MYSTERY (Gr. mystērion). The Greek word occurs twenty-eight times in the NT (including
The chief use of mystery in the NT is by Paul. He, as an educated man of his day, knew well the thought world of the pagans and accepted this term to indicate the fact that “his gospel” had been revealed to him by the risen Christ. This fact could best be made clear to his contemporaries by adopting the pagan term they all understood, pouring into it a special Christian meaning.
In a few passages the term refers to a symbol, allegory, or parable, which conceals its meaning from those who look only at the literal sense, but is the medium of revelation to those who have the key to its interpretation. See
Including LXX of Daniel, the term occurs over thirty times in the Bible. In none of the passages is its use merely casual. On the contrary, it is a carefully chosen term of significance for Biblical theology. It is relevant to such major topics as revelation, eschatology, ecclesiology, and Christology. Since it is also a significant term in pagan and Jewish religion, it is extremely important that if its interpretation in Biblical contexts is to be informed by its non-Biblical usage, such data be precise and judiciously applied.
The quest for historical and semantic precedents as an aid to Biblical interpretation, and the general study of comparative religions, have resulted in considerable discussion over the meaning of the term. The obvious fact that Christianity was contemporaneous with, and challenged by, the so-called “mystery religions,” has naturally caused scholars to probe the pagan concept of mystery as a background to NT usage. For some time, however, the limitations of this pursuit have been recognized, and attention has turned to Sem. parallels. A combination of sound methodology and adequate data is required. Further, the interpretation of the Biblical term must be derived primarily from exegesis of the passages involved. The basic meaning of these passages is clear enough from the respective contexts to prevent over-dependence on non-Biblical frames of reference.
Secular and pagan.
Relevant secular occurrences are rare. The very nature of the word attracts it mainly to discussions on the issues of life, which are basically religious and philosophical. (Bornkamm [see bibliography below] provides source references.) Conversely, in the apocryphal books of Judith and Tobit, the term is used in a secular sense (
The “mystery religions” offered the initiates a religious awareness and experience not enjoyed by others. This was imparted at the initiation and possibly in later stages. It has been a natural supposition that the contemporary idea of a mystery or secret revealed only to initiates should find its way into Christian thought. This supposition was apparently supported by other alleged parallels between Christianity and these cults. The supposed parallels may be challenged, however. (See Mystery Religions.) Further, while the term “mystery” is common in the NT, related terms, such as μύστης, μυστικός and μυσταγωγός are never used. (See A. D. Nock.) The stress in the NT is not on a mystery hidden from all but a select few initiates, but on the revelation of the formerly hidden knowledge. The term also lent itself to philosophical and gnostic usage, and could not be considered the distinctive property of any one system or belief. It occurs throughout contemplative lit., from Plato (e.g. Symposium 249e) to the Hermetic lit. (Poimandres 16).
Later writers have further maintained that the ample usage of the term in Jewish lit. causes alleged pagan parallels to lose their significance. R. E. Brown has concluded from his extensive research in the Sem. materials that Gr. parallels need not be seriously considered. Nevertheless, while pagan concepts and cultic meanings have not penetrated NT thought, the widespread occurrence of the term indicates its significance as an expression of the quest for the meaning and purpose of life. The problems of evil and suffering, and the frustrations of man’s finitude, cause men in all cultures to seek illumination.
If the hypothesis of influence from the mystery cults is wanting, what can be concluded from the usage in the lit. of Judaism? The passages in Daniel referred to above stress the contrast between Daniel and the pagan seers. Only the true God knows and reveals the future, and He reveals such to His chosen prophet. It is noteworthy that the word רָז, H10661, used here is found again in the vocabulary of Qumran (see below). The term occurs twelve times in LXX of the Apoc. and frequently in the Pseudep., showing that there is adequate Jewish precedent for its use in the NT. Some of these passages may show an awareness of the mystery cults, in particular Wisdom of Solomon, where it is stated that God’s truth is not confined to a group of mystae. Other contexts are clearly far removed from such concerns, and deal with the creative and providential decrees of God (e.g. Enoch 41:3). Still others, some perhaps contemporary with Christianity, deal with what is known as the problem of evil, and with God’s chosen way of future judgment and vindication (e.g. Enoch 68:5; 103:2; 2 Baruch 81:4; 4 Ezra 14:5). The Son of man will be revealed and will express the hidden counsel of God in the day of judgment (Enoch 48:7; 51:3; 62:1f.).
