Mystery (in the Bible)
MYSTERY (IN THE BIBLE)
Exegetes of the "History of Religions" school (e.g., W. Bousset and R. Reitzenstein) have suggested that the Pauline use of μυστήριον (Gr. for "mystery") to refer to salvation in Jesus Christ was a borrowing from the pagan mystery religions as part of an attempt to make Christianity understandable to the Greek world (see mystery religions, greco-oriental). Today, however, it is more widely recognized that "mystery" was an ancient Hebrew theological term that was current in Jewish circles at the time of Christ. This article explains the concept of mystery in the Old Testament, in non-Biblical Jewish thought, and in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament. In the Septuagint (LXX) the word μυστήριον occurs some 21 times; it appears only in the postexilic books (Tobit; Judith; Daniel; Sirach; 2 Maccabees), normally translating the Hebrew word rāz (borrowed through Aramaic from Old Persian), which is generally in the plural. There are other Greek synonyms for mystery in these late books, including κρύπτα and ἀπóκρυφα, "secrets, hidden things." In tracing the idea of mystery, one must begin long before the postexilic period with the Hebrew concept of sôd, a word which is never translated by μυστήριον. This Hebrew word seems to have originally meant "council, assembly"; but ultimately it came to designate what was decided in a council, namely, "counsel," particularly"secret counsel," and thus "mystery."
Preexilic Period. One of the early theological uses for sôd was in reference to the heavenly council. H. W. Robinson, F. Cross, and others have shown that there was a common Semitic belief in an assembly of heavenly beings that decided the fate of the world. In pagan thought it was an assembly of the gods; in Hebrew thought it was an assembly of angels presided over by Yahweh who had the dominant role in making the decision [Jb 1.612; Ps 81 (82).1]. There is probably a reference to the heavenly assembly in Gn 1.26, "Let us make man in our image and likeness"; and in Is 40.1 Yahweh's imperative is addressed to the angelic court.
The power of the heavenly sôd to enact decrees concerning men gave it practical importance in Hebrew life. The decisions on high were made known to the people by the prophet who was introduced through visions into the sessions of the heavenly assembly. Isaiah's call consists of his seeing the heavenly assembly where God is asking the angels, "Whom shall I send?" (Is 6.8). When Micaiah, son of Imlah, is asked by the King of Israel to prophesy, he answers by telling what he saw in the heavenly assembly (1 Kgs 22.19–22). Amos announces almost as a proverb that God will surely not do anything"until He has revealed his sôd to His servants the prophets" (Am 3.7). To know the heavenly sôd (council, counsel) became the criterion for distinguishing a true prophet from a false prophet. Jeremiah says scornfully of the false prophets, "For which of them has stood in the sôd of Yahweh and seen and heard His word?" (Jer 23.18; see also Jb 15.8).
Postexilic Period. This concept of a prophet's being introduced into the heavenly council and its mysterious counsels was the basis for the importance attributed to heavenly secrets in postexilic Judaism. The Persian loanword rāz made its way into Aramaic and Hebrew, alongside sôd, to express the concept of mystery. The number of individuals who claimed to have seen the heavenly mysteries increased, as did the types of mysteries that were reported.
In Daniel ch. 2 rāz (μυστήριον in the LXX) is used eight times to refer to Nebuchadnezzar's dream and its symbolic contents. No wise man can unravel such mysteries, but only God in heaven who reveals mysteries can make known what shall be. Here "mystery" is employed in what shall become a very frequent usage: a vision of the future given to man by God, in symbols. In apocalyptic literature it will often be an angel who interprets this mystery for the chosen seer, but sometimes God Himself speaks.
The Book of Sirach says that God's secrets, like the vicissitudes of life and the working of providence, are beyond human knowledge (Sir 11.4) and it warns man not to investigate such things (3.21–22). Occasionally, to the humble, God will reveal His secrets [4.18;42.18–19; 3.19 (Hebrew)], as He did in the past to Isaiah (48.24–25). It is in Sir 4.18 that one meets, for the first time, Wisdom as God's agent in revealing mysteries. Besides God's plan for men, mysteries in Sirach include astronomical and meteorological phenomena (43.32) and the secret actions of men, often evil (1.28–29). One way for men to come to a knowledge of mysteries is through a study of ancient traditions found in the Law, and in the teaching of the wise men and the prophets (39.7; 47.15–17).
In the Hellenistic outlook of the Book of Wisdom, the mysteries of God include His plans for the afterlife (Wis 2.22). The origins of Wisdom are classified as mysteries (6.22), and Wisdom herself is initiated into the knowledge of God (8.4). Some of the language of the mystery religions appears in this book (12.5; 14.15) but chiefly by way of attack on these religions. Solomon is pictured as the example of a man to whom God has given true knowledge of a variety of mysteries (7.17–21).
