January 14, 2006

Tying Up Some Loose Ends: Greek Musterion in the New Testament

I've been meaning for some time to write a post tying together two topics that I had previously discussed. The items in question are my discussion of translation and transliteration and my suggestion in this post that Pagan religion might have had an influence on the New Testament's mode of expression. The common tie? The word "mystery."

This word, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is first attested with the definition "A religious truth known or understood only by divine revelation; esp. a doctrine of faith involving difficulties which human reason is incapable of solving" in the Wyclif Bible of 1384. The same Bible introduces the meaning "A hidden or secret thing; something inexplicable or beyond human comprehension; a person or thing evoking awe or wonder but not well known or understood; an enigma." There does exist one usage of the word in poetry prior to this time, but it appears that the word has expanded to its present meaning primarily from this point; that is, it was transliterated into the language from the New Testament. You can see how much the meaning of the word has changed. It has virtually no religious connotation today. Now, there are two questions here that have a bearing on translation: first, do the OED's early definitions correspond to the meaning of the Greek word in the context of the New Testament? Second, does the present-day meaning of the word mystery correspond to its usage in the New Testament?

In fact, the original Greek word musterion is also a religious word (note that it is also the root of the word "mystic"), and it is here that we intercept the question of whether and how the New Testament's mode of communication was effected by Greek Paganism. In the previous post, I suggested that the resemblance of Luke's account of the Emmaus road to certain Greek myths may have been intentional, but I didn't have enough background to explain exactly how. Musterion is, in fact, a much better example. Let's look first at its usage in Greek Paganism.

A detailed discussion of this issue is found in the book A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (online edition at Perseus), under the heading mysteria. I recommend reading the article, but I will present the important core ideas. The Greeks had many "mystery cults," as classicists often call them. The closest modern equivalent to the mystery cults of which I am aware is Freemasonry (it is in fact a very close equivalent). The "initiates" of the mystery cults would watch a sort of ritual drama which was intended to reveal truth about the universe through allegory and symbolism. These were supposed to reveal divine truth directly from the relevant god. The truth could only be learned at a particular shrine (the most famous being that of Eleusis) and communicating it was forbidden. There were various mysteries at different shrines where people of different ages and genders went. For instance, at one shrine young girls, ages 5 to 12, I believe, "played the bear for Artemis." No, we don't really know what that means. Only a few, like Eleusis, were open to all Greeks. Some of the mystery cults had multiple levels, each of which had different "mysteries" (remember, these are rituals and/or dramas that are intended to reveal truth to the initiate) at different levels of initiation, as, indeed, the Freemasons do.

There are a handful of cases in classical Greek literature where the word is used to speak of "secrets" more generally, but these are so rare that they ought to be taken metaphorically. It may be that the metaphor was "dead" by the time of the NT so that no reference is intended. It may also be that a new definition cropped up in between. I simply don't have the information on which to judge this. However, the word musterion itself was a relatively late development in Greek religious language (at any rate, Homer uses different words for similar things). Furthermore, we know that the word was still in use in this meaning in the first century, so even if it had acquired a more general meaning, the phrase "I reveal to you a mystery," often used by Paul, said in a theological context, would almost certainly bring the Greek mystery cults to the minds of Greek readers, and all of Paul's epistles except Romans are addressed to Greek cities.

Now the question is: why? What is the meaning and purpose of this Pagan reference in the New Testament? To examine this, let's look at the New Testament's use of the word.

20 of the words 27 uses in the New Testament occur in the Pauline epistles; 3 are in parallel passages in the synoptic gospels (Matt. 13:11, Mark 4:11, Luke 8:10) where Jesus speaks of the "mysteries" of the kingdom of heaven being revealed to the disciples; the remaining 4 are in the Revelation. The usage in the gospels and Revelation are straightforward: in the gospels the word refers to special knowledge revealed only to Jesus' disciples, in the Revelation it refers to the interpretation of symbolic or allegorical content. Paul's usage, however, is slightly more complicated.

Paul's "mysteries" seem to be doctrines of Christianity. He identifies the following as mysteries:

  • "that blindness in part has happened to Israel until the fulness of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Istrael will be saved." (Romans 11:25-26)

  • the gospel (apparently as a whole - Romans 16:25-26 [those verses are located at 14:24-26 in some texts], Ephesians 6:19. See also the summary of the Gospel at 1 Timothy 3:16.)

