Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hell, Hades, Netherworld, or Powers of Death?

The discussion on Matthew 16 has continued into this week, with well over 35 comments. It has been a good discussion, which, at the very least, has shown the difficult task that translators have in both respecting and being true to the original languages, while making a translation understandable to a modern reader. It is certainly not an easy job, and I am thankful to those who devote their lives to this work.

I just wanted to make a few observations on the topic of Hades and Matthew 16. Feel free to disagree with me on this. I had always felt that the RSV's "powers of death" was a bit too free of a translation of "ᾅδου", and so was quite happy when the RSV-2CE, following the NRSV, changed it to "gates of hades". Literal is always better right? Well, I am not too sure in this case anymore. It is certainly the case that "hades" may confuse some readers, linking it to Greek pagan mythology as some astute comments have already pointed out. Yet, as Theophrastus said: "the NRSV and RSV-2CE (but not the RSV or RSV-CE) must be correct, because they simply repeat the Greek term."

Then there is the whole issue with CCC 633 which is about Christ's descent into "hell" or the "abode of the dead". So "hell" is legitimate and a traditional option for this translation as well. But as Jonny pointed out: "Modern translations ofter speak of this collectively as "Hades" or the "Netherworld" because the term "hell" has become synonymous with Gehenna in modern English." So there still is a bit of problem simply with translating it as "hell".

With all that being said, I am somewhat leaning towards the original RSV's "powers of death" simply because it does leave the term a bit ambiguous. Certainly, as Theophrastus points out, there needs to be at the very least a textual note indicated the Greek behind it, but also some commentary would be necessary as well. There is also the issue of consistency in translation of "ᾅδου", which would also need to be addressed.

I throw these thoughts out there for discussion. For my part, this has been a good exercise in the challenges of translation, hopefully it has been interesting as well for many of you. Thanks for all the interesting comments and links on this discussion thus far.


dmw said...

For Catholics, the Vulgate should be normative for theological discussion. The Nova Vulgata has, "et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam."

'Inferus' is simply, the lower regions, the underworld. The Symbolum Apostolicum uses the same word, namely, that Our Lord "descendit ad inferos."

If our English translation of the creed says, "he descended into hell," i.e. the limbus patrum, then our scriptural translation should have the same sense in Mt 16 and speak of "the gates of hell."

If anything, it is a catechetical moment.

Shazamaholic said...

For me personally, I prefer the translation "gates of hell". In my opinion, it is the most definitive and leaves no doubt to what it means.

My second choice, going by what other comments have pointed out, that the scripture reading refers not just to actual hell, but also to all realms where souls cannot be with God, then I would prefer "netherworld" ("underworld" would bring to mind gangsters and mafia). I do not care for "hades" as it is too synonymous with pagan mythology.

"Powers of death" is a vague translation, and could not only refer to hell and the netherworld, but also taken more at face value, could mean the Church will never die/cease to exist/go out of "business". The problem is, it is so vague, the reference to the spiritual/supernatural could be overlooked completely.

Jonny said...

Here is a reference from the Bible (Douay-Rheims version) that includes the terms "death" and "hell" together in the same verse.

Apocalypse 20:13&14
[13] And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works. [14] And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire.

Here one can see a distinction in the usage of terms. "Death" refers to the reality of spiritual and physical death that is a result of sin, whereas "hell" is the more general term indicating the netherworld. Also, it is interesting that the "sea" is mentioned separately, as if hell were an actual, physical place underneath the ground...

Anyway, if the term "Death" in the New Testament refers more to Gehenna (the fiery abode of the damned whilst awaiting the Last Judgment), then perhaps the RSV's translation "powers of death" may be a bit interpretive, albeit I do think that this is a part of the meaning of Matthew 16:18. The direct meaning is simply that the Church (the people comprising the body of Christ founded on Peter,) would not be completely swallowed into the netherworld.

James said...

"Gates of hades" is jarring to me, not because I associate it with Greek pagan mythology, but because I associate "hades" with secular Halloween: vampires, zombies, ghouls, and goblins. In my area of the country, most Halloween stores and haunted houses that open for business every October, will not use the word "hell" because of its religious connotations. They all use "hades", which has become a secular and non-religious term.