In Non-Biblical Jewish Thought. There are important uses of mystery in extra-Biblical literature. In investigating these it will be useful to distinguish between apocryphal writings in general and the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular.
Apocrypha. The sobriety of the mystery passages in the canonical literature is appreciated when one studies the noncanonical literature. Dating from the 2d century b.c., Enoch presents a fascinating variety of mysteries:(1) evil mysteries (9.6–8; 10.7; 16.3), such as those taught to women by the evil angels—an echo of Gn 6.1–4; (2) cosmic mysteries and their relation to men (41.3;60.11–22)—an angelic guide introduces Enoch to these astrological secrets; (3) mysteries of God's will and human actions (63.3; 83.7; 84.3)—a special mystery is the judgment God will render on man's deeds (103.2;68.5); and (4) the mystery of the Son of Man, the Elect One, hidden in God's presence before creation (48.6;62.7), who shall be revealed on the day of judgment (62.1) to pour forth the secrets of wisdom and counsel that God has entrusted to him (53.1; 62.2).
From a.d. 60 to 150 a series of apocalypses (2 Baruch; 3 Baruch; 4 Ezra) gives witness to the last Jewish developments in the use of "mystery" parallel to the usage of the New Testament. In 2 Baruch are described the visions accorded to Baruch amid the ruins of Jerusalem after the city had fallen to the Babylonians. The term "mysteries" is used for these visions and for their interpretation. The mysteries include cosmic phenomena (48.2–3; see also 3 Baruch 1.8), as well as the happenings of the last time (2 Baruch 81.4; 85.8).
In 4 Ezra are found the visions of Ezra about the fall and rise of Jerusalem. Throughout his life, Ezra had received revelations of the mysteries of God pertaining to the future in store for Jerusalem and the world (6.32–33;10.38); and in this he was privileged like Moses who also saw "the secrets of the times" (14.5). Some of these mysteries revealed to Ezra are to be kept secret (12.36–37; 14.6 for Moses).
The Dead Sea Scrolls. In the Qumran dead sea Scrolls (DSS) also, one finds mysteries playing an important role. The Hebrew word most frequently used is rāz, sometimes occurring in parallelism with sôd; nistōrôt (hidden things) also occurs.
The first type of mystery we may distinguish in the DSS concerns God's providence as it affects angels, men, and the future of Israel. In 1QM 14.14 God's "marvelous mysteries" concern the elevating and casting down of the angels. Evil persons are under the dominion of the Angel of Darkness "according to the mysteries of God until the final time set by Him" (1QS 3.20–23; 4.18). On a more personal level the author of 1QH (9.23–24) says to God, "You have chastised me in the mystery of your wisdom." The death of the just in the final war against evil will be according to the mysteries of God to test the eagerness of others (1QM 16.11; 17.8–9). To the Teacher of Righteousness have been revealed secrets concerning the future found in the words of OT prophets (1QpHb7.1–5); it is perhaps this figure who speaks in 1QS 11.3–4, "He made my eye contemplate His wonders; and the light of my heart, the mystery to be."
A second set of mysteries in the DSS concerns the community's own interpretation of the Law. If we remember that the Qumran community thought of itself as an assembly or council, this use of "mystery" may be related to the origins of the term as the secret counsel of a council. The ideal of intimate union between the sectarians and the angels is a theme of the DSS, and the community's council on earth was considered to be a reflection of the angelic council in heaven (1QS 11.8). Thus, in 11.5–7 one initiated into the community comes to know God's marvelous mysteries, a wisdom hidden from wise men, a fountain of glory hidden from any worldly assembly. In CDC 3.12–14 we hear that to faithful Israelites God revealed the hidden things in which all Israel had gone astray, and then by a process of historical selection the Qumran community became God's final repository of those hidden commands whose observance is necessary for eternal life (3.18–20). Those who are fully accepted as members are to be made "wise in the marvelous and true mysteries amidst the men of the community" (1QS 9.18–19), but they must keep these hidden from the noninitiated (4.6; 1QH 5.25–26). The author of the hymns seems to have a special role: "You have set me up … as the interpreter of knowledge in your marvelous mysteries to test the seekers of truth and to try the lovers of discipline" (1QH 2.13–14).
Thirdly, the cosmic and meteorological mysteries are also mentioned in the DSS (1QH 1.11–12, 21;12.11–13).
