Scripture frequently describes God as one who knows all things, even that which the human mind could never know or finds incomprehensible. Thus he sees the secret intentions of human hearts ( Psalms 139:1-4 Psalms 139:23 ; Matt 6:4-6 ; Rom 2:16 ; 1 Cor 4:5 ; 14:25 ; Heb 4:13 ), comprehends the seemingly unfathomable mysteries of the universe ( Job 38:1-39:30 ), and, most important, understands the meaning of human history. God understands human history because the events that comprise it correspond with his own intentions: he wills all that happens, and does so to accomplish his own purpose ( Dan 2:37 ; 5:21 ; Rom 11:25-36 ). People, on the other hand, both because of their sin and because of their human limitations, remain ignorant of God's purpose when left to their own reckoning ( Daniel 2:27 Daniel 2:30 ; Mark 4:10-12 ; Luke 19:41-44 ). God graciously responds to this human inadequacy by revealing his purpose to his people. When God's purpose is revealed in this way, the Bible frequently refers to it as a "mystery."
The content of the divine mystery is painted in broad strokes in the Old Testament, takes on greater detail in the Gospels, and receives its finishing touches in Paul's letters. In Daniel, where the term first appears (raz in Aramaic, always translated with mysterion [musthvrion] in the LXX), it refers to God's understanding of the symbols in Nebuchadnezzar's dream, symbols that stand for the rise and fall of human empires and to the eventual establishment of God's own, eternal kingdom ( 2:44 ; cf. Rev 1:20 ; Revelation 17:5 Revelation 17:7 ). The details of these events, however, and the nature of God's kingdom, once established, remain sketchy in Daniel. The mystery of God's purposes gains greater specificity in the Gospels, where Jesus, particularly in his parables, reveals the "mystery of the kingdom of God" ( Mark 4:11 ; cf. Matt 13:11 ; Luke 8:10 ). Paul also identifies the divine mystery with the revelation of God in Christ ( Col 2:2 ; 4:3 ) but gives the concept even greater clarity in three ways. First, he equates the divine mystery with the gospel of Christ's atoning death on the cross ( 1 Cor 2:1 ); second, he describes it as God's plan, through Christ's atoning death ( Eph 2:13-16 ), to include the Gentiles among his chosen people; and third, he defines it as the reconciliation of all things to God ( Eph 1:9-10 ). Thus, Daniel described the divine mystery in general terms as the eventual establishment of God's eternal kingdom; Jesus defined it more specifically as his proclamation of God's kingdom; and Paul described it more specifically still as the constitution of a new people, from among both Jews and Gentiles, through the atoning death of Christ on the cross.
This understanding of divine mystery illustrates three aspects of God's character. First, it emphasizes God's omniscience. After God revealed the "mystery" of the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar's dream to Daniel, Daniel thanked God in prayer for his wisdom and power ( 2:23 ; cf. 2:20 ) and described him as a God who "knows what lies in darkness" ( 2:22 ). Paul, similarly, after revealing the mystery of God's plan to include the Gentiles among his chosen people breaks into praise of the "depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God" ( Rom 11:33 ).
Second, the biblical concept of divine mystery emphasizes God's sovereignty. The mystery revealed to Daniel and communicated to the king demonstrates not only that God knows the beginning of history from its end but that the rise and fall of human empires and the establishment of God's own kingdom happen according to his decree ( 2:36 ). Similarly, Paul says that the mystery of God's intention to unite both Jews and Gentiles in the body of Christ has been in place from ages past ( Eph 3:9-11 ; Col 1:26-27 ; cf. Eph 1:9-10 ; 3:5 ).
Third, and most important, the biblical understanding of divine mystery emphasizes God's grace. This can be seen immediately in the stark contrast between the biblical use of the term "mystery" and its use as a technical term in ancient Hellenistic mystery religions. In these cults the term was used to signify the esoteric knowledge that initiates were instructed, with threats of severe punishment, not to reveal to the uninitiated. The Bible, however, emphasizes God's gracious willingness to reveal the mystery of his purposes to his servants the prophets and through them to other people ( Rev 10:7 ; cf. Amos 3:7 ). The biblical emphasis is well illustrated in Daniel. There God graciously reveals his mysteries to Daniel to save him from the king's cruel sentence of death upon the royal wise men for their inability to interpret the king's dream ( 2:16-19 ). Because Daniel recognizes the graciousness of God's response, he is quick to acknowledge before the king that the dream's interpretation has come from God, not from Daniel's abilities as a counselor ( Daniel 2:27 Daniel 2:30 ). Similarly, Jesus graciously explains the parable of the sower to his disciples with the comment that, although the parables baffle those on the outside, the mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to them ( Matt 11:25-26 ).
