Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church

Gates of Hell

May 21st, 2011, Promulgated by Hopefull

It is wonderful to read the words of Matthew 16:18 quoted by so many commenters all in one place (i.e. the posting below about the excellent article in the Wanderer.)  I thought about posting this as a comment, but  a blog post allows better handling of the Greek script.

Many of us grew up on the beautiful Douay version:  “And I say to thee, thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”  This is basically the same translation as the King James Version (KJV), the New International Version (NIV) and a variety of  minor Protestant translations over a long period of time, although Hades is sometimes used in the English translation, rather than hell.  Hades is the actual word in the original Greek.

I have two points I’d like to make:  1) concerns about the current RSV translation, and 2) about perhaps a deeper meaning of “prevail.”

The first point: The Catholic RSV (Catechism, Canadian liturgies, bible studies) translation says“…and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.”  Now this has quite a different meaning than the Greek “gates of hell” and scholars have acknowledged there are elements of the RSV which need refinement.  However, why this quote is changed from what has been used for so many centuries doesn’t make sense to me.  It is not a Protestant / Catholic hassle at all.  The Greek text, which both translating “sides” use (and increasingly collaborate on in translations as well) says:

The Second Point I’d like to make is about the usual interpretation of “prevail” in the common quotation of Matthew 16:18.  We often and primarily take it that Hell (evil in its many forms) will not overcome the Church.  But there is at least as much reason to read it that Hell will not be able to withstand the Church or Christ’s teachings.  It is as if the Church is a battering ram against the Gates of Hell.  It would seem that is perhaps the reason “gates” is used in the original Greek, so that we wouldn’t miss the point.

Thus, a reasonable understanding of “not prevail” would seem to include that the gates of hell will not be strong or robust against the Church; i.e. a more complete understanding seems to be that the gates of hell will neither be able to overcome the Church, nor to withstand her.

I didn’t go back to the Septuagint to glean the OT meanings in Greek, but just wanted to share more of the strength of Matthew 16:18, which has been so readily springing to our minds, and to express concern about the RSV translation.  If others have done more or differently with the Greek, please share.

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The Gates of Hell, 1880–1900
Bronze, Coubertin Foundry, no. 5.  Posthumous cast authorized by Musée Rodin, 1981
636.9 x 401 x 84.8 cm.
Gift of the B. Gerald Cantor Collection




14 Responses to “Gates of Hell”

  1. Louis E. says:

    To be honest,the most straightforward interpretation of the sentence to my mind is the least flattering…that the Church is headed for hell and can not be kept from going there.

  2. Snowshoes says:

    A Greek Scholar!! Thanks, Hopeful! I read my Westcott and Hort NT, and Synopsis Evangelica Graecae with my schoolboy Greek, but I need to “brush up”. Please provide your advice for me and all the good readers of this blog on the best sites for learning Greek, and the contact info for the various “night school” Greek academies in the area. Oh, and, I can only agree with your analysis, thank you very much. Thank God for the Ghurch! God bless.

  3. Hopefull says:

    Hi Snowshoes,
    Thanks for your support of the analysis, and I’ll try to answer your questions, but please know that I am very early stage in this myself, and have to work hard at it. But, to me, it’s worth it because, quite frankly, it drives me crazy to see words changed, as in Luke 16:18. I figured I needed to learn some Greek for my own protection.

    In 2005-6 I took 2 semesters of NT Greek (I, II+Greek Exegesis) at Colgate Rochester. Then I didn’t use it enough and needed to refresh, so I did the same thing again this past year. Now I’m trying to keep it up and looking for a support group. The Iraneus Ministry was suggested to me and I’m following up there (they have a link on this blog). What I like about NT (Koine) Greek is that I only have to learn the words that occur in the NT; no need to be able to say: “Where is the passport office?”

