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The word mystery (from the Greek μυστήριον mysterion , originally for cultic celebrations with a core that remains secret, popularly also derived from myo, to close one's mouth) is usually translated as mystery . What is meant is a state of affairs which in principle eludes clear predictability and explainability - not simply information that is difficult to convey or that happens to be concealed.

Greek antiquity

In the Greek cultural milieu, the use of as yet unknown secrets tends to increase the prestige of a religion. To differentiate between still hidden and already revealed religious facts and to practice a secrecy ( arcane discipline ) for certain esoteric teachings with regard to some known facts is not only widespread in Greek mystery cults, but also with some philosophers, best known with Plato.


The ancient Egyptian religion sees “powerful sacred knowledge secured” through mysteries.


In Zoroastrianism , eschatological events as well as the struggle between gods and demons and knowledge of the ways to defeat them are considered mysteries.


The Greek use of mysterion for secret teachings also finds its way into texts of Hellenistic Judaism . It is often stated in Old Testament texts that God's ways are beyond human understanding. A specific idea of ​​secrets concerning the end of days and which are only revealed in dreams can be found in the book of Daniel . In the Book of Wisdom secrets spoken by God; pagan secret cults are also referred to as mysterion for polemical purposes . Apocalyptic texts such as the Ethiopian Enoch speak of secrets of the end times that are written and disclosed to individuals. There is a more unspecific usage of the word in Qumran texts .


New Testament

In the New Testament , the word mysterion is used practically throughout for otherwise inaccessible revelation , especially in the context of Christology , in Paul and in the letter to the Ephesians primarily in relation to the saving death on the cross of Jesus Christ , as well as in relation to prophetic tradition. In the synoptic corpus the term appears only once, with reference to the kingdom of God , which non-Christians remain incomprehensible. Jesus himself did not use the term. The first letter to Timothy already speaks of a “mystery of faith”.


Christian theologians from Alexandria tie in with the terminology of the mystery religions and also refer to the content of Christian faith as mysteries; otherwise, above all, the Christ event is so designated.

In the fourth century AD, Christian rites are also referred to as mysteries or - in Latin equivalent - as sacramentum . The Latin expression is increasingly understood in terms of signs.

Middle Ages and Modern Times

Medieval theologians develop a theology of the sacraments , which systematizes the individual types of sacred acts such as baptism or the Eucharist . In liturgical usage the word meaning remains broader.

Questions of the recognizability and namability of God have been discussed since the earliest attempts at the system of Jewish ( Philo of Alexandria ) and Christian theology (including Clement of Alexandria , Three Cappadocians and others), in parallel also in Middle Platonism , to which the former are also included. The overwhelming majority excludes individual truths of faith, especially the absolutely simple "nature" of God, an accessibility through clearly controllable terminology and the usual rational methodology. The rejection of positive terms is summarized under the collective term negative theology . The exact demarcation between the thinkable and the sayable and the closed is different. The context of the problem is complicated by the distinction between possibilities of reason from its own nature or with regard to revelation that has taken place. Thomas Aquinas, for example, takes those beliefs that are only accessible through revelation from the subject area of ​​natural reason and describes them as mysteria stricte dicta ("mysteries in the strict sense"): Trinity , incarnation of God , the vicarious death of Jesus .

While for many theologians God in himself remains inaccessible to the understanding (ratio), at least to the natural understanding, the divine mystery, as some theologians teach, is accessible to a reason (intellectus, intelligentia), which allows thinking in distinctions and other modalities of the Use of the mind and their striving is not oriented towards certain finite goods or not towards itself. Such a path can be assigned more to the intellect or more to the affectivity, i.e. experience, and can be understood as being possible by its own nature or only opened or feasible through concrete divine grace. Intermediate positions are also represented. The debate about these connections is conducted to a large extent in texts that can be assigned to mystical theology , often in comments on the work of the same name by the pseudo-Dionysius Areopagita - since the early modern period, mysticism has also been spoken of briefly .

Martin Luther chose the German word “ mystery ” as the translation of the biblical term μυστήριον .

Modern times

As a result of the modern claim of the sciences to the priority of rational knowledge, the concept of mystery was also primarily defined from the scope of reason as that which is inaccessible and understandable to the human faculty of knowledge, so that it can only be grasped in faith and on the basis of divine revelation . At the beginning of the 20th century, both Protestant and Catholic theology regained a more comprehensive view of mystery, going beyond the narrowing of mystery as a series of “sentence truths”.

The Protestant theologian and religious scholar Rudolf Otto introduced the complementary terms Mysterium fascinosum and Mysterium tremendum in his main work Das Heilige , published in 1917 , in order to characterize the - in his opinion - fundamental manifestations of people's experiences with the sacred.

On the Catholic side, the Benedictine Odo Casel developed a mystery theology that regards the realm of the divine, represented in the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and experienced in the liturgy , as the center of Christianity. This aspect was taken up by the Second Vatican Council . Erich Przywara SJ recognized in the self-communication of God (revelation) the opening of the possibility for humans to be included in the mystery of the greater God. Karl Rahner SJ sees in the mystery a trait of God which remains as a mystery even after the eschatological perfection of the human being in the Visio beatifica , the blissful gaze of God. Eva-Maria Faber emphasizes that the mystery of God cannot be caught up with human understanding, but the essence of God is not characterized by closeness and withdrawnness, but implies from the outset a devotion from God to man, which is fundamental in creation and is revealed historically. Man as God's creature in the image of God is a mystery to himself and to others.


Web links

Wiktionary: Mysterium  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikiquote: Mystery  - Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. See e.g. B. Hutter .; Dieter Zeller : Art. Mysteries / Mysteries Religions, in: Theologische Realenzyklopädie , Vol. 23, 504-426, here 504
  2. See Hutter.
  3. Symposium 28
  4. Hutter.
  5. S. Hutter.
  6. Dan 2 and 4; see. Hutter and Theobald, 1.a.
  7. Weish 6:22 and 14:25, 23; n. Theobald, 1.b.
  8. s. Theobald, 1st c.
  9. s. Theobald, 1.d.
  10. 1 Cor 13: 2 and 14: 2, after Theobald, 2.
  11. Mk 4.11 par .; n. Theobald, 2.
  12. 1 Tim 3: 9, 16, here after Theobald, 2.d.
  13. s. Faber, 2.a.
  14. ^ On the above, see Faber, 2.a.
  15. Elke Kruitschnitt / Guido Vergauwen: Secret . In: Walter Kasper (Ed.): Lexicon for Theology and Church . 3. Edition. tape 4 . Herder, Freiburg im Breisgau 1995, Sp. 344 .
  16. Faber, 2.b.
  17. Faber, 2.b.
  18. Faber, 3.