How is it that the most important Book of the Law of Moses can become the least? Pastor Ray Stedman, a number of years ago, tried to explain this in a commentary on Leviticus titled The Way to Wholeness (published posthumously). His explanation of the lack of interest in Christian circles had to do with the popular understanding of holy as set apart rather than as wholeness. While most scholars would disagree with his definition, most scholars agree with Stedman that holiness is a key concept in the book of Leviticus. So what does it mean?
Where there is a difference between Stedman and the majority of scholars is the translation of the Hebrew qadosh (holy in most translations). The current difficulty with holy is that it is amendable in English to either the idea of "set apart" or to the idea of "whole". There is a silly argument that the scholar James "Too Far" Barr once tried to present that holy in the Bible does not mean "whole", based on the English etymology where it clearly is connected to hale, healthy, and whole. First, in all of my reading on holiness (and it is extremely extensive), I have never read someone argue that because an English word means something in its etymology, therefore the Hebrew means the same.
I think it what we used to call a "wet paper sack" ("he can't even fight his way out of a wet paper sack") argument. Who would ever think that? It is absurd.
The logic does not go this way:
Holy is the translation for qadosh (the original in Hebrew) and hagios (the original in Greek),
therefore if holy means whole in English,
then therefore qadosh and hagios mean whole in their respective languages.
No, that logic does not work and none of those like Ray Stedman, Leonard Ravenhill, or Charles Haddon Spurgeon ever would have dreamed up such a notion. What they are trying to say is something that does make sense. Here is what I think they are trying to argue when the point out that holy means or is connected to whole. One of their major premises is being skipped over by Barr.
Their logic does go more like this:
The King James translators (and English translators before them) chose the word holy primarily to translate qadosh from Hebrew and hagios from Greek into our language.
The King James translators chose the word holy, because they believed that qadosh and hagios had connections to moral wholeness.
When we point out that holy means whole in its etymology, we mean to point out what was obvious to earlier translators when they chose holy as the word for their translation into English of qadosh and hagios.
Therefore, since I am not questioning their translation of qadosh and hagios from their respective languages by these earlier translators, then I am supporting their translation into my language that holy means moral wholeness.
What Barr does not make explicit in the other parties' argument is the highlighted line and also his own line that:
We, as Biblical scholars, do not take seriously earlier Biblical scholarship or translation work relying or dating back at least to the Middle Ages.
That is what the argument is really about with regard to the translation from the Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. It is about the reliability or quality of earlier translation work. Without really making it an explicit premise, there is an assumption than older scholarship is inferior.
I, as a translator, take a much more objective view now that it is possible to stand apart from the arguments about scholarship that were at their peak near the end of the 1800's and continued throughout the entire 20th century. I don't by default automatically consider an older viewpoint the inferior view. Rather I like to look at the evidence for both sides in arguments over a translation. I keep my choices open and then only by the evidence do I close doors to those choices.
I keep my choices open
and then only by the evidence
do I close doors to those choices.
I think that David J. A. Clines, the editor for the most up to date Hebrew dictionary called The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, possesses a keen mind when he says two things about the challenges for making an adequate Hebrew dictionary:
First, he says, regarding the challenges of constructing a Hebrew dictionary including Biblical Hebrew: "It takes a long time to make a Hebrew dictionary that is more than a recapitulation of dictionaries of the past" (p. 88). This is a critical point. The number of dictionaries that say the same thing about the meaning of Hebrew qadosh does not mean that each dictionary has evaluated the work of the previous dictionary. Instead, due to time constraints, it may only be "a recapitulation of the dictionaries of the past". This totally makes sense, since they are trying to cover some 300,000 words in Biblical Hebrew alone according to Cline (p. 90). That does not even consider the next 100,000 Non-Biblical Hebrew words that Cline also mentions. It would be a massive task to re-evaluate every word's meaning and translation.
Second, he says regarding one further challenges for more recent Hebrew dictionaries including Biblical Hebrew :
How to draw upon the rich resources of mediaeval Hebrew lexicographers [dictionary
makers], which are almost totally absent from all our contemporary lexica. I do not
mean to suggest that all philological [linguistic] observations by these mediaeval
authors deserve a place in a modern dictionary of Hebrew, but that some undoubtedly do.
The systematic evaluation of such proposals would be a highly technical undertaking, and
stands as a challenge to lexicographers of the future (p. 92).
Here I believe that Cline is much more objective than James "Too Far" Barr, who in all likelihood would see no value in the task that Cline has suggested. Notice too how careful Cline is to avoid two errors and not just one error as in the case of Barr. He avoids saying that "all [linguistic] observations by these mediaeval authors deserve a place in a modern dictionary of Hebrew". But he also thinks that "some undoubtedly do".
This leaves the door open then to considering the work of people like Johannes Reuchlin, the influential Hebrew scholar in the case of Martin Luther's and Phillip Melancthon's scholarship. It does not by default register an endorsement, but rather an evaluation. That is what I want to plead for in the case of trying to decide the meaning of holy. Too often older scholarship by default registers the opposite of an endorsement, a denial.
I also want to support Cline's statement that this "would be a highly technical undertaking", because I have tried to do this on the just the meaning of holy and knowledge of Latin is a major requirement, besides the fact that footnotes were not popular with the Reformers like Luther, who do not always point out whether it was Reuchlin, one of the Kimchi's, or Nicholas of Lyra who was his source. The difficulty of the job, however, does not mean it should not be undertaken, but rather undertaken with a due sense of qualifications for doing it well.
Having said all this about translation, you probably have guessed already that I will be focusing primarily on statement from Leviticus 19:2 New King James Version (NKJV):
2 “Speak to all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy."
The key words to look at in terms of translation in this passage are the following:
1) "all" - more properly translated as "the whole of" in this verse
2) "holy" - no surprise here: "What does it mean in the original text?"
3) the LORD - more properly translated as "Yahweh", the question is: "Why is it not transliterated as Yahweh as found in the original text?"
So my personal translation of this verse would read:
“Speak to the whole of the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I Yahweh your God am holy."
The remaining question will be, during the 5 steps of 1)translation, 2)transfer, 3)total, 4)train, and 5)teach; whether holy should be understood as 1) morally whole, 2) pure, or 3) set apart. As I go through the series of steps, I hope at each step the issues will be clearer and clearer as to which definition the text supports. Remember to keep your choice of definition open long enough to evaluate the evidence. Also an additional word to watch for is the Hebrew word for blessed. I will be examining that also in the context of holy. May you have a great finish to the rest of your day.