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Not "Holy" but "Special"
It is interesting how words can lose their concrete and useful meanings by their constant repetition. A good example of this is the word “holy.” We all think we know what “holy” means because we use it so frequently in worship. If asked to define it, most of us would say it means “sacred.” What does “sacred” mean? “Holy,” of course, and suddenly we are in a tautology. But if pressed, most of us would say that it means spiritually pure, something that has been sanctified or consecrated to the Divine such as an object that is used in the worship of God or in religious practices. This inches us closer to its meaning in the time of Jesus.
The Greek word that we translated into English as "holy" is hagios, (ἅγιος) The technical definition of hagios, is "devoted to the gods", "pure", "holy", but, on the negative side, it also means "accursed." This is a lot of range between the positive and the negative aspects of the word How are they connected? And how does the Judean understanding of the word differ from that of the Greeks? What was the root idea in the Hebrew of the Old Testament?
We say that something is “holy” because it is “sanctified” and “purified.” What does that mean? The Greek verb translated as “sanctified is hagiazo (ἁγιάζω), which means “to separate and purity for God,” “sanctify,” “purify,” and "to cleanse externally or internally." Of course, we can see that this is just hagios, with a verb ending that means “to make.” The literal meaning is “to make holy,” another tautology.
If we agree “holy” means “dedicated to the Divine,” what did Jesus mean when he calls the Father “holy?” Does he mean that the Divine is dedicated to the Divine?” This goes beyond tautology to being self-centered. The word must mean something else, something more specific, something the people listening to him understood cearly.
Old Testament Meaning
We start at the beginning. Hagios is a very common word in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, appearing over five hundred times. Much of the understanding at the time of Jesus would have come from that book. Hagios is used the most often to translate the Hebrew word, qodesh (קָדַשׁ), and variations on it. The concept means “separateness” and “apartness”. For Judeans, that which was dedicated to God was separate from common, ordinary things. This idea of “common” gets translated today as “defiled” (see this article), but “common” wasn’t a negative idea. It just means “ordinary” and “shared.”
The idea of “holy” focuses on “separate.” Exodus 19:6 describes their people as “a holy nation,” that is, a “nation apart.” A "holy" people were a separate people, set apart from others. The Judean people were meant to be different from other, ordinary people. Hagios is also used to translate other Hebrew words such as sagab (שָׂגַב), which means “inaccessibly high.” The focus is still one of separateness but the separation is being above others.
The Sabbath was a day apart (Exo 20:8). Things dedicated to God were separate, and different from everyday or shared things (Exo 30:29). A "holy" or pure item was separate from everyday items. Of course, It is not as if the everyday items were "impure," is the idea is often translated in English (again, see this article on “defiled”) but that they were common, shared by common people in everyday use. These “separate” things were reserved for a special purpose, the worship of the Divine, by special agents, the priests. If those things were taken for personal use, the people that used those holy items were cursed. So, hagios means “accursed.”
There is also a connection between things that were “holy” and fire (see this article). What was sacrificed to the Divine was burned in fire, but specific types of offerings and other holy things that were not used completely were also destroyed by being consumed by fire. “Sin offerings," were taken far from dwellings and burned completely (Lev 16:27). Thus, people are separated from their mistakes. This separateness makes the people holy. So, at its root, “holy” is the recognition that there are special objects, actions, and even people who are separate from others.
A different Hebrew word is sometimes translated as “the holy one,” but this word is also translated as “godly,” and “pious.” The Hebrew word is khawseed (חָסַד). This word is not translated as hagios, but as a different Greek word, hosios (ὅσιος) Jesus never uses this word, but it is also translated as “holy” occasionally in the New Testament. It is also translated as “undefiled.”
How Jesus Used “Holy”
Hagios is used about two hundred and thirty times in the New Testament, but Jesus only used it in seventeen verses. This is an interesting disparity. Jesus used hagiazo but only in seven verses. One of those verses is the “hallowed be thy name” line from the Lord’s Prayer.
Did Jesus use hagios in a way that helps us understand the idea better? In most of those verses, twelve, he used hagios to describe one thing, “the spirit” (pneuma see this article). However, we cannot understand his meaning unless we first understand what he means by “holy.”
This leaves us only five verses where he used hagios without the word “spirit.” Jesus used “holy” to describe places (Matthew 24:15), messengers, i.e. angels, (Mark 8:38, Luke 9:26), and his Father (John 17:11). In all of these, Jesus is just simply saying these things are separate from ordinary things because they are divine.
KJV: Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine
NIV: Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs…
Listeners Heard: You shouldn't give these holy things to the dogs nor toss those pearls of yours in front of the sows.
We learn two things from this verse. We shouldn’t give holy things to dogs and that these things are like pearls, in the sense that they are valuable. Since dogs cannot appreciate them, “holy” things are valuable in a way that animals cannot sense. What separates humanity from animals? The ideas we have that animals do not. These holy or sacred values are higher ideas, touching on what we call the Divine.
KJV: Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
Listeners Heard: Purify them in the truth. This logic, this one of yours, is truth.
What makes things “holy?” What separates them from the ordinary, is truth, which comes from the Divine. This a bigger and more “worldly” idea than merely separated for the worship of the Divine. Truth is useful here on earth, in this world. This idea leads us directly to Jesus’s use of “holy” with “spirit.” He connects the two specifically in John 14:17, where is talks about “the spirit of truth.”
Though the term “holy” is very common in the Old and New Testaments, it does not appear to be a major topic of Jesus’s, but this is an illusion. As we will see, Jesus folded the idea of “holy” into a larger perspective. He is expanding the idea of what is “special” for the worship of the Divine.
We look at the “Holy Spirit” in wholly separate article. Pun intended.