- A member of a Christian church or group.
- An extremely virtuous person.
- (Roman Catholicism) A person canonized for public veneration.
Saints in the New Testament are living individuals, those in the churches set apart to Jesus Christ. The English word is a translation of the Greek word ἁγίοις/ἅγιον. The New Testament use is plural on every occasion except Philippians 4:21, where it is singular. In the Old Testament words used are qodesh (e.g. Deuteronomy 33:3) and chaciyd (e.g. Psalm 30:4). The Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint/LXX) indicates the correspondence of these words, translating them by the Greek word ἁγίοις.
While looking at word change statistics on Robert Slowley’s website, I happened to notice that the New International Version translation of the Bible went from 69 uses of the word “saint/saints” in 1984 to zero (0) uses in 2011. I find that intriguing. I went on Bible Gateway and checked other versions (not all of them, but including Wycliffe, Geneva, KJV, ASV, RSV, NASB, CSB, LEB). These old & new Bible translations have 60 to 100 verses with the word “saint” or “saints.”[i] I found that the NIV and the NLT have no instances of these words. One other newer Bible, the NABRE, almost makes the same decision, retaining “saints” only in Matthew 27:52. These translations have several different words other than saints, such as holy ones, holy people, God’s people, etc.[ii]
The term “saints” is best. The change away from saints appears to be a reaction against ideas that are attached to the meaning and connotation of the word (see above). The change in the NIV can be traced back to the failed Today’s New International Version of 2005. The following quote from “A Word to the Reader” in the TNIV confirms the reaction against connotative baggage (while avoiding blaming any particular church or denomination).
“Concerning ‘saints,’ current usage (as reflected in major dictionaries of the English language) burdens it with meanings that lie outside the sense of the original-language words. The main Old Testament term that has traditionally been rendered ‘saints’ refers to those who are faithful to God. The New Testament term primarily designates those who have become followers of the Christian Way as people consecrated to God and thus belonging to the Lord in a special sense...” Quoted in the Zondervan TNIV Compact Concordance, by John R. Kohlenberger, III
There is a good bit of confusion about what Catholics actually believe about saints. Some people think they mean by it an extra-holy person, someone on a much higher spiritual level than the average or regular Christian. (If people are thinking that way, changing to “holy ones” does not solve the problem!) However, for Roman Catholics at least, “saints” are dead people, not living ones.[iii] According to one Catholic website, “In Catholic theology, the term ‘Saint’ is reserved for those individuals who have led a holy and exemplary life and have now entered Heaven.” The NABRE, which is a Catholic translation, renders Matthew 27:52 in a way consistent with the Catholic view and removes the word “saint” in all references to living people. People may in fact have a confused notion of the words “saint” and “saints.” Nevertheless, the consistent use of “saints” in the King James Bible and other English translations contradicts the Roman Catholic view of saints.[iv] This use should be preferred and retained.
[i] Some versions (CSB, for example) have retained “saints” in the New Testament, but not in the Old.
[ii] “Saint” and “saints” enjoy widespread preference. For example, from Wycliffe in 1382 and the KJV in 1611, to the LEB © 2012 and CSB © 2017.
[iii] In the New Testament, saints are on earth. In Roman Catholic theology, the saints are only in heaven. After recommendation of a deceased individual by “The Congregation for the Causes of Saints,” the Pope may decree that person beatified – who can later become a saint, also by a declaration of the Pope.
[iv] Oddly enough, the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition (a Catholic Bible) has “saint” or “saints” in 119 verses (including the Apocrypha).