Saints or Holy Ones?

Over Thanksgiving (the U.S. one for my Canadian friends) this last weekend one of the conversations I had with family (my family on both sides is filled with pastors) was about the change made in the NIV(2011) concerning the non-use of “saints”.  The conversation entailed whether the change was necessary and why they would make such a break from other Protestant translations (ESV, NASU, NET, NIV[1984], the KJV-family, NRS) that use “saints” in the NT in such a place as Ephesians 1:1 for translating the Greek ἁγίοις. 

While I have enjoyed the “shock-factor” as a preacher of having folks in church turn to one another in recognition of being “saints”…in my personal translations I’ve inevitably translated ἁγίοις as something more like “holy ones” or some such term.  In part because of the connotations that it bears for many folks about people long since dead who had a mystical connection to God and supernatural abilities that no one else can expect to have as a ‘normal’ follower of Jesus. 

The NIV(2011) rendering of Ephesians 1:1 has “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:” (bold added for emphasis).  Interestingly enough the Catholic translations have purposely avoided the very connotations inherent in their theological system by translating it as “holy ones” (NAB) and “holy people” (NJB).  The NCV, NLT, TNIV opted for “holy people” so it seems only natural that the NIV(2011) would follow this translational trend.  I find it preferable and think the choice bears less weight for people who are reading it and don’t differentiate the language of “saints” in Catholic dogma from “saints” as represented by the New Testament usage of ἁγίοις.  To be sure, those two definitions are worlds apart (as even the Catholic renderings testify).

I’d be interested to know what others think about this trend in the most recent translations and what your own translational choice of the matter is?

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8 thoughts on “Saints or Holy Ones?

  1. I'd agree with your view, but then I tend towards dynamic-equivalent translations and the notion that the Bible should be understandable in our context.

  2. Marc, so you think "holy ones/people" makes more sense in our modern context than "saints"? Do you think "saints" has too much baggage or would "holy ones/people" still carry too much baggage as well for you?

  3. In truth, I haven't given it much thought. However, I would say that today there are several levels in which "saints" may not work.The first is what you refer to: the Catholic saints.Secondly, I think it might be getting close to going the way of the word "awesome". For instance, the saying, "You're a saint."Finally, it may simply be an archaic word. I'm not sure on the etymology of "saint"–does it derive directly from the Greek? If so, why the need for transliterated terminology when there are English translation possible? [I see now that it's not a transliteration.] If not, why stick with a word simply because "that's what we've always called it."I could be convinced otherwise, though. For instance, there is something to be said for educating Christians in the language of faith.

  4. I think "holy people" would have more meaning to people than "saints". In today's culture, a saint is a person who is supernaturally different from other Christians and can perform great miracles and never sins. This gives people the wrong impression of what a true saint is: It is forgiven people who are set apart from God. So I think "holy people" fits in the "saints" category 🙂

  5. Marc, As I understand it "saint" is essentially derived (through several permutations) from the late Latin "sanctus" (as a sort of transliteration…if you will).MsLeigh…I'm guessing you meant to say "set apart FOR God" instead of "FROM God" as how to define what a true saint is. I get your drift though ;-). I think saint has more baggage up front for the average reader, but in the end both readings still require a fair amount of unpacking. Just my take on it.

  6. Ah, my mistake! You are correct, I meant "set apart for God". I was writing pretty late last night 🙂 And I agree they both have a bit of baggage. It is probably a good thing that there are so many translations out there just for this fact alone. I do wish that they had more translations of the Majority Text compared to the Minority Text, but hey, that is just me 😉

  7. Rick, I wonder if "saints" (NASB) makes Christians too uncomfortable since the term certainly seems to have connotations attached to it that attribute more to believers than they feel comfortable with. "Saints" certainly has Catholic attachments to it, but I also think "saints" implies, albeit correctly, a super-clean status of purity in relationship with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. I prefer "saints" for that reason, but also certainly see the high attribution inherent in a term like "holy people." Chuck Friesen

  8. I fully agree Chuck. Really either way one has to wrestle with the connotations of who we have become in relation to God in Christ. There is no way to avoid this even though there may be different baggage for different English terms.

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