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The word Holy (from Old English: hālig meaning "wholeness") denotes the presence of sacredness in an object, being, person, place or idea. It can also indicates an experience of numinosity, (from the adjective numenous "all-inspiring" or embued with sacredness). Alternatively, it refer to items set aside for divine liturgies. Holiness, or the state of being holy is often ascribed to saints, gurus, sages, relics, times, or places. In non-specialist contexts, the term "holy" is used in a more general way, to refer to someone or something that is associated with a divine power, such as water used for Baptism. Sometimes the word "Holy" is used as a synonym for "sacred," which descends from the Latin sacrum, referring to the gods or anything in their power, and to sacer, priest; sanctum, set apart. It was generally conceived spatially, as referring to the area around a temple.


The origin of the word "holy" comes from the eleventh century Old High German hulis and Old English holegn meaning "Holly" as in Holly Tree, considered a sacred plant to both pre-Christian Celtic and Roman worship. The word hulis originates from an even older proto-Germanic word khuli a shortened derivation of the ancient Gaelic cuilieann, both meaning Holly. The distinction of the word holy appeared around the thirteenth century with the Old English word hālig (derived from hāl meaning health, happiness and wholeness.) As “wholeness,” holiness may be taken to indicate a state of religious completeness or perfection.

The Gothic for "holy" is either hailags or weihaba, weihs. "To hold as holy" or "to become holy" is weihnan, "to make holy, to sanctify" is weihan. Holiness or sanctification is weihia. Old English had a second term of similar meaning, weoh "holy," with a substantive wih or wig, in Old High German wih or wihi (Middle High German wîhe, Modern German Weihe). The Nordendorf fibula has wigiþonar, interpreted as wigi-þonar "holy Donar" or "sacred to Donar." Old Norse ve means "temple." The weihs group is cognate to Latin victima, an animal dedicated to the gods and destined to be sacrificed.


The German theologian Rudolf Otto, in The Idea of the Holy (originally in German, Das Heilige), defined the holy as an experience of something "wholly other," most famously mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a frightening and fascinating mystery.[1] He was following the tradition of Friedrich Schleiermacher, who defined religion as a feeling or experience rather than adherence to doctrine. Otto claimed that this experience was unlike any other; the subject experienced the spirit (the numinous, in Otto's terminology) as overwhelming, sublime, truly real, while he or she was nothing.

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim emphasized the social nature of religion, in contrast to other leading thinkers of day such as William James, who emphasized individual experience. Based on studies of Indigenous Australians, Durkheim proposed that most central aspect of religion was not its deity but the distinction between sacred and profane: "religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden."[2] In Durkheim's theory, the sacred (or Holy) represented the interests of the group, especially unity, which were embodied in sacred group symbols, totems. The profane, on the other hand, involved mundane individual concerns. Durkheim explicitly stated that the dichotomy sacred/profane was not equivalent to good/evil: the sacred could be good or evil, and the profane could be either as well.[3]

Mircea Eliade, among the most influential twentieth-century scholars of religion, adopted Durkheim's terminology, but Otto's idea. Eliade defined the sacred as "equivalent to a power, and in the last analysis, to reality."[4] Like Otto, Eliade insisted that this experience was not reducible to any other experience: in other words, that the sacred is not a mere experience, such as a hallucination, for it really exists. Eliade's analysis of religion focused on the sacred, especially sacred time and sacred space. Many comparative religion scholars in the twentieth century followed him, though scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith and Russell McCutcheon have challenged his theories.

Some Examples

Holiness in Buddhism

Buddhists consider the Buddha to be an enlightened being. According to Buddhist teachings, there have been many Buddhas throughout time who have come to teach humanity about the true nature of reality. Early Buddhists did not see these Buddhas as gods but as fully awakened human beings. However, over time, an apotheosis of the Buddha occurred so that eventually the Buddha was worshipped as a God. In addition, a pantheon of other semi-enlightened beings called bodhisattvas became a part of the Mahayana cosmology and soteriology. These divinized beings were imbued with a sense of holiness, and worshipped in most Mahayana schools.

In Theravada Buddhism, one finds the designation of 'noble person' or ariyapuggala (Pali). The Buddha described four grades of such person depending on their level of purity. This purity is measured by which of the ten fetters (samyojana) and klesha have been purified and integrated from the mindstream. These persons are called (in order of increasing sanctity) Sotapanna, Sakadagami, Anagami and Arhant. The latter term designates an enlightened human being and is sometimes rendered into English as the "Holy One."