This concern with future vindication was also developed in the lit. of Qumran. Among the DSS, the commentary on Habakkuk provides a prime example of the sect’s attitude to revelation. Taking the word רָז, H10661, secret or mystery (cf. Daniel), the commentary purports to provide an interpretation (pesher) of the mysteries and of all the prophetic symbols, which supposedly found their fulfillment in that sect. An example is found in the commentary on the familiar words “so he may run who reads” (
The universe and the affairs of both men and angels are under the sovereign providence of God, whose ways, known only by revelation, are wonderful (1QS 11:3-8; 1QH 13:13f.). At Qumran there existed also a strong dualistic persuasion which pitted the counsel of God against that of the spirit of evil. The mysteries seem in some cases to be related to the devices and fate of the evil beings who reject the mysteries and counsel of God (1QS 4:18). There is a mystery pertaining to evil (“iniquitous mysteries,” 1QH 5:36), which concept may be relevant to the exegesis of
R. E. Brown has also observed the occurrence of the word סוֹד, H6051, “counsel.” It is his particular theory that this word is related to the concept of the mystery, and that in the OT it refers to a heavenly “council” wherein the conduct of the world is discussed. The prophets are, as it were, given access to the decisions of the council. In the Scrolls (1QS 4:1) it is, however, the evil counsel of Belial that is mentioned. One need not decide completely on Brown’s conclusions to recognize that the prophets were indeed granted knowledge of God’s counsel in advance of His acts (
To what extent the NT authors were aware of any of the lit. or beliefs surveyed thus far is difficult to say. However, where the uses of the term in Jewish and in pagan lit. differ significantly in meaning, the Jewish usage should take precedence as being more closely related to (and more consistent with) NT usage. Inasmuch, however, as the very meaning of the word in the Scriptures signifies divine revelation, the only certain canon of interpretation is to derive the basic meaning of the word from its Biblical context.
Interpretation of significant passages
The context in
The meaning of the mystery of the kingdom is open to some diversity of interpretation. It is useful to bear in mind that one aspect of Jewish thought on the kingdom is the subjugation of all evil. Conversely, one aspect of the mystery is the persistence of evil in God’s world. Therefore, one of the teachings of the kingdom parables seems to be that, unlike Jewish speculation, the kingdom, in its present form, coexists with evil.
The problem of evil is apparent also in the context of
No human rhetoric or sophistry is capable of declaring God’s mystery, according to
The remaining uses of the term in 1 Corinthians are in
Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy.
Not only does Paul preach the mystery, but he also bends every effort by God’s grace to present men mature in Christ (
Since mystery is related to the perception by faith of God’s saving work in history, and since Christ is the agent and center of God’s mystery, the creedal statement (
It is generally held that “mystery” in
A contrasting negative use is found in
Mystery as a theological term.
Mystery in the NT does not deal with the unknowable, but with what is imparted by revelation. God has shared His plan, esp. regarding future judgment of unbelievers and vindication of believers. Since the problem of evil is involved, and the ways of God are vindicated, mystery may also be considered a term of theodicy. The concept of mystery in the NT owes nothing to the mystery cults. (In postapostolic times, however, the term was employed with conscious reference to cultic usage to describe the sacraments.)
