The Bishops Bible was an English translation produced under the authority of the established Church of England, in 1568. It would be substantially revised in 1572. The final printing in 1602 would be assigned to the translators as the preferred text to consider for the authorized 1611.
Queen Elizabeth I's ascension to the throne in 1558 ushered in a period of reform in England. The intolerance of her predecessor, "Bloody Mary," had divided the country and the cruelty of her acts against her own people had severed many allegiances. Elizabeth reversed the ban on printing, reading, and reciting English Scripture, and also supported the protestant translations, though she and the Bishops of the Church of England shared a strong distaste for the Geneva Bible's marginal notes, which were clearly critical of the clergy, monarchy and the Papal Authority. It was quite evident that the Geneva Bible had overwhelming favor among English-speaking people everywhere.
Henry VIII had authorized Cromwell to enlist Miles Coverdale to improve upon the Matthew's Bible, most notably to eliminate unfavorable notes, but also to enhance the translation by using more of the original texts. The result was the Great Bible, a large and cumbersome edition intended for the pulpits of churches across England, to be read publicly by the priest and the parishioner. As the authorized Bible, it was read regularly and was a marked improvement over other versions, but being chained to the pulpits kept it from being truly accessible to the people.
Henry VIII had desired a "Bishop's" Bible prior to that, but in spite of numerous efforts, it never prevailed. However, in 1563 Queen Elizabeth agreed to a new work that would be the Church of England's answer to the Calvinist's Geneva Bible.
The proposal for a new translation followed the publication of the 1539 Great Bible during the reign of Henry VIII. It was intended to be done by the Bishops of the English Church. The proposal met no real opposition but neither did it gain support and was not again emphasized until 1561, three years after Elizabeth had ascended the throne.
The intention was stated, “a version with no bitter or controversial annotations to the text.” The obvious concern was the very controversial Geneva Bible and its marginal notes (Calvinism/Presbyterianism =reformation). This, of course, seriously offended the hierarchy of the Church of England. The reformers fully intended to replace the hierarchy of the Bishops (Episcopalian) rule with lay lenders as elders. The Geneva notes stirred up no small fire of opposition to the only legally authorized Bible for Anglican worship, but it was severely deficient; in that much of the Old Testament was translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In an attempt to subjugate both, the proposal was re-introduced and promoted by Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, who would be the chief editor. Parker asserted first of all, to follow the common English translation used in the churches (Great Bible) and not recede from it but where it "varieth manifestaly" from the Hebrew and Greek original. It is clear, with the historic perspective that Parker's intentions were quite “Romish” as they would very much confirm to Roman Catholic rule under Queen Mary. There is little question Parker's primary emphasis on the new translation was an attempt to stop the advance of the Geneva in the churches.
Archbishop Parker edited the text, but the list of scholars who worked on the Bishops Bible was significant. It was sent to the Queen and her chief minister “Lord Cecil” in advance. (No doubt to ensure the Calvinist tones of the Geneva were not given place in this new version).
Using the text of the Great Bible and its Latin base comparisons were made to the Hebrew text of the Paginus (1528) and Münster's (1539). This proved necessary as none of the Bishops evidenced scholarship of Hebrew. At Parker's instigation it was determined each of the assigned Bishops for the translation work assigned their signature (title) to the text they translated. As was the case, illustrated in a letter from Parker to Sir William Cecil, in reference to the book of Deuteronomy and the concluding initials W.E. (William Alley) Bishop of Geter. There Parker explains this was to ensure the diligence of their doings, i.e. accountability not only corporately among themselves, but publicly among others It is believed that Archbishop Parker himself failed to commission anyone to act as supervisory editor of the various translators and he himself was unable or unwilling to tender such a task.
One noticeable call to question is the tetragrammation YHWH represented by “Lord” in most Hebrew as well as English versions and the Hebrew “Elohim” is represented by “God”, but in Psalms the practice is the opposite way around. It is interesting that Parker's edits of his own efforts are more in line to the Great Bible while Gindal, a writer translator, are more to the Geneva text. It appears the books lack little translation from original Hebrew and Greek but rather carry over the Latin Vulgate extant text to English as the Great Bible.
In the revision of 1572, the New Testament received extensive revisions in the direction of “ecclesiastical” language (e.g. introducing the term “Charity”, I Corinthians 13) but otherwise to correct the text more in line with that found in the Geneva Bible; and in the Old Testament, the Psalms from the Great Bible were printed along side those in the new translation – which proved impossible to sing. From 1577 the new Psalm translation was dropped all together; while further incremental changes were made to the text of the New Testament in subsequent editions.
The Bishops Bible was appointed to be read aloud in the churches, as was the Great Bible, but as a large pulpit folio it failed to displace the adversely domesticated Geneva Bible as the personal Bible among the people.
The last complete Bible edition was in 1602, but the New Testament was reissued until 1617. William Fulke published several parallel editions with the Rheims New Testament in his confutation up to 1633.
The whole Bishops Bible was not well received and only marginally reproduced with the majority being the New Testament, in total only 50 printings as opposed to the Geneva with well over 150 printings. The second and third editions contained many corrections and revisions. The third edition had a thorough revision of the New Testament. Nineteen varying editions were published between 1568-1606. The convocation of Canterbury in 1571 ordered each Archbishop and Bishop “should place a copy in the dinning room of his house, each Cathodral and as for as possible, each church should possess a copy.”
The Bishop's Bible was more grandiloquent that the Geneva Bible. The first edition was exceptionally large and included 124 full-page illustrations. Its size proved too cumbersome for personal use and was hardly comparable to the personal-sized Geneva Bibles that were now common in many English homes.
The Bishop's Bible of 1602 was to be the text from which the King James Bible translators worked, although numerous other texts were considered as well. the Last edition of the complete Bishop's Bible was issued in 1602. The New Testament continued to be revised until 1617.
The Bishop's Bible saw fewer than fifty editions in all while the Geneva saw well over 140 editions, making clear that the Bishop's Bible never found an acceptable place among the English editions.