It is very commonly stated that "holiness" means "set apart". What is the scriptural, linguistic, or other basis for this repeated claim?


  • On what basis is it claimed that the semantic domain of קודש (qodesh) and/or ἅγιος (hagios) includes the idea "set apart"?
  • On what basis is it claimed that this is the primary Biblical meaning?
  • Who first made these claims?

Perhaps the following, from the entry in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Brown, ed) for Holy provides some justification for this question:

The basic idea [in the OT] is not that of separation (though that is favoured by some scholars, ...), but the positive thought of encounter [with divine power] which inevitably demands certain modes of response.

An example of the sort of evidence that one might expect to find would be קודש occurring in synonymous parallelism with some other word with a clear meaning of "separateness".

I would have expected someone to be able to quote some linguistic evidence for the "set apart" meaning of קודש and/or ἅγιος from a scholarly tome, but this hasn't happened so far. Indeed, several responses simply restate the purported definition (without any evidence), which seems to justify my statement that it is commonly stated as the meaning, and that it isn't entirely clear where this idea comes from. I'll keep digging.

  • 2
    @NigelJ. Why should I take Strong or Thayer or whoever as infallible concerning the semantic domain of ἅγιος, or, perhaps more relevantly, of קודש? Any claim concerning the meaning of a word must surely be properly justified. It would indeed be interesting to discover who was first to say that "holy" meant "set apart". Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 19:14
  • 1
    What is the basis for your assertion that 'holiness appears to be presented as the defining characteristic of God.' ? More pertinently, why do you think that God can be 'defined' at all ? And who is making such an assertion ? I think the question lacks clarity and detail.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 21:27
  • 2
    @DavidBevan I think you have this the wrong way round. The "claim concerning the meaning of the word" is the actual meaning of the word, not defined in any theological way but in terms of how people use (or used) it. We don't need a theological definition, any more than we need a theological definition of "stone" or "city". (Of course the real words would be the original languages, which complicates things.) Commented Feb 23, 2021 at 21:46
  • 1
    Welcome to C.SE ! This question is something I have at the back of my mind for years as well, because "holiness" applied to both God and creatures in OT & NT seem to mean more than simply "set apart". There must be shades of meaning with a unifying core concept, and this Q is about finding that core concept which shows the interrelatedness of other meanings. This Q motivates me to do research, but I'm busy at the moment, although I did find one relevant paper. Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 19:54
  • 1
    @GratefulDisciple: Thanks very much for the link! Perhaps you would be willing to post it as an Answer, with a brief summary. It's rather worrying to discover that the "set apart" meaning appears to be due to an etymological fallacy, and that a proper inductive study of the evidence supports "consecrated to" or "devoted to" as the primary meaning of קדשׁ (and its cognates in related ANE languages) and also of ἅγιος in classical Greek. Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 16:10

3 Answers 3


There are aspects of moral and ceremonial cleanness associated with the word Kaw-doshe (Holy) and aspects of being set apart, as in something that is holy unto the Lord:

Leviticus 27:30 - Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD's; it is holy to the LORD.

These aspects, when applied to people regarding anything within creation, require a reaction. We must think right, speak right, do right, etc.

When applied to Almighty God the predominant meaning is one of "otherness/separateness".

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! - Isaiah 6:1-3

Yahweh is absolutely "other" (separate, Holy) than anything He has created and, since there is only God and that which God has made, He is singularly "other".

Holiness for God is an intrinsic attribute...He IS Holy and is unlike anything else. God's "otherness" incorporates His purity, perfection, unity, etc., in that He is unlike anything else in every and each of His attributes.

Holiness for the people of God is an upward call and an outward call. As Israel was called to be a peculiar people, so we are to be unlike the world around us...seeking worldly wealth, selfish ambition, instant gratification, retribution, etc:

After this I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was made bright with his glory. And he called out with a mighty voice, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities. - Revelation 18:1-5

We are to be holy unto the Lord because He IS Holy. Separate from the rest of creation. Peculiar. In the world but not of the world. Strangers and pilgrims looking for that dwelling place whose author and builder is God.

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. - Hebrews 11:8-10

We are called to a life energized by faith not by sight. We are called to live within the Kingdom of Heaven not the kingdoms of earth. For this one must swear fealty to the King which Heaven has established; Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God. Abraham saw His day and was glad. By that faith Abraham was born again and so must we be.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. - John 3:3-6

Apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ there is no hope of holiness because holiness is an approach, a setting apart, unto God and no one comes to the Father except through Him.


While the three words holy (or holiness), sanctified (or sanctification), and consecrated (or consecration) have similar meanings and a shared etymology, I suggest sanctified is more clearly related to the notion of being "set apart" than either holy or consecrated.

I am not suggesting holy and consecrated have no connection to the concept of being "set apart." I am saying that of the three terms, only one is an attribute of God. Some theologians consider holy to be God's "attribute of attributes."

In support of that assertion (to which I also subscribe) is Isaiah Chapter 6, which reads in part:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke (vv. 1-6 NIV; cf. Revelation 4:8).

For the seraphim to utter the words "Holy, holy, holy," at the sound of which the temple shook as from an earthquake and smoke filled the temple, is significant indeed. Of all the attributes of God, I asked myself, is there anywhere else in Scripture a three-fold acclamation of an attribute of God? I think not. God has no need to be set apart, since by holiness He is set-apartness personified.

On the other hand, God's image-bearers and His well-beloved Son can be set apart. The former need to be set apart because they are tainted by sin. The latter, the Lord Jesus, was set apart by His Father as the Anointed One who was destined in eternity past to be the Savior of the world. God the Father set Jesus apart for this task, and Jesus willingly obeyed.

"Set-apartness," as Barry Cooper has so aptly observed, is an important biblical theme that reaches into the past, affects the present, and reaches its culmination in the future.

  • The Past: Christians have been "washed . . . sanctified, [and] . . . justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of . . . God” (1 Corinthians 6:11, and 1 Peter 1:2). This sanctification can neither be lost nor reversed.

  • The Present: The Holy Spirit's work in Christians' lives is primarily to sanctify them "through and through" (1 Thessalonians 5:3 and 2 Thessalonians 2:13), progressively and gradually.

  • The Future: God's thorough and lifelong sanctifying work in believers reaches its culmination "at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 5:23), and in heaven there will be no need for sanctification, since the very presence of sin is an impossibility (Revelation Chapters 21 and 22).

In conclusion, while the Lord Jesus Christ as the sinless God-man was never in need of being set apart from sin, the Father did set him apart from eternity past to become sin by being slain for a world of lost sinners. He did this so that they could become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5:21)--past, present, and future.


The word for “holy,” in Hebrew, is kodesh, which means “separate.” When the Bible says that G-d is holy, it means G-d is separate and distinct from people. Similarly, the Israelites are told to be a holy nation, to separate themselves from pagan practices.

To be a holy nation one must show proper behavior. We are commanded to act like G-d. Just as G-d, The Holy One, visited Abraham when the patriarch was sick, so, too, we should visit the sick. Just as G-d buried Moses, so should we perform this service. The Rambam (Jewish commentator) writes that we should use our minds because thinking is like G-d. To imitate G-d is called “imitatio deo.”

Leviticus 19:2 states the divine command: “Be holy, for I the L-rd your G-d am holy!”

However, Rambam further writes that nothing is holy per se. The term holiness only comes into effect when people use these things to improve themselves and society. In a proper way. Thus Holiness is the result of proper actions. The Shabbat is only holy if you keep it. The Torah is only holy if we read from it. The temples, if we pray in them. Israel is only holy when Jews live there and so on.


You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .