I've been doing a bunch of reading as of late regarding hell and its ultimate origins, and I thought others might be interested to hear what I've come across, as I certainly found it interesting, and I hope you might too. I know there's another thread elsewhere called "The Hell Thread"
, but that thread was more about hell the place, whereas this is more about hell the word.
The translation in the King James Version gets a lot of flak from many places for many reasons, and in many cases this is entirely deserved. One case that I don't think is deserved, however, is the criticism leveled towards the translation's "hell-craziness" (as Gary might put it). In the books now considered part of Christian Biblical canon, the King James Version finds the word "hell" fifty-four times, due in large part to the translators rendering the Hebrew word Sheol
(grave) as "hell", as well as the Greek words Hades
(Valley of Hinnom), and Tartarus
(originally a dark place in Greek mythology where the wicked dead reside). This is often seen as an indication of the translators trying to force into the text the pagan concept of "hell" where it just shouldn't go.
But a question I came to ask myself when pondering this rendering was a simple one: was the King James Version the first to do this? There were English translations that predated it. And I found, upon looking them up, that the answer is no. Below, I'll present three translations each of four verses. The verses are Jonah 2:2, Luke 16:23, Matthew 10:28, and 2 Peter 2:4, so chosen because they contain standard instances of Sheol
, and Tartarus
, respectively. The three translations will be from the 1611 King James Version (the original King James Version), from the 1535 Coverdale Bible (an earlier Bible with which King James Version translators consulted), and from the 1395 Wycliffe Bible (the very first English Bible).Jonah 2:2 (Sheol)
King James: "And said, I cried by reason of mine affliction vnto the Lord, and hee heard mee; out of the belly of hell
cried I, and thou heardest my voyce."
Coverdale: "and sayed: In my trouble I called vnto ye LORDE, and he herde me: out off the bely off hell
I cried, and thou herdest my voyce."
Wycliffe: "and seide, Y criede to God of my tribulacioun, and he herde me; fro the wombe of helle
Y criede, and thou herdist my vois."Luke 16:23 (Hades)
King James: "And in hell
he lift vp his eyes being in torments, and seeth Abraham afarre off, and Lazarus in his bosome:"
Coverdale: "Now whan he was in the hell
, he lift vp his eyes in the payne, and sawe Abraham afarre of, and Lazarus in his bosome:"
Wycliffe: "And the riche man was deed also, and was biried in helle
. And he reiside hise iyen, whanne he was in turmentis, and say Abraham afer, and Lazarus in his bosum."Matthew 10:28 (Gehenna)
King James: "And feare not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soule: but rather feare him which is able to destroy both soule and body in hell
Coverdale: "And feare ye not them that kyll the body, and be not able to kyll the soule. But rather feare hi, which is able to destroye both soule and body in to hell
Wycliffe: "And nyle ye drede hem that sleen the bodi; for thei moun not sle the soule; but rather drede ye hym, that mai lese bothe soule and bodi in to helle
."2 Peter 2:4 (Tartarus)
King James: "For if God spared not the Angels that sinned, but cast them downe to hell
, and deliuered them into chaines of darkenesse, to be reserued vnto iudgment:"
Coverdale: "For yf God spared not the angels that synned, but cast them downe with the cheynes of darknes in to hell
, and delyuered the ouer to be kepte vnto iudgment:"
Wycliffe: "For if God sparide not aungels synnynge, but bitook hem to be turmentid, and to be drawun doun with boondis of helle
in to helle
, to be kept in to dom;"
The conclusion? At the very least, we may conclude that the King James Version did not introduce the use of the word "hell" into the Bible as a translation of these four words. Such a translation must have been present in at the very least 1395, at which time John Wycliffe first translated the Bible into English. And, there is evidence that the use of the word with regards to Christian imagery may far predate even Wycliffe. There exist extant Old English manuscripts
of the four Gospels from around 1000, in which the two verses from the Gospels are rendered as follows:
"& ne ondræde ge þa ðe eowyrne lic-haman of-sleaþ. ne magon hig soþlice þa sawle ofslean. ac ondrædað má þone þe mæg sawle & lichaman fordón on helle
." (Matthew 10:28)
"& wæs on helle
bebyrged; Ða ahof he his eagan upp þa he on þam tintregum wæs. & geseah feorran abraham & lazarum on his greadan;" (Luke 16:23)
And we also have knowledge of a collection of writings known as Caedmon's Paraphrase
dating to the seventh century, in which the word appears again in Old English:
(excerpt from page 3 of the paraphrase itself)
So the use of the word in Christian writings may in fact date even to the seventh century - almost a millennium before the completion of the King James Version. At face value, one might assert that this constitutes evidence against the oft-leveled assertion by universalists that hell is a pagan infusion into Christianity that came much later, if its use by Christian writers dates back even to the late seventh century.
But then the question must be asked: did "hell" always mean what it means today?
And the answer to that question is, in fact, "quite possibly not". The word has its ultimate origins
in the theorized Proto-Indo-European root *kel-
, which means "to cover; to conceal; to save". Other English words that also have their ultimate origins in this root include "cell"
. How interesting is it, then, that the Hebrew word Sheol
and the Greek word Hades
both literally mean "unseen", and the English word "hell" also has its origins in a root that refers to the act of rendering something unseen?
(As a side note, I have in the past erroneously said that the English word "hell" has its origins from the Old Norse word Hel
from Norse mythology. This is incorrect, as I have discovered - they stem from the same root, and Hel
may have contributed to the English "hell", but one does not directly have the other as its ancestor. I apologize for this mistake.)
Indeed, we may actually see a large degree of parallel between the trajectory of the English word "hell" and the Greek word Hades
. While Hades
originally referred simply to the place to which one went when they died, an entire mythology was developed around the word in which it was overtaken by religion and converted in meaning to something entirely different. Given the history of the English word "hell", it too may have the exact same origins: while it may have originally simply referred (like Hades
) to the place where one goes when they die (its root being the exact same as Hades
, that of the unseen), it may have since been overtaken by religion and similarly converted in meaning to something entirely different.
Of particular interest with regards to this possibility is the fact that, in 2 Peter 2:4, Wycliffe translated not only the Latin word tartarum
into "helle", but also inferni
. This is the only place at which one of the three translations differs from the others in terms of where to translate a word into "hell". Inferni
has its root in the Latin inferne
, which literally means
"on the lower side, beneath" - much like Hades
was the Roman name for the underworld. The King James Version and the Coverdale Bible render this word as "darkness", rather than "hell". Adding fuel to this fire is the fact that Wycliffe's translation of Luke 16:23 says that the rich man was "buried in hell", not simply "in hell" or "in the hell" as in the King James Version and the Coverdale Bible. This strikes me as an exceptionally odd way to word it if indeed Wycliffe meant by "hell" the place of eternal torment to which sinners go after judgment, rather than simply the same place as referred to by Sheol
I am unsure whether I am perhaps reading too much into these facts, but to me this may indicate that at the time of Wycliffe's translation, the word "helle" might indeed have simply meant "the place of the dead" just like Sheol
, rather than "the place of eternal punishment for the wicked" that it means today. I wish I had more evidence regarding whether this was or was not the case, but I have been unable to find any in either direction.
None of this really proves anything conclusive about hell. But, as they say, knowledge is power - and I certainly do not believe it has ever hurt someone to have more information at their disposal. So, to that end, I hope that someone finds this useful - or at the very least interesting.