Truth, Understanding, Insight


9th August 2009, mgh


2) Holy in New and Old Testaments

The word 'holy' is a word that we sense what it means rather than concretely know. We would associate 'holy' with things set apart from ordinary living and associated with Deity. But a study of the use of the word in the Bible shows the word 'holy' is most often not about things.

'Holy' in both Greek and Hebrew are similar in meaning from Strong's.

Hebrew: 6944 qodesh ko'-desh from 6942; a sacred place or thing; rarely abstract, sanctity:--consecrated (thing), dedicated (thing), hallowed (thing), holiness, (X most) holy (X day, portion, thing), saint, sanctuary.
Greek: 40 hagios hag'-ee-os from hagos (an awful thing); sacred (physically, pure, morally blameless or religious, ceremonially, consecrated):--(most) holy (one, thing), saint.

The differences are subtle but significant. The Hebrew qodesh relates first to the dwelling place, and therefore the visible presence of Deity, whereas the Greek word hagios is about an 'awesome' thing, or an object.

Holy in the Old Testament

The first use of the word 'holy' is to describe the ground Moses is standing on (Exodus 3:5), as at that place and time Yahweh Elohim's presence was on earth in the fire. The second occurrence is to describe the gathering of the Sabbath (Exodus 12:6). The third reference is Israel being guided to the holy habitation of Yahweh (Exodus 15:13). At this time there was neither tabernacle or temple, therefore it spoke of his presence among them (Deuteronomy 23:16). These are typical. The majority of references in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy refer to the tabernacle where Yahweh dwelled, specific items associated with it and the gatherings where the people present themselves to Yahweh. Anything described as 'holy' belonged directly to Yahweh and was associated with his visible presence.

There is one aspect the translators of the English versions have not emphasised. The Hebrew writers, despite having a word for 'things' and 'place', did not write 'holy things' or 'holy place' but 'the holies' ha -kodeshim (הקדשׁים) and 'the holy' ha- kodesh (הקדשׁ) . The most holy was not called 'most holy' but kodesh ha-kodeshim (קדשׁ הקדשׁים), literally 'holy the-holies'. The emphasis is not on the place or the things, but the presence of Deity. This Hebrew thinking becomes even more evident in Isaiah, as Isaiah calls the name of the God of Israel, 'holy'.

Thus says the high and lofty his dwelling eternity and his name holy
elevated and holy his dwelling even among those of contrite and humble spirit to revive the spirit of the humble and revive the heart of the contrite. (Isaiah 57:15)

Isaiah writes also and uses the same word for 'holy' as above,

Cry out and shout, dwellers in Zion; for great in the midst is holy of Israel (Isaiah 12:6)

Isaiah does not write 'holy one' but 'holy'. The expression is used by the prophets to describe Yahweh dwelling with his people (Hosea 11:9, Ezekiel 39:7, Jeremiah 50:29, Isaiah 60: 14 also Job 6:10).

By contrast, when something or some place is described as 'holy', in Hebrew the word 'holy' as an adjective is placed after the thing or place. For example Moses stands on 'ground holy' (Exodus 3:5). Israelites were not to eat animals found dead in the field as they were 'men holy' (Exodus 22:31). Jerusalem was 'mountain holy' (Psalm 2:6, 3:4, 15:1). But Jerusalem was called the 'city the-holy' (Nehemiah 11:1,18, Isaiah 48:2 52:1, 62:12) and also 'mountain the-holy' (Zechariah 8:3). The addition of the word 'the' to 'holy' indicates that the Hebrews in describing Jerusalem were not describing a characteristic, that it was holy, but rather its ownership, that it belonged to 'the-Holy' (one). But the Hebrew text has no capital letters and does not differentiate in describing something as 'holy' or describing Yahweh himself.

Holy Spirit in the Septuagint

The term 'Holy Spirit' occurs in 2 passages in the English translation of the Old Testament: Psalm 51 and Isaiah 63.

A literal translation from Hebrew of Psalm 51:11 reads 'and-spirit holy-yours not take out-of me'. In Isaiah 63:10&11 'his holy spirit' literally reads '(even /namely) spirit holy-his' .

But remarkably when the Hebrew was translated directly to Greek in the Septuagint version, the Greek in all 3 verses above is 'to pnema to hagion', (τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιόν) a peculiar phrase, which, if literally translated into English is 'the spirit the holy'. Isaiah 63:11 reads word for word in Greek that Yahweh gives 'out-of himself the spirit the holy'.