Holiness in Judaism

The Judaic tradition conceives of 'holiness' (from the Hebrew root קדש) in various ways and levels from merely 'holy' and the 'most holy'. The Mishnah, therefore, lists concentric circles of holiness in terms of places: Holy of Holies; sanctuary; vestibule; court of priests; court of Israelites; court of women; temple mount; Jerusalem walls; all the walled cities of Israel; and the borders of the Holy Land. Distinctions are made as to whom and what are permitted in each area. Likewise, the calendar is divided so that the eve of the Sabbath to the end of the day is holy time, and certain feasts, such as the Day of Atonement, are most holy. Both holy time and holy space are rooted in Creation, with the Sabbath as its culmination, and the Garden traditionally on the site of the temple.

Holiness denotes the sphere of the divine, which is to be set apart, and is manifest in power particularly when its separation is not properly maintained. There are various stories in the Hebrew Bible of disease and destruction resulting from improper contact with, or handling of, holy things such as the Ark of the Covenant. This dynamic power is divine, and so the holy is very much associated with the divine Presence. In Judaism, God's holy presence was known as Shekhinah (שכינה) meaning the dwelling or settling of God. According to Rabbinic Literature, the Shekhinah was said to be manifest in the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as in the acts of public prayer, ("Whenever ten are gathered for prayer, there the Shechinah rests" Talmud Sanhedrin 39a); righteous judgment ("when three sit as judges, the Shechinah is with them." Talmud Berachot 6a), and personal need ("The Shechinah dwells over the headside of the sick man's bed" Talmud Shabbat 12b; "Wheresoever they were exiled, the Shechinah went with them." Megillah 29a). Additionally, the Talmud reports that the Shekhinah is what caused prophets to prophesy and King David to compose his Psalms.

However, the relationship between holiness and Presence is unclear: holiness seems to be a precondition for the manifestation of the Presence, but is not to be equated with it. In practical terms, holiness can be measured and managed by priestly legislation, while Presence is entirely dependent upon God's action. The priestly conception of holiness expresses the distinctively scriptural perception of God as both transcendent (utterly separate) and powerfully immanent in His relationship with the world.[5]

According to Easton's Bible Dictionary:

Shechinah – a Chaldee word meaning resting-place, not found in Scripture, but used by the later Jews to designate the visible symbol of God's presence in the Tabernacle, and afterwards in Solomon's temple. When the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, he went before them "in a pillar of a cloud." This was the symbol of his presence with his people. God also spoke to Moses through the 'shekhinah' out of a burning bush. For references made to it during the wilderness wanderings, see Exodus 14:20; 40:34-38; Leviticus 9:23, 24; Numbers 14:10; 16:19, 42.

It is probable that after the entrance into Canaan this glory-cloud settled in the tabernacle upon the ark of the covenant in the most holy place. We have, however, no special reference to it till the consecration of the temple by Solomon, when it filled the whole house with its glory, so that the priests could not stand to minister (1 Kings 8:10-13; 2 Chr. 5:13, 14; 7:1-3). Probably it remained in the first temple in the holy of holies as the symbol of Jehovah's presence so long as that temple stood. It afterwards disappeared. [2].

A person ascribed with holiness in Judaism are known as a Tzadik.


The concept of holiness in Christianity is used in many contexts to refer to anything associated with God, Christ, the Bible, Church teachings, sacraments, relics, saints, and places, among other things. Thus, one finds mention in Christian doctrine and practice to the terms Holy Land, Holy Spirit, Holy See, Holy Grail, Holy Water, Holy Saturday, etc. In particular, God (the Father), Jesus (the Son), the Holy Spirit, the Holy Bible, and/or the Holy Church, are seen as holding particular relevance to the Christian conception of holiness.

The Greek term Parousia, (literally: "presence") is also used for "Divine Presence."

Holiness in Roman Catholicism

Catholicism has adopted much of the Jewish vision of the world in terms of its holiness, with certain behavior appropriate to certain places and times. The calendar gives shape to Catholic practice, which tends to focus on the Eucharist, in which the Real Presence of Christ is said to be manifested. Many features of the Jewish temple are imitated in churches, such as the altar, bread, lamp, incense, font, etc, to emphasize the extreme holiness of the Eucharistic elements, which are reserved in a tabernacle. In extension of this focus on the Sacrament as holy, many objects in Catholicism are also considered holy. They are called sacramentals and are usually blessed by a priest. Such items include rosaries, crucifixes, medals, and statues of Jesus, angels and saints (Virgin Mary).

