Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Holy: Understanding it Better Through One Word Versus Many

I don't like confusion and I would guess you don't either.  Recently, I ran across an explanation that I never heard before for why there are so many words that translate the one word in Hebrew and the corresponding one word in Greek that are usually translated as holy.  Desiderius Erasmus, of Reformation fame, understood copiousness to be a distinct advantage in rhetoric or persuasive communication.   What he meant by copiousness is saying one thing in many different ways.  This is probably the best explanation for why translators translate one word in Hebrew and its corresponding one word in Greek by so many words. 

The one root or word in Hebrew can be translated in English by saint, sacred, sanctified, sanctuary, consecrated, hallowed, hallow, Holy One or holy.  Someone could easily see a Latin influence here, but the bigger question is why those words were kept alongside the more Anglo-Saxon words.  In some recent translations, the list gets even longer with set apart or separate.  In some older translations there was also halig and wholly.  Then you can add to this the theological vocabulary of sanctification or holiness.  Then to make matters more confusing saint can be replaced by santa in more popular usage.  At Christmas time it is interesting to realize this last connection. 

For clarity's sake, I would argue that it would have been far more effective to have used one word like holy each time for the one word in Hebrew and its corresponding one word in Greek.  Clarity is there in the original that simply is lacking in many translations because one word is replaced by many words. 

The way to create clarity is to have just one word for one word, where clearly the basic context is the same.  The way to create confusion is to have more than one option, when the context does not demand a different basic meaning.  This is more likely to cause connections to be missed by the average reader.

My own favorite example of this is my missing the connection between holy and "hallowed be Your Name" in the Lord's Prayer.  "Holy be your name" would be much clearer for showing the connection between that statement and "Yahweh [His name] your God is holy." 

I used to think the variety in words for one word came from William Shakespeare and poetic influence.  Maybe some of it did, but Desiderius Erasmus now seems to me a better explantion for an influence on translators.  So while I greatly admire Erasmus for most of what he contributed to scholarship, I think his idea of copiousness for persuasive speech or writing may have been applied inappropriately and it may have created unnecessary confusion in the ordinary English reader's mind. 

So I hope, if nothing else, by understanding this tendency in translation, you will be able to realize that in the majority of cases, the many words for "holy" are really one word.  The most common one word in English translation is holy.  I'd love to see a translation that used only this one word in its different forms, like the original did and like the Greek translation of the Hebrew did in the New Testament.  I think this would eliminate some, but not all, of the confusion out there over what "holy" means, because the connections between different parts of Scripture would be clear.  This would be a small step forward. 

In Christ,

Pastor Jon