Fourthly, there are evil mysteries. belial has his own evil sôd (1QS 4.1), his own hostile mysteries (1QM 14.9); and according to these "mysteries of iniquity" men deform the works of God in their guilt (1QH 5.36). However, all this is doomed to perish. On the trumpets that will give the signal in the great war against evil will be written: "The mysteries of God for the destruction of evil" (1QM 3.8–9). (see apocrypha 1, 2.)
In the New Testament. Because of the special use St. Paul makes of mystery, it will be useful to study his epistles separately, after having investigated the use of the term in the rest of the New Testament.
Outside the Pauline Writings. The word μυστή ριον occurs in one logion in the Gospels, a parallel passage in Mk 4.10–12; Mt 13.10–13; Lk 8.9–10, which is found between the parable of the sower and its explanation. The setting of this logion is not original, but it does concern parables: "To you is granted the mystery ["mysteries" in Matthew and Luke] of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside everything is in parables." The fluctuation between the singular and the plural reminds us of the fluctuation in Hebrew between the use in singular of sôd and the use in the plural of rāz. This use of "the mystery of the kingdom of God" is to be associated with the use seen above where divine providence and its working for the salvation of men comes under the rubric of God's marvelous mysteries. It is to be noted that Enoch 41.1 speaks of "the mysteries of the heavens and how the kingdom is divided." That only the specially selected are given to know the mysteries is consonant with the whole history of the concept of mystery. (see parables of jesus.)
In Rv 1.20 mention is made of the mystery of the seven stars seen in the right hand of Alpha and Omega; and in 17.5–6 the prostitute astride the scarlet beast is a mystery, as is her name. As said above, in Daniel and in the Jewish apocalypses "mystery" was often used to characterize symbolic visions and their interpretation. In particular, mystery as applied to the symbol of the stars may be an echo of the cosmic mysteries. In Enoch 43.1–4 the mysteries of heaven include the stars, which have names given them by God. The names of the stars are the names of the saints on earth, just as the stars of the Revelation stand for the angels of the churches. A parallel to Rv 17.5–6 may be found in Enoch 60.10 where the explanation of leviathan and Behemoth is called a mystery; and in 3 Baruch, 3 one of the "mysteries of God" is the dragon of evil.
It is said in Rv 10.7 that with the trumpet of the seventh angel God's mystery will be completed, as He announced to His servants the Prophets. The last clause echoes the use of sôd in Am 3.7 (see also 1QpHb 7.1–5). As previously mentioned, the secret will of God concerning the end of time was one of the standard mysteries.
Pauline Writings. The earliest occurrence is in 2 Thes 2.7 where, in reference to the signs of the last times and the appearance of the man of lawlessness, it is said, "The mystery of lawlessness is already at work." This is a reference to the economy of evil. While mention is made of evil mysteries in Sirach and Enoch, the best parallel is in the DSS where the evil spirit is permitted to function until the end time-according to the mysteries of God. The very expression "mystery of iniquity" (i.e., lawlessness) occurs in the DSS.
Next, there are five (or six) occurrences of "mystery" in 1 Corinthians, and here the Pauline doctrine of salvific mystery is beginning to take shape. In 1 Cor 2.7 Paul speaks of "a hidden wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which God predetermined before the ages for our glory, which no one of the rulers of this world had known." The emphasis is on the wisdom of God hidden in a mystery, and this wisdom is God's plan for man's salvation in Jesus. As Pauline thought and theological vocabulary progresses, the emphasis will pass over to the mystery, and wisdom will become an attribute of mystery. Connections between wisdom and mystery have been seen in the Old Testament. In 1 Cor 2.10 Paul says that this wisdom hidden in a mystery has been revealed to us through the Spirit. In both Sir 48.24–25 and Dn 4.6 God's mystery is revealed through the workings of His spirit.
Paul refers to himself as one of the "stewards of the mysteries of God" in 1 Cor 4.1. The context does not clarify this use of mystery. "Mysteries of God" is a frequent expression in the DSS; and in 1Q 36.16 mention is made of "men in custody of Your mysteries."
In contrasting various gifts with the gift of charity, Paul mentions in 1 Cor 13.2 the gift of being "acquainted with all the mysteries and all knowledge." (see charism.) When Enoch receives a revelation, it is frequently said, "He showed me all the mysteries of …" (Enoch 41.1; 52.2; etc.). Thus Paul is speaking of a gift of revelation given to special figures like apocalyptic seers.
In 1 Cor 14.2 Paul says that he who speaks in a tongue is not understood, but through the Spirit he utters mysteries. It is difficult to decide whether "mysteries" here means unintelligible language or hidden truths. In 1 Cor 15.51 Paul announces the resurrection of the dead at the last trumpet as a mystery. It has been shown that mystery was connected with judgment in Enoch and connected with the afterlife in Wisdom.
