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The expression "mystery of iniquity" (more common, "hidden power of lawlessness" - Greek: μυστήριον τῆς ἀνομίας; Lat: mysterium iniquitatis) comes from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, in a passage where Paul explains that the "Day of the Lord" will not arrive "unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition". (2 Thess 2:1-11 NET)

What makes this passage particularly obscure and hard to understand, is not only the reference to the mysterious "man of lawlessness" and "hidden power of lawlessness" but, most of all, the reference (according to practically all translations) to "what holds him back [to katechon]" (v. 6) and to "who holds him back [ho katechōn]" (v. 7).

I have considered "similar questions" suggested by BE-SE, in particular In 2 Thessalonians 2:7 who is holding back the “secret power of lawlessness”? (Asked 8 years, 6 months ago - Active 2 years ago - Viewed 7k times) and Has Paul's concept in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 been misunderstood? (Asked 10 months ago - Active 3 months ago - Viewed 236 times).

The reason why I ask this question is that traditional translations render the verb κατέχω (katechō) with "to hold back", "to restrain" which are intrinsically transitive verbs (viz. they require an object).

But in both verses (6 and 7), the expressions used, respectively το κατεχον (neuter) and ο κατεχων (masculine), do not have a (stated) object. Isn't it possible that, instead of being elliptical expressions, they are without an object because the verb κατέχω is used intransitively?

So I looked at Thayer's lexicon for Strong's G2722, which only considers κατέχω a transitive verb and, without a shadow of a doubt, that at "2Th ii. 6 sq.", "the power of the Roman empire is meant" and "the one in whom that power is lodged, the Roman emperor". All this with some inconsistency, in particular in the KJV, which gives, respectively, "what withholdeth" [no object] and "who letteth" [no object].

Neither convinced nor satisfied, I looked at something more secular and more authoritative: LSJ A Greek-English Lexicon for κατέχω. As can be easily checked, at the beginning, at § A.I.b. (transitive), sure enough, you find hold back and restrain.

Almost at the end, though, at § B.3. (intransitive) you find the meaning prevail.

If we adopt this intransitive meaning, and translate the verses without assuming the presence of an ellipsis for both occurrences of κατέχω (katechō), we have, tentatively:

6 και νυν το κατεχον οιδατε εις το αποκαλυφθηναι αυτον εν τω εαυτου καιρω 7 το γαρ μυστηριον ηδη ενεργειται της ανομιας μονον ο κατεχων αρτι εως εκ μεσου γενηται

6 And now you know what prevails until its revelation at its proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; only, [he is] the one who prevails now till he is taken out of the way.

The only addition I have made is that [he is] (ἐστί). It is quite common in Greek to omit the verb "to be" (εἶναι), when it can be inferred from the context.

I have never found a translation like this, and in particular with this interpretation of the verb κατέχω (katechō).

Has anybody got any objection?

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  • Great question!! +1.
    – Dottard
    May 12 at 22:42
  • Chrysostom's commentary can be found here.
    – Lucian
    May 13 at 0:44
  • @Lucian Thank you for providing the evidence that John Chrysostom (c. 347–407) understood κατέχω at 2 Thess 2:7 as “withholdeth, that is, hindereth him from being revealed”. This is strong, but hardly conclusive against my Question. May 13 at 0:57
  • + 1 for content. I may, or may not have an objection here, as I'm not quite sure I followed your whole exegesis. I have tended to think that the 'what' may well be to do with 'the active force of God & Jesus thru the apostles', rather than the Roman Empire, but that the 'who' (the [one], not 'he') may well be a (masculine) reference to 'future government', as a restraint but only until the end times 'M of L' causes that restraint to falter. See my A. to this Q. hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/48665/… Jun 13 at 0:53
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BDAG has eight different meanings assigned to κατέχω, but all surround the idea if keeping in one's possession of preventing something by restraining.

