Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The amazing words αγιος (hagios) and αγνος (hagnos), generally translated with "holy" or "pure", stem from the same hugely old root that also resulted in the Sanskrit word yajati (to worship) and the Old Persian word ayadana (temple). But what that root may have originally reflected is not immediately clear.
It probably did not have to do with a formal declaration of sanctity, because that would be part of a more modern religious or cultural devotion (see the adjective ιερος, hieros, meaning sacred, or οσιος, hosios, holy in a formalized sense). Instead, our words probably come from something much more fundamental and natural, something that spontaneously crossed the considerations of hunter-gatherers across vast territories, long before artificial cultural symbols such as deities had manifested.
The origin and core of the idea of holiness
Our adjective αγιος (hagios) derives from the more fundamental noun αγος (hagos), which isn't used in the Bible and which appears to have originally denoted a thing deliberately removed or done away with — because its removal was recognized as somehow beneficial. In later Greek texts this word came to denote pollution but, strikingly, also guilt, which would suggest that the concept of guilt was originally considered more like contamination or disease than legal criminality (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Our root word αγος (hagos) also became used for expiation, that is atonement for a crime or a ceremonially cleansing, which would tie it to the broad Biblical theme of washing in running water (in Hebrew living water, see our article on the word חיים, hayyim) and thus ultimately with baptism (βαπτιζω, baptizo). Finally, our word αγος (hagos) came to denote a sacrifice and even "a person or thing accursed" in the sense that this person or thing became removed from society — not at all like the more familiar term αναθεμα (anathema), which simply denotes something put on display, whether for glory or derision, but rather like Azazel, the scapegoat.
A second word of the same form αγος (which was probably pronounced slightly different, as agos) means fragment. It stems from the verb αγνυμι (agnumi), meaning to break or shatter, and although neither of these words occur in the New Testament, the idea of shattering does brings to mind the names Nazareth and of course John 19:36, and perhaps even, by a twist of etymologic coincidence, the noun αγνωσια (agnosia), meaning ignorance; the negative noun from the verb γινωσκω (ginosko), meaning to know. Note that in Romans 16:19, Paul connects innocence to ignorance and wisdom to good(ness). The word for the latter is αγαθος (agathos), which also obviously resembles our word group.
A third word of the form αγος (agos) means leader, from the widely used verb αγω (ago), meaning to lead or bring along (hence English words like pedagogue and synagogue). A poetically inclined speaker of Greek may be forgiven to note the parallels with the previous words, in that a leader of any group requires social stratification, and thus fragmentation of society to exist. It may also bring to mind Jesus' purpose to bring an end to all rule and dominion (1 Corinthians 15:24), and his prohibition to the appointment of leaders other than he, the Word of God (Matthew 23:10). Note that in Hebrew the action of protruding is described by the root אול ('wl), which is part of a group of words that also have to do with foolishness (אויל, 'ewil) and being worthless (אליל, 'elil), and which also closely resembles אל (El) and אלהים (Elohim), the common Hebrew words for the deity.
Another word that jumps to mind is the noun αγορα (agora), meaning market place, from the verb αγειρω (ageiro), meaning to gather or collect (hence our words gregarious and egregious). This verb is not etymologically related to our word group but the idea behind it too reflects fragmentation gone unification. This is remarkable because the Hebrew verb ארה ('ara) means to gather (food) and its derived noun ארי ('ari) means lion, the proverbial ripper-apart of prey. This animal was probably called "gatherer" because a prowling pride drives herds together and favors the evolutionary selection of herd-behavior. Another noun from this verb is אריה ('urya), meaning manger or crib; the item that animals gather around to feed. All this may help to explain why Luke had Mary place Jesus in a manger (Luke 2:7), and why Jesus insisted that his followers would eat his body (Mark 14:22).
One more striking convergence occurs with the form αγη (age). When the noun αγη (age) derives from the verb αγαμαι (agamai), to wonder, admire or envy, it means just that: wonder, amazement of (divine) jealousy. But when the noun αγη (age) derives from the verb αγνυμι (agnumi), to break or shatter, it means fragment or even wound. This is turn takes us to the word αγον (agon), meaning strife or contest (hence our word "agony"). Paul uses this word to describe the proverbial "good fight" of the saints (1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7).
All this renders a whole new meaning to the familiar dictum that God is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).
Fragmentation, diversification, specialization, reunification
All things considered, the core idea behind all these words has to do with a certain very important natural principle that underlies all evolution: when a continuum (say: a rubber band, an empire, human proto-language, a zygote or the universe at large) becomes stretched to its limit (the rubber band elongates, the empire's economy overheats, hunter-gatherers find too much to talk about, the cell responds perfectly to its DNA) it burst apart into imploding fragments (bits of rubber bands, smaller countries, different languages, specialized cell types). But such an initially cataclysmic fragmentation leads to diversification and eventually allows for unprecedented specialization which in turn leads to a greater kind of unification: the bits of rubber band now weave into a rubber sheet, the countries formerly part of the centralized empire now embrace each other in international exchange of goods and ideas, and folks from the various language groups now venture into foreign literary traditions and become exposed to new cultural expressions.
