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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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MYSTERY (μυστήριον from μύστης one initiated’; stem μύω ‘to close,’ ‘shut’ (cf. Lat. mutus, English ‘mum’).—1. In classical Greek μυστήριον means a hidden thing, a seeret; in Biblical writers primarily a hidden or seeret thing; in the plural (usually) individual matters of revelation or superhuman knowledge (Matthew 13:11, Luke 8:10, Romans 11:25, 1 Corinthians 4:1; 1 Corinthians 15:51). In the singular with the article to τὸ μυστήριον is used, principally by St. Paul, of the hidden counsel of God, especially His redemptive plan culminating in the final judgment (Romans 16:25, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 3:3; Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:26 f.). This counsel of God is further characterized as the ‘mystery of his will’ (Ephesians 1:9) ‘which he formed’ (Colossians 2:2 [1 Corinthians 2:1, text of WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] ]) ‘respecting Christ’ (Colossians 4:3), and constitutes the contents of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19). It is consummated in the paronsia (Revelation 10:7). In antithesis to ‘the mystery of the faith’ or ‘of godliness’ (1 Timothy 3:9; 1 Timothy 3:16) stands that of ‘lawlessness’ (2 Thessalonians 2:7), the purposed impulse of an antagonistic power operative in the world.

Besides this primary sense, the word μυστήριον is also used like רָוָא and סו̇ד in Rabbinic writers to designate the hidden or mystic sense of a Scripture (Ephesians 5:32), a name (Revelation 17:5), or the image or form seen in a vision (Revelation 1:20; Revelation 17:5).

It is important to observe that the connotation of intrinsic difficulty of comprehension, obscurity, which has become inseparable from the word in modern use, is misleading. In Biblical and in ancient use generally the ‘mystery’ is simply that which is made known only to the initiated, be its content easy or hard to understand, hence revealed as against reasoned knowledge.

2. In a looser sense the term ‘mysteries’ was transferred from the teaching symbolized to (a) the rites enacted in certain cults or rituals known to classic authors as τελεταί (Wisdom of Solomon 14:23), and (b), still more loosely, to the τελεταί themselves. From the former sense (a) the designation of the sacraments, or even the Church service generally, as ‘the mysteries’ becomes common from the 2nd cent. onward. From the latter is doubtless derived the designation of mediaeval religious dramas or pantomimes as ‘mysteries’ (cf., from the same stem, ‘mummery’).

3. The τελεταί, loosely called ‘mysteries,’ are of importance to our consideration as affecting the application of the term ‘mystery ‘to the gospel as a whole in Mark 4:11. They consisted of secret rites in honour of certain divinities especially representative of the drama of life, vegetable and animal, annually failing and renewed. These divinities are always chthonic, as against the Olympian (national) divinities of the upper air; and their worship, maintained by guilds, was commonly associated with the rites of ancestor and hero—worship. Mystery—religion transcended all lines of mere nationality, substituting its own brotherhoods of initiates, and offered the idea of personal deliverance and immortality as the goal; as the means, it offered sacramental (instead of sacrificial) union with a Redeemer-god (θεὸς σωτήρ), who, in contrast with the Olympian divinities, participated in the suffering and death of humanity, and won for men victory over their spiritual foes. Its strong monotheistic tendency, added to these other traits, gave it an obvious resemblance to the gospel as preached to the Gentile world, and made it a much more formidable rival than the various religionized forms of Greek and Oriental philosophy, in bidding for the adherence of popular faith in the Empire, after the dissolution of the national religions. Christianity itself, in the transition from a national to a universal religion, necessarily passed through some of the same phases as the mystery-cults; for these had already connected themselves in a syncretizing spirit with the mythology of every people. Their influence is most apparent, as we should expect, in the development of the Pauline Church, supremely in the ultra-Pauline or Gnostic. The resemblances were in fact so striking alike in dogma, terminology, and ritual, as to lead early apologists to account for them by the theory of diabolic travesty (Justin M. Apol. i. 66, Dial. lxx.). Some modern students of the history of religion find it impossible to deny a relation of dependence on the side of the Church, especially in the Pauline and post-Pauline period. [For an able presentation of the view that it is impossible to establish any direct relation during the Pauline or early post-Pauline period, see Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen], This appears not only from terminology, but even from the Pauline doctrine and ritual, in particular as regards the theory of the sacraments. In the Gospels this influence is scarcely traceable outside the Fourth, wherein the type of the δρᾶμα μυστικόν and the sacramental interest are very apparent (Harnack, Mission und Ansbreitung, pp. 169–173—John and Origen the profoundest mysteriosophists of the Church); but in the single passage Mark 4:11 = Matthew 13:11 = Luke 8:10 even the Synoptic writers must be admitted to have been affected through St. Paul both as to phraseology and as to thought.

4. Mark 4:11 seems to be earlier in form than its parallels; for the context shows that the thing given or withheld is not certain elements of the gospel, conceived as μυστήρια and therefore uttered only in parables (understood as enigmas; cf. Matthew 13:35, John 16:29)—the sense conveyed by the use of the plural in the parallels (τὰ μυστἡρια, Matthew 13:11 = Luke 8:10)—but is the gospel as a whole conceived as a ‘mystery’ in the Pauline sense, i.e. a Divine revelation (cf. Matthew 13:16-17). The teaching in parables is regarded by Mk. (and still more by Mt.) as a fulfilment of Isaiah 6:9 conceived as a sentence of judicial blindness. In answer to the question (Matthew 13:10), ‘Why speakest thou to them (the motley Galilaean multitude) in parables?’ (i.e. enigmas), Jesus answers that it is a fulfilment of the prophetic curse of Isaiah upon a disobedient and gainsaying people, of whom such fruitless hearing had been foretold. The inner circle (Mark 4:10; cf. Mark 3:13; cf. Mark 3:34-35) are alone intended to receive more than the husk. The parallels, in altering to τὰ μυστήρια, give a dilution of this sense (cf. the secondary sense above under 1).