From the human side, the existence of evil in God’s world (even after the coming of Christ and His proclamation of the kingdom), and the seemingly interminable waiting for justice and vindication constitute a mystery. From the Biblical perspective, the mystery concerns God’s wise counsel and the certain progress toward fulfillment of His decrees and saving work. The revelation of the mysteries to the Biblical authors is itself an act of grace, as is the saving work of Christ therein described. Though thus revealed, the content of the mystery is received only by faith: the incarnation (
Mystery thus is related to Biblical inspiration and revelation, the providence and decrees of God, the problem of evil, the kingdom, the person and work of Christ, oikonomia, the place of Israel and the Gentiles, the Church, and eschatology.
E. Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas on Christianity (Hibbert Lectures 1888, 1957), 283-309; E. Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek (1889), 57-62; A. D. Nock, “The Vocabulary of the Μυστήριον, Μυέω,” TDNT, IV (1967), 802-828; R. E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term “Mystery” in the New Testament (1968); K. Prümm, “Mysterium,” Bibeltheologisches Wörterbuch, II (n.d.), 1038-1057.,” JBL, LII (1933), 131-139; G. Bornkamm, “
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
Its usual modern meaning (equals something in itself obscure or incomprehensible, difficult or impossible to understand) does not convey the exact sense of the Greek musterion, which means a secret imparted only to the initiated, what is unknown until it is revealed, whether it be easy or hard to understand. The idea of incomprehensibility if implied at all, is purely accidental. The history of the word in ancient paganism is important, and must be considered before we examine its Biblical usage.
1. In Ancient Pagan Religions:
In the extant classics, the singular is found once only (Menander, "Do not tell thy secret (musterion) to thy friend"). But it is frequently found in the plural ta musteria, "the Mysteries," the technical term for the secret rites and celebrations in ancient religions only known to, and practiced by, those who had been initiated. These are among the most interesting, significant, and yet baffling religious phenomena in the Greek-Roman world, especially from the 6th century BC onward. In proportion as the public cults of the civic and national deities fell into disrepute, their place came more and more to be filled by secret cults open only to those who voluntarily underwent elaborate preliminary preparations. There was scarcely one of the ancient deities in connection with whose worship there was not some subsidiary cult of this kind. The most famous were the Mysteries celebrated in Eleusis, under the patronage and control of the Athenian state, and associated with the worship of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. But there were many others of a more private character than the Eleusinian, e.g. the Orphic Mysteries, associated with the name of Dionysus. Besides the Greek Mysteries, mention should be made of the Egyptian cults of Isis and Serapis, and of Persian Mithraism, which in the 3rd century AD was widely diffused over the whole empire.
It is difficult in a brief paragraph to characterize the Mysteries, so elaborate and varied were they, and so completely foreign to the modern mind. The following are some of their main features:
(1) Their appeal was to the emotions rather than to the intellect. Lobeck in his famous Aglaophamus destroyed the once prevalent view that the Mysteries enshrined some profound religious truth or esoteric doctrine. They were rather an attempt to find a more emotional and ecstatic expression to religious aspiration than the public ceremonies provided. Aristotle (as quoted by Synesius) declared that the initiated did not receive definite instruction, but were put in a certain frame of mind (ou mathein ti dein alla pathein). This does not mean that there was no teaching, but that the teaching was vague, suggestive and symbolic, rather than didactic or dogmatic.
(2) The chief purpose of the rites seems to have been to secure for the rotaries mystic union with some deity and a guaranty of a blissful immortality. The initiated was made to partake mystically in the passing of the deity through death to life, and this union with his saviour-god (theos soter) became the pledge of his own passage through death to a happy life beyond. This was not taught as an esoteric doctrine; it was well known to outsiders that the Mysteries taught the greater blessedness of the initiated in the under-world; but in the actual ceremony the truth was vividly presented and emotionally realized.
(3) The celebrations were marked by profuse symbolism of word and action. They were preceded by rites of purification through which all the mystae had to pass. The celebrations themselves were in the main a kind of religious drama, consisting of scenic representations illustrating the story of some deity or deities, on the basis of the old mythologies regarded as allegories of Nature’s productive forces and of human immortality; combined with the recital of certain mystic formulas by the hierophant (the priest). The culminating point was the epopteia, or full vision, when the hierophant revealed certain holy objects to the assembly.