Self-consciousness lies at the heart of individuality. Without consciousness, a theory of mind and a formal language with which to convene with others and to attach labels to items, individuals who live in colonies (bacteria, ants, even birds), don't have the same sense of individuality as humans do, and don't particularly realize that they themselves are one of those individuals they see in front of them. All they see and all they know is the continuity of the colony. It's why only the most intelligent animals such as humans and dolphins give each other names. Naming others comes with the colonial fragmentation that comes with the realization of being one specific individual amidst many specific individuals.
That means that our adjective αγιος (hagios) describes the process that spans the points of complexity at which (1) a colony only has collective awareness, and (2) every individual has a complete formal awareness with which he relates to others to form a much greater collective awareness (that is: the whole of human culture).
The key to all this is that trading nations and trading language groups only want from their neighbors what appeals to them, which is in turn that which rings true to their own constitution. Until the invention of mirrors, no creature had ever seen itself and creatures of all kinds, up to colonies and cultures, knew themselves only through how their environments react to them. The economic demands of neighbors gives nations the opportunity to assess themselves and to perfect their crafts in ways that wouldn't have been possible without the sieving interest of foreign customers (hence also texts like Leviticus 19:34, Isaiah 28:11 and Acts 17:21). This in turn provides evolution with an attractor to aim for, which leads in turn to globalization and hence a situation that is quite similar to the original one but now stronger and purified of clutter and inefficiencies (see texts like Psalm 12:6 and Malachi 3:3, and also have a look at our article on the name Abraham).
Fruitfulness and multiplication
This primary natural principle of fragmentation, diversification, specialization and reunification is one of the Bible's most cardinal literary archetypes. It's encapsulated in the first phrase of the Bible, namely בראשית (breshit), and also governs the span between the first creation day ("let there be light"; Genesis 1:3) and the fourth ("let there be lights"; 1:14). It returns in Genesis 3:19 — you are dust and to dust you shall return — where it has nothing to do with dying and everything with the resurrection (Philippians 3:10), and also explains why Jesus was taken from sight by a cloud (Acts 1:9) and why he will return on one (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
But this principle is of course most practically utilized in the tower of Babel story, where mankind's unified proto-language was anointed (בלל, balal) to spawn the various modern and much more complex languages (Genesis 11:1-9). Ultimately, this principle urges to abandon "that old time religion" and cherry-pick the melting pot of cultures for goodies (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Proponents of the world's religions (and beneficiaries of their respective economies) don't like to hear this of course, which is why the Jews of Nazareth became so upset when Jesus reminded them that Elijah was sent to Zarephath and that Elisha healed Naaman of Syria (Luke 4:25-27 — for some more cherry-picking, read our article on Homer).
In our modern day and age, this principle is the reason why the USA has been so successful and why the Internet has the potential to form the "cloud of witnesses" upon which Jesus will appear for all to see (Hebrews 12:1). Specialization and reunification requires self-determination and unrestricted movement of elements, which is of course precisely what Christ embodies. The opposite of Christ — aptly named Antichrist — is the systematic oppression of diversity that is normal in fascist regimes such as that of Rome and Nazi Germany. But the natural inevitability of diversity will always destroy uniformity, which is precisely why these regimes hate Jews so much (Zechariah 8:23, Revelation 12:12).
The adjective αγιος (hagios) means focused, efficient, aligned, determined, or "extracted" in the sense of "brought about and fine-tuned because of general demand." It's on a par with the more familiar term εκκλησια (ekklesia), meaning "called out [of]." Our adjective αγιος (hagios) means "fittest" in the full evolutionary context of "survival of the fittest": fully adapted, wholly synchronized and entirely successful. Something that is αγιος (hagios) bursts with life and zest and natural authority. It's what living things are to stones, what humans are to animals and what the "knowers of that which surpasses all knowledge" (Ephesians 3:19) are to humanity.
Traditionally this word is translated with "holy" — hence English words like hagiology (the study of saints) and hagiography (biographies of saints), and also the name Hagia Sophia or Holy Wisdom — but the word "holy" itself doesn't mean much outside the religious arena. Our word "holy" stems from an ancient Proto-Indo-European root kailo meaning whole, uninjured or unthwarted, and which also is the root of words like "health" and "to heal" (whereas the name of humanity's third generation, Enosh, means Sick or Frail).
The concept of holiness has been thoroughly distorted over the centuries by institutions whose job it was to keep people ignorant, slavish and fearful, which is why we should emphasize again that Biblical holiness has nothing to do with pliant piety, social virtuousness or celebrious veneration and everything with resolve, focus and determination. Holiness looks to diversify, specialize and reunite. It describes the quest for convention and the dialogue across humanity's great chasms.
In the New Testament, our adjective αγιος (hagios) most often occurs in combination with the familiar noun πνευμα (pneuma) to form the term Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit, or Divine/Creative Spirit, governs precisely the process described above and has done so since directly after the beginning (Genesis 1:2, hence Luke 1:35; the Hebrew equivalent of πνευμα αγιον, pneuma agion is רוח קדש, ruah qadash; also read our article on the word περιστερα, peristera, meaning dove).