In Paul's letters this aspect of the mystery of God comes to a climax. Paul points his readers again and again to the unique position they occupy as those who have experienced the fulfillment of the mystery of God's purposes. Although predicted in the Scriptures, the mystery was kept silent for long ages ( Rom 16:25-26 ), hidden for generations past ( Col 1:26 ; cf. Ephesians 3:5 Ephesians 3:9 Ephesians 3:11 ) that it might be revealed to apostles and prophets such as Paul himself and through them to believers ( Eph 3:1-12 ; cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12 ). Paul describes his calling to reveal the mystery of God to the Gentiles as "the grace of God given to me for you" ( Eph 3:2 ), and a few verses later, in a magnificent piling up of the language of grace, he identifies it as "the gift of the grace which God gave to me according to his effective power" (v. 7).
The biblical idea of mystery, then, reminds Christians that God holds the course of human events in his hands and has so shaped them that they work for the salvation of his people. It also demonstrates the graciousness of God in revealing his redemptive purposes to prophets and apostles and, through them, to all who are willing to hear.
See also Paul the Apostle
Bibliography. G. Bornkamm, TDNT, 4:802-28; R. E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament; A. E. Harvey, JTS31 (1980):320-36; J. A. Robinson, St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians.
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the calling of the Gentiles into the Christian Church, so designated ( Ephesians 1:9 Ephesians 1:10 ; 3:8-11 ; Colossians 1:25-27 ); a truth undiscoverable except by revelation, long hid, now made manifest. The resurrection of the dead ( 1 Corinthians 15:51 ), and other doctrines which need to be explained but which cannot be fully understood by finite intelligence ( Matthew 13:11 ; Romans 11:25 ; 1 Corinthians 13:2 ); the union between Christ and his people symbolized by the marriage union ( Ephesians 5:31 Ephesians 5:32 ; comp 6:19 ); the seven stars and the seven candlesticks ( Revelation 1:20 ); and the woman clothed in scarlet ( 17:7 ), are also in this sense mysteries. The anti-Christian power working in his day is called by the apostle ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7 ) the "mystery of iniquity."
mis'-ter-i (musterion; from mustes, "one initiated into mysteries"; mueo "to initiate," muo, "to close" the lips or the eyes; stem mu-, a sound produced with closed lips; compare Latin mutus, "dumb"):
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 the Old Testament and 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 (Deuteronomy 29:29); so far from silence being enjoined concerning them, they were openly proclaimed (Deuteronomy 6:7; Nehemiah 8:1). True piety alone initiated men into confidential intercourse with Yahweh (Psalms 25:14; Proverbs 3:32). The term "mystery" never occurs in the English Old Testament. The Greek word musterion occurs in the Septuagint of the Old Testament. Only in Daniel, where it is found several times as the translation of raza', "a secret," in reference to the king's dream, the meaning of which was revealed to Daniel (2:18,19,27-30,47).
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 (The Wisdom of Solomon 2:22); wisdom "is initiated [mustis] into the knowledge of God " (The Wisdom of Solomon 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 New Testament:
In the New Testament the word occurs 27 or (if we include the doubtful reading in 1 Corinthians 2:1) 28 times; chiefly in Paul (20 or 21 times), but also in one passage reported by each of the synoptists, and 4 times in Revelation. It bears its ancient sense of a revealed secret, not its modern sense of that which cannot be fathomed or comprehended.
(1) In a few passages, it has reference 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 (compare the rabbinic use of raza', and codh, "the hidden or mystic sense"). This meaning appears in Revelation 1:20; 17:5,7; probably also in Ephesians 5:32, where marriage is called "a mystery," i.e. a symbol to be allegorically interpreted of Christ and His church. It also seems implied in the only passage in which the word is attributed to our Lord, "Unto you is given the mystery of the kingdom of God:
but unto them that are without, all things are done in parables" (Mark 4:11; compare parallel Matthew 13:11; Luke 8:10). Here parables are spoken of as a veiled or symbolic form of utterance which concealed the truth from those without the kingdom, but revealed it to those who had the key to its inner meaning (compare Matthew 13:35; John 16:29 margin).
(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. Romans 16:25 f might almost be taken as a definition of it, "According to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which hath been kept in silence through times eternal, but now is manifested" (compare Colossians 1:26; Ephesians 3:3).