The Hebrews who translated these verses into Greek knew something about what was intended by the word 'holy'. In Isaiah 63 the word underlined above is not translated into English as there is no equivalent in English. It could be described in long hand as 'the self of', or 'the entity of', 'even the' or 'namely'. The word occurs 2 times in Genesis 1:1 and is not translated. It literally reads “Firstly create God even/namely the heaven and even/ namely the earth”. In this case 'the heaven' and 'the earth' are proper names. That the translators into Greek chose to put a definite article in front of 'holy' and write 'the holy', indicates that 'the holy' was being used as a proper noun, or a name.

This is consistent as the Hebrew word 'holy', due to context, often is translated as 'Holy One' and Isaiah's declaration about “the high and lofty”, that his name is “holy” (Isaiah 57:15).

From the context, The Psalmist and Isaiah were not speaking of the general spirit that sustained life and controlled the winds, but of the mind and mental attitude of 'the Holy'. Though it is a poor analogy, we breathe without thinking and this is spirit, yet when we consciously think the outworking is the spirit of our character. In these passages they are speaking of the spirit, the consciousness and mind of Yahweh.

Holy in the New Testament

In Greek the word 'holy' is less linked to Yahweh the God of Israel than the Hebrew word was. In the Greek world of the apostles era, with its multiplicity of gods and heroes, many things were set apart, or revered, or seen as 'holy'.

This study leaves pre-conceptions and examines what is actually written. After an exhaustive study of all occurrences of the word 'holy' in the New Testament, in the ancient Greek language 'holy' seems to be more used as a description, or an adjective, than in Hebrew. We must be wary as in the years since the apostles the pagan Greek culture has had great influence on our culture. Even today people are happy to speak of a lot of things, totally unconnected with God, as being 'sacred' or 'holy', such as items related to sport or a nation's history.

We have cultural ideas that we have acquired which might not be right. It may be that what we think is correct might not be how it really is. It was found there was information lost in translation.

Making it a bit more holy

The temptation to slot in an extra adjective of 'holy' where it fitted was not resisted by the translators of the KJV and CEV, as 'holy' appears in Matthew 12:31, but the word is in no Greek text.

This tendency to add the word 'holy' was not resisted by the scribes of the 4th century Greek text (later taken up by Textus Receptus and Majority text). 'Holy' is not a word that an otherwise careful scribe would leave out. Therefore, if minority manuscripts with few scribe errors seem to have left out 'holy', it indicates that the scribes of the dominant Majority Text may have added the word where they felt, just as the KJV and CEV translators did. Remembering also that by the 4th Century there were schisms and the dominant Christianity was considered by many commentators of the era to be lax.

Comparing Nestle and the Diaglot Greek texts and using the Open Scriptures 'Manuscript Comparator' (, it was found that the Majority Texts added 'holy' before the word 'angels' in Matthew 25:31, before 'brethren' in 1Thessalonians 5:27, and before 'prophets' in Revelation 22:6. The Majority Text added 'holy' before God in 2 Peter 1:21. They also added 'holy' before the word 'spirit' in Acts6:3, Acts 8:18 and 1 John 5:8 and after 'spirit' in 1Corinthians2:13.

That the scribes of the Majority Text added 'holy' as an adjective before the subject, rather than after it, tells us they were making it a bit more 'holy' as this word order occurs rather less than we may have thought.

Often in the Greek text the word 'holy' is after the thing or place which it describes. The examples are:

'covenant holy' (Luke 1:72), 'Father holy' (John 17:11), 'writings holy' (Romans 1:2), 'place holy' (Matthew 24:15), 'temple holy' (Ephesians 2:21), 'ground holy' (Acts 7:31), 'brethren holy' (Hebrews3:1), 'kiss holy' (Romans 16:16, 1 Cor. 16:20, 1 Thess. 5:26), 'calling holy' (2 Tim 1:9 ), 'nation holy' (1 peter 2:9), 'priesthood holy' (1 Peter 2:5), 'sacrifice living holy' (Romans 12:1) and 'Temple of-the God holy' (1 Cor. 3:17). Paul writes 'So that the indeed law holy, and the commandment holy' (Romans 7:12) also 'if also the first-fruit holy and the lump and if the root holy also the branch' (Romans 11:16).

This word order seems the way to describe a thing as holy.