(4) The cults were marked by a strict exclusiveness and secrecy. None but the initiated could be present at the services, and the knowledge of what was said and done was scrupulously kept from outsiders. What they had seen and heard was so sacred that it was sacrilege to divulge it to the uninitiated.
(5) Yet the Mysteries were not secret societies, but were open to all who chose to be initiated (except barbarians and criminals). They thus stood in marked contrast to the old civic and national cults, which were confined to states or cities. They substituted the principle of initiation for the more exclusive principle of birthright or nationality; and so foreshadowed the disintegration of old barriers, and prepared the way for the universal religion. Thus the mystery-religions strangely combined a strict exclusiveness with a kind of incipient catholicity. This brief account will show that the Mysteries were not devoid of noble elements. They formed "the serious part of pagan religion" (Renan). But it must also be remembered that they lent themselves to grave extravagances and abuses. Especially did they suffer from the fact that they were withheld from the light of healthy publicity.
2. In theand the Apocrypha:
The religion of the Old Testament has no Mysteries of the above type. The ritual of Israel was one in which the whole people partook, through their representatives the priests. There was no system of ceremonial initiation by which the few had privileges denied to the many. God has His secrets, but such things as He revealed belonged to all (
In the Apocrypha, musterion is still used in the sense of "a secret" (a meaning practically confined to the Septuagint in extant Greek); of the secrets of private life, especially between friends (Sirach 22:22; 27:16,17,21), and of the secret plans of a king or a state (Tobit 12:7,11; Judith 2:2; 2 Macc 13:21). The term is also used of the hidden purpose or counsel of God or of Divine wisdom. The wicked "knew not the mysteries of God," i.e. the secret counsels that govern God’s dealings with the godly (2:22); wisdom "is initiated [mustis] into the knowledge of God " (The 8:4), but (unlike the pagan mystagogues) the writer declares he "will not hide mysteries," but will "bring the knowledge of her (wisdom) into clear light" (The Wisdom of Solomon 6:22). Hatch maintains that the analogy here is that of an oriental king’s secrets, known only to himself and his trusted friends (Essays in Biblical Greek, 58); but it is more likely that the writer here betrays the influence of the phraseology of the Greek Mysteries (without acquiescing in their teaching). In another passage, at any rate, he shows acquaintance with the secret rites of the Gentiles, namely, in The Wisdom of Solomon 14:15,23, where the "solemn rites" and "secret mysteries" of idolaters are referred to with abhorrence. The term "mystery" is not used in reference to the special ritual of Israel.
3. In the:
In the New Testament the word occurs 27 or (if we include the doubtful reading in
(2) By far the most common meaning in the New Testament is that which is so characteristic of Paul, namely, a Divine truth once hidden, but now revealed in the gospels.
4. The Pagan Mysteries and the New Testament:
The question is now frequently discussed, how far the New Testament (and especially Paul) betrays the influence of the heathen mystery-cults. Hatch maintains that the Pauline usage of the word musterion is dependent on the Septuagint, especially on the Apocrypha (op. cit.), and in this he is followed by Anrich, who declares that the attempt to trace an allusion to the Mysteries in the New Testament is wholly unsuccessful; but Lightfoot admits a verbal dependence on the pagan Mysteries (Commentary on
At present there is a strong tendency to attribute to Paul far more dependence than one of phraseology only, and to find in the Mysteries the key to the non-Jewish side of Paulinism. A. Loisy finds affinity to the mystery-religions in Paul’s conception of Jesus as a Saviour-God, holding a place analogous to the deities Mithra, Osiris, and Attis; in the place Paul assigns to baptism as the rite of initiation; and in his transformation of theinto a symbol of mystic participation in the flesh and blood of a celestial being and a guaranty of a share in the blissful immortality of the risen Saviour. "In its worship as in its belief, Christianity is a religion of mystery" (article in Hibbert Journal, October, 1911). Percy Gardner traces similar analogies to the Mysteries in Paul, though he finds in these analogies, not conscious plagiarism, but "the parallel working of similar forces" (Religious Experience of Paul, chapters iv, v). writes, "Christianity has not borrowed from the mystery-religions, because it was always, at least in Europe, mystery-religion itself" (The Earlier Epistles of Paul, 215). On the other hand, Schweitzer wholly denies the hypothesis of the direct or indirect influence of the Mysteries on Paul’s thought (Geschichte der Paulinischen Forschung).