In the case of 1 Thess 2:6, 7, BDAG has a lengthy paragraph of explanation beginning with this:

that which restrains, and the one who restrains, ie, what prevents God's adversary from coming out in open opposition to God, for the time being. ...

The biggest problem with the proposed translation of the OP is that such a meaning cannot be found anywhere else either in the NT or in 1st cent Koine Greek literature, according to BDAG. Thus, "prevail", while quoted by the dated LSJ (quoting classical sources for the innovative meaning), does not accord with Koine Greek usage in the 1st century. Thus, there is a very good reason why no modern translations adopt the meaning "prevail".

The key to understanding this passage in 2 Thess 2 is V3, & V4

3 No one is to deceive you in any way! For it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself above [e]every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.

Paul then expands the point by saying (NASB):

6 And you know what restrains him now, so that he will be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is removed. 8 Then that lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord will eliminate with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; 9 that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not accept the love of the truth so as to be saved. 11 For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, 12 in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness.

Paul is predicting a time of general apostasy in the church, caused by the "man of lawlessness" who is currently being restrained. He would be revealed to exposed him fully and that revelation of lawlessness will be complete when Jesus returns.

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  • Dottard, I consider the LSJ, which includes an intransitive meaning for κατέχω, at least as authoritative as the BDAG, possibly more, because it is not aimed at the Biblical Greek. Please try to examine my Question without preconceived ideas, and putting your acquired knowledge “on hold”, so to speak :) May 12 at 22:57
  • @MigueldeServet - I understand your concern. However, LSJ was written and compiled (1843) before the treasure trove of koine documents became available. You will notice that the LSJ source for all their meanings is almost always classical Greek which had noticeably different meanings from what the koine does. That was the primary function of the BDAG (2000) published over 150 years later after much greater research and koine MSS came to light. Therefore, let me suggest that you should find a koine document with "prevail" meaning.
    – Dottard
    May 12 at 23:06
  • Dottard First, point taken, but the LSJ in not as ancient as you make it: “The [original Liddell & Scott] lexicon was begun in the nineteenth century and is now [as Liddell-Scott-Jones] in its ninth (revised) edition, published in 1940”. Second are you suggesting that no intransitive acceptation of the verb κατέχω exists in the “treasure trove of koine documents [that] became available” since the 1940 edition of the LSJ? May 12 at 23:46
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Translating κατεχω as “to restrain” at 2 Thess. 2:6-7

Allow me to try and answer this question using my translation (NASB):

2 Thessalonians 2:6-7: "And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work, but the one who now restrains it will continue until he is taken out of the way.

Answer:

The N/T did not yet exist and, thus, (NT) lawlessness in all its forms was "restrained". When progressively recorded, so did the emergence of lawlessness against it, and those who rejected the Message would be revealed as transgressors.

What is 'the mystery of lawlessness' -- 'the man of lawlessness,' what 'is restraining' him now and who/what does the restraining?"

To understand what is being related by Paul, I believe it is crucial to understand the verses that precede these two for context:

2 Thessalonians 2:1, 3-4 "Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ... 3Let no one deceive you in any way, for it will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness—the son of destruction—is revealed. 4He will oppose and exalt himself above every so-called god or object of worship. So he will seat himself in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things while I was still with you?"

Many will (understandably) tie this demonic force, as suggested in the OP, to "the power of the Roman empire" and "the one in whom that power is lodged, the Roman emperor." Others propose that this wicked figure is the Roman ecclesiastical movement. Of the two, the initial thrust of Paul's Letter may be directed at Rome, and the Caesars. However, should we limit such words only to these two identities?

First, we must recognize that during this time in history -- the first century, the Gospel did not yet exist. And, although many false teachers were about to emerge (2 Peter 2:1) and later did so (Jude vs. 4, 1 Jn. 2:18: "many antichrists", 2 Jn. 1:7: "deceiver and antichrist", etc.), they were "restrained" by the simple fact that there was insufficient Scripture to undermine and blaspheme.