There is, finally, a dubious occurrence of mystery in 1 Cor 2.1 where Paul describes how he came preaching the μυστήριον or μαρτύριον (witness) of God. The textual evidence is divided between the two readings, and it is not possible to decide with certainty which is correct.
The word mystery occurs twice in Romans. In Rom 11.25 Paul reveals the mystery that Israel has been blinded until all the nations come to believe in Jesus, but ultimately all Israel will be saved. Once again mystery is applied to the divine economy of salvation. We recall that in 4 Ezra the vision of the ultimate redemption of Jerusalem was described as a mystery. In Rom 16.25 Paul speaks of his preaching of Jesus Christ in terms of a mystery kept secret for long ages but now brought into the open and by means of the prophetic writings made known to the Gentiles. Whether this final salutation of Romans is authentic has been questioned. If it is genuinely Pauline, this is the first of Paul's equation of the mystery with Jesus Christ, an equation that is a specification of the larger mystery of God's plan of salvation. Paul mentions the prophetic foreknowledge of the mystery, a feature that has been seen as part of the most ancient Hebrew concept of mystery.
It is in the Captivity Epistles, Colossians and Ephesians, that the Pauline mystery finds its fullest expression. The equation of the mystery with Christ, seen in Romans, becomes standard: in Col 1.26–27 the mystery is identified as "Christ among you, the hope of glory"; in Col2.2–3 Paul speaks of "the mystery of God, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge"; and in Col 4.3 and Eph 3.4 he speaks of "the mystery of Christ." Once again it is said that this mystery, which in previous generations was not made known to men, has been revealed to the Apostles and Prophets in the Spirit. Perhaps the closest parallel for this is in Enoch 48.6; 51.3; 62.7, where it is said that the Elect One, the Son of Man, was chosen and hidden in God's presence before creation to be revealed to the elect in the end time. There are good Qumran parallels for the expressions in these Epistles connecting knowledge and wisdom with mystery. One notices that Paul, who began with "wisdom hidden in a mystery" (1 Col 2.7), has come around to a mystery in which wisdom is hidden.
The special characteristic of the mystery in Ephesians is the collective aspect of the salvific plan in Christ, as in Eph 1.9–10: "the mystery of His will … to gather all things in Christ, both heavenly and earthly in him." This includes the subjection of the hostile angelic powers to Christ. The three references to "mystery" in Eph3.2–11 constitute the longest single Pauline treatment of the topic, and pull together most of the themes that have already been pointed out.
A special use of "mystery" is found in Eph 5.32, where Paul cites Gn 2.24 and says, "This is a profound mystery, and I interpret it as referring to Christ and his Church." "Mystery" is used here, as by 2d-century Christian writers, especially Justin, to refer to a deeper meaning of a Scripture passage. In Sir 39.2–7 and 1QpHb7.1–5 the theory that the hidden things of God can be found in the ancient Scriptures is propounded.
In Eph 6.19 mention is made of "the mystery of the gospel," which is but a variant of the mystery of Christ, since the gospel announces salvation for all in Christ.
In the Pastoral Epistles "mystery" is found in 1 Tm3.9 and 16: "the mystery of faith" and "the mystery of religion." What is meant is the doctrinal content of faith or religion which involves, as 3.16 indicates, a belief in Christ from His Incarnation to His glorification. Thus, the mystery in 1 Timothy is once more God's plan of salvation for men effected in Jesus Christ.
In summation, the New Testament and Pauline use of mystery is varied with many of the same modalities found in the pre-Christian Semitic use of mystery. The predominant use concerns God's salvific plan for men in Jesus [see revelation, concept of (in the bible)], even as the origin of mystery in the Old Testament seems to have been the divine plan for men as formulated in the heavenly council. Once granted the uniqueness of Paul's concept of Jesus, there is nothing in the Pauline mystery passages by way of vocabulary and thought pattern that cannot be explained from the Jewish background without recourse to the pagan mystery religions.
Bibliography: h. a. a. kennedy, St. Paul and the Mystery Religions (London 1913). d. deden, "Le 'Mystère' paulinien," Ephemerides theologicae Lovanienses 13 (1936) 403–442. h. rahner, "Christian Mysteries and Pagan Mysteries," Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, tr. b. battershaw (New York 1963) 3–45. k. prÜmm, Dictionnaire de la Bible, suppl. ed. l. pirot, et al. (Paris 1928–) 6:10–225. r. e. brown, "The Pre-Christian Semitic Concept of 'Mystery'," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 20 (1958) 417–443; "The Semitic Background of the New Testament Mysterion, " Biblica 39 (1958) 426–448; 40 (1959) 70–87.
[r. e. brown]