A “Mansion” over the Hilltop?

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

Mansion“In my Father’s house are many mansions.” So reads the first clause of John 14:2 in the archaic KJV (italics added). In modern American English, “mansions” means only one thing: large stately houses on substantial acreages, reminiscent of “Tara” and “Twelve Oaks” in Gone with the Wind. And that is exactly how multitudes (including the author of the Gospel song “Mansion over the Hilltop”) misunderstand the obsolete language of the KJV here. (“Mansion” occurs nowhere else in the KJV).

At the very least, anyone who assumes “mansions” here has its modern sense should logically be moved to ask, “How can there be Tara-esque mansions in the Father’s house?” And raising such a rational question should instruct the thinking reader that somehow something is awry here. And indeed something is.

Why is “mansions” used here? What does it mean, or did it mean in the early seventeenth century when the KJV was made? Was that different than its present meaning? And what of the original Greek that it ostensibly represents? What does it mean? First the Greek.

The Greek word here (without variation in printed Greek texts) is monai, the plural of mone. This word is found elsewhere in the New Testament (in the singular) only in verse 23 of John 14, where the KJV inconsistently translates it “abode.” Outside the New Testament, the word is not rare, occurring commonly in classical Greek authors, the apocrypha, Philo, Josephus, and elsewhere. It is related to the very common verbal root meno, which means “to stay, remain, last, persist, continue.” It comes as no surprise then that Greek dictionaries give “staying, abiding” and “dwelling-place, room, abode” as definitions of mone in its various uses. Nothing here to conjure up images of opulent houses in plantation settings.

Tracing how this word was translated in ancient and Reformation era Bible versions will enable us to discover how “mansions” found its way here in the KJV.

The earliest Latin version—or versions, since they are multiple and diverse—of the New Testament is today designated as the Old Latin. These were made in the very late second through the fourth centuries A.D. Of extant manuscripts of the Old Latin version(s), I have access to two in John 14. Both read mansiones in verse 2 (at v. 23, one is defective; the other reads habitaculum =”habitation, room”). Mansiones is the plural of mansio, meaning “a remaining, stay, sojourn; station, halting place.” I suspect that the other Old Latin manuscripts read the same.

In the late fourth century (ca. 385 A.D.) the diversity of Old Latin versions led to Jerome’s attempt to standardize the Latin text in what is today called the Latin Vulgate (the Vulgate is unquestionably the most influential translation of the New Testament ever made, dominating the Middle Ages in Europe and strongly influencing every Reformation-era translation there. See “The Latin Vulgate Bible Translation in Historical Perspective” part I, As I See It, 5:4, April 2002; and part II, As I See It, 5:5, May 2002). In the Gospels, the Vulgate is a cursory revision and standardization by Jerome of the Old Latin versions. Not surprisingly, it reads here the same as the Old Latin, namely: mansiones.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in Greek or Latin to recognize that the KJV’s use of “mansions” at John 14:2 is a direct transfer into English of the word employed by the Old Latin and Latin Vulgate versions. That the KJV was heavily influenced by the Latin Vulgate in its text and translation may come as a surprise to some, but it is acknowledged by all who are familiar with the facts of the case. In truth, every page of the KJV New Testament has vocabulary borrowed directly from the Latin Vulgate; “mansions” in John 14:2 is but one example among thousands (see “Is the King James Version a ‘Roman Catholic Bible’?” in As I See It 6:2, February 2003).

Among English translations, the Anglo-Saxon version (made from the Vulgate before 1000 A.D.) translates (rather than borrows) the Latin mansiones by eardung-stowa (=”tabernacle, habitation”) both times. My Anglo-Saxon dictionary does not list mansio at all, so it apparently did not pass from Latin into Anglo-Saxon as a loanword.

Wycliffe’s version of circa 1385, also made from the Vulgate, reads “dwellings” (v. 23, “dwell”). Tyndale’s version, based on the third edition of Erasmus’s Greek text, in consultation with the Vulgate, Erasmus’s own Latin version, and Luther’s German version, has “mansions” (v. 23, “dwell”) in all editions (1526, 1534, 1535, 1536). “Mansion” is also found in Tyndale’s version at 2 Corinthians 5:1 to describe the human body—the Greek literally is “house”—as the dwelling-place of the spirit (the Vulgate has domus, “house” cf. “domicile”). Cranmer’s (1539), also known as the Great Bible, reproduces Tyndale in both places in John 14, and alone of sixteenth century English versions, at 2 Corinthians 5:1 as well.

The Geneva New Testament (1557, 1560, 1602 editions), similar to Wycliffe (but not directly influenced by him), has “dwelling places” (v. 23, “dwell”). The Bishops’ Bible (1568), the base text for the KJV revision, reads “dwelling places” (v. 23, “dwelling”).

The Roman Catholic Rheims NT (1582), made from the Latin Vulgate rather than the Greek text, not surprisingly borrows the Vulgate word “mansions” (but in v. 23 has “abode,” a translation not found in any previous English version).

