The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek that is translated in English as “holy” has many translations that often only cover one aspect of its meaning
In an article from 2017, Andrew Case (in: The Bible Translator 2017, p. 269ff.) describes some of the problems of the concept of “holiness” in English as well as in translation in other languages and asks for “a creative effort to turn the tide toward a more biblical understanding. He challenges the standard understanding of God’s holiness as “separation,” “transcendence,” or “infinite purity,” and suggests that in certain contexts it also carries the meaning of “totally devoted.”
(Click here to read more of his article.)
“For a long time there has been considerable confusion regarding the meaning of the word ‘holy’. For the limited scope of this paper, we will focus on this confusion and its development within the English-speaking world, which has a widespread influence in other countries. The word for holy in English can be traced back at least to the eleventh century (although there is evidence of its use in Old Norse around A.D. 825). The Oxford English Dictionary describes the use of holy as applied to deities, stating:
“‘the development of meaning has probably been: held in religious regard or veneration, kept reverently sacred from human profanation or defilement; (hence) of a character that evokes human veneration and reverence; (and thus, in Christian use) free from all contamination of sin and evil, morally and spiritually perfect and unsullied, possessing the infinite moral perfection which Christianity attributes to the Divine character.’
“Thus ‘infinite moral perfection’ persists as an understood meaning by many in the English-speaking world today. Others gloss this as ‘purity’ or ‘cleanness,’ and the effects of this interpretation can be seen in residual missionary influence in different parts of the world. These effects manifest themselves in people groups who have long-standing traditions of referring to the Holy Spirit as the ‘clean’ Spirit or the ‘pure’ Spirit. And subsequently, their idea of what it means for God to be holy remains limited by a concept of high sinlessness or perfection. After years of this mentality embedding itself into a culture’s fabric, it turns out to be extremely difficult to translate the Bible into their language using any terminology that might differ from the ingrained tradition handed down to them by missionaries who had a faulty understanding of the word holy. One of the purposes of this paper is to offer persuasive biblical evidence that translations and traditions like those mentioned may be limited in what they convey and may often be unhelpful.
“The persistence of this confusion around the word ‘holy’ in our present day stems from various factors, of which two will be mentioned. First, English translations of the Bible have insisted on retaining the term ‘holy’ even though few modern people intuitively understand the meaning of the term. This phenomenon is similar to the use of the word hosts in phrases like ‘LORD of hosts’ or ‘heavenly hosts,’ which most modern people do not know refers to armies. Within much of the English-speaking church there is an assumption that Christians understand the word ‘holy’, yet at the same time authors continue to write books to help explain the term. These varied explanations have contributed to a conceptual muddiness, which is related to the second primary factor: the promotion and proliferation of an etymological fallacy. This etymological fallacy’s roots can be traced back to the influence of W. W. Baudissin, who published The Concept of Holiness in the Old Testament in 1878. In this work he proposed that the Hebrew קדשׁ originally came from קד, which meant ‘to cut’ (Baudissin 1878). This led to the widespread notion that the primary or essential meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘apart, separate.’ This meaning of holy has been further engrafted into the culture and tradition of evangelicals by influential authors and speakers like R. C. Sproul. His book The Holiness of God, which has sold almost 200,000 copies since it was first released in the 1980s, tends to be a staple volume on every pastor’s shelf, and became an immensely popular video series. In it he writes,
“‘The primary meaning of holy is ‘separate.’ It comes from an ancient word meaning ‘to cut,’ or ‘to separate.’ To translate this basic meaning into contemporary language would be to use the phrase ‘a cut apart.’ . . . God’s holiness is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. . . . When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us. Transcendence describes His supreme and absolute greatness. . . . Transcendence describes God in His consuming majesty, His exalted loftiness. It points to the infinite distance that separates Him from every creature.’ (Sproul 1985, 37)
“J. I. Packer also contributes to the spread of this idea in his book Rediscovering Holiness: ‘Holy in both biblical languages means separated and set apart for God, consecrated and made over to Him’ (Packer 2009, 18).
“Widely influential author A. W. Tozer also offers a definition:
“‘What does this word holiness really mean? . . . Holiness in the Bible means moral wholeness — a positive quality which actually includes kindness, mercy, purity, moral blamelessness and godliness. It is always to be thought of in a positive, white intensity of degree.’ (Tozer 1991, 34)
“Thus one can imagine the average Christian trying to juggle this hazy collection of abstractions: infinite moral purity and wholeness, kindness, mercy, blamelessness, godliness, transcendence, exalted loftiness, and separateness. Trying to apply such a vast definition to one’s reading of Scripture can be baffling. (. . .)
