Thursday, December 31, 2009

Holy Means Whole: According to Webster's Word Histories

I thought about writing a summary of my writings for the year, but I did that pretty much in a recent entry. One thing that has always stood out to me is the absurdity of growing up in the 20th century without any sense of holiness meaning wholeness, when this was a very traditional understanding in the English-speaking world of translation. One of the best proofs of this is the many dictionaries that show the etymology of holy having a connection to the meaning of whole. I want to present one of those dictionary etymologies as given in a newer book titled Webster’s Word Histories.

The actual entry is that of Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, but for our purposes I am going to leave out the Ghost and Spirit histories. It is easy to separate it out without doing any injustice to the evidence for the history of the meaning of holy. One other change is that I am going to write out a full meaning for any abbreviations. The actual entry is found on page 223 of Webster’s Word Histories, if you want to read it without any changes.

The entry then reads:

[Holy from Middle English holi, from Old English halig, translation of Late Latin sanctus, translation of Greek Hagion, translation of Hebrew ha-godesh; holy, from Middle English hooli, translation of Late Latin sanctus]

You can check out any standard dictionary for the meaning of the Old English halig. It clearly was tied to the concept of whole or healthy. Our earliest English translators clearly saw a meaning of whole in the word holy as a later replacement for halig. That is the stance of any serious etymology.

I think this should cause all of us to pause at the end of this year and to consider carefully the steps we are following in moving away from a meaning handed down to us by pretty reliable men. John Wycliffe and William Tyndale along with many others gave us a rich tradition of the Bible in our own words. These translators also helped give birth to renewal.

I know that in our day many are big believers in progress. So seeing Wycliffe and Tyndale as reliable seems a bit quaint or odd. Certainly, we say, translation has progressed too. But perhaps we can see them as quite reliable without giving up on progress over time. Could it be that they were right on a fundamental level, yet not entirely right, when it comes to a fuller understanding of what this really means? Did they really make the meaning of whole crystal clear in translation? The possibility that they did not, leaves open the room for plenty of progress, yet not the kind that undercuts the fundamentals. Could it be that our understanding of progress is driving some of us, more than actual evidence regarding the meaning of holy?

We, as Christians, are not today in the midst of any renewal like that of the Reformation. So we need to do at least two things. We need to acknowledge to the world, or at least to the Christian world, that we are questioning the reliability of these Christian men on a very critical fundamental point. It could be a cause for our lack of renewal. Also, if that had been done in the 20th century, I might have sooner known at least that holy might mean whole. As I said earlier, we also need to slow down and consider. We need to ask: “Could we be mistaken?” Perhaps then 2010 might be the year for us to amend our ways.

In Christ,


Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Holy Means Whole: According to Micah 3:5

Holy Means Whole: According to Micah 3:5

The Gettysburg Address lasted all of 5 minutes, I believe. The speaker before Lincoln spoke for 1 ½ hours, if I recall correctly. That speaker, who no one remembers, wrote to Lincoln and told him he said more than him during his 5 minutes. I am going to keep this short and still try to say more than a longer discussion. I want to show you an example of how holy means whole has implications for wonderful meaning.

I’ll let you look at the larger context yourself, yet in Micah 3:5d, we read in a literal translation: “they even sanctify a war against him.” Today the meaning would be: “they even set apart a war against him.” To get more meaning you might say that this means “they even make a special war effort against him. “ Yet that might be a stretch for the meaning of setting apart a war. On a common sense level, I am not sure I get the point.

In Micah 3:5d, we could instead see the meaning as “they even put together all the parts of a war against him.” To get even more meaning you might say that this means “they made a very significant effort war effort against him.” Rather than just a partial war against him, they were going to make a whole ware effort against him. They were not going to leave anything out in the overall arsenal of war.

To me, this translation or meaning is far more meaningful than the first. To literally put together all the parts of a war effort against an enemy means you are giving your all which fits with the context of using the word “even.” Even means something goes against expectation. In this context, you might expect their anger resulting in some insignificant efforts, yet you would not expect an all out war effort.

So they are not giving just a half-baked effort, they are giving their all by leaving no part of a war effort out. So holy means whole has very big significance even in small places. I think this is “a wonderful new meaning” to quote Luther on his new understanding of righteousness.

In Christ,