It is a famous line: In my Father’s house there are many mansions. However, the King James Version’s word choice is misleading to modern English readers. We hear the word “mansion,” and we are thinking of a big, manor house. But that is not the meaning of the word in this text in 1611.
Looking at earlier English translations may help. Here is a list of early translations prior to the KJV with their publication date.
Wycliffe (1382-1395) dwellingis
Tyndale (1522) mansions
Coverdale (1535) dwellinges
Geneva (1557) dwelling places
Bishops’ Bible (1568) dwelling places
Tyndale obviously gave us the phrase mansions, but the earliest translation is of Wycliffe, and it is “dwellings” (if we update his spelling). And that rendering is followed by Coverdale, Geneva, and the Bishop’s Bible.
It is not that Tyndale or the King James translators were wrong in using mansions in this passage. It is a case of a word that has changed meanings over the years. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary provides the definition that readers in 1611 would have understood: “archaic: a place where one remains or dwells.”
This is an image I understand as a father and grandfather. It is joyous to have all my children under one roof, in one house. (Although I must confess in this life, it is a little crowded and makes for difficulties in scheduling the bathroom.) The word picture which Jesus paints is one of being in the Father’s presence. As God’s children, he has room for us in his house.
When the RSV was released with its reading of “rooms” instead of “mansions,” some complained that the RSV had removed the glory from the Bible.* But the glory of a manor house for each of us was never in the text to begin with, it was only in a misreading of the text, a reading that was not intended by the King James translators to begin with. And unfortunately, it is a misreading that is captured in some of our hymns. Often, I’m unable to sing the line, “I want a gold one that is silver lined.” Besides being crassly materialistic, it misses Jesus’ point. Jesus is preparing a place for us to be eternally in the presence of God.
The translation of “rooms” or “dwelling places” instead of “mansions” does not remove the glory from the Bible. What could be more glorious than to have a place in the presence of God, a place in the Father’s house!
*Ronald F. Bridges and Luther A. Weigle, King James Bible Word Book (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994), 217. See this work for words that have changed meanings since 1611.