Righteousness and True Healthiness

James Barr in the iconoclastic The Semantics of Biblical Language:

A regular church-goer is likely sooner or later to hear an interpretation of the word “holy,” which is of course frequent in the English Bible, as “basically” or “originally” or “properly” meaning “healthy, sound.” Those alarmed by the suggestion of superhuman religious effort in the exhortation to “be holy” may thus be comforted, because what is being asked of them is simply the basic “healthiness” or “soundness” which no one would want to be without. All this is based on one fact or alleged fact: the words “holy” and “whole” or “healthy” are etymologically connected; they “come from the same root.” ¶ The fact that “holy” and “healthy” are etymologically “connected” does not mean, however, that they now mean the same thing, or indeed that they ever did mean the same thing. p.111

. . . .

The test of explanations of words is by their contexts. Supposing anyone to become convinced that “holy” in the English Bible really means something like “healthy, whole,” he will find in his reading of the Bible many contexts where this sense produces sore difficulty. He may find it possible to understand the Third Person of the Trinity as “the Healthy Spirit,” but he will have difficulty with those inanimate objects such as valuables gained by capture which are specially devoted to the divine possession and are thus apparently “healthy to the Lord”; and he will surely find it impossible to suppose that the rear chamber of the Temple usually called “the Holy of Holies” is in fact a space specially healthy. p.113

Yes, the Healthy of Healthies. Ah, those Brits.

I’m sometimes a bit depressed reading things like this. Errors like these are so prevalent—are Protestant pastors unknowingly fleecing their flocks? But Barr makes one comment that eases me a bit: one of the reasons that linguistic mistakes like this go undetected is that pastors are, in fact, using them to preach truths found in the Bible—just not in the portion of it where they happen to be grazing their flocks. That is a serious problem, but it is better for the sheep to get grass clippings from another part of the field than tares from the enemy’s field.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

1 Comment

  1. Don Johnson on January 1, 2010 at 5:50 am

    On this point you should read Wenham on Leviticus. Wholeness is not as light a concept as Barr makes it. Think ‘unblemished’. That is what a whole man is like. Spotless. Whole. Healthy. Holy.

    This is of course more of an OT concept. I think hagios is more to do with ‘separate, distinct, other’ than ‘whole, healthy’, isn’t it (just going off the top of my head — too late at night to look it up.

    Anyway, do some reading of Wenham on this. I think he makes some significant points about holiness that we often miss.

    Don Johnson
    Jerimiah 33.3

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