Here is Ephesians 1:1 (in Greek) and my translation.

1:1 Παῦλος ἀπόστολος Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ διὰ θελήματος θεοῦ τοῖς ἁγίοις τοῖς οὖσιν [ἐν Ἐφέσῳ] καὶ πιστοῖς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,1

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, according to the will of God, to God’s people who are in Ephesus and to the faithful in Christ Jesus,

I'm curious to know some arguments for and against translating τοῖς ἁγίοις as "the saints", which is the choice of the ESV, YLT, and Douay-Rheims. I personally find the word "saint" to be a bit misleading, as in modern times we often think of saints as those who get canonized (e.g. St. Augustine). One alternative would be to translate τοῖς ἁγίοις as "God's people" or "God's holy people", which I think is clearer to a modern audience. The NIV has adopted this choice. What are your thoughts on this decision? Do you find the translation of "saints" to be a little ambiguous?

I think part of the problem is that the word "saint" has multiple meanings, whereas "holy people" or "God's people" is more straightforward. I would also be interested to know whether the more recent translations try to resolve this ambiguity by favoring the latter.

  • Good question. Up-voted.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 12:52
  • God's holy people is paraphrase, with "God" as an additional word, so it is not literal. You are objection is based on the Roman Catholic tradition or practice. Translators must not be influenced by culture and tradition and sectarian differences. Saint is the right word. On the English stackexchange you can discuss further about its etymology etc.
    – Michael16
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 12:07

3 Answers 3


"Saint" is translating the Greek word ἅγιος (agios), which lexicons generally define as "holy", "holy one", or "sacred".

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines "saint" as:

a person acknowledged as holy or virtuous and regarded in Christian faith as being in heaven after death

A supplementary definition is given as:

a person of exalted virtue who is canonized by the Church after death and who may be the object of veneration and prayers for intercession.

Neither of these modern definitions would fit Ephesians 1:1, since Paul is writing people who have not yet died.

The expanded Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, however, provides an additional definition:

A member of God's chosen people; a member of the Church, a Christian (chiefly in biblical use)

Acts 9:32 from the 1611 KJV is cited as an example of the above:

And it came to passe, as Peter passed thorowout all quarters, he came downe also to the Saints, which dwelt at Lydda.

It is this latter sense which fits, though the word often brings to mind the more common definition found in the COED.

  • Great answer! Very sensible that the meaning from the SOED applies here. This alone resolves ambiguity.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 0:00

I think it should be retained as the clear convention of the early Church it was. More and more people began to be the 'saints' of God in the great in-gathering of the Gentiles, and so it became a great way to invite people to become God's 'holy ones'—when you are a Christian, you are and have the potential of more truly being 'God's holy ones.'

I can't remember which of the Church Fathers it was, but they said that 'saints' as a term for even Christians on earth fell out of use pretty early, and was reserved only for the 'church triumphant' or, the saints in heaven. Rightly and naturally so, for the saints in heaven are definitionally saints, and are in heaven, and are those "righteous made perfect," (Heb 12:23) whereas the rest of Christians are "called to be saints," (1 Cor 1:2) and are to continue to "strive for peace with all men: and holiness, without which none shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14), and are counseled by the Apostle: "But according to him that hath called you, who is holy, be you also in all manner of conversation holy: Because it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy. And if you invoke as Father him who, without respect of persons, judgeth according to every one's work: converse in fear during the time of your sojourning here" (1 Pt 1:15-17).

One thing people also neglect is that the class of saints in heaven was a relative novelty at the time of the New Testament: Christ had only opened heaven to the spirits detained in the spiritual prison of the Bosom of Abraham, and brought them to glory at His entrance into heaven.

So saints being anything other than God's people on earth (at least as to be being called saints) was something quite new.

There are is a of looking at the convention of calling all Christians saints in a non-technical way as still relevant (and they can co-exist, the technical canonized term 'saint' and the term 'saints' as applied to Christians on earth), such as that it can be seen as an appellation of endearment: God's people are His set-apart people (the very essence of the word 'holy') no matter where they are; even if there is disparity in the completion of their sanctification, and degree of perfection.

One argument that could be made against it is that there are many, many tares among the wheat (a Scriptural reference to false Christians in the Church), and no one can know who is one of God's elect just by looking at them, and so it is safer to view Christians in light of their calling to be saints, rather than all being, equally, every one, saints.

  • Another great answer! Thank you for explaining the historical considerations behind this word, i.e. "saint". I understand your preference to retain this word in translation so that we may honor the convention of the early Church. The verses you cite are also really helpful. +1
    – ktm5124
    Commented Jan 16, 2018 at 0:45

Paul often set up a rhetorical dichotomy between believing Jews and believing gentiles in order to emphasize gentile Christians indebtedness to the Jews. This is likely to counter a developing antisemitism among majority gentile churches, esp. in Paul’s later works.

Try resolving the “us”, “we”, and “you” plural pronouns in Eph., for ex., and you will see a new dimension to Paul’s emphasis. This, added to the fact that there is some evidence that the early church used ἁγίοις (from OT holy ones/watchers perhaps) to refer to (first-generation ?) Jewish elders in the church (i.e. “the saints at Jerusalem”, “…your love for all the saints”, “to the saints who are at _____, and to the faithful…”), lends credence to this view, imo.

Support for ἁγίοις meaning Jewish believers: see Witherington, The Letters to Philemon, The Colossians, and the Ephesians: a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles, 225, note 4.

  • 1
    Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 14:20
  • 1
    Hi Kevin, welcome to the site! Appreciate your insight, upvoted +1. Could add citations to a few of the verses you have in mind? Please be sure to take the site tour, and thanks for contributing! Commented Feb 15, 2022 at 19:14

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