People in a state of sanctifying grace are also considered holy in Catholicism. A central notion of Catholicism, as articulated in contemporary theology, is the personal "call to holiness," considered as a vocation shared by every Christian believer. Profound personal holiness has traditionally also been seen as a focus for the kind of contagious holiness primarily associated with the Sacrament. Thus, the cult of saints in Catholicism is not only the acclamation of their piety or morality, but also reverence for the tangible holiness that flows from their proximity to the divine. Hence the places where saints lived, died, performed miracles, or received visions frequently become sites of pilgrimage, and notable objects surviving a saint (including the body or parts) are considered relics. The holiness of such places or objects, resulting from contact with a deeply holy person, is often connected with the miraculous long after the death of the saint.

Holiness in Protestantism

The Protestant Reformation stood in opposition to the beliefs of tangible holiness in the Catholic Church and rejected most of its teachings regarding devotional practice, language and imagery. The early Reformers, who were often scholars of ancient Greek and also borrowed from Jewish scholarship, recognized that holiness is an attribute of God, and holiness is always part of the presence of God. Yet they also recognized that practical holiness was the evidence of the presence of God in the converted believer. Martin Luther, viewed God's grace (and therefore God's holiness), as an infusion of the life. Actions that demonstrated holiness would spring up, not premeditated, as the believer focused more and more on his or her relationship with Christ. This was the life of faith, according to Luther, a life in which one recognizes that the sin nature never departs, yet grace invades and draws the person after Christ.

John Calvin, on the other hand, formulated a practical system of holiness that even tied in with culture and social justice. All unholy actions, Calvin reasoned, resulted in suffering. Thus he proved out to the city fathers of Geneva that dancing and other social vices always ended with the wealthy oppressing the poor. A holy life, in his outlook, was pietistic and simple, a life that shunned extravagance, excess, and vanity. On a personal level, Calvin believed that suffering would be a manifestation of taking on the Cross of Christ, but suffering was also part of the process of holiness. He expected that all Christians would suffer in this life, not as punishment, but rather as participation in union with Christ, who suffered for them. Yet, socially, Calvin argued that a holy society would end up as a gentle, kind society (except to criminals), where the poor would be protected from the abuses of the wealthy and others who normally preyed upon them.

In Protestantism, especially in American branches of Protestantism of the more Pentecostal variety, holiness has acquired the secondary meaning of the reshaping of a person through spiritual rebirth. The term owes its origin to John Wesley's concept of "scriptural holiness" or Christian perfection.

The Methodist Holiness movement began in the United States, among those who thought the church had lost the zeal and emphasis on personal holiness of Wesley's day. In the contemporary Holiness movement, the idea that holiness is relational is growing. According to this view, the core notion of holiness is love. Other notions of holiness, such as purity, being set apart, perfection, keeping rules, and total commitment, are seen as contributory notions of holiness. These contributory notions find their ultimate legitimacy one when love is at their core.[6]

Other Uses

The adjective "holy" is used to describe myriad activities that are viewed with a sense of religious sacredness, or divine sanction, including violent activities such as "Holy War," for example. In the English language, the word Hallow also means to make holy or sacred, to sanctify or consecrate, to venerate[7] The adjective form "hallowed," as used in The Lord's Prayer, means holy, consecrated, sacred, or revered.[8] and was once a popular synonym for "holy," which has now fallen out of favor except in the compound Halloween - a shortened form of "All Hallows' Eve" or "All Saints' Eve".[9] Hallowmas, the day after Halloween, is shortened from Hallows' mass, and is also known as "All Hallows' Day" or "All Saints' Day".[10]


  1. Daniel L. Pals. Seven Theories of Religion. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 164-165)
  2. Emile Durkheim. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. (New York: Free Press, 1965), 47
  3. Pals 1996, 99
  4. Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane The Nature of Religion. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1957), 12
  5. Philip Jenson, "Holiness in the Priestly Writings of the Old Testament," 93-121 in Holiness Past and Present, ed. S.C. Barton (T&T Clark/Continuum Books, 2003)
  6. Thomas Jay Oord, and Michael Lodahl. Relational Holiness Responding to the Call of Love. (Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City), 2005
  7. [1] 2007-01-15 accessdate 2007-01-23 Dictionary.com. Lexico Publishing Group, LLC.
  8. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary entry for "hallowed"
  9. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary entry for "Halloween"
  10. Webster's Collegiate Dictionary entry for "Hallowmas."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Free Press, 1965. ISSN 268860
  • Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane The Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1957. ISBN 015679201X
  • Oord, Thomas Jay, and Michael E. Lodahl. Relational Holiness Responding to the Call of Love. Kansas City, Mo: Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 2005. ISBN 0834121824
  • Pals, Daniel L. Seven Theories of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0195087240
  • Sharpe, Eric J. Comparative Religion A History. New York: Scribner's, 1975. ISBN 0684146754.


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