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The “Breeches” Bible

There is no group of people so closely linked to frontiers than the pilgrims. Seeking freedom from religious persecution, a group of English Puritans boarded a ship called the Mayflower and set sail for a new land they had never even set eyes on. Motivated by their desire to separate from the Church of England, the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.[1] They brought very few things with them because of cramped quarters on the ship, but despite the lack of space more than one Bible was aboard the Mayflower. The Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts owns two Bibles that they identify as being owned by John Alden and William Bradford. Both of these men were passengers on the Mayflower’s initial voyage, and William Bradford actually went on to serve as the governor of the fledgling colony once the pilgrims made landfall. Surprisingly, John Alden’s Bible has been identified as a King James version of the Bible, the official version of the Church of England that the pilgrims set out to escape. However, Governor Bradford’s Bible is a Geneva Bible.[2]

The Geneva Bible was the English translation of the Bible most popular among Puritans and other Protestant sects. Sometime in the 1550s, William Whittingham began the momentous task of translating the New Testament into English from the original Greek. Whittingham was a Protestant who was residing in Germany while he lived in exile from the religious persecution occurring in England. In 1560, Whittingham, along with fellow refugees Anthony Gilbey and Thomas Sampson, worked together to revise and improve Whittingham’s initial translation, as well as translate the Old Testament into English from the original Hebrew.[3] This revised version became the Geneva Bible. The Geneva Bible grew quickly in popularity because of the integrity of its translation. Rather than worry about poetic wording, the translators were more concerned with preserving the original meaning of the Bible. They were so dedicated to integrity of their translation that there are words and phrases that still appear in Greek. In addition to this, the Geneva Bible is chock-full of footnotes that offer alternate translations and explanations of why certain words were chosen over others.[4]

Since Whittingham and his associates prioritized the accuracy of the translation over the phrasing, there are some passages within the scripture that sound a little strange to the ear. The oddly worded verse that has gained the most attention throughout the years is Genesis 3:7, which reads:

“Then the eies [eyes] of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed figge [fig] tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”[5]

Due to the wording of this verse, the Geneva Bible is sometimes referred to as the Breeches Bible. In other English translations of the Bible, such as the King James version, the word “breeches” appears as the word “aprons”.[6] Small differences like these were common due to the uncertain nature of translating. Not surprisingly, words in ancient Hebrew and Greek do not always translate perfectly into English. In Genesis 3:7, the original Hebrew word that has been translated to “breeches”, is more loosely defined in the margins as “things to gird about them and hide their privities [privates]”[7].

Below are images of the Breeches Bible. The Breeches Bible has been recovered due to damage, but the pages within are the original pages from 1599!

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Sources:

[1] Faith of the Pilgrims. Plimoth Plantation. 2018. https://www.plimoth.org/what-see-do/17th-century-english-village/faith-pilgrims

[2] Forman, Rev. Dr. Charles C. Four Early Bibles in Pilgrim Hall. Pilgrim Society Note, Series One, Number Nine, April 1959. p. 1-4. http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Four_Early_Bibles.pdf

[3] Geneva Bible. Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing Press. World Heritage Encyclopedia. http://self.gutenberg.org/articles/eng/geneva_bible

[4] Forman, Rev. Dr. Charles C. Four Early Bibles in Pilgrim Hall. Pilgrim Society Note, Series One, Number Nine, April 1959. p. 2-4

[5] The Breeches Bible. Genesis 3:7. 1599.

[6] The King James Bible. Genesis 3:7

[7] Marginal note referring to Genesis 3:7. Breeches Bible. 1599.

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