    What I find myself using the most (and anyone can, whether they use Greek or not)is although it is a Protestant site, so 7 books from the OT are missing. It has a good search mechanism, by translation, by book/chapter/verse or by keywords. Doesn’t have NAB, but has RSV. When a verse is found the “V” for version gives a list of how it is translated in other versions. The “C” is a concordance which gives the Greek root words and meanings. Lots of nice bells and whistles. Hope this is “helpfull.”

  4. Ben Anderson says:

    Quite the interesting topic. Thanks for providing that insight for those of us Greek illiterates. One line of thought that I was considering (I think I heard Jimmy Akin explain this once, but not entirely sure) is that the term “gates of Hell” means something different to us today than it would have to the original audience. “Powers of death” obviously isn’t a literal translation, but might actually give us a closer meaning than the literal translation “gates of Hell”. I’m not scholarly enough to have an opinion one way or the other – just relaying something I heard once. Any way you look at it, it certainly leaves Protestantism lacking. This is one of the bigger “challenge” verses for Protestants. On the topic, the most challenging verse for me as a Protestant was:
    John 20:22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”
    I don’t know how you get around that one.

  5. Snowshoes says:


    Sorry I missed the “L”! In any case, the Blue Letter Bible site is very helpfull, I went there and have been enjoying myself figuring out how it works, quite powerful. And congratulations on your determination to learn Koine Greek.

    How come the Diocese (or any diocese) doesn’t conduct a “bible language institute” for the laity in each local area? All our Jewish brethren learn Hebrew enough to read the Torah, and all our Muslim brethren learn Arabic to read, speak and understand. Granted, we do not consider the text in a particular language vs another to be sacred, it is the Bible itself, in any faithful translation which is considered to be the inspired word of God.

    But, there is a real value in learning Hebrew, Greek and Latin, and by gum, Mabel, it ain’t that hard. It might be too much to hope that each parish have an institute, but since it seems every little Bible church has a Hebrew and or Greek class, why can’t we, huh?? Wouldn’t that be a nice expenditure of the annual giving appeal??? Methinks twould bee.

  6. Ben Anderson says:

    I love that idea. One minor nit-pick, though

    any faithful translation which is considered to be the inspired word of God.

    I don’t believe that’s true. In my understanding, only the original manuscripts are considered inspired. I don’t believe translations are to be considered inspired nor are copies of manuscripts in the same language. For example, there are even some texts included in the majority of Bibles that were perhaps not in the original manuscripts and thus not truly inspired.

  7. Hopefull says:

    St. Bernard’s does have a short Greek course too (and maybe Hebrew?) Don’t remember seeing Latin on the schedule, but I could be wrong. I did take the short refresher at St. B before plunging in for the second set at Colgate Rochester, but I personally got more out of the Protestant-led course (I was the only Catholic, but they were respectful of my auditing. I think Colgate is stronger because the students have to use their Greek in exegesis to pass the Presbyterian ministry tests, whereas St. B was just “assign yourself a grade”.

  8. Hopefull says:

    Ben, I don’t think you are correct on copies and translations not being inspired. First of all, there are NO originals of anything in the Holy Scripture. Everything is either a copy, a translation, or a copy of a translation. If what we have is not inspired, than we have NO Sacred Scripture! That is a very scary thought. The Church stands on the three points of Scripture, Tradition, and magisterial authority.

    But so great a volume of fragments is available that we can usually know what is the most reliable, and it is not always the oldest either. There is quite a science to evaluating the most reliable text. And the consistency between texts is awesome, very validating of the protection which Scripture has received over the centuries from the Holy Spirit.

    Even though the originals were lost, probably lost by the time the Councils established the Canon of Scripture, nevertheless, the choice of the Canon from what was then available was divinely inspired; i.e. the Holy Spirit’s Choice of the books of the Canon IS divine inspiration!

    My personal thought on this is that 1)Christ indicated that the Holy Spirit would come for the protection of the Church and He did, 2) Christ clearly intended for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, to the ends of the earth, 3) If the Church didn’t require circumcision of the Gentiles (and it didn’t) it doesn’t seem logical to think all the Gentiles everywhere for all time would have to learn Greek and Hebrew in order to receive the Sacred Scripture. The main reason translations weren’t available for so many centuries was that many people couldn’t read anyway, and until the invention of the printing press an ordinary person could never have afforded the manual copying in order to have a Bible.

