Group self-designations in scripture

What do we call ourselves?  Labels given to groups of humans may be mindless or revealing or something in between:

  • customers
  • employees
  • citizens
  • parishioners
  • members (i.e. of a club or a church)
  • audience or spectators
  • . . .

Along these lines, Dr. Larry Hurtado has taken note of the use of the substantive adjectival plural “saints” ( ̔άγιοι |  hagioi ) in early Christian literature.  A distinguished student of early Christianity, Hurtado finds the use of the term intriguing, in part because it was only rarely used as a self-designation for God’s people in the LXX (Greek “Old Testament”), whereas a spike in usage is found in Christian literature.  Hurtado finds two outgrowths—one based somewhat in grammar, and the other, in historical culture:

(1) The definite article, the hagioi, represents a particular claim, an exclusivity.  . . .   the term is a clear piece of evidence of a discrete group-mentality, an expression of a distinctive group-identity.

(2)  . . . The NT writers use a term that rather clearly derives from Jewish usage; but their use of the term shows a distinctive preference for it and a distinctive application of it to designate themselves.

– Larry Hurtado

You can read Hurtado’s complete post here.  After reading it, I posed the following question to him:

I found this observation helpful and also intriguing.  Having recently returned to study of the Galatian letter, and having just laid out its introduction side-by-side with that of other presumed-early, extant letters, I note dative ekklesia language without hagiois in the Gal and Thess letters, both ekklesia and hagiois in the Corinthian letters and Roman letters (although ekklesia is only in ch. 16), and an apparent preference for the hagiois language in the later Eph, Philipp, and Col letters.

Could you comment on any possible development of group self-identification terminology during the 50s, i.e., could we assert that there might have been a move toward the hagiois language as the movement progressed during that decade and beyond?  (Or perhaps I am making something out of nothing here.)

Hurtado’s reply indicated that he did not see the data as supporting my proposal, even countering that the term “saints” as a self-designation seems to drop out over time.  Yet I wonder if he passed over my emphasis on the decade of the 50s.  (I had tried to be both succinct and emphatic, not presuming on much of this scholar’s time, but there’s only so much one can do to format a comment on a blog.)  Perhaps Hurtado was responding more broadly, i.e., thinking through a century or more after Jesus and Paul.  The linguistic data to which I have access actually does suggest an increased use of the plural “saints” during the time of composition of the Pauline letters and epistles, which is roughly a 15-year period from 48 to 62 CE.  More specifically, the earliest two or three letters do not use the term much, and the last letters have the highest incidence, considering overall length.  Aided by my software, I count 86 instances of the plural hagiois.¹  At least 18 are negligible, used in senses that are not self-designations for Christ-ian disciples.  Of the remainder, there are

  1. No uses in Galatians, and only 2 in the Thessalonian letters (presumed to have been written 48-49)
  2. 20 in Romans, 1Cor, and 2Cor (presumed 51-57)
  3. 21 in Eph, Col, Php, and Phm (presumed 60-62)
  4. 4 in Acts, 2 in Hebrews, 2 in 1Peter, 2 in Jude
  5. 14 in Revelation

Not always do the plurals show up in English translations, e.g., Eph. 1:4 and 1Pet 1, and some of the above-referenced instances do not appear to be substantival (i.e., not used as noun-like designations).  Still, I wonder whether they might have carried designatory force in a passage such as Ephesians 1.  In other words, when Paul says God chose us to be “holy ones,” the plural word “holy” has an attributive adjectival function, but in this weighty Pauline communication, perhaps there was an intrinsic sense of self-designation of the Ephesian Christians.  The Revelation uses would be an interesting study in themselves, since that document draws from apocalyptic literature of the Hebrew Bible.  Most often, at a glance, I think Christ-following saints are the referents, but some of the Revelation instances mix long-past Jewish prophets with saints and apostles.

Related self-designations in the same time period include “church(es),” “Christians,” and “disciples.”   Much has been made over the first two—perhaps too much—and the last one particularly interestsme.  As for “church,” there are quite a few uses in Pauline literature, including the earliest letters.  [Caveat lector:  this next thought will be highly speculative.]  I wonder whether that (possible) early preference indicates attention or even deference to the synagogues in the Diaspora.  In other words, since Paul appears to have been in the habit of going to Jewish synagogues first, and since the earliest Christians were Jews, perhaps the earliest, most natural flow of “self-designations” was from “synagogue” to “church.”  [Again, that was highly speculative and probably makes more of the relationship between synagogue and church than should be made.]

Back to “saints.”  It should be said here that the Roman Catholic use of the term “saints” flies in the face of the NT use—which is neither (a) honorific nor (b) related to human achievement.  It continues to be necessary to clarify the intended meaning of “saints” in conversation with thoughtful Roman Catholics, since the historical meaning in that institution appears irrevocably slanted.  Even news reports, TV, and movies appear thoughtlessly to attach the Catholic meaning to the term “saint,” whether it’s heard in the singular or plural.

The Pauline use of the term—by all appearances egalitarian, not exceptional or honorific—does appear to rise during the 15 years we know that he was actively corresponding with churches.  All we have is certain pieces of literature, not an exhaustive sense of what the disciples were calling themselves, so any conclusions should be reached with caution.  Also, it’s not that saints were no longer thought of as believers or disciples or called-out ones in churches; the point I want to make is that “saints” might represent a development in Paul’s thinking about the people groups to whom he was bearing the message of Christ.  If in fact “saints” became more of a frequent self-designation during the decade or so before Paul’s death, that fact would not necessarily mean we should use an English approximation for “saints” more often today.  It does however mean we might do well to pursue the word-concept of “holy ones” in the first century, thereby enriching our understanding of who we are in God’s eyes.  More important than what we call ourselves, of course, is who we are and what we do about it.


¹ Of the Pauline references, fewer than half are found in the dative case.  Some datives, but not all, can be translated with the English indirect object, e.g., “I’m writing this letter (direct object) to the saints (indirect object) in Chicagoland.”  At first blush, I would think this fact alone is not indicative of the sense.  In other words, if Paul were to write, “The saints at Indianapolis greet you,” that would be the nominative case, and it would still be the type of “group self-designation” Hurtado discussed.

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