Sunday, September 29, 2013

Holy: Understanding it Better through Awarness

For anyone coming to this blog, I am sure the #1 question is: "What is the meaning of holy?".  But I think there is also a second question behind the first question: "Why are there different definitions for this central word of the Bible?"  For example, this evening I heard a member of the Christian band, Petra, define holy as "totally unique" on YouTube.  It is maybe a more contemporary version of Rudolph Otto's definition of "wholly other" from early in the 20th century.  So, do I think these definitions are correct?  The simple answer is that I think they fall wide of the mark despite their agreement.  The lack that I see is a lack of awareness.  The more and more I research the topic of the meaning of qadosh (translated into English as holy), the more aware I have become of things that I was not aware of previously.  So let me tell you about some of these new discoveries. 

The first is that the quality of a Hebrew-English, Aramaic-English, or Greek-English lexicon is not improved by the number of them that agree with each other.  Rather this may rather indicate that one source is behind the many lexicons.  While the many agreeing is a positive quantity, the many does not change the quality of the first that is copied by all the others.  John A. L. Lee (A History of New Testament Lexicology) has probably argued this the best.  So Petra's agreement with Rudolph Otto does not mean that the quality of Otto's argument for his meaning of holy is improved. 

The second is that the etymology of qadosh in Hebrew is both over-rated and under-rated as a tool to learn the meaning of holy.   James Barr, as a scholar, really helped biblical scholarship by making a great argument for the need for the insights of linguistics and semantics.  In the case of what is called etymology (the true history of a word), though, he throws the baby out with the bathwater.  On the other hand, many scholarly articles begin with etymology and then after downplaying its value don't really downplay it in fact.  They do not test its meaning beyond that point, but rather use a plausible meaning from the etymology that is uncertain.  The best example of this is in Jo Bailey-Wells' argument that the etymology of qadosh as being "set apart" is no longer supported by recent scholarship and yet she uses that definition in the following discussion without a different kind of test to determine holy's meaning. 

The third is that the method needed for determining the meaning of holy goes beyond a lexicon.  A lexicon is an enormous project and falls under what is called lexicology.  The problem is that when a lexicon is constructed, it cannot look into every word entry with great depth.  What is needed for that is what is called a "word study".   Here though there is another distinction that must be made.  There are small-scale word studies and then there are in-depth word studies.  If you look on-line you will find numerous shorter word studies on qadosh (the Hebrew behind the English word holy) like that of the scholar, Dr. Allen P. Ross.  I studied under Dr. Ross and he is a top-notch biblical scholar, but the study he offers on-line is not on the depth of word studies like those offered by TDOT (The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament) and NIDOTT (New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology (William A. VanGemeren, General Editor).   What is needed is a focused study on the set of words that are translated into English as "holy".  These books mentioned have studies that have the right depth and length, but also need a solid method added to them.  What I now realize is that I need to use the method of doing a word study to really contribute something on the meaning of holy.  It will likely be in the 80-100 page category and so be enough in-depth to really contribute something to the discussion.  Unfortunately, most lexicons with the exception of Klein's do not mention the quality of the definition that is offered.  It would be nice to someday have a letter system like that associated with textual variants that makes explicit a quality rating. 

The fourth is that awareness is itself a very important value.  Lack of awareness is the primary reason for the need for education.  Yet with all the education that is offered, there can still be large gaps in awareness or the need to slow down and really consider what is taught.  Many of the things that I was taught at the university level, I did not realize until later what was meant.  In other words, I finally became aware of something that I was not aware of previously, though I was already taught the topic.  The need to really observe and keep observing as part of inductively studying the Bible was taught to me at the university level and then in Seminary by three great teachers: Tom Stellar, Dr. John S. Piper, and Dr. Daniel P. Fuller.  The latter is the one who most applied this principle of observation.  I was fortunate to have hung on to old notebooks from my college years, so I could re-read what I read before and have continued observation pay off.  I then got the pay off of greater awareness!

Finally, it takes awareness of all four of these to really have a great opportunity to understand the meaning of holy in our English translations.   They again are: 1) quantity though it comes before quality, does not replace it when it comes to lexicons, 2) that etymology has value though it must not be allowed to have undue influence on how holy is defined, 3) a word study of some length is what is needed at present to resolve the problem of differing definitions for qadosh, and 4) awareness is itself the value behind each of these things I have learned through "getting an education". 

I like to put awareness on the level of the traits of being "ready, willing, and able".  I say a person needs to be "ready, willing, able, and aware".    If any of these is missing, then a decision is likely to falter in the future.  If they are all present, then the future is likely to match with the present.  I hope what I have written today has at least raised your awareness about the meaning of holy.  I am presently working on sorting out which of three English words best defines holy: 1) pure, 2) set apart, or 3) moral wholeness.  Please check back to see my further work on my word study for this incredibly important word. I would also appreciate your prayers that I have ample time and that I use my time well to finish a large word study on qadosh and its translations down to the English language and beyond. 

Thank you.

In Christ,