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Where did the word “sacrament” come from?

November 24th, 2010
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Often non-Lutherans are bothered by the fact that Lutherans teach there are sacraments. They think that the word “sacrament” is somehow a “Roman Catholic” thing. No, it is simply a “Bible thing,” therefore, “a Christian thing.” I found a nice little summary of where the word “sacrament” comes from.

By the end of third century, Latin had overtaken Greek as the language of common people in the western half of the Roman Empire. Western clergy preached in Latin, western theologians wrote in Latin, and western scholars translated the Bible into Latin. Western Christians heard the sermons, read the writings, and studied the Bible in Latin. The word μυστηριον was a problem. There was no Latin word that corresponded to it. They could have transliterated the Greek word into Latin as mysterium, and they often did that, but that did not solve the problem so much as avoid it, because most Latin-speaking people still had no idea what it meant. So western Christian scholars used the word sacramentum to translate μυστηριον. These scholars included Tertullian, who was one of the earliest Latin theologians, and Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin about a hundred years later.

But where did they get this word and why did they choose it? They borrowed it from the Roman Army. A recruit for the Roman army became a soldier by undergoing a sacramentum. The sacramentum had two parts: the soldier took an oath of office, and the Army branded him behind the ear with the number of his legion. The sacramentum resulted in new responsibilities and new advantages. The soldier acquired the responsibility for conforming to military discipline and obeying military commands. He also acquired social and legal benefits, because living conditions in the Roman Army were very good and veterans received special privileges and benefits. Ancient Latin theologians seized upon sacramentum as the best Latin equivalent of the Greek word mystery when it referred to a church rite, because the church rite is simultaneously spiritual and physical, and because the person who undergoes the sacrament simultaneously receives new responsibilities and a new spiritual status before God.

So that is how the word sacrament came into Christian theology in the west. For many centuries, the secular and the theological uses of the word existed side by side. By the time of the Reformation, it was solely a Christian theological term.

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  1. November 24th, 2010 at 11:10 | #1

    Another key point in the analogy is that the sacramentum was not something that was always by the choice of the individual receiving it because the Romans frequently practiced drafting and impressment. So, although there were oaths and actions being done, it was actually done TO a person to MAKE them a soldier more than just BY a person to join up.

    Also, the sacramentum signalled the end of civilian life. The good soldier put all previous things aside and obeyed his commander (i.e. Christ in the analogy) without question and would endure horror, hardship, and suffering to fullfil that oath. St. Paul speaks of this aspect of the military/christian analogy when he tells Timothy, “Join with me in suffering, like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer.” [2 Tim 2:3-4] In the times of sporadic–but extreme–persecution, this aspect of duty and loyalty was important to Latin Christians. Still today, our “sacramentum” calls us to the same sense of seperation through duty and loyalty as we labor for the good of our neighbor under the cross. We are still to be “in the world, but not of it.” [Rom 12:2, John 17:13-19, etc].

    …and, in ancient times, where you found the sacramentum practiced and observed rightly, you knew you had found the legion. It was an external mark (or evidence) of the army.

  2. Eric
    November 24th, 2010 at 12:29 | #2

    And yet Paul’s use of “mysterion” usually refers not to the sacrament, but rather to the now-revealed secret that Messiah would come twice, and that between those advents lies an entire age in which the Gentiles are being brought into God’s kingdom. In the Bauer-Danker-Arndt-Gingrich lexicon it’s usually “the unmanifested or private counsel of God.” The association of “mysterion” with rites of initiation is associated in early Christian and Greco-Roman literature far more often with paganism than with Christianity.

    I’m not disagreeing with the historicity of your point. I’m only asserting that as an historical development, it appears to have been based in bad theology and has distorted our understanding of the New Testament use of “mysterion” on nearly every front. While it may have become a solely Christian theological term by the Reformation, it was and remains a very misunderstood term thanks (I believe) to the Latin translation choice you describe here.

    • November 24th, 2010 at 13:44 | #3

      Eric, I don’t agree. And here’s why. Great is the “mysterion” of our Faith, as St. Paul says. What better way to anchor/attach the “sacraments” in the “Great Mystery” of the Faith? The incarnation and all that it means to us/for us. The danger of doing theology via lexical materials is that we reduce theology to an atomistic translation of words, rather than consider the wider theological meaning of the whole counsel of God.

