I am interested in the development of the word sacramentum, from the classical to the current ecclesiastical usage. The Lewis & Short entry lists the following meanings:


A. Jurid. t. t., the sum which the two parties to a suit at first deposited, but afterwards became bound for, with the tresviri capitales; so called because the sum deposited by the losing party was used for religious purposes, esp. for the sacra publica; v. Fest. p. 344 Müll.; or, perh. more correctly, because the money was deposited in a sacred place;

B. Milit. t. t. (cf. infra, 2, the passage from Cic. Off. 1, 11, 36), orig. the preliminary engagement entered into by newly-enlisted troops (this was followed by the proper military oath, jusjurandum, which was at first voluntary, but, after the second Punic war, was demanded by the military tribune):

II. In eccl. and late Lat., something to be kept sacred.

In current (Catholic) Ecclesiastical Latin, the word has a precise meaning: one of the seven sacraments.

In the Vulgate and Patristic Latin, though, this term has many usages, many of which are detailed in the L&S entry under meaning (II). St. Paul, Augustine, and Hilary (of Poitiers), e.g., use the term almost interchangeably with the Greek loan-word mysterium.

If possible, I would like a brief overview of the evolution of the meaning of sacramentum.

  • 1
    New tag for patristic-latin? That was my field of study, but I do not want to create a tag that most people would just use ecclesiastical-latin for.
    – brianpck
    Mar 22, 2016 at 16:21
  • 1
    I have been using late-latin for Augustine, but perhaps that scheme can be supplemented. Do you see a bright dividing line between patristic and ecclesiastical, perhaps a particular year? Mar 22, 2016 at 16:28
  • 3
    Well, "ecclesiastical-latin" for me is like talking about "juridicial English" without specifying old-, middle-, or contemporary. Are we really willing to lump Tertullian, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Boethius, Aquinas, and renaissance moral manuals in the same category? (I'll motivate myself to write a meta post at some point--no real need to continue the discussion here.)
    – brianpck
    Mar 22, 2016 at 16:32

1 Answer 1


Roy J. DeFerrari's A Lexicon of St. Thomas Aquinas (1948) p. 983 (PDF p. 990):

sacramentum, i, n., (1) sacrament in the wider sense of the word, i.e., that which is sanctified or consecrated, (2) sacrament in the proper sense of the word, i.e., sign of a holy thing which sanctifies man or concerns him, (3) sacrament in the narrowest sense of the word, excluding the sacraments of the Old Law, a visible sign or rite, instituted by Christ to confer grace.

DeFerrari first quotes Summa Theologica III q. 60 a. 1 ("Whether a sacrament is a kind of sign?") c.:

sacramentum potest aliquid dici vel quia in se habet aliquam sanctitatem occultam, et secundum hoc sacramentum idem est quod sacrum secretum, vel quia habet aliquem ordinem ad hanc sanctitatem, vel causae vel signi vel secundum quamcumque aliam habitudinem.

[a thing may be called a "sacrament," either from having a certain hidden sanctity, and in this sense a sacrament is a "sacred secret"; or from having some relationship to this sanctity, which relationship may be that of a cause, or of a sign or of any other relation.]

The definition of sacramentum as a signum dates back to St. Augustine (cf. semiotician John N. Deely's Four Ages of Understanding p. 223).

On the relationship of μυστήριον to sacramentum, the OED says this:

In ancient Greek μυστήριον occurs chiefly in the plural, denoting certain secret religious ceremonies (the most famous being those of Demeter at Eleusis) which were allowed to be witnessed only by the initiated, who were sworn never to disclose their nature (see sense 7a). In the Septuagint the word occurs only in Daniel and the Apocrypha, where it has the sense of ‘secret purpose or counsel’ (especially of a king or of God). This sense is found in the New Testament, where the word also means either a religious truth long kept secret, but now revealed through Christ to his Church, or something of symbolic significance. In later Christian use μυστήριον became equivalent to sacrament n. (in several passages, e.g. Daniel 2:18, the Vulgate renders it by sacramentum , even when it means only ‘secret’; in other passages mysterium is used). In Old French and English the Christian senses of the word appear earliest.

In post-classical Latin (from Vetus Latina) the form misterium occurs with the sense ‘ecclesiastical service’ more usually associated with ministerium ministry n. Confusion between mysterium and ministerium in post-classical Latin is not surprising, given the phonetic and semantic similarity between the two words. The distinction between 3* and mystery n.2 1a,** and the distinction between 10 and mystery n.2 2,†† can only be arbitrary from an etymological point of view.

* An ordinance, rite, or sacrament of the Christian Church, esp. (in later use) the Eastern Orthodox Church. In pl.: the Eucharist; the consecrated elements used in the Eucharist.
** Ministry, office; service, occupation. Obs.
More generally: an action or practice about which there is or is reputed to be some secrecy; esp. a highly skilful or technical operation in a trade or art. Now usu. in pl. Cf. mystery n.2 2. Now chiefly humorous.
†† Craft, art; a trade, profession, calling. Now arch. Cf. mystery n.1 10.

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