Then there is the KJV of 1611. It abandons the reading “dwelling places” found in the Bishops’ Bible (of which the KJV was an official revision) and in the Geneva Bible (the English Bible most influential in the making of the KJV). Instead, it reads precisely as the Roman Catholic Rheims: “mansions” (“abode,” in v. 23). That the KJV follows the lead of the Rheims in verse 23 is certain, in as much as no other English version before 1611 so translated the word there. This makes it highly likely that the KJV was also imitating the Rheims (rather than reverting to Tyndale / Cranmer) in verse 2.

Other Reformation era versions are not germane to our present discussion. Luther’s German version (1534, 1545) has “Wohnungen”=”dwelling places, habitations, rooms, abodes” (v. 23, “Wohnung,” the singular of the same word), and so this did not directly influence Tyndale and Cranmer, though it may have influenced the Geneva and Bishops’ versions.

The Reina Spanish version of 1569 (and also the Valera revision of 1602) has “moradas” (v. 23, “morada,” singular), which means “stayings, remainings; habitations, abodes.” It is somewhat surprising to me that mansiones was not borrowed from the Vulgate since a related word “mansion” exists in Spanish, and the Reina-Valera commonly borrows Vulgate vocabulary in its translation.

I do not possess Reformation-era versions in other Romance languages (French, Italian) so am not able to investigate how they rendered the word, though post-Reformation versions in French, Italian, Portuguese, and of course Romanian do not use any word cognate with “mansions” here. Nor do I have access to Calvin’s Latin or French versions here (Calvin’s versions and commentaries did often influence the Geneva English version, and sometimes the KJV). Beza’s influential Latin version reads habitationes (“dwelling-places”/“habitations”).

Thus far the translations. We must now briefly consider the history of the use of the word “mansion” in English, and for this we turn inevitably to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), almost always the “last word” in such matters.

The OED gives seven separate uses of this word over time, as follows (with the date of the earliest attested usage; I summarize, paraphrase, and occasionally supplement rather than quote directly):

1. The act of remaining (1340);

2. A place where one stops or dwells; place of abode (1386). This includes a separate dwelling place, such as an apartment in a large house (1400). Tyndale’s usage in John 14:2 and an earlier one in a religious document (1340) are placed here. “Mansions” is also used of abodes in hell (by Milton; 1629. Perhaps we need a song for the unconverted “I’ve got a mansion, far beneath the hilltop”!);

3. A structure serving as a dwelling place (1340), including the chief residence of a landed aristocrat (synonym of “manor”), specifically, a stately residence (1512). The word also has been used to describe a large building divided up into separate apartments (1860);

4. A halting place on a journey; the distance between two rest stops (1382);

5. An astrological term for the twenty-eight monthly stages of the moon (1386); “house” is now commonly used for this (think “Age of Aquarius” by the Fifth Dimension—“When the moon is in the seventh house …”)

6. A parcel of land (1450)

7. As an adjective (1618)

Most of these usages are labeled as “obsolete.” The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, an abridgment and updating of the original OED, lists only two current usages, that of a large stately house and of an apartment building.

The words “manor” (as in “manor-house” and “lord of the manor”) and “manse” (in British English a synonym of “parsonage”) are etymologically related to “mansion” though not derived from it and are obviously similar in usage.

So then, sorting through the historic usages of “mansion” as reported in OED, it is clear that the OED correctly classifies Tyndale’s (and subsequently the KJV’s) use of “mansion” in John 14:2 under the meaning an apartment in a large house. We might say a guest chamber for an honored visitor. I think of the special room prepared by the Shunamite woman and her husband for the prophet Elisha, 2 Kings 4:10; and Samuel Johnson’s visit to the Thrales’ estate, where he more or less remained continuously for twenty years! In the Father’s house, we are honored guests with our own well-furnished apartment, and we never have to leave because we are home.

While “mansions” adequately and accurately represented in English the meaning of the Greek word monai in 1611, it certainly does not do so today because of four centuries of extensive change in the English language. As a consequence, the KJV is at this point now obsolete, archaic, and misleading—and therefore inadequate. This is but one of many hundreds of such places where the KJV does not conform to modern English usage; therefore it fails to communicate accurately to the modern reader. This is why I do not recommend the KJV to anyone if he or she is seriously interested in knowing what the Bible teaches; indeed, I recommend that people not read it because of its frequently archaic language, recommending instead a modern English version or two.

How do modern conservative English versions treat John 14:2? The NIV has “rooms” (v. 23, “home”); the NASB “dwelling places” (v. 23, “abode”); the NKJB “mansions” (with footnote, “literally, dwellings”; v. 23 “home”); the ESV “rooms” (v. 23, “home”); HCSB “dwelling places” (v. 23, “home”). All these are suitable (if you ignore the NKJB’s text and follow its footnote) and adequately convey the sense and meaning of the original to the modern reader in a way that “mansions” certainly does not. Not only will these modern translations be understood; they will not be misunderstood. With so many better options for English readers, not only here but throughout the Old and New Testaments, how can anyone justify continuing to use—and imposing on church members—a translation they are guaranteed to misunderstand repeatedly? Exactly what is the point of that?

kutilek.jpgDoug Kutilek is editor of www.kjvonly.org, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.


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