  • "[God] purposed in Hmself that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ" (Ephesians 1:9-10)

  • "that the gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel." (Ephesians 3:3-7)

  • The "marriage" of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:22-32)

  • "Lawlessness" (2 Thessalonians 2:7)

Only one of these (the "marriage" of Christ and the Church) has an obvious symbolic/allegorical interpretation, so Paul apparently does not, by musterion mean, generally speaking, the correct interprettation of religious symbols/allegories. Fortunately, Paul gives us substantial hints at his meaning in Ephesians 3 (see also Romans 16:25, Colossians 1:26) when he says (vv. 5) that the mystery "in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets." We see, then, that just as in the Greek religious context, Paul is talking about truth that is revealed supernaturally to certain people at certain times, but not part of general human knowledge. Is Christianity, then, a mystery cult? Certainly not! The mystery was not revealed in former times, but it has now been revealed by the Spirit, and Jesus gave us special instructions as to what to do with His secrets: "Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops" (Matthew 10:27, cf. Luke 12:3). I conclude, therefore, that the New Testament's use of this word implicitly sets up a contrast between Christianity and the Pagan mystery cults: whereas the Pagans carefully guard their mysteries, the Christians are eager to announce them from the housetops! God's revelation, once given, is given to all mankind. All are welcome and invited to come and learn the mysteries of God. You need not go to any particular location or perform any particular ritual: we, the Church, will come to you to teach you the mysteries God has revealed to us.

This creates something of a difficulty for the translator, because modern audiences do not have familiarity with these kinds of religious "mysteries." As I mentioned, we have some secret societies that resemble the mystery cults, but modern religions tend not to work this way (although Mormonism does have some rituals that are open only to higher-level members of the church). As such, we do not have a term for this. The Eastern Orthodox Church continues to use the word "mystery" to refer to a mystical ritual, but this isn't quite right for Paul's usage either. Mystery is the word used in references to these things in writing about Greek culture and religion, so if the target audience of a translation is made up of hellenists, then keeping the word mystery is appropriate. Also, many "church people" have been taught the Pauline meanin of mystery as something that had never before been revealed to mankind, so this audience, although it doesn't catch the implicit contrast with Paganism, does get the correct meaning. But what about translations for more "mainstream" audiences? Is there a good translation of this word for that context, or is the best we can do something like the HCSB's "bullet notes?"

Posted by Kenny at January 14, 2006 4:15 PM
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Tracked: January 19, 2006 8:21 AM


I wonder if we can translate with something like "open secret", meaning something which is alleged to be secret but is in fact well known. I'm not sure that's quite right but perhaps you get the idea.

But in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 the concept does seem to be of a secret not yet fully revealed, which will be revealed when Jesus comes again v.8 - although even here I wonder if this "mystery" is in fact the same as what Paul has already explained, vv.5-6.

Posted by: Peter Kirk at January 16, 2006 5:15 AM

(I happened to run across your blog while doing a search for the origins of the work mystery...)

If I may ask, do you know what the other words/terms were that Homer used instead of mystery/musterion?

Posted by: Kris at September 8, 2007 1:17 AM

Kris - I am by no means a Homer expert (I've read part of the Iliad in Greek and all of the Odyssey in English), but I can't think of anywhere where Homer has a use for a term like this. None of the words listed on Perseus as having similar definitions have citations as early as Homer. In short, the concept probably developed later than that.

Posted by: Kenny at September 8, 2007 10:14 AM

Hmm... I just re-read my post, and realized that I claimed that "Homer uses different words for similar things," but it's been almost two years since I wrote this, and I can't remember why I said that. Sorry.

Posted by: Kenny at September 8, 2007 10:22 AM

The mystery/musterion that both Jesus and Paul spoke of refer to the correct understanding/hermeneutics/exegesis given to the New Testament Christian Church of the Old Testament Messianic Prophecies which was Not revealed to the Jewish community who solely base their view of the promised Messiah on the Old Testament whereas the Christian Church understands the "mysteries" aka Messianic Prophecies concerning the Christ and fulfilled in Jesus--once certain of these messianic/mysteries prophecies have been fulfilled, they have an end (Luke 22:27) and Jesus made it clear (Luke24:44-45) Concerning HIM--The Logos came to reveal, expound and explain the OlD Testament Messianic Prophecies--that is the "mystery" of the kingdom of God, heaven, the gospel and all in Christ Jesus

Posted by: Alberto at December 16, 2007 11:12 AM

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