  3. November 24th, 2010 at 14:51 | #4


    As I pointed out in my comments, the statements from the apostle Paul to Timothy demonstrate that this particular military analogy Scriptural… especially in light of Paul’s theological teaching in his other epistles regarding the means of grace. Paul takes this analogy even further than Pr. McCain did when he admonished Christians to “put on the full armor of God” and then described the equipment divinely issued in this spirital war. It is on this solid Biblical foundation that later latin writers selected “sacramentum” with the confidence that they were preserving the teachings of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

    I would also point out that words like “Evangellion” and “Angelos” and “Apastoloi” and “Gehenna” all have secular and *gasp* pagan contexts. That didn’t stop Jesus and the writers of the New Testament (who were themselves under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) from using them to explain established Christian truths. Even the covenants of Israel in the Old Testament were done in analogous fashions (somtimes with identital ritual) to the pagan treaties and agreements of the day.

    Rather than creating a suspect theology that is influenced by pagan sources, it shows that God comes to us using words, analogies, and things that we can understand in our finite and fallen situation.

  4. Eric
    November 24th, 2010 at 15:35 | #5

    Well, I can hardly let you suggest that I am doing theology dangerously and say nothing in response. That is an unjustified allegation.

    Words mean things, objectively, not subjectively. And “mysterion” in Paul does not mean the baptismal rite, nor the altar rite, as the Latin “sacramentum” suggests. That’s not dangerous theology, it’s not reductionistic theology, and it’s not atomistic translation of words. It’s just responsible exegesis. The passages that demonstrate this are manifold: Romans 11:25; Romans 16:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 1:9; Ephesians 3 passim; Ephesians 6:19; Colossians 1:26-27; Colossians 4:3. Even in the passage you cite — which was 1 Timothy 3:16 — the apostle instantly goes on to enumerate the contents of this “mysterion,” which is that

    “He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”

    Sounds like a pretty decent summary of the gospel. And that’s precisely his point in Ephesians 3:6 — “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” I’m all for “the whole counsel of God,” but it makes a convenient rock to hide behind because it’s so hard to delineate, and I hardly think that it would contradict the apostle’s own explanation of his terminology.

    Now the sacraments of baptism and of Christ’s body and blood likewise proclaim these truths, I heartily agree. And the theological argument connecting Word and Sacrament is a clear one. Yes, the Word became flesh. Yes, baptism is Christ. Yes, the Lord’s Supper is Christ. But you started out talking about translation issues, and then rebutted me on the basis of wider theological meaning. You can’t have this cake and eat it too. On the level of what was the best translation of “mysterion,” “sacramentum” missed the mark. There is a theological profundity there that is consistent with our Lutheran theology, yes; but let us not suggest that Paul wrote these words with the bread and wine, or the baptismal font, in mind; his own context makes clear that his focus was on the grand divine plan, not the Church’s rites per se. All I’m asserting here is that by choosing a word that was intrinsically evocative of the rites themselves, the Latin translators failed to carry forward Paul’s emphasis on the message.

  5. Terry Maher (Past Elder)
    November 25th, 2010 at 00:50 | #6

    I have to go with PTM and Mike here. It has long been remarked that many ancient Greek cults had their “mysteries”, and Christianity’s detractors often use that to allege that Christianity in nothing more than a failed instance of Jewish messianism morphed into a Greek mystery religion by Paul, which as such then caught on with the Gentiles.

    Although it is true that the Messiah coming twice is not now and has never been part of Jewish understanding — or as my rabbi put it, in his best Schwartzenegger accent, the Messiah will not come and then say I’ll be back — that is only a part of the demarcation, and not the main part, which is, that the Messiah has anything whatever to do with sin and atonement therefor, which is already taken care of in the Law and in no such fashion as Paul describes, or as Christianity holds, which is clearly seen from the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) which most clearly lays out God’s repugnance at human sacrifice and in no way assumes human form to do what he abhors.

    In short, it is not the Jews and Christians are looking for the same thing re the Messiah, we thinking Jesus is it and they missing the identification. We are looking for entirely different things, but both of which include an “ingathering of the Gentiles”, as Jonah prefigures and Zechariah prophecies re Sukkoth.

    It is precisely because of the similarities between the military sacramentum and the Christian mysterion as distinct from the pagan ones that Christian theologians in the ancient world could not simply leave it at translating mysterion with the cognate mysterium, but used sacramentum too. We labour though under the disadvantage that neither the ancient Greek notion of mysterion nor the Roman military sacramentum are generally understood. So I believe it greatly helps people now for these points to be made re these terms.

    With the further benefit that the external marks by which God’s legion or army, as it were, can be known for what they truly are, not what the RCC holds, but wherever the Word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

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