The “missing saints” revisited

I had posted briefly on this topic about a month ago. Today I would like to explore this further. In Bible class yesterday we looked at how NIV 2011 translates the Greek ὃι ἅγιοι (traditionally “saints”). We looked at the translation of the word as a noun, not the verbal form.

According to the CBT the issue was trying to avoid the contemporary Roman Catholic understanding of “saints.” And so alternatives were given.

The question arises: Do the alternative translations clarify the underlying Greek (after all, that is the purpose of a translation)? The two photos below show the variety of word choices in specific books of the New Testament.

NIV alternatives for saints Part 1
NIV 2011 alternatives for saints Part 2

Interestingly in Acts 9, the word is translated three different ways: “your holy people,” “Lord’s people,” and “believers.” And overall, there are seven different translation alternatives:

holy people
Lord’s people
God’s people
God’s holy people
his people
people of God

The variety shows up even within the came book (Colossians) or even the same chapter (Acts 9). In the process of offering these alternatives, the NIV 2011 causes even more confusion. Holiness is an attribute of God and with specific connotations (i.e. sinless). Likewise, when God desires his people to be holy, there is the sense that God consecrates (sets apart) his people to reflect that holiness, namely to be sinless. However, only two of the seven alternatives even hint at that aspect of ὃι ἅγιοι .

For instance, “believers” (often the translation of πίστις, the one who has faith) focuses on the content or object of faith, in contrast to some other object. One interesting collocation of the two words (one a substantive, one an adjective) is Ephesians 1:1

Παῦλος ἀπόστολος ⸉Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ⸊ διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ τοῖς ἁγίοις ⸀τοῖς οὖσιν ⸋[ἐν Ἐφέσῳ]⸌ καὶ πιστοῖς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus (NAS 95)

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to God’s holy people in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus (NIV 2011)

Here at least NIV 2011 makes a distinction. But given the inconsistency of the NIV 2011, the use of “believer” in this context would seem to be a duplication of the second description.

Similar confusion arises when NIV 2011 uses “God’s people” or “Lord’s people” or “his people.” How would someone distinguish between Ephesians 4:12 and Luke 7:16?

to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Ephesians 4:12 NIV 2011)

They were all filled with awe and praised God. “A great prophet has appeared among us,” they said. “God has come to help his people.” (Luke 7:16 NIV 2011)

The Luke passage has τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ (“his people” or literally “the people of him”) whereas Ephesians has τῶν ἁγίων (“the saints” or the “holy ones”). As is evident the referent is different, but even more the key point of the use of the Greek words is different in each case.

Conclusion about the “missing saints”

This is one area that NIV 2011 fails completely. For readability, it isn’t a big deal, but for study purposes, NIV 2011 is no help, or worse, leads to inconsistent results. And that is assuming that the English reader can even identify the word group and how to make connections. If the intent was to avoid “saints” because of the contemporary Roman Catholic usage, then why not consistently use “the holy ones” as the translation. This would provide a good translation that reflects the underlying Greek word group (ἅγιοι). As it stands, the NIV 2011 has not helped the English reader better understand the New Testament.

Equally disturbing is that this hodgepodge of translation choices for  ὃι ἅγιοι (traditionally “saints”) goes contrary to the history of the church (which is not the exclusive domain of the Roman Catholic Church). That is, “saints” as the translation of the Greek (and sanctus in Latin) carries not only historical value but became a liturgical and hymnody choice. By avoiding that translation, the NIV 2011 separates itself from the heritage of the Christian Church throughout the ages. I think of some of these great hymns that lose their relationship to NIV 2011:

“For all the Saints”
“Holy, Holy, Holy” (st. 2)
“Jerusalem, My Happy Home” (st. 2)
“Saints, See the Cloud of Witnesses”
“Rise up, O Saints of God”

And many more!

One unintended negative consequence of the NIV 2011 translation choices is found in Revelation. Often dispensationalists will claim that the “church” is not mentioned after Revelation 3:22. While it is true that the specific word “church” (ἐκκλησία) is not used, other terms that refer to the “church” are used in Revelation 5:1-20:15, and specifically (“saints”). The NIV 2011 inadvertently seems to support that claim (“church not mentioned after 3:22”) by its translations in Revelation. Yet, Luke in Acts and Paul in his letters use “the saints” to refer to those who are the church. And if there were consistent use of either “saints” or “holy ones” throughout the New Testament, such an unintentional support would evaporate.

This translation choice has many implications beyond even the specific wording of NIV 2011. It has implications in historic Christianity, in hymnody, and in theology. This change by the CBT of the NIV 2011 is not a neutral shift. And it causes much worse problems than whether “saints” is identified in a contemporary Roman Catholic sense.

Author: exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian

4 thoughts on “The “missing saints” revisited”

    1. Howdy, Amy. Glad to help. The two page handout for class on Sunday was especially eye-opening because people could tell at a glance the variety of translation alternatives.

      (Sorry for the delay in responding. Your post was automatically marked as spam. Needless to say as soon as I saw it, I corrected that!)


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