Its absence constituted a natural "restraining force." The "man of lawlessness" in verse 3 may simply represent the emergent figure of the satanic rejection of Christ, and of those who were increasingly able to pervert the Message of God. Of course, it is hard not to see Rome and Caesar in view here as well.

It may be this satanic force (possibly Rome) that is being personified as "the man of lawlessness." Let us reflect on the next passages of 2 Thessalonians 2 in this regard:

2 Thessalonians 2:8-12: "And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will slay [condemn by] the breath of His mouth [Scripture] and annihilate by the majesty of His arrival [judgment]. 9The coming of the lawless one will be accompanied by the working of Satan, with every kind of power, sign, and false wonder,

10and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. 11For this reason God will send them a powerful delusion so that they believe the lie, 12in order that judgment may come upon all who have disbelieved the truth and delighted in wickedness."

Elsewhere, I discussed the fact that Christ speaks to such rebellious human beings as follows:

Matthew 7:23: "[I, Christ] will declare to [the disobedient], ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.’"

Interesting. In the first centuury, the "lawless one" could not be revealed as long as the Holy Text had yet to be recorded. As each Book and each Letter of the Bible became a documented reality, Satan was then able to manipulate those who were predisposed to all manner of "powers, signs, and false wonders, and with every wicked deception..." due to their sustained rejection of the Gospel.

Further, we might think of "the man" in terms of the symbolism expressed in Ezekiel's valley of dry bones:

Ezekiel 37:3-6: "[The Lord] said to [Ezekiel]... He said to me, 'Prophesy over these bones and say to them, "O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD."

Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, "Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin and put breath in you that you may come alive..."'”

Paul's admonition may simply mean that the "man of lawlessness" would grow in significance as the Gospel was delivered to humanity, many of whom would reject the message. Again, however, in the context of the first century it is indeed difficult to rule out Rome and its blasphemous, satanic rulers.

In totality, the lost may then represent "The Messenger/Man of sin/Satan." We see this today as all manner of false teaching exists. And, the day will come when judgment will occur to those who may, collectively, represent the "mystery of lawlessness" and "the man of lawlessness" although the latter could describe which ever Roman leader was in power at that time.

The absence of N/T Scripture did the restraining, and the delivery of the Message would reveal those who rejected it -- including the godlessness of Rome and its rulers.

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  • Xeno, I notice that you, right inside the title of your Answer, hasten to confirm the traditional translation “to restrain” for κατέχω, without taking even a moment to consider that the object of the (presumed) “restraining” does not exist in both v. 6 and v. 7, so the “him” and the “it” are pure eisegesis in the NASB, in the good company of practically all other English translations. Paradoxically, only the KJV shows some awareness of the problem, with its "what withholdeth" [no object] and "who letteth" [no object], respectively. May 12 at 22:45
  • @Miguel Good point. Do you have a suggestion on how to phrase the question more appropriately?
    – Xeno
    May 12 at 23:02
  • -- Perhaps: "What is the κατεχον (prevailing) and [who] κατεχων (now prevails) in 2 Thess. 2:6-7?"
    – Xeno
    May 12 at 23:07
  • Xeno First, I am glad you understand the point I am making. Second, I presume you are talking about the phrasing of the title of my question. Or are you referring to the question at the end (“Has anybody got any objection?”)? Please clarify, and if you have any suggestion, please give it :) Third, you try to sum up "What [you presume] is the meaning of 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 generally” for me. As should be clear by now, my approach is (tries to be) the other way round: grammatical => exegetical => hermeneutical. May 12 at 23:21
  • No, I was actually referring to how I might rephrase my own question at the beginning of my response since you told me that you "noticed right inside the title of [my] answer that [I] hastened to confirm the traditional translation "to restrain" without taking a moment to consider that the object of the (presumed) restraining does not exist in the two verses..." Is my answer salvageable to you? If you feel it is inappropriate, I can delete it.
    – Xeno
    May 12 at 23:27

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