The History

of Study Bibles

By Stephen Nichols

In 1560, an exiled group of pastors and theologians made history. They published the first full edition of the Geneva Bible. It was a remarkable feat on many fronts.

These scholars who worked on the Geneva Bible had been leaders of the Reformation in England and Scotland. When “Bloody Mary” took the throne, she threw into reverse the advancing Reformation, taking the nation back to Roman Catholicism. Britain’s Reformers found themselves in prison, martyred, or in exile. Many went to Calvin’s Geneva.

Calvin wasn’t much for idle hands. Florentine jewelers who had converted to Protestantism were also among the exiles who came to Geneva. Most of their prior work revolved around saint’ statues, rosaries, and the like. They needed something new to do. Calvin suggested they make watches. The rest is (watchmaking) history. So, too, the British scholars who came to Geneva needed to work. Calvin suggested they publish a Bible. The rest is English Bible history.

The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to use verse divisions, thanks to the work of Robertus Stephanus. Prior editions of the English Bible had chapter breaks only. Stephanus, a brilliant linguist, published several editions of the Greek New Testament. He introduced his innovative verse divisions in his 1551 edition. Nine years later, these same verse numbers appeared in the Geneva Bible.

The Geneva Bible was also the first Bible to have study notes or annotations. The first edition had these annotations in the Gospels only. This edition also had woodcut illustrations, maps, and even tables, which provided a cross-referencing index for names and topics. As later editions rolled off the press, more annotations for the rest of the canonical books appeared. Some later editions even modified the notes or replaced them altogether. Then, as now, the book of Revelation posed special challenges to interpreters and annotators. Later editions fully replaced the notes it had published on John’s Apocalypse…