By contrast certain things merit a different word order where 'holy' is placed first. The examples are fewer in number and are:

'the holy city' (Matthew 4:5, 27:53), 'the holy servant' (Acts 4:27, 30), 'the holy apostles' (Eph 3:5) 'the holy women' (1Peter 3:5), 'the holy mount' (2 Peter 1:18) 'itself holy commandment' (2Peter2:21) 'the holy prophets' (2 Peter 3:2), 'in holy conversation' (2Peter3:11) and 'the holy place this' (Acts 21:28).

It is to be noted this is less frequent in usage and most often 'the', or 'self', the definite article precedes it. The Greek definite article 'the' also means 'he', 'she', 'it' and implies an entity of a character. A sole exception is Paul's greet with a 'holy kiss' (2 Cor 13:12) which varies from his three other letters, including 1 Corinthians, which say greet with a 'kiss holy'.

The word order is significant. Holy in such examples as 'nation holy' is a description, whereas 'holy apostles' is more a title, with 'holy' becoming part of the name. We will return to this point.

'The Holy'

In the Old Testament the word 'holy' in some contexts meant 'Holy One', being a title for the God of Israel. This seems to be reflected in the New Testament, where the definite article 'the' precedes 'holy'. The Greek 'the' is a bit like the Hebrew eth 'even/namely' which has no equivalent in English. The word we see as 'the' in an English translation in Greek means also 'this, that, one, he, she, it', with the context determining whether it means 'the', 'he', 'she' or 'it'. The Greek word 'the' describes an entity, either a person or a thing.

For example (word for word) Jesus said, “don't give 'the holy' to the dogs” (Matthew7:6), Stephen was accused of “speaking against the place 'the holy' and the law (Acts 6:13). Peter says to the leaders “You 'the holy' and righteous denied” (Acts 3:14). Also “spoke through mouth 'of-the holy' from the age of the prophets” (Luke 1:69, Acts 3:21), A man cried out “I know you who (you) are, 'the holy' of the God” (Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34). John writes “And you an anointing have from 'the holy', and you know all-things” (1John 2:20) and “be glad over her, heaven and 'the holy' and the apostles and the prophets” (Revelation 18:20). Paul speaks of “the intent 'the holy' and unblamable” (Eph 5:27), of Jesus (Yeshua) “but through his own blood entered once for all into 'the holy'” (Hebrews9:12) and he “entered in by 'the holy'” (Hebrews 9:25).

The apostles used a different word for 'holy', meaning 'sacred/ righteous' when they quoted, “thou will not give 'the righteous' of you to see corruption” (Acts 2:27,13:35). These all match the Old Testament usage, where the 'holy' spoke of the dwelling of Yahweh himself, the temple and items belonging to Yahweh. The 'holy' also seems a name of the God of Israel. Paul speaks of the spirit promised by 'the holy' (Eph 1:13), and Mary stated it in praise,

'because did to me great things the Mighty. And holy the name of-him' (Luke 1:49)

The use of 'the holy' results in a few expressions that sound odd when translated word for word from Greek into English. Whereas Matthew speaks of Jerusalem being 'the holy city' (Mat. 4:5 15:23), John speaks of new Jerusalem as 'the city the holy' (Revelation 11:2, 21:2,10 and 22:19). John is using a Hebrew concept. 'The city the holy' corresponds to a group of people, called 'the holy' or belonging to the Holy One.

Of the 160 occurrences of the word 'holy' in the New Testament 84 relate to the spirit. Before we understand the way holy and spirit are used, we should understand how the Greek expression varies for 'holy angels'.

The holy angels, angels holy, the angels of the Holy

When the English translation has 'holy angels', the Greek reads the same,

When he comes in the glory of himself, and of the father, and of the holy angels' (luke 9:26)

Notice the definite article 'the' is used. But in Acts where the translations have 'holy angel' the Greek text, word for word reads,

Cornelius a man just and fearing the God, being testified of ..was warned by a-angel holy (Acts 10:22).

The angel is described as 'holy' or 'awesome'. Also in Revelation,

by fire and suphur before angels holy and before the lamb. (Rev 14:10)

But where it has 'Holy angels' in English, Mark wrote the phrase 'the angels the holy' ton aggelon ton hagion (των αγγελων των αγιων)

when he comes in the glory of the father of him with 'the angels the holy'(Mark 8:38)

The English translations conceal the variations in the three expressions: angels holy, the holy angels and the angels the Holy. The last quote speaks of the angels belonging to 'the Holy'. The Greek text differentiates between those titled 'the holy angels', angels who are 'awesome', and the angels belonging to Yahweh, where the English translations do not.