“In the levitical and priestly tradition of the Pentateuch, the term ‘holy’ is applied to people (priests, Nazirites, the congregation), places (especially the sanctuary), gifts and offerings, occasions (all the feasts), as well as to Yahweh. While we cannot assume that the meaning is totally different when applied to these different categories, neither should we assume that it is the same. This paper does not propose to address the meaning of holy when referring to things. The purpose is to explore how holy should be understood when applied mainly to persons. It is common for a word to carry a different meaning when applied to a human being than when applied to a thing. In English, for example, a person can be ‘tender’ in a way a steak cannot. Context is king. Also, it should be understood that the semantic range of a word is not permanently fixed and may shift considerably over time. It would be linguistically disingenuous to say that a word always means ‘such and such.’ As Nida explains, a word’s meaning is a ‘set of relations for which a verbal symbol is a sign’ (Nida 1975, 14). Words are not infinitely malleable, but they are also not completely static or inextricably bound by their root or history. Thus this paper acknowledges that ‘holy’ may connote other things such as ‘purity, separate, set apart,’ depending on the context. In summary, this paper should be considered a simple beginning to a discussion that may help stir up others to develop the idea further. (…)
“As mentioned at the beginning of this paper, translations that gloss ‘holy’ as ‘pure’ or ‘clean’ in reference to God or the Spirit are limited and potentially misleading. Therefore, what is the alternative way forward? Obviously, when considering the issue of perceived authenticity, many will not be able to change decades or even centuries of tradition within their communities. Once the translation of a name is established, especially a name so pervasive and primal as Holy Spirit, it is exceedingly difficult to reverse the decision. As in all cases with translation of key terms, best practice involves letting the community make an informed decision and test it amongst themselves.
“In all probability, communities who already use terms such as ‘Clean/Pure Spirit’ will opt to maintain them, even after gaining a better understanding as presented in this paper. In those cases it may be helpful to encourage them to include a clarifying discussion of what it means for God to be holy, in a glossary or a footnote.
“In cultures that have assimilated a loan word from English or some other language, there must be corrective teaching on the term, since it will be impossible to change. We are forever stuck with holy in the English-speaking world, but pastors, leaders, and writers can begin to turn the tide towards a better understanding of the term. Likewise, other cultures can begin to resurrect the biblical meaning through offering wise guidance to their congregations.
“In pioneering contexts where no church or Christian terminology has been established, translators have a unique opportunity to create translations that communicate more accurately what Scripture says about God’s holiness. The equivalent of a single abstract term ‘devoted’ or ‘dedicated’ may often be lacking in other languages, but there are always creative and compelling ways to communicate the concept. Even the translation ‘Faithful Spirit’ would be closer to the meaning than ‘pure.’ ‘Committed’ would be better than ‘separate’ or ‘blameless.’ Nevertheless, it should be clearly understood that finding a viable alternative for translation will be a difficult challenge in many languages.
“Although our devotion to God will involve separating ourselves from certain things and striving to be blameless, they are not equal concepts, just as loving one’s wife is not the same as avoiding pornography (even though it should include that). The one is positive and the other negative. What we want to communicate is the positive and fundamental aspect of holiness, wherein God pours himself out for the good of his people, and people offer their hands and hearts to God and his glory.
“A helpful tool for eliciting a proper translation would be to tell a story of a father (or a mother in some cultures) who was totally devoted to the well-being of his children, or of a husband who was totally devoted to the welfare of his wife. After choosing culturally appropriate examples of how the man went above and beyond the normal call of duty because of his devotion, ask, ‘What would you call this man? What was he like?’ This would open up a potentially valuable discussion that may unveil the right word or phrase.
“Ultimately God’s manifestation of his covenantal character in action towards humanity (his people in particular) and his people manifesting the covenantal character of God in their lives — that is, holiness — complements our understanding of the gospel. God poured out the life of his Son as a demonstration not only of his righteousness (Rom 3:25), but also to show his holiness. Jesus himself was obedient unto death for his Father’s chosen ones, and thus it is no surprise that he is referred to by the quaking demons as ‘the Holy One of God’ (Mark 1:24). And it is the Holy Spirit who manifests God’s holiness through the gospel, enabling people to understand it, bringing them to embrace it, and empowering them to live it.
