that there was any real consultation of Hebrew and Greek texts. Calvin doubtless approved the Geneva Bible, although he could not have read it. Its strident Calvinism depends largely on the marginal annotations, many of which were translated from Calvin’s writings.

(footnote 5. Not to be confused with Richard Whittington, who is the subject of an astonishing folk-tale, which is an instructive example of the mythopoeic power of the popular mind. Everyone knows the story of ‘Dick’ Whittington, a poor lad who was a scullion and whose only possession was a cat, and who was leaving London in despair when he heard the Bow bells and fancied they were urging him to return; by dint of most extraordinary good luck he became rich and eventually the Lord Mayor of London. The facts are that Richard Whittington was the son of a prosperous landowner, Sir William Whittington, and, being a younger son, elected a career in commerce, which he began with sufficient capital to participate in a loan to the city made by leading merchants. Perceiving that contemporary conditions would make wholesale trade in textile goods highly profitable, he became a mercer and accumulated such a fortune that he could personally lend money to Kings Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, and entertain the latter at sensationally lavish parties. One of the wealthiest men in England, he was frequently elected Lord Mayor. During his lifetime and, since he died without issue, after his death much of his wealth was devoted to public benefactions (building a library, founding a college, etc.). No one knows how the folk-tale was generated, more than a century after his death in 1423.)

(footnote 6. This translation has the great merit of being in decent Latin that can be read without discomfort. I obtained my copy, dated 1949, from the British Bible Society, which, when I last heard, was keeping that edition in print. Beza was a learned man, but nevertheless so godly that he believed that all vile heretics (i.e., everyone who was not a Calvinist) should be burned at the stake to prevent them from leading others to eternal damnation; when he succeeded Calvin in Geneva, however, he relaxed some of the rigors of theocratic despotism. He presented one of the most important Biblical manuscripts, the famous Codex Bezae, to Cambridge University, giving a disingenuous and perhaps mendacious account of how it had come into his possession.)

There are innumerable English translations of the Bible, but in all of them the stories are essentially the same, differing only in diction and in details that concern only theologians who use them to whet their own axes. The Bible is not like another famous story-book, usually called the Arabian Nights, of which the four commonly used English translations differ enormously in content.

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Source: Liberty Bell magazine, November 1992

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