Our word may be used as substantive to comprise the general category of "holy [things]" (Matthew 7:6) and, more spectacularly, the "holy [ones]" or saints, which consistently describes all believers and not only the heroes (Matthew 27:52, Acts 9:13, Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:26, 1 Thessalonians 3:13, 2 Thessalonians 1:10, 1 Timothy 5:10, Philemon 1:5, Hebrews 6:10, Jude 1:3, Revelation 5:8). In Mark 1:24 and Luke 4:34, the demoniac calls Jesus "the holy [one] of God" and uses the same adjective in singular what in plural would denote all members of Christ's body. Likewise, Herod calls John the Baptist "just and holy" (Mark 6:20).
Note that the enigmatic term "Holy of Holies" in Greek translates to a more comprehensible "Sanctuary of Saints" (1 Peter 2:5).
Other holy items are: the holy city (Matthew 4:5) or holy place (24:15), angels (25:31), God's name (Luke 1:49), prophets (1:70), the covenant (1:72), first born males (2:23), the Father himself (John 17:11) and the child Jesus (Acts 4:27), holy ground (7:33), holy writings (Romans 1:2), the law (7:12), dough, roots and branches (11:16), human bodies that are living sacrifices (12:1), certain kisses (16:16), the temple (1 Corinthians 3:17), certain children (7:14), certain young ladies (7:34), apostles (Ephesians 3:5), the church (5:27), the brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:27), a calling (2 Timothy 1:9), conversation (1 Peter 1:15), priesthood (2:5), a nation (2:9), women (3:5), a mountain (2 Peter 1:18), men (1:21), commandments (2:21), and the Lord God Almighty (Revelation 4:8).
The adjective αγιος (hagios) occurs 240 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it in turn derive:
- The verb αγιαζω (hagiazo), meaning to sanctify, or to bring about the process or condition described by the parent adjective αγιος (hagios). This verb is used 29 times, see full concordance, and from it turn comes:
- The noun αγιασμος (hagiasmos), meaning sanctification or the condition of holiness. This word occurs 10 times; see full concordance.
- The noun αγιοτης (hagiotes), meaning holiness in a behavioral sense rather than a conditional one (described by αγιασμος, hagiasmos). This noun αγιοτης (hagiotes) is used only in Hebrews 12:10.
- The noun αγιωσυνη (hagiosune), meaning holiness as an inherent quality (Romans 1:4, 2 Corinthians 7:1 and 1 Thessalonians 3:13 only).
The adjective αγνος (hagnos; hence the extra-Biblical name Agnes) means something similar to the previous (that is to αγιος, hagios, holy or "surviving fittest") but it's not immediately clear how it differs.
The poet Homer used this word all the time, and his usages defined it for later writers. Homer most often used it for items — buildings, the grounds on which they stood or the frankincense that wafted from them — that were not inherently "holy" but rather became associated to holiness because they were used in context with something holy. These sacrosanct things shone with the light of holiness because it reflected off of them from a near but separate source.
Homer also used our word to describe the "chastity" of mostly female deities, but that needs to be understood loose from modern modesty as having little to do with sexual considerations and much more with handing over self-determination either of any woman personally or of a community in the sense of its government. A community whose patron is a chaste lady is governed by a non-centralized senate and a constantly debated law. A community whose patron has a husband is governed by a discrete and unchanging law (or an actual reigning tyrant). A community whose image is that of a harlot (Revelation 17:5) frequently changes rulers (lovers; Jeremiah 3:1) who thus keep changing the governing laws. This idea also sits at the core of the Virgin birth — rather than some proposed mistranslation of the word for "girl": Jesus, as the Word of God, embodies the same natural law that governs his mother, who is subsequently not governed by a human husband but directly by the Creator (read for more on this our article on the name Mary).
All together, our adjective denotes the same dedication and focus as αγιος, hagios, but in an auxiliary sense. It refers to the resolve of holiness of that to which it is devoted (in the Biblical arena this would God's natural law embodied by Christ), and not to the chastity or purity of women — also because there is nothing "impure" about having relations with one's own human husband.
This adjective is used a mere 8 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it derives:
- The noun αγνεια (hagneia), meaning dedicative resolve (1 Timothy 4:12 and 5:2 only).
- The verb αγνιζω (hagnizo), meaning to consecrate or dedicate to something holy, to bind oneself to something in servitude. This verb is closely but not exclusively associated to "ritualistic purification" (John 11:55, Acts 21:24). It's used 7 times in the New Testament, see full concordance, and from it in turn comes:
- The noun αγνισμος (hagnismos), which is a technical term for the process or result of ritualistic purification described by the previous word. It's used only in Acts 21:26.
- The noun αγνοτης (agnotes), meaning dedicated resolve (2 Corinthians 6:6 only).
- The adverb αγνως (agnos), meaning resolutely or with dedicated resolve (Philippians 1:16 only).