I heard that in the following verse:

1 Corinthians 13:12: For now we see through a glass, darkly

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?

Is this verse somehow related to this one:

2 Corinthians 3:18: But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, [even] as by the Spirit of the Lord.

  • 5
    To prime the pump... silvered mirrors as we know them today are a 19th century innovation. In the 1st century, metal-coated mirrors were groundbreaking technology. Anyone still using the older technology at the time would have most likely had a polished-metal mirror instead.
    – Ray
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 10:30
  • @Ray - So did he in fact use the word "mirror" there?
    – brilliant
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 10:49
  • 3
    I don't know... that's why I didn't write an answer :) The beauty of comments is that I can say whatever I want and not have to do the work of a real answer!
    – Ray
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 16:07

3 Answers 3


Here is the Greek phrase in question:

δι' (through) ἐσόπτρου (a mirror) ἐν (in) αἰνίγματι (obscurity)

When we look this it seems to lend to the idea of a glass window that has an opaque view, but the actual meaning of ἐσόπτρου seems to be a mirror as shown in the other occurrence of this word by James, who says:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror (ἐσόπτρου) and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.

So the idea is that those old metal polished mirrors were so terrible that looking at the thin-fat-big-lipped mirrors at the circus were probably of better quality. It means our theology is necessarily warped so long as we live on this earth. In heaven we will be free from this limitation.

The reason why the word ‘darkly or obscurely’ is used is that the original Greek actually means a riddle, or an enigma. In fact we see the meaning directly from the phonetic spelling [ah'-ee-nig-ma]. This seems to describe the mirrors at the fun-house in a circus pretty well.

  • Thank you mike, but can you please explain what thin-fat-big-lipped mirrors are? If you can give a link to an image of such a mirror that will be great.
    – brilliant
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 13:49
  • @Brilliant - Oh I guess if you have never been to a 'house of mirrors' at a circus or carnival you might not get it. One mirror makes you look short and fat, anothre mirror makes you look tall and thin, another makes you head fat and big fat lips, etc. Its juts a crazy warped mirror thing at carnivals in the US and other places where you get cotton candy, popcorn etc.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 19, 2012 at 14:01

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).


  1. 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...

  2. See A.V. in 1 Cor. 13:12; Jam. 1:23.

  3. 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.


This is an awesome question, and actually has a very simple answer.

We see our identification in Christ through the reflection of the Word of God. James plays on this imagery (no pun intended) when he mentions the believer who forgets what he sees in the mirror (James 1:23-25). We are members of the Body of Christ, and therefore our identities are reflected in Christ, who is the Word of God.

Now to put this answer in the context at hand in 1 Corinthians 13, we as believers must rely on the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy (which is not just foretelling but includes forthtelling [preaching] as well). Thus we understand our identity in the Word of God through the exercise of these spiritual gifts of communicating. Or to put it another way: our faith and hope are dependent on understanding our identity in Christ in the Word of God.

BUT when we are in heaven, the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy will be superfluous and redundant (1 Cor 13:9-10). Hope too at that time will not have any significance, since "who hopes for what he already sees?" (Romans 8:24). Faith is the same: it is "the evidence of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). When we are heaven and face-to-face with the Lord, faith and hope will be superfluous and so too will be the spiritual gifts of knowledge and prophecy.

So what is left?

The reflection of our identity in Christ is love (Romans 8:39). This love is defined as the control of the Holy Spirit over the life of the believer. This control comes through the renewal of the mind in the Word of God (Colossians 3:10), and thus we return back to the mirror, which reflects our identity in Christ. Our identity in Christ is permanent, unlike faith, hope, knowledge, and prophecy, which are but transitory phenomena in the present time, and thus we see dimly at the moment.

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