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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. In Ancient Pagan Religions
In the extant classics, the singular is found once only (Menander, "Do not tell thy secret (
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 ( οὐ μαθεῖν τι δεῖν ἀλλἀ παθεῖν ,
(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 ( θεὸς σωτήρ ,
(3) The celebrations were marked by profuse symbolism of word and action. They were preceded by rites of purification through which all the
(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; Neb Deuteronomy 8:1 ff). True piety alone initiated men into confidential intercourse with Yahweh Psalm 25:14; Proverbs 3:32 . The term "mystery" never occurs in the English Old Testament. The Greek word
In the Apocrypha,
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 synopists, 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 רזא ,
(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 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 ff).
( a ) It should be noted how closely "mystery" is associated with "revelation" ( ἀποκάλυψις ,
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 ff), and from all who are outside the kingdom ( Matthew 13:11 ff and parallel), and there are truths withheld even from Christians while in an elementary stage of development ( 1 Corinthians 3:1 ff; 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; Matthew 28:19; Acts 20:20 , Acts 20:27; 2 Corinthians 3:12; Ephesians 3:9 , "all men"; Ephesians 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.
( 100 ) 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 , 1 Corinthians 2:7 , 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; 1 Corinthians 13:2; 1 Corinthians 14:2; Revelation 10:7 . It is interesting to note that the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) sometimes renders
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
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
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 Encyclopaedia Britannica (11th edition), edition 9 (W. M. Ramsay), and edition 11 (L. R. Farnell), Encyclopaedia 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 μυστήριον 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).
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Mystery'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/m/mystery.html. 1915.