Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reservations for Mansions or Rooms?

Complete: “In my Father’s house are many _________________; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? Rooms of mansions (John 14:2).

On the night that he was arrested, Jesus comforted his disciples by assuring them they he was leaving to prepare a place for them (John 14:1-4). He adds that in his father’s house are many “rooms” or “mansions” depending upon the translation (John 14:2). In modern English, this is quite a discrepancy.

What real estate is in question? Which do you prefer? Why?

The more appealing “mansion” originates with the King James Version (KJV) in 1611 and has been adopted by the ASV (1901) and NKJV (1979). John 14:2 marks the only time “mansion” appears in the KJV. This opulent imagery has become prominent from its use in the KJV and countless hymns (“Mansion Over the Hilltop”; “A Mansion in Glory”; “An Empty Mansion”; etc.).

The KJV’s English Bible predecessors do not use the word “mansion”. John Wycliffe’s New Testament (1385) reads “dwelling” and its successors, the Geneva Bible (1560, “dwelling places”) and the Bishops’ Bible (1568,“dwelling places”) follow suit. Most modern translations opt for “dwelling places” (HCSB, NASB, NRSV) or “rooms” (CEV, ESV, NIV, RSV).

These readings fit the context of being located within a house and are also truer to the Greek word used, μονή (moné), which indicates nothing of structure, whether lavish or humble. It means “a staying, abiding, dwelling, abode.” or “to make an (one’s) abode.” This word is used only twice in the New Testament, both times in John 14 (John 14:2, 23). In the latter passage, even the KJV translates the word “abode”. The word is common in extant Greek literature appearing in the Apocrypha, Philo (22 BCE-50 CE), and Josephus (37-100), and always indicates an “abode”. The common verb related to the Greek noun in question, meno, famously employed by Jesus in John 15:4-7, is typically translated “abide”. Neither word suggests luxury.

The KJV was likely influenced by the most famous Latin translation, the Vulgate, which uses the word mansiones, the plural of mansio, in John 14:2. Mansio means “a remaining, stay, sojourn; station, halting place.” In 1611, when the KJV was first published, the English word “mansion” did in fact refer to a dwelling place. The KJV is not incorrect, the language has simply changed through the centuries.

Two modern versions avoid the debate by summarizing what the text means. The New Living Translation (1996) reads that there is “plenty of room” and The Message (1993-2002), Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, claims that there is “more than enough room”. These renditions present the passage’s intent and convey very good news. There will be room at the inn.

Does it matter to you whether you have a room or mansion prepared for you? Is there room for everyone?

For a day in Your courts is better than a thousand outside.
I would rather stand at the threshold of the house of my God Than dwell in the tents of wickedness. (Psalm 84:10, NASB)

Note: This post is indebted to Doug Kutilek’s article “A ‘Mansion’ over the Hilltop?”.

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