    Hope we will continue to discourse on this. It is quite important, and I’m always hungry for more answers and the learning that comes through sharing.

  9. Mike says:


    There are at least a couple of places in Genesis that provide some support for your interpretation …

    [The angel of the LORD] said, “By myself I have sworn, says the LORD, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” (Gen. 22:16-18)

    And they blessed Rebekah, and said to her, “Our sister, be the mother of thousands of ten thousands; and may your descendants possess the gate of those who hate them!” (Gen. 24:60)

  10. Ben Anderson says:

    Perhaps I should clarify what I meant and what I didn’t mean. I’m not saying that the scripture and translations we have aren’t reliable. I believe that they are. I’ve read some books, plenty of articles, and audio lectures in which scripture scholars go into detail about just how reliable they are. I’m on board with that. I think we can trust that what we have is a rock solid account. That said, translations and copies are not given the same level of inspiration as the original authors’ manuscripts. The CCC speaks about the human authors of the sacred books being inspired here. Is there a similar passage for translators or scribes? I’m not saying they didn’t do a good job and that you can’t trust translations or the whole copy process, but AFAIK “inspired” isn’t the right word. Aided/assisted/helped maybe, but not inspired.

    If what we have is not inspired, than we have NO Sacred Scripture!

    I don’t believe that’s a valid conclusion. I don’t know what the correct word is. Guided perhaps? Perhaps you can even use the term inspired, but it should be in a different sense than when we talk about the original authors’ manuscripts.

    And the consistency between texts is awesome, very validating of the protection which Scripture has received over the centuries from the Holy Spirit.

    yep – I agree.

    Hope we will continue to discourse on this. It is quite important, and I’m always hungry for more answers and the learning that comes through sharing.

    This is probably all the energy I have for this discussion right now as I think we mostly agree and should probably devote our energies elsewhere 🙂 I looked briefly for some articles, but came up with very little. I did find this on wikipedia:
    note: that the disputed passages don’t contain anything that makes or breaks traditional Christianity or adds fuel to either side of the Catholic/Protestant debate.

  11. Hopefull says:

    Thanks for the reference, Ben. I agree that there are disputed passages based on culture and human transcription errors, for example. I also think that Scripture reveals at many levels (which is one reason why re-reading or using Lectio Divina bring out additional meanings.) But any translations with imprimatur should not CONTRADICT or omit the essential, inspired teachings of the Holy Spirit.

    Therefore, I do call such translation “inspired.” The distinction I thought you were making between what was the very first written down, and what is now an approved translation, isn’t a distinction I can find in Dei Verbum or Verbum Domini. I too could try to do more research, but I’m ok with putting further discussion aside for now, and getting on with other work for the Lord. Thanks for replying on this subject.

  12. Ben Anderson says:

    I asked Fr. Moleski about this and he answers it at about the 21 min mark:

  13. Hopefull says:

    Hi Ben, Thanks for calling in and then posting Fr. Marty’s comments. If we both agree with him (I do) then we are in agreement. My take-away is that the faithful translations (good human work) of inspired work are inspired text, but not because the translators and copyists were inspired (they didn’t need it, as they were doing good human work on text which was inspired), but because the text on which they did their work was inspired.

  14. gurnygob says:

    You said……
    “The main reason translations weren’t available for so many centuries was that many people couldn’t read anyway, and until the invention of the printing press an ordinary person could never have afforded the manual copying in order to have a Bible.”

    Actually, the church forbid owning a bible and made it a sin, punishable by death, in some cases, to even read a bible let alone own one. After the reformation came around there was no stopping it, although they, the church authority at the time did try. The translations favoured the ruling authority, which was Roman Catholicism and from this it is not hard to deduce that changes were made so that the power over souls rested firmly in their hands. Even the KJV favoured the king.

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