In the 1960s Bratcher / Nida described the difficulty of translation the concept (in connection with “Holy Spirit”) like this:
“An almost equally difficult element in the phrase Holy Spirit is the unit meaning ‘holy,’ which in the Biblical languages involves a concept of separation (i.e. unto God or for His service). In general, however, it is difficult to employ a term meaning primarily ‘separated’, for this often leads to the idea of ‘cast out’. One must make sure that the concept of ‘separated’ implies not merely ‘separated from’ (hence, often culturally ostracized), but ‘separated to’ (in the idea of consecrated, dedicated, or ‘taboo’ — in its proper technical sense). Perhaps the most naive mistakes in rendering Holy have been to assume that this word can be translated as ‘white’ or ‘clean’, for we assume that “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” a belief which is quite foreign to most peoples in the world. Holy may, however, be rendered in some languages as ‘clear’, ‘pure’ (in Toraja-Sa’dan, Pamona and Javanese ‘clean’ or ‘pure’), ‘shining’, or ‘brilliant’ (with the connotation of awesomeness), concepts which are generally much more closely related to ‘holiness’ than is ‘whiteness’ or ‘cleanness’.”
Other translations include:
- Southern Bobo Madaré: “good”
- Huichol: “without sin”
- Vai: “uncontaminated” (source for this and two above: Bratcher / Nida)
- Balinese: “purety”
- Tae’ (1933 translation): “roundness of heart” (=”perfection”)
- Kituba: “being-sufficient” (=”complete, perfect, acceptable”)
- Tboli: “unreserved obedience” (“using a noun built on the expression ‘his breath/soul is conformed'”) (source for this and three above: Reiling / Swellengrebel)
- Folopa: “separate (from sin) / pure / distinct” (source: Anderson / Moore 2006, p. 202)
- Khmer: visoth — “unmixed, exceptional” (rather than Buddhist concept of purity) (source: Joseph Hong in The Bible Translator 1996, p. 233ff.)
- Warlpiri: “God-possessive” (in connection with “Holy Spirit) (source: Stephen Swartz in The Bible Translator 1985, p. 415ff.)
- Pass Valley Yali: “great and shiny” (source: Daud Soesilo)
- Lama: “belonging especially to God” or “set apart for God’s purposes” (source: Joshua Ham)
- Naro: tcom-tcomsam — “lucky” (“the concept of holiness is unknown”) (source: van Steenbergen)
- Aguaruna: “blameless” (Source: M. Larson / B. Moore in Notes on Translation 1970, p. 1ff.)
- Mandara: tamat (“In the Mandara culture, there is a place where only the traditional leaders of high standing can enter, and only during special feasts. This place is tamat, meaning set apart, sacred.” (source: Karen Weaver)
- Awabakal: yirri yirri Lake (2018, p. 71) describes that choice: “As language historian Anne Keary has explained, yirri yirri meant ‘sacred, reverend, holy, not to be regarded but with awe’. It also had the more concrete meaning of an initiation site, ‘the place marked out for mystic rites, not to be profaned by common use’. As such, yirri yirri was not a generic term for ‘holy’: it invoked a specifically male spiritual domain.
The use of the word “tapu” (from which the English word “taboo” derives) in translations of various languages in the South Pacific is noteworthy. The English term “taboo” was first used by Captain Cook in 1785. It does not only mean “forbidden, prohibited, untouchable,” but also “sacred, holy.” This concept is attested in almost all South Pacific islands (see this listing for the use of forms of “tapu” in many of the languages — for a modern-day definition of tapu, according to Māori usage, see here).
While some Bible translators working in South Pacific languages did not use “tapu” for the Hebrew Old Testament term קֹדֶשׁ (“holy” in English translation), many did, including in Tongan (“tapuha”), Gilbertese (“tabu”), Tuvalu (“tapu”), Rarotongan (“tapu”), and Māori (“tapu”). (See: Joseph Hong, The Bible Translator 1994, p. 329.)
In some of those languages, for instance in the Kiribati (Gilbertese) New Version Bible of 2016, other Old (and New) Testament terms that don’t contain a “Holy” marker in the source language, use “tabu” as a modifier for terms that are rendered in English as “Bread of Presence (shewbread),” “Sabbath,” or “Temple.”
Some South Pacific languages also use forms of “tapu” in translation of the “Holy” (Ἅγιον) in “Holy Spirit.”
The Hebraist Franz Steiner gave a series of lectures on the topic of “taboo” and the Old Testament idea of “holy” or “sacred” that are now considered classic. Steiner died shortly after giving the lectures and they were published posthumously. While he never actually arrives at an actual definition of “taboo” in his lectures the following excerpts show something of the difficult relationship between “taboo” and “קֹדֶשׁ” (Click or tap here):
“The most common form of the word is tapu. That is the Maori, Tahitian, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Mangarevan and Paumotan pronunciation, which in some cases sounds more like tafu. The Hawaiian form is kapu, the Tongan tabu. Forms like tambu and tampu are not unknown, particularly in the mixed linguistic area or in the Polynesian periphery. The word is used extensively outside Polynesia proper. Thus in Fiji tabu means unlawful, sacred, and superlatively good; in Malagassy, tabaka, profaned, polluted. The New English Dictionary remarks: ‘The accentuation taboó, and the use of the word as substantive and verb, are English; in all the native languages the word is stressed on the first syllable, and is used only as an adjective, the substantive and verb being expressed by derivative words and phrases.’
