The English word "saint" comes from the Latin "sanctus". The word translated in Greek is "ἅγιος" (hagios), which means "holy". The word ἅγιος appears 229 times in the Greek New Testament, and its English translation 60 times in the corresponding text of the King James Version of the Bible.
In the New Testament, "saint" did not denote the deceased who had been recognized as especially holy or emulable, but rather the living faithful who had dedicated themselves to God.
The word sanctus was originally a technical one in ancient Roman religion, but due to its "globalized" use in Christianity the modern word "saint" in English and its equivalent in Romance languages is now also used as a translation of comparable terms for persons "worthy of veneration for their holiness or sanctity" in other religions.
Many religions also use similar concepts (but different terminology) to venerate persons worthy of some honor. Author John A. Coleman (Society of Jesus, Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California) wrote that saints across various cultures and religions have the following family resemblances:
- exemplary model
- extraordinary teacher
- wonder worker or source of benevolent power
- a life often refusing material attachments or comforts
- possession of a special and revelatory relation to the holy.
The anthropologist Lawrence Babb in an article about Sathya Sai Baba asks the question "Who is a saint?", and responds by saying that in the symbolic infrastructure of some religions, there is the image of a certain extraordinary spiritual king's "miraculous powers", to whom frequently a certain moral presence is attributed. These saintly figures, he asserts, are "the focal points of spiritual force-fields". They exert "powerful attractive influence on followers but touch the inner lives of others in transforming ways as well".