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“The Saints” in the NT

June 25, 2017

In the NT believers are referred to as “the saints/holy ones” over 60 times, particularly in Paul’s letters, with another concentration in Revelation, and a scattering of uses in some other NT writings (Acts, Hebrews, Jude).  It’s an interesting instance of a group self-designation in earliest Christian circles.

The Greek word used in these NT writings is αγιοι (hagioi), the plural substantive form of the adjective hagios (“holy”).  In the Greek OT (LXX, Septuagint), however, hagioi is used as a term for a group of people only a few times, e.g., Psalm 16:3 (LXX 15:3), Psalm 34:9 (LXX 33:9), and the same is true in the wider body of second-temple Jewish texts.  The Hebrew term most often translated as hagioi is kadoshim (קדושׁים).

With reference to humans, the more frequent honorific term in the Greek OT is οσιοι (hosioi), which typically translates the Hebrew word hasidim (חסידים), particularly in the Psalms:  e.g. Psalm 30:4 (LXX 29:4); 31:23 (LXX 30:23), over a dozen times in all.  And in texts such as Wisdom of Solomon as well this Greek term is preferred as a reference to the godly people (e.g., 3:9; 4:15; 18:1-2, 5).

So why do the NT writers prefer to designate Jesus-believers as the hagioi, and not as the hosioi?  Why don’t they use the more familiar group-designation for godly Israelites, and instead use the other term?  Whatever the reason, the effect seems to be two-fold:

(1) The definite article, the hagioi, represents a particular claim, an exclusivity.  This expression doesn’t make Jesus-believers among the “holy,” but claims that they comprise the “holy./saints.”  In short, the term is a clear piece of evidence of a discrete group-mentality, an expression of a distinctive group-identity.

(2)  This is further demonstrated in the preference for a term that was not frequently used to designate the devout or the godly in Jewish texts of the time.  The NT writers use a term that rather clearly derives from Jewish usage; but their use of the term shows a distinctive preference for it and a distinctive application of it to designate themselves.

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  1. Ben Hudson permalink

    Daniel 7, but I also wonder whether the notion of the church as God’s temple led them there. (Neuter substantive of hagios is standard LXX language for the temple)?

    Paul Trebilco (My supervisor) has a chapter on ‘the Saints’ in his ‘Self-designations and Group Identity in the New Testament’ (9781107436749)

  2. Thanks. I hadn’t ever paid enough attention to οι αγιοι, and your observations make good sense in general. There are likely a number of specific instances with specific backgrounds. E.g., another option is that Leviticus 19.2 is lurking in the background (and picked up in 1 Peter 1.16). ἅγιοι ἔσεσθε, ὅτι ἐγὼ ἅγιος.
    One other piece that only explains a few usages is Zech 14.5, an odd passage that received quite a bit of Jewish (and later Xn) speculation.
    καὶ ἥξει κύριος ὁ θεός μου καὶ πάντες οἱ ἅγιοι μετ᾿ αὐτοῦ. =
    And the LORD my God will come with all his holy ones with him.
    Zech 14.5 is behind Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 3.13 (ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἁγίων αὐτοῦ) which is then explicated in 1 Thess 4.13-18 regarding the resurrection.
    Further, I’m quite sure that Zech 14.5 is also behind the remarkable observation in Matthew 27.51 at the crucifixion where it is reported that καὶ τὰ μνημεῖα ἀνεῴχθησαν καὶ πολλὰ σώματα τῶν κεκοιμημένων ἁγίων ἠγέρθησαν = And the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

  3. There is also a substantial difference of meaning between hosios and hagios. The former means pious, devout. The latter means “belonging to God,” “dedicated to God’s service.”

  4. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Isn’t the main background for NT use of hagioi Daniel 7? In particular it must have influenced use of the term in Revelation. Daniel is also the background for “the son of man” and archangel Michael as well as other Christian themes and phraseology.

    • Yes, Dan 7 could well have influenced NT usage. But it remains interesting that the NT authors prefer this term over the term preferred otherwise in second-temple Jewish texts. (Oh, and the Gospels usage of “the son of man” is not simply taken from Dan 7; at least that’s not so secure as you assume.)

  5. Wayne Brindle permalink

    Could “the saints” in the NT depend a lot on the use of the term in Daniel 7, where it has the same exclusive reference to the eschatological people who will received the kingdom?

    • Yes, although John COllins has argued strongly that the “holy ones” of Dan 7 are the angelic/heavenly representatives and counterparts to the earthly people of God. If so, it’s of course possible that the NT authors nevertheless read the term as prefiguring the Jesus-movement.

  6. I found this observation helpful and also intriguing. Having recently returned to study of the Galatian letter, and having just laid out its introduction side-by-side with that of other presumed-early, extant letters, I note dative ekklesia language without hagiois in the Gal and Thess letters, both ekklesia and hagiois in the Corinthian letters and Roman letters (although ekklesia is only in ch. 16), and an apparent preference for the hagiois language in the later Eph, Philipp, and Col letters.

    Could you comment on any possible development of group self-identification terminology *during the 50s,* i.e., could we assert that there might have been a move toward the hagiois language as the movement progressed during that decade and beyond? (Or perhaps I am making something out of nothing here.)

    • I don’t see the data as suggesting the development that you pose, Brian. Actually, as we move chronologically the term “hagioi” drops out as a group-designation.

  7. I would say they used the term because it is used in Daniel 7. They took it to be the biblical term for the eschatological people of God.

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