Everyone who has ever taught or studied related languages is familiar with the concept of false friends, even if they don’t know the term. They are forms that sound (or look) alike, but do not have the same meaning:
Sp. embarazada [‘pregnant’] ≠ Eng. embarrassed [Sp. ‘avergonzado’]
Sp. dirección [‘address’] ≠ Eng. direction [Sp. ‘rumbo’]
Sp. compromiso [‘promise’] ≠ Eng. compromise [no exact match]
Sp. éxito [‘success, hit’] ≠ Eng. exit [Sp. ‘salida’]
Fr. préservatif [‘condom’]≠ Eng. preservative [Fr. ‘conservateur’]
Fr. blesser [‘wound’]≠ Eng. bless [Fr. ‘bénir’]
Fr. issue [‘exit’]≠ Eng. issue [Fr. ‘édition’ (publication); ‘problème’]
Fr. actuel [‘current’ (time)]≠ Eng. actual [Fr. ‘vrai, véridique’]
These lists could go on. There’s even a section of a website dedicated to false friends.
There is something terribly deceptive about similarity in linguistic forms. The connection between sound and meaning for a fully fluent speaker is so close to instinctive that we assume that linguistic symbols have some inherent connection to their meaning. Unless we are fully attentive, we forget the most basic insight of 20th century linguistics:
The connection between the form of linguistic symbols and their meaning is arbitrary.
Let me interject at this point that as attractive as it may sound to translate “transparently” or “faithfully”, the very idea that there is anything at all to be gained from matching anything about the form of the original is logically bankrupt, precisely because it is based on the utterly false notion that the relation between linguistic symbols and meaning is NOT arbitrary.
But back to false friends.
False friends are also found in Scripture translations.
English has a word mystery, borrowed from Greek. Bible translators for centuries have happily read Greek μυστήριον and translated mystery. All twenty-seven times it appears in the NT, the KJV translates it mystery.
But in fact there are two senses to μυστήριον that English clearly distinguishes, ‘secret’ and ‘mystery’ (I’ve mentioned this in passing before.) A secret is something that only some people know. It is hidden from other people, but it is not hard to understand. A mystery is something that is so hard to comprehend that even if you are told about it you probably won’t understand it.
Newer translations, including some “faithful equivalent” translations, get some of these passages right, but not always. So we are still misled into believing that there are things about Christianity that are hard to understand, but which are not. (Hard to accept, maybe, but not hard to understand.)
Some of this stems from a cultural misunderstanding.
Roman era Greek society was filled with secret societies, almost certainly a reaction to the anonymity that goes with urbanization. Too many modern commentators, Christian and New Age alike, misapprehend these, failing to recognize that, because they were a reaction to the impersonalness of the city, they were probably a lot more like the Elks and Masons than like Shinto or Hinduism. Paul was happy to treat the nascent church as just such a society. When you come into the Community of the Way, you learn the secrets that outsiders don’t know. And part of the job of the leaders is to pass these secrets on to the new folks. This is really clear in I Cor. 4:1.
4:1 οὕτως ἡμᾶς λογιζέσθω ἄνθρωπος ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ καὶ οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ
Let a man so account of us, as of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. (KJV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (ESV)
Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (NASB)
A person should consider us in this way: as servants of Christ and managers of God’s mysteries. (HCSB)
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. (TNIV)
No, no. These are not mysteries. They are just the secrets of the Christian community.
This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of the Messiah and as those entrusted with the secrets God has revealed. (TNIV, modified)
Christianity is filled with teachings about the way things are that aren’t hard to understand at all, from Jesus’ parables to Paul’s basic theology. Take, for example, Rom 11:25.
οὐ γὰρ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν ἀδελφοί τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο ἵνα μὴ ἦτε παρ’ ἑαυτοῖς φρόνιμοι ὅτι πώρωσις ἀπὸ μέρους τῷ Ἰσραὴλ γέγονεν ἄχρις οὗ τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν εἰσέλθῃ
For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of thismystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. (KJV)
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I want you to understand thismystery, brothers:[a] a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. (ESV)
For I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery—so that you will not be wise in your own estimation–that a partial hardening has happened to Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; … (NASB)
So that you will not be conceited, brothers, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery: a partial hardening has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. (HSCB)
I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not think you are superior: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, … (TNIV)
Come on. This is not hard to understand. It is simply something that insiders need to know, lest the Gentile believers start to think that, because God seems to have turned His back on the Jews, they can, too. (How sadly true that worry turns out to have been!) A better translation would be something like:
I do not want you to be unaware of this secret, brothers and sisters, or you might think that you are smarter than the Jews: Israel has been hardened in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, …
It’s even the case that there are things which we assume are hard to comprehend because the translators made a choice to spin them as mysterious rather than simply a new piece of previously unknown information. Take 1 Cor. 15:51:
ἰδοὺ μυστήριον ὑμῖν λέγω πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, … (KJV)
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, … (ESV)
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, … (NASB)
Listen! I am telling you a mystery: We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, … (HCSB)
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— (TNIV)
Particularly egregious is The Message.
