Paul was in fact using an illustration of a mirror. Can anyone, please, explain this? Is it true that he meant a mirror as an example here? If yes, why "darkly" then?
In 1 Cor. 13:12, the apostle Paul wrote,
For we now see through a ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι; but then, [we shall see] face-to-face. Now we know partially; but then, we shall know accurately just as we are also known accurately.
βλέπομεν γὰρ ἄρτι δι᾽ ἐσόπτρου ἐν αἰνίγματι τότε δὲ πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον ἄρτι γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους τότε δὲ ἐπιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ἐπεγνώσθην (TR, 1550)
There are several things to note.
First, there is a distinction between the verbs γινώσκω and ἐπιγνώσομαι, the latter a conjugation of the lemma ἐπιγινώσκω. The former signifies knowing generally, but the latter, prefixed with the preposition ἐπι-, signifies knowing more accurately or fully.1
Second, the phrases ἐν αἰνίγματι and πρόσωπον πρὸς πρόσωπον are an allusion to Num. 12:8 in which it is written,
8 I shall speak with him mouth to mouth, even [in] an appearance, and not in enigmas, and he shall behold the similitude of Yahveh. Wherefore did you not fear to speak against my servant Moses?
ח פֶּ֣ה אֶל־פֶּ֞ה אֲדַבֶּר־בֹּ֗ו וּמַרְאֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א בְחִידֹ֔ת וּתְמֻנַ֥ת יְהוָ֖ה יַבִּ֑יט וּמַדּ֨וּעַ֙ לֹ֣א יְרֵאתֶ֔ם לְדַבֵּ֖ר בְּעַבְדִּ֥י בְמֹשֶֽׁה׃ (WLC)
Ηʹ στόμα κατὰ στόμα λαλήσω αὐτῷ ἐν εἴδει καὶ οὐ δ αἰνιγμάτων καὶ τὴν δόξαν κυρίου εἶδεν καὶ διὰ τί οὐκ ἐφοβήθητε καταλαλῆσαι κατὰ τοῦ θεράποντός μου Μωυσῆ (Ralfs)
The idea is that Moses accurately knew and understood Yahveh since Yahveh spoke to him "mouth-to-mouth." On the other hand, others understood Yahveh incompletely because Yahveh communicated to them using enigmas or obscurities.
The Greek word ἐσόπτρου (esóptrou) is the genitive declension of the lemma ἔσοπτρον (esóptron). The Vulgate translates it into Latin as speculum. ἔσοπτρον is sometimes translated as "mirror" or "glass,"2 but the ancients didn't have glass mirrors as we have today. Rather, they used a polished piece of metal, typically silver, in order to see themselves.
Pliny the Elder wrote,3
It is generally supposed among us that it is only the very finest silver that admits of being laminated, and so converted into mirrors. Pure silver was formerly used for the purpose, but, at the present day, this too has been corrupted by the devices of fraud... (Trans. Bostock, John)
lamnas duci in speciem vitri non nisi ex optimo posse creditum. fuerat id integrum, sed id quoque iam fraude corrumpitur.
However, to finish our description of mirrors on the present occasion—the best, in the times of our ancestors, were those of Brundisium, composed of a mixture of stannum and copper: at a later period, however, those made of silver were preferred, Pasiteles being the first who made them, in the time of Pompeius Magnus. More recently, a notion has arisen that the object is reflected with greater distinctness, by the application to the back of the mirror of a layer of gold. (Trans. Bostock, John)
atque ut omnia de speculis peragantur in hoc loco, optima aput maiores fuerant Brundisina, stagno et aere mixtis. praelata sunt argentea; primus fecit Pasiteles Magni Pompei aetate. nuper credit coeptum certiorem imaginem reddi auro opposito aversis.
In time, a polished piece of metal will dull and oxidize, causing the appearance of the object in the mirror to become obscured. Thus, while the person looking into the "mirror" may be looking at himself, the obscurity due to dulling and oxidation precludes him from actually seeing a reality.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we find an expression similar to the apostle Paul's. The rabbis were attempting to resolve the supposed contradiction between Isa. 6:1 ("I saw Adonai") and Exo. 33:20 ("no man can see Me and live").
In the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Tractate Yevamot, Chapter 4, Folio 49b, it is written,
"I saw Adonai" is [understood] in accordance with what was taught: All the prophets looked into a 'mirror' (אספקלריא) that is not clear, but our rabbi Moses looked into a clear 'mirror' (אספקלריא).
ואראה את ה' כדתניא כל הנביאים נסתכלו באספקלריא שאינה מאירה משה רבינו נסתכל באספקלריא המאירה
The word אספקלריא is a loan word derived from the Latin word speculum, the same word found in the Vulgate for the Greek word ἔσοπτρον in 1 Cor. 13:12.
Why does the apostle Paul write that Christians "know partially"?
In his first epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes that Christians know partially (γινώσκουσιν ἐκ μέρους), rather than know accurately (ἐπιγινώσκουσιν), and they also prophesy partially (προφητεύουσιν ἐκ μέρους). The reason is because they had not attained to the state of being a mature man (ἀνήρ τέλειος; cp. Eph. 4:12); they had not yet fully tranformed into Christ's image (cp. 2 Cor. 3:18). Instead, they still spoke and thought like children (1 Cor. 13:11).
In 1 Cor. 13:10, it is written,
But when the perfect comes, then the partial shall cease.
ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ τὸ τέλειον τότε τὸ ἐκ μέρους καταργηθήσεται (TR, 1550)
The partial (τὸ ἐκ μέρους) includes prophesy, tongues, and knowledge (i.e., the spiritual gift of knowledge, just as the others are spiritual gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit). However, the mature (τὸ τέλειον) refers to the Christian reaching a state of maturity by possessing the virtue of love (cp. 1 Cor. 13:1-8).
On the Greek verb ἐπιγινώσκω, Thayer writes (p. 237),
1 Co. 13:12 (where γινώσκω ἐκ μέρους and ἐπιγιν. i.e. to know thoroughly, know well, divine things, are contrasted...
See A.V. in 1 Cor. 13:12; Jam. 1:23.
Natural Histories, Book 33, Ch. 45, §§128-129
Babylonian Talmud (תלמוד בבלי). Vilna: Romm, 1835.
Pliny the Elder. Naturalis Historia (The Natural History), Vol. 9. Trans. Rackham, Harris. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961.
Thayer, Joseph Henry. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Being Grimm Wilke’s Clavis Novi Testamenti. New York: American Book, 1889.