5. Not the word alone, but the entire context of Mark 4 and parallels are Pauline in aim. Romans 9-11 attempts a theodicy of the rejection of Israel the covenant people in favour of the Gentiles, based upon the same idea of judicial hardening, and employing the same passage from Isaiah. In Romans 11:6 Paul writes after 30 years of disappointing experience in preaching to the Jews: ‘It is written, God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that they should not see, and cars that they should not hear, unto this very day.’ To St. Paul, accordingly, must be attributed the first utilization of Isaiah 6:9, which henceforth becomes the locus classieus to account for the rejection of the Messiah by His own people (with Mark 4:11 and parallels, cf. John 12:39-41, Acts 28:24-28). Manifestly an interpretation of parabolic utterance which supposes it adopted in order to fulfil the prophetic sentence of judicial blindness on Israel cannot be attributed to Jesus, since the end sought in the parables themselves is the reverse of intentional obscurity. Mark 4:11, accordingly, which does not stand alone in this Gospel as regards its Pauline phraseology (cf. Mark 1:15 with Matthew 4:17), is equally Pauline in the employment of this theory of the intention of the parabolic teaching.

6. Linguistically the results are at least equally conclusive. The word μυστἡριον occurs 21 times in the Pauline Epp., elsewhere in the NT only here, and 4 times in the Apocalypse. The conception of the gospel itself as a ‘mystery’ is found nowhere else save in the Pauline Epistles. With St. Paul it is fundamental (1 Corinthians 2:1-16, Ephesians 1:9; Ephesians 3:3-11, Colossians 1:27, Romans 16:25-27), usually involving the contrast of philosophy versus revelation, the ‘wisdom of this world’ versus the spirit of prophecy. It is noteworthy that the removal of Romans 16:11-12 from the context of Mark 4:10-20 produces a simpler and more intelligible connexion (cf. Mark 4:10 ‘asked of him the parables’).

7. The agraphon quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. v. x. 69) from ‘a certain Gospel’: ‘My mystery belongs to me and to the sons of my household’ (μυστήριον ἐμὸν ἐμοὶ καὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς τοῦ οἵκου μου), and also found in Clem. Hom. xix. xx. in the form, ‘Keep the mysteries for me and the sons of my house,’ is manifestly connected with Mark 4:11, but probably not dependent upon it, nor upon St. Paul. This, however, does not counteract the above conclusions. It is quite probable that Mark 4:11 rests upon a traditional logion of some such form as this, rather than directly or exclusively on Romans 11:8. The utterance in this form is not indeed attributable to Jesus, to whose doctrine its suggestion of esoteric teaching is abhorrent (cf. Philo, de Vict. Off. i. f., on the superiority of the Mosaic to heathen ‘mysteries’ as concealed from none; also Wisdom of Solomon 6:22); but proper appreciation of the Pauline use of the word μυστἡριον will show a common basis in the real teaching of Jesus. Matthew 11:25-27 = Luke 10:21-22 is the canonical equivalent of the agraphon, and affords the real point of connexion between the teaching of Jesus and the Pauline and post-Pauline application of the term μυστήριον to the gospel. In respect to the superhuman, Divinely revealed character of the one message, Jesus and St. Paul are both emphatic. The expressions of 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 from this point of view are not only in agreement with Jesus’ whole teaching as ‘with authority and not as the scribes,’ but form a striking parallel to Matthew 11:25-30. However open to suspicion the logion of Mark 4:11 may be in its present canonical or post-canonical form, the words are at bottom nothing more than the translation into Greek equivalents of a claim of Jesus that is unquestionably historical, namely the claim for His teaching to be by revelation, a wisdom of God accessible to His ‘little ones’ though ‘hid from the wise and prudent.’

Literature.—On the word μυστήριον see, besides Grimm-Thayer, Hatch, Essays on NT Greek, p. 58; Lightfoot, Com. on Colossians 1:26; Stewart, s.v. ‘Mystery’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ; Ramsay, s.v. in Enc. Brit.9 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ; and A. Jülicher, s.v. in Encyc. Biblica. On the influence of the Greek mysteries on early Christianity, see Lobeck, Aglaophamus, 1829; Anrich, Das antike Mysterienwesen in seinem Einfluss a.d. Christenthum, 1894; and Wobbermin, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Beeinflussung des Urchristenthums durch d. Mysterien, 1896; also Cheetham, The Mysteries Pagan and Christian, 1897; and Hatch, The Influence of Greek Ideas and Usages upon the Christian Church, ch. x. On NT use of terminology from the mysteries, see Carman in Bibliotheca Sacra L (1893). On the mysteries generally as a phenomenon in the history of religion, see Rhode, Psyche; Frazer, Golden Bought2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] ; Harnack, Mission und Ausbreitung des Chr. 1902, Bk. ii. ch. v.

B. W. Bacon.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Mystery'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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