(a) It should be noted how closely "mystery" is associated with "revelation" (apokalupsis), as well as with words of similar import, e.g. "to make known" (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3,5,10; 6:19), "to manifest" (Colossians 4:3,4; Romans 16:26; 1 Timothy 3:16). "Mystery" and "revelation" are in fact correlative and almost synonymous terms. The mysteries of Christianity are its revealed doctrines, in contrast to the wisdom of worldly philosophy (see especially 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; compare Matthew 11:25 f); the point of contrast being, not that the latter is comprehensible while the former are obscure, but that the latter is the product of intellectual research, while the former are the result of Divine revelation and are spiritually discerned.
(b) From this it follows that Christianity has no secret doctrines, for what was once hidden has now been revealed. But here arises a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, there are passages which seem to imply a doctrine of reserve. The mystery revealed to some would seem to be still concealed from others. The doctrines of Christ and of His Kingdom are hidden from the worldly wise and the prudent (Matthew 11:25; 1 Corinthians 2:6), and from all who are outside the kingdom (Matthew 13:11 and parallel), and there are truths withheld even from Christians while in an elementary stage of development (1 Corinthians 3:1; Hebrews 5:11-14). On the other hand, there are many passages in which the truths of revelation are said to be freely and unreservedly communicated to all (e.g. Matthew 10:27; 28:19; Acts 20:20,27; 2 Corinthians 3:12; Ephesians 3:9, "all men"; 6:19; Colossians 1:28; 1 Timothy 2:4). The explanation is that the communication is limited, not by any secrecy in the gospel message itself or any reserve on the part of the speaker, but by the receptive capacity of the hearer. In the case of the carnally-minded, moral obtuseness or worldliness makes them blind to the light which shines on them (2 Corinthians 4:2-4). In the case of the "babe in Christ," the apparent reserve is due merely to the pedagogical principle of adapting the teaching to the progressive receptivity of the disciple (John 16:12). There is no esoteric doctrine or intentional reserve in the New Testament. The strong language in Matthew 13:11-15 is due to the Hebrew mode of speech by which an actual result is stated as if it were purposive.
(c) What, then, is the content of the Christian "mystery"? In a wide sense it is the whole gospel, God's world-embracing purpose of redemption through Christ (e.g. Romans 16:25; Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 2:2; 1 Timothy 3:9). In a special sense it is applied to some specific doctrine or aspect of the gospel, such as the doctrine of the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:1,7), of the Incarnation (1 Timothy 3:16), of the indwelling of Christ as the pledge of immortality (Colossians 1:27), of the temporary unbelief of the Jews to be followed by their final restoration (Romans 11:25), of the transformation of the saints who will live to see the Second Advent (1 Corinthians 15:51), and of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the gospel salvation (Ephesians 3:3-6). These are the Divine secrets now at last disclosed. In direct antithesis to the Divine mystery is the "mystery of lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7) culminating in the coming of the Antichrist. Here, too, the word means a revealed secret, only in this case the revelation belongs to the future (2 Thessalonians 2:8), though the evil forces which are to bring about its consummation are already silently operative. (Besides the references in this paragraph, the word occurs in 1 Corinthians 4:1; 13:2; 14:2; Revelation 10:7. It is interesting to note that the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) sometimes renders musterion by Latin sacramentum, namely, in Ephesians 1:9; 3:3,9; 5:32; 1 Timothy 3:16; Revelation 1:20. This rendering in Ephesians 5:32 led to the ecclesiastical doctrine that marriage is a "sacrament.")
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 Colossians 1:26).
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 the Lord's Supper into 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). Kirsopp Lake 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 (1 Corinthians 4:9) and the Roman camp. He must have been constantly exposed to the contagion of the mystic societies. Tarsus was a seat of the Mithra religion; and the chief centers of Paul's activities, e.g. Corinth, Antioch and Ephesus, were headquarters of mystic religion. We are not surprised that he should have borrowed from the vocabulary of the Mysteries, not only the word musterion, but memuemai, "I learned the secret," literally, "I have been initiated" (Philippians 4:12); sphragizesthai, "to be sealed" (Ephesians 1:13, etc.); teleios, "perfect," term applied in the Mysteries to the fully instructed as opposed to novices (1 Corinthians 2:6,7; Colossians 1:28, etc.) (note, outside of Paul, epoptai, "eye-witnesses,"2 Peter 1:16).
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 Mystery Religions" by Professor H.A.A. Kennedy (April, 1912, to February, 1913).
D. Miall Edwards
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