As a child, I found the architecture of heaven a little baffling. What puzzled me was John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions” (KJV). According to the Macquarie Dictionary, a ‘mansion’ is “an imposing or stately residence”. A ‘house’, on the other hand, is a suburban cottage—the sort of place I lived in with my parents and brothers. So how do you fit mansions into a house? Is heaven like Dr Who’s Tardis—bigger on the inside than the outside?

It was William Tyndale (in 1534) who first stuck the mansions inside the house, and in 1611 the King James Version (KJV) mob just left them there. They didn’t have to; earlier (in 1388), Wycliffe’s translators had made them ‘dwellings’. But the KJV crowd (with their usual attitude of ‘don’t change Tyndale if you don’t have to’) left the mansions rattling around inside the cottage (or, at least, that’s how I imagined them).

When Tyndale used the word, it was already on the cusp of change. ‘Mansion’ derived a Latin root, via Old French, with the source meaning of “to remain or dwell”, and from the 15th century, it had been used to mean “a lodging or apartment in a large house or enclosure”. This sense survives in Britain in those blocks of flats that are called by such names as ‘Belgrave Mansions’, ‘Albert Mansions’ and so on (a usage that goes back to 1860).

But already emerging, even as Tyndale was dipping his quill in the ink, was the competing meaning of “the chief residence of a lord, a manor house”. (In fact, words such as ‘manor’ and ‘manse’ come from the same source word.) This sense was well established by 1611, but King James’ editors stuck to Tyndale—and baffled children for the next 300 years.

The ESV (and all other modern translators) furnish God’s house with rooms instead of mansions (accurate, but less stimulating to the youthful imagination). However, I still fancy the idea that heaven really is like the Tardis—much bigger on the inside that it is on the outside: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.”

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