But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand. We’re not all going to die—but we are all going to be changed. (The Message)
Once again what Paul is saying is not hard to understand. Once you grok that those who have died will be raised bodily, it’s no stretch to get that those who happen to be alive when Jesus returns will be given the same kind of renewed bodies as those who have died. This is just another insider’s secret.
I’m sure that by this time there are many of you squirming, in part because μυστήριον is a technical term in theology—a separate problem altogether—and in part because there are things about Christianity that ARE hard to understand.
Granted, but …
The historically consistent choice of translators to gloss μυστήρια preferentially as mysteries rather than secrets, unless forced by the context, is a false friends mistake. It leads us to think that far more of Christianity is about things we can’t understand than it really is.
We’re in the same bind that Moishe and the Pope are. The Scripture says one thing and we hear another.
The passages containing the 28 instances of μυστήριον in the NT (including a variant, Rom. 16:25) are listed below:
Mat. 13:11 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὅτι ὑμῖν δέδοται γνῶναι τὰ μυστήρια τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν ἐκείνοις δὲ οὐ δέδοται
Mark 4:11 καὶ ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς ὑμῖν τὸ μυστήριον δέδοται τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ ἐκείνοις δὲ τοῖς ἔξω ἐν παραβολαῖς τὰ πάντα γίνεται
Luke 8:10 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν ὑμῖν δέδοται γνῶναι τὰ μυστήρια τῆς βασιλείας τοῦ θεοῦ τοῖς δὲ λοιποῖς ἐν παραβολαῖς ἵνα βλέποντες μὴ βλέπωσιν καὶ ἀκούοντες μὴ συνιῶσιν
Rom 11:25 οὐ γὰρ θέλω ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν ἀδελφοί τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο ἵνα μὴ ἦτε παρ’ ἑαυτοῖς φρόνιμοι ὅτι πώρωσις ἀπὸ μέρους τῷ Ἰσραὴλ γέγονεν ἄχρις οὗ τὸ πλήρωμα τῶν ἐθνῶν εἰσέλθῃ
Rom 16:25 τῷ δὲ δυναμένῳ ὑμᾶς στηρίξαι κατὰ τὸ εὐαγγέλιόν μου καὶ τὸ κήρυγμα Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν μυστηρίου χρόνοις αἰωνίοις σεσιγημένου
1 Cor. 2:1 κἀγὼ ἐλθὼν πρὸς ὑμᾶς ἀδελφοί ἦλθον οὐ καθ’ ὑπεροχὴν λόγου ἢ σοφίας καταγγέλλων ὑμῖν τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θεοῦ
1 Cor 2:7 ἀλλὰ λαλοῦμεν θεοῦ σοφίαν ἐν μυστηρίῳ τὴν ἀποκεκρυμμένην ἣν προώρισεν ὁ θεὸς πρὸ τῶν αἰώνων εἰς δόξαν ἡμῶν
1 Cor 4:1 οὕτως ἡμᾶς λογιζέσθω ἄνθρωπος ὡς ὑπηρέτας Χριστοῦ καὶ οἰκονόμους μυστηρίων θεοῦ
1 Cor 13:2 καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω προφητείαν καὶ εἰδῶ τὰ μυστήρια πάντα καὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γνῶσιν καὶ ἐὰν ἔχω πᾶσαν τὴν πίστιν ὥστε ὄρη μεθιστάναι ἀγάπην δὲ μὴ ἔχω οὐθέν εἰμι
