Opinions on faith and life

Word Study: Hagios


There are many words in the Bible which are obscured by time and language barriers. It takes time and expertise to investigate an original word and its usages, to determine what the writers meant by it and the concept they were trying to convey. While some degree of personal preference is impossible to avoid, we still greatly benefit from such studies.

Today I’d like to relay information from an excellent document of one such study on the Greek word hagios, typically translated variously as holy, sanctified, and saint. Here is an excerpt:

3. The Hebrew word (Kah-dash) is translated in the Scriptures by the following words: Sanctify, hallow, holy, consecrate, prepare, proclaim, dedicate, appoint, purify, defile, unclean, sodomite, saint, wholly, sanctuary. The Greek word, in the New Testament, is translated by the following words: Hallow, holy, sanctify, sanctuary, saint, holiness. We note as an evident fact of much importance, that in the New Testament hagios is not as broad a word as Kah-dash is in the Old. It has dropped a part of the meaning of the Hebrew word; or, which is perhaps the better way of stating it, it is no longer a generic word, but has a definite, specific meaning, implying a given moral character. This will become clearer in our next paragraph.

4. Now, what is the true power, the real meaning of these two words, Kah-dash and hagios? Translations do not always represent the true power of words. It is evident at a glance that this must be true of the word kah-dash. No word in any known language means, or can mean both to defile, to make unclean, and to cleanse, to purify. Yet these words translate Kah-dash and hagios in the Old Testament. A number of words in both Testaments have this same peculiarity, of being translated by words of opposite meaning. There is a uniform rule which governs all such words. That is, that the word translated by words of opposite meanings does not mean what these opposite words express, but has a meaning common to both. No instance violative of this rule can be found. Accordingly, Kah-dash means neither to purify nor to defile, neither to cleanse nor to make unclean, neither to make sacred nor to make profane. What then does it mean? It means to do that which in one case may result in cleansing and in another in defiling. The temple and groves of Astarte were very unclean places. The sanctuary of the Lord was pure and clean. Yet the Old Testament does not hesitate to call the priests of Astarte sanctified ones, as is done also in the works of Homer and Virgil, and also the priests of the Lord. But our translators call the former sodomites (1 Kings 14:24), and unclean (Job 36:14). It is easy to perceive what is the one element common to the character of these two classes of priests. They were both dedicated, consecrated, set apart to the service of their respective Gods. In the one case, the God was pure, and hence his priest was also pure; in the other case, the god was unclean, and so was his priest. Hence, to sanctify a man to be a priest of Jehovah was as to moral character just the opposite from the sanctification of a man as priest of Astarte.

5. Hagios corresponds exactly to Kah-dash. It has the same power, and is used in the same sense in the Old Testament. Its true and proper meaning is to dedicate, to consecrate. And just as in the case of Kad-hash, it primarily meant to consecrate to the gods, or to God. In the New Testament it differs in one respect from its Old Testament equivalent. Retaining its power to consecrate, it lost the idea of consecrating to others than the true God; but it retained this idea in classic Greek. And as consecration to a god presumed, or resulted in, the same character with that of the god, so consecration to the true God presumes and results in the possession or acquirement of his moral character. No impure being can be dedicated to a pure one. Hence, sanctification in the New Testament always, where moral character is implied, presupposes cleanness, purity. The word, however, means purity only by implication. It is one of its uses; it is not its meaning. We therefore give this definition of the word sanctify, as the representative of these original words, namely: To consecrate, dedicate, or set apart, with the implication of a moral character like that of the person or thing to which one is sanctified. (emphasis mine)

If we learn nothing else from this, we at least are confronted with the fact that holiness or sanctification is not some mystical, magical glow or power. It is simply a designation, a recognition of one’s position or relationship with respect to a deity. In Christianity of course, it means we all have a restored relationship with God through Jesus; we are children and thus heirs; we are citizens of heaven.

Yet at the same time we are ordered to become holy (1 Peter 1:15-16). But this is very much like the concept found in 2 Cor. 5:18-21, where we are both already reconciled and must also tell people to be reconciled. So we are set apart or dedicated to God, yet we must also set ourselves apart or dedicate ourselves to become closer to God and strive for more purity in our lives. We might illustrate the difference by thinking of soldiers in an army. Every one of them is set apart as a soldier instead of a civilian, but not every one of them is dedicated to the same degree toward becoming a better soldier or to rise in rank. In the same way, all true believers are reconciled to God via Jesus, but not all have chosen to strive for more closeness to God or to make greater efforts to please God.

So any time we read of someone in the Bible being designated as holy, we should be careful not to assign more meaning to that than is warranted.