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Hamblin & Peterson: Deciphering the esoteric in religion

Published: Friday, July 12 2013 12:00 p.m. MDT

The concept of esoteric (“inner”) teachings or practices has always played an important role in the history of religions.

The fundamental idea is that while there are certain exoteric (“outer”) beliefs and practices that are publicly taught and widely known, there are also other esoteric ideas and practices: teachings that are restricted to the prepared, enlightened, initiated, educated or spiritually advanced. Esoteric ideas can be found in a wide range of texts, interpretations, oral teachings, visions, dramas, art and rituals in nearly all religious traditions.

Some religions, like modern Evangelical Protestantism, may be predominantly exoteric, while others, like the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries, are predominantly or entirely esoteric. But even the most exoteric religions generally have esoteric elements.

The English terms “esoteric” and “exoteric” derive from Greek roots, but they are cognate with the more straightforward Latin-based terms “interior” and “exterior,” or more generally, in English, “inner” and “outer.”

The Greek terms “esōteros” and “esōterikos,” however, were rarely used in classical antiquity for inner and outer religious teachings. The more common classical Greek term for esoteric religious teaching is “mystery” (“mustērion”), a term widely used in the New Testament with rich and layered meaning, especially in Paul’s letters and Revelation.

From the biblical perspective, “esōteros” is a rare term with a very specific technical meaning in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Its fundamental meaning is the inner chamber of the temple, that is, the Holy of Holies (Exodus 26:33, 1 Kings 6:27 and 29, 7:50; 1 Chronicles 28:11; 2 Chronicles 4:22; Ezekiel 41:3 and 17), or the inner court of the temple (Ezekiel 8:3 and 16, 10:3, 40:23-28 and 44, 42:3 and 5, 44:17, 44:19, 46:1).

This basic meaning is further confirmed by the crucial occurrence of the term “esōteros” in the New Testament in Hebrews 6:19. Here Hebrews is discussing Christ, as the “Great High Priest” (Hebrews 4:14), entering the Holy of Holies of the celestial Tabernacle/Temple. Four different translations give us a sense of the technical meaning of the word.

King James Version: “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.

English Standard Version: “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain.”

New Revised Standard Version: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain.

New International Version: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain.”

The Greek original of the bold face phrase here is “to esōteron tou katapestasmatos, a technical term in both the Septuagint and the New Testament for the veil or curtain of the Temple.

Thus, “esōteron” means literally the “inner [place/shrine/sanctuary] behind the curtain/veil,” that is, the Holy of Holies. Hebrews is, in fact, quoting a technical phrase from the description of the Day of Atonement ritual in Leviticus 16, where the Holy of Holies within the temple veil is consistently described in the Septuagint as “esōteron tou katapetasmatos” (Leviticus 16:2, 12, 15).

“Esoteric,” then, in its original biblical meaning, refers to the teachings and practices done within the Temple. This concept helps us understand that in the Israelite world view there were public, exoteric rites and teachings performed in the outer court of the Temple in view of all the people, including Gentiles. There were also esoteric rites and teachings performed within the temple building and restricted to the priests or even to the High Priest alone.

In the book of Revelation, John’s esoteric vision describes events and decisions undertaken within the celestial temple (Revelation 1:12-13, 4:1-11, 11:1-4, 21:1-22:5). The book was not meant to be read by general readers, but was an esoteric text meant to be read aloud to the spiritually advanced (Revelation 1:3).

Likewise, when Christ says, “Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8:10, Matthew 13:11), he is describing esoteric teachings that formed an important part of earliest Christianity. The fact that such teachings today seem commonplace and are read by all in the Bible should not disguise their esoteric origins.

For more information on these ideas, see a video presentation at: https://vimeo.com/69503981.

Daniel C. Peterson, professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, is editor-in-chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. William Hamblin is a professor of history at BYU. Their views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.

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