The sacraments (3): the doubly mysterious origins of the term

The term ‘sacrament’ and the Bible—it’s just one of those things: the idea is there, but not the actual word. The term only made its way into Christian vocabulary later on—and it even took two tries! Here is a story about semantics.

Carthage, North Africa: it was here of all places—and not in the great competing city of Rome—that Latin began its career as the language of the church. It was also here that the oldest Christian document in this language—the “Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs”—appeared. And it was likewise here that the earliest translators of the Bible went to work.

Why is this important? First of all, the word ‘sacrament’ has its source in Latin. However, it is also because the term’s history, use, and translation still have a great deal to tell us about what it means today.

Knowledge reserved exclusively for initiates

It was the Greek word mysterion that caused the Latin translators of the New Testament so much trouble. Contemporaries were only acquainted with this term from two different contexts:

  • mysteria, the plural form, denoted the ancient cults (mystery religions) that made use of certain rituals to reflect the life events of their deities. Only those who were sworn to secrecy at their initiation were permitted to participate in these cults.
  • in the philosophy of Plato, the meaning shifted to an even more abstract level. There the term mysterion came to mean the knowledge of what is real, the express message of which was directed at a circle of knowledgeable individuals.

Revelation in perfection

It is in the latter sense that the word is also found in the Septuagint, the standard translation of the Jewish Bible into Greek, specifically in the book of Daniel, where it is used in reference to the revelation of divine advice to a chosen few.

The authors of the New Testament—first and foremost, Apostle Paul—give a new twist to this Old Testament understanding of the term: the historical realisation of the divine mysteries of salvation find their highest form in Jesus, but only believers can recognise this.

The Carthaginians attempted to translate ‘mysterion’ with the Latin word ‘sacramentum’, however the North African term did not find its way into standard use quite yet. The Itala (the next generation of translations) and the Vulgata (the translation which came to dominate in the end) were more cautious, opting to use the Latinised term ‘mysterium’ instead.

The oath of allegiance as a bridge

The fact that the term ‘sacramentum’ did end up becoming part of Christian vocabulary is due in large part to the work of Tertullian, the first Latin author of the church. The Latin word originally denoted both the oath that soldiers and officials made to their emperor (who was revered as a god), and the bail deposited with a court during legal proceedings, which would fall to a particular temple and its priests in cases of doubt.

Tertullian, who was the son of a soldier and a trained lawyer, saw a parallel between the Christian baptismal vow and such oaths of allegiance. After all, in this vow, the believer commits himself to the service of his Lord Jesus Christ. So it was that the Carthaginian first described the baptismal vow, and later on the entire act of baptism using the term ‘sacramentum’. And in the end he also came to use the generic term in reference to Holy Communion.

A single word with two meanings

This explains why the term ‘sacrament’ has two meanings:

  • in the narrower sense, the term refers to holy acts in divine service that allow individuals to share in salvation through Jesus Christ—this is the sacramentum used by Tertullian. These rituals result from the descriptions of baptism and Holy Communion documented in the Bible.
  • in the broader sense, the term generally refers to the historical realisation of the divine mysteries of salvation, in other words, the mysterion of the New Testament. It is for this reason that some theologians also talk about Jesus Christ and His church as sacraments.

The father of the Christian term does not, however, develop an exhaustive doctrine of the sacraments. This feat was only managed by another North African some 200 years later. That is the subject of the next issue in this series.

Photo: Thomas Mucha -

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