I will Tell you a Mystery: Translating μυστήριον
- Real Questions: What does “the” mean?
- Should I be more “literal” or more “readable” when translating the Bible?
- I will Tell you a Mystery: Translating μυστήριον
- From Paper to Pulpit
A student recently posed an interesting translation curiosity. I’d be interested to hear from others about this one!
Hello, Dr. Keene.
I noticed in looking at μυστήριον that the ESV translates the occurrences of this word in the Gospels as some form of “secret,” while in the Epistles it has the word as some variation of “mystery.” Do you know why they made this choice?
I saw that other translations – NASB, NKJV – use “mystery” in the Gospels, so I assume there’s a reason the ESV went the direction they did.
Is it fairly consistent in the Gospels, or did you have a specific verse in mind? I’m wondering how uniform the ESV is in this. In the end, I’m going to have to say “I don’t know;” it’s hard to get into a translation committee’s collective mind to figure that out. However, I do have some thoughts about the way the word is used in the Gospels in contrast to Paul.
The term is an interesting one. It tends to take on specialized “technical” characteristics by some authors in the NT. In the Gospels, Jesus consistently asks his disciples and followers to keep the testimony that he is the Messiah “secret.” The information is discernable, but the time has not yet come to reveal it in full. The OT promises that a Messiah will come, and as Jesus does his work on the earth the signs are there for all to see. But it’s not yet time for it to be publicly announced. This is sometimes referred to in scholarship as “The Messianic Secret.”
Some think that Paul is just taking up the idea from Jesus, but I don’t think so (nor do most scholars). For Paul, the μυστηριον is not Jesus’ Messianic identity, once kept private but subsequently publicly announced. Paul uses the word in connection with a series of themes surrounding the cosmic scope of Jesus’ work, particularly as His redemption fully and freely incorporates the Gentiles. The μυστήριον for Paul is less the “secret” of Christ’s Messianic identity and more like the “surprise” that the Gospel, as it is fulfilled in the resurrection and Pentecost, goes out beyond the Jews; it goes directly to the Gentiles too, and to the ends of the earth. This differs from Jesus’ “secret” because it is not discernable before Pentecost; that God would fulfill his promises in this way and with such cosmic prodigality is a surprise “kept hidden” until the end finally came (Col. 1:26).