“Up to this point my report is straightforward, and I only wish I could continue, as so many have done, with the following words: ‘A brief glance at any compilation of the forms and meanings of this word in the various Polynesian languages shows that in all of them the word has two main meanings from which the others derive, and these meanings are: prohibited and sacred.’ The comparison of these data, however, suggests something rather different to me; namely, (i) that the same kind of people have compiled all these dictionaries, assessing the meaning of words in European terms, and (a) that, with few exceptions, there are no Polynesian words meaning approximately what the word ‘holy’ means in contemporary usage without concomitantly meaning ‘forbidden’. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness cannot be expressed in Polynesian terms. Modern European languages on the other hand lack a word with the Polynesian range of meaning; hence Europeans discovered that taboo means both prohibition and sacredness. Once this distinction has been discovered, it can be conveyed within the Polynesian cultural idiom by the citation of examples in which only one of the two European translations would be appropriate. I have no wish to labour this point, but I do want to stress a difficulty all too seldom realized. It is for this reason that it is so hard to accept uncritically the vocabulary-list classifications of meanings on which so much of the interpretation of taboo has been based. Tregear’s (Tregear Edward: “The Maoris of New Zealand,” 1890) definition of the Maori tapu is an example: ‘Under restriction, prohibited. Used in two senses: (i) sacred, holy, hedged with religious sanctity; (2) to be defiled, as a common person who touches some chief or tapued property; entering a prohibited dwelling; handling a corpse or human bones . . .’ and so forth.
“This sort of classification almost suggests that there was in Polynesian life a time in which, or a group of objects and situations in relation to which, the notion of prohibition was employed while the society did not yet know, or related to a different group of objects and situations, the notion of sacredness. This is not so. Taboo is a single, not an ‘undifferentiated’, concept. The distinction between prohibition and sacredness is artificially introduced by us and has no bearing on the concept we are discussing. (…)
“Before we go on to the meaning of impurity in taboo, I should like to mention the exceptions I alluded to before: when, according to dictionary evidence, taboo means only ‘sacred’ and not ‘prohibited’. As translations of tapu Tregear gives for the island of Fotuna ‘sacred’, and for the island of Aniwan, ‘sacred, hallowed’. There they are, but I think one is entitled to be suspicious of such cases, since they are not accompanied by any examples of non-Christian, non-translatory use, for the word taboo was widely used by missionaries in the translation of the Bible: in the Lord’s Prayer for ‘hallowed’, ‘sacred’, and as an adjective for words like Sabbath. On the other hand, Tregear’s second point is plausible: that the notion of impurity is derived from that of prohibition (or, as one should rather say, prohibition and sacredness). A mere glance into Polynesian dictionaries reaffirms this statement, for while there is no use of a word — with, as I said, a few exceptions — which connotes sacredness without implying prohibition, there are many words meaning dirty, filthy, not nice, putrid, impure, defiled, etc. Thus it was possible to convey a notion of an object’s unfitness for consumption, or unsatisfactory surface or state of preservation, without any reference to sacredness and prohibition. Only some of the notions of impurity were connected with taboo notions. (p. 33-34)
“Qodesh [קדש] is, for the man of the Pentateuch, unthinkable without manifestation. Furthermore, it is a relation, and what is related to God becomes separated from other things, and separation implies taboo behaviour. According to taboo concepts, man must behave in a certain way once the relationship has been established, whether or not he is part of the qodesh relationship. For it does not follow from either the behavioural or the doctrinal element of qodesh that (1) in the establishment of the relationship the incipient part must be God, or that (2) man must be the other part.
“The full relationship, including the ritual behaviour which it to some extent explains, is basically a triangular one, but two corners of the tri¬angle may coincide. Thus the Pentateuch tells us of qodesh, holiness: (1) when God manifests Himself, then the spot is qodesh for it has been related to Him. Here the notion of contagion operates. (2) When some thing, animal, or human being has been dedicated to Him, then it is qodesh and hence taboo. Contagion, however, is in no way involved in this case. (3) The baruch relationship, the so-called blessing, also establishes holiness. God himself — this comes as a shock to most superficial Bible readers — is never called holy, qodesh, unless and in so far as He is related to something else. He is holy in His capacity as Lord of Hosts, though He is not here related to man. Very often the Bible says. The Holy One, blessed be He, or blessed be His name. The name is, in the framework of the doctrinal logic of the Pentateuch, always qodesh because it establishes a relationship: it has, so we primitives think, to be pronounced in order to exist.” (p. 85-86)