The whole question is sub judice among scholars, and until more evidence be forthcoming from inscriptions, etc., we shall perhaps vainly expect unanimous verdict. It can hardly be doubted that at least the language of Paul, and perhaps to some extent his thought, is colored by the phraseology current among the cults. Paul had a remarkably sympathetic and receptive mind, by no means closed to influences from the Greek-Roman environment of his day.
Witness his use of illustrations drawn from the athletic festivals, the Greek theater (
Further, the secret of Paul’s gospel among the Gentiles lay, humanly speaking, in the fact that it contained elements that appealed to what was best and most vital in contemporary thought; and doubtless the Mysteries, by transcending all lines of mere citizenship, prepared the way for the universal religion. On the other hand, we must beware of a too facile acceptance of this hypothesis in its extreme form. Christianity can be adequately explained only by reference, not to what it had in common with other religions, but to what was distinctive and original in it. Paul was after all a Jew (though a broad one), who always retained traces of his Pharisaic training, and who viewed idolatry with abhorrence; and the chief formative factor of his thinking was his own profound religious experience. It is inconceivable that such a man should so assimilate Gentile modes of thought as to be completely colored by them. The characteristics which his teaching has in common with the pagan religions are simply a witness to the common religious wants of mankind, and not to his indebtedness to them. What turned these religions into Mysteries was the secrecy of their rites; but in the New Testament there are no secret rites. The gospel "mystery" (as we have seen) is not a secret deliberately withheld from the multitude and revealed only to a privileged religious aristocracy, but something which was once a secret and is so no longer. The perfect openness of Christ and His apostles sets them in a world apart from the mystic schools. It is true that later the Mysteries exercised a great influence on ecclesiastical doctrine and practice, especially on baptism and the Eucharist (see Hatch, Hibbert Lectures, chapter x). But in the New Testament, acts of worship are not as yet regarded as mystic rites. The most we can say is that some New Testament writers (especially Paul) make use of expressions and analogies derived from the mystery-religions; but, so far as our present evidence goes, we cannot agree that the pagan cults exercised a central or formative influence on them.
There is a large and growing literature on this subject. Its modern scientific study began with C.A. Lobeck’s Aglaophamus (1829). The following recent works may be specially mentioned: Gustav Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen (1894); G. Wobbermin, Religiongeschichtliche Studien zur Frage, etc. (1896); E. Hatch, Essays in Biblical Greek (1889) and Hibbert Lectures, 1888 (published 1890); F.B. Jevons, An Introduction to the History of Religion (1896); S. Cheethara, The Mysteries, Pagan and Christian (1897); R. Reitzenstein, Die hellenistischen Mysterienreligionen (1910); P. Gardner, The Religious Experience of Paul (1911); K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of Paul (1911); articles on "Mystery" in Encyclopedia Britannica (11th edition), edition 9 (W.M. Ramsay), and edition 11 (L.R. Farnell), Encyclopedia Biblica (A. Julicher), Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes) (A. Stewart); 1-volume Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible; (G.G. Findlay); Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels (R.W. Bacon); articles on musterion in Cremer and Grimm-Thayer New Testament Lexicons; the commentaries, including J.B. Lightfoot on Colossians, J. Armitage Robinson on Ephesians, H. Lietzmann on 1 Corinthians; 9 articles in The Expositor on "St. Paul and the" by Professor H.A.A. Kennedy (April, 1912, to February, 1913).
D. Miall Edwards