1 Cor 14:2 ὁ γὰρ λαλῶν γλώσσῃ οὐκ ἀνθρώποις λαλεῖ ἀλλὰ θεῷ οὐδεὶς γὰρ ἀκούει πνεύματι δὲ λαλεῖ μυστήρια
1 Cor 15:51 ἰδοὺ μυστήριον ὑμῖν λέγω πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα
Eph 1:9 γνωρίσας ἡμῖν τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ κατὰ τὴν εὐδοκίαν αὐτοῦ ἣν προέθετο ἐν αὐτῷ
Eph 3:3 ὅτι κατὰ ἀποκάλυψιν ἐγνωρίσθη μοι τὸ μυστήριον καθὼς προέγραψα ἐν ὀλίγῳ 3 4 πρὸς ὃ δύνασθε ἀναγινώσκοντες νοῆσαι τὴν σύνεσίν μου ἐν τῷ μυστηρίῳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ (2X)
Eph 3:9 καὶ φωτίσαι πάντας τίς ἡ οἰκονομία τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ ἀποκεκρυμμένου ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων ἐν τῷ θεῷ τῷ τὰ πάντα κτίσαντι
Eph 5:32 τὸ μυστήριον τοῦτο μέγα ἐστίν ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω εἰς Χριστὸν καὶ εἰς τὴν ἐκκλησίαν
Eph 6:19 καὶ ὑπὲρ ἐμοῦ ἵνα μοι δοθῇ λόγος ἐν ἀνοίξει τοῦ στόματός μου ἐν παρρησίᾳ γνωρίσαι τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ εὐαγγελίου
Col 1:26 τὸ μυστήριον τὸ ἀποκεκρυμμένον ἀπὸ τῶν αἰώνων καὶ ἀπὸ τῶν γενεῶν νῦν δὲ ἐφανερώθη τοῖς ἁγίοις αὐτοῦ 27 οἷς ἠθέλησεν ὁ θεὸς γνωρίσαι τί τὸ πλοῦτος τῆς δόξης τοῦ μυστηρίου τούτου ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν ὅ ἐστιν Χριστὸς ἐν ὑμῖν ἡ ἐλπὶς τῆς δόξης (2X)
Col 2:2 ἵνα παρακληθῶσιν αἱ καρδίαι αὐτῶν συμβιβασθέντες ἐν ἀγάπῃ καὶ εἰς πᾶν πλοῦτος τῆς πληροφορίας τῆς συνέσεως εἰς ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ μυστηρίου τοῦ θεοῦ Χριστοῦ
Col 4:3 προσευχόμενοι ἅμα καὶ περὶ ἡμῶν ἵνα ὁ θεὸς ἀνοίξῃ ἡμῖν θύραν τοῦ λόγου λαλῆσαι τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ Χριστοῦ δι’ ὃ καὶ δέδεμαι
2 Thes 2:7 τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται
1 Tim 3:9 ἔχοντας τὸ μυστήριοντῆς πίστεως ἐν καθαρᾷ συνειδήσει
1 Tim 3:16 καὶ ὁμολογουμένως μέγα ἐστὶν τὸ τῆς εὐσεβείας μυστήριον ὃς ἐφανερώθη ἐν σαρκί ἐδικαιώθη ἐν πνεύματι ὤφθη ἀγγέλοις ἐκηρύχθη ἐν ἔθνεσιν ἐπιστεύθη ἐν κόσμῳ ἀνελήμφθη ἐν δόξῃ
Rev 1:20 τὸ μυστήριον τῶν ἑπτὰ ἀστέρων οὓς εἶδες ἐπὶ τῆς δεξιᾶς μου καὶ τὰς ἑπτὰ λυχνίας τὰς χρυσᾶς οἱ ἑπτὰ ἀστέρες ἄγγελοι τῶν ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησιῶν εἰσιν καὶ αἱ λυχνίαι αἱ ἑπτὰ ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι εἰσίν
Rev 10:7 ἀλλ’ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις τῆς φωνῆς τοῦ ἑβδόμου ἀγγέλου ὅταν μέλλῃ σαλπίζειν καὶ ἐτελέσθη τὸ μυστήριον τοῦ θεοῦ ὡς εὐηγγέλισεν τοὺς ἑαυτοῦ δούλους τοὺς προφήτας
Rev 17:5 καὶ ἐπὶ τὸ μέτωπον αὐτῆς ὄνομα γεγραμμένον μυστήριον Βαβυλὼν ἡ μεγάλη ἡ μήτηρ τῶν πορνῶν καὶ τῶν βδελυγμάτων τῆς γῆς
Rev 17:7 καὶ εἶπέν μοι ὁ ἄγγελος διὰ τί ἐθαύμασας ἐγὼ ἐρῶ σοι τὸ μυστήριον τῆς γυναικὸς καὶ τοῦ θηρίου τοῦ βαστάζοντος αὐτήν τοῦ ἔχοντος τὰς ἑπτὰ κεφαλὰς καὶ τὰ δέκα κέρατα
For any of you who might not infer it, the nattily sweatered man telling the joke in the video above is Rich himself. — W.L.