Who is a saint?
Many places in France are named after saints. Recently I visited the city of Saint-Étienne, which is named after Stephen the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8 – 7:60).
According to the dictionary, today a saint is:
- A person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behavior, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding to God for people on earth, or
- A person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness.
The word “saint” comes from the Latin word “sānctus” that means holy and was used in the Vulgate version of the Bible (which was used in western Europe, AD 400–1530). In the middle ages saints were often depicted with halos, a symbol of holiness. “Saint” is also the French word for holy.
The English word “saint” dates from the 13th century and was first used in a Scripture translation in the Geneva Bible version of 1587. It was carried over into the King James Version in 1611 and continues today in the New King James Version and other versions as a translation of the Greek word “hagios” (Strongs #40) in the New Testament. The Greek word means set apart by (or for) God, holy, and sacred. It is an adjective used to describe God, things connected with God, or people connected with God. The Hebrew word “qaddish” (Strongs #6922) has a similar meaning in the Old Testament (Dan. 7:18-21, 25, 27).
Six of Paul’s letters to churches are addressed to these people (Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians). Paul also said that before he became a Christian, “I put many of the Lord’s people in prison” (Acts 26:10NIV). These people were Christ’s disciples and followers (Acts 9:1-2; 13-14). They were Christians who were living at that time. So the in the Bible, the word “hagios” means a follower of Jesus Christ, a Christian.
The Biblical meaning of “hagios” differs from the most common meanings of “saint”, because:
- A Christian is not “a person of exceptional kindness, goodness or holiness or goodness”. They can disagree with one another (Acts 15:39) and they can sin (Gal. 2:11-14). But they are holy in God’s sight as they received Christ’s righteousness when He took their sin – a marvellous exchange.
- A Christian is not “a person who after death is officially recognized because of holy deeds or behaviour, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth”. The Christian’s in the New Testament were on earth, not in heaven – they were alive, not dead. They were saved by Christ’s death and resurrection, not by good works. They weren’t venerated – in the Bible, Peter is not called Saint Peter, Paul is not called Saint Paul and Stephen was not called Saint Stephen after he was martyred (Acts 11:19; 22:20). God alone was to be venerated. Although they could pray when alive, there is no mention in the Bible of them praying after they died.
Because the Biblical meaning of the Greek word “hagios” differs from the common meaning of the English word “saint”, Bibles translated into everyday spoken English don’t use the word “saint”. Consequently, the NIV Bible mainly uses “the Lord’s (holy) people” or “God’s (holy) people” instead of “the saints”
The frequency of occurrence of the English word “saint(s)” in various translations of the Bible is given below:
- 98 times – NKJV
- 82 times – ESV
- 63 times – HCSB
- 62 times – NET
- 0 times – NIV
- 0 times – NLT
As indicated above, in the versions that include the word “saint”, this word has a meaning that differs from common usage. A reader should be told this technical (jargon) meaning in order to correctly understand these Bibles.
This is one of the reasons why I prefer the NIV translation of the Bible.