The salt of the earth – the light of the world

Two famous metaphors from the mouth of Jesus, taken from Matthew 5:13-14. The first one is meaningless in English, the second is understandable. Why is that? Well, the answer is simple enough. The English word ”light” has both a basic/physical/literal meaning and a metaphorical usage, but ”salt” has no metaphorical meaning or usage in English.

Let me first comment on light, since that is the easier one. My Collins dictionary says about light: ”mental understanding or spiritual insight.” The light metaphor is common in the NT. In John’s Gospel we find statements like: ”The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (1:9 about Jesus). 8:12 says: ”I am the light of the world.” 9:5: ”While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 12:44-46: ”Whoever believes in me does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.”

The metaphor of light in the NT does not so much refer to mental understanding as it refers to spiritual insight based on revelation from God. Those people who became disciples of Jesus became ”people of the light” (Luke 16:8). Jesus would not stay in the world to continue to give his light to it, but he sent the Holy Spirit to continue to give light and revelation. Once Jesus had left the world, the disciples were to take over the ministry of light-bringers, but it had to be based on revelation from God – in addition to what Jesus had taught them, which was also revelation from God. In Matthew 5:14, Jesus was preparing his disciples to become apostles, saying: ”You are the light of the world – let your light shine before people, so that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” Those good deeds are not their own mental understanding nor necessarily their good behavior, but it is the spiritual power and inspired wisdom that comes from God, and that is why God is to be praised for it. Jesus said the same about himself. He only spoke what his Father told him to say and he only did what his Father told him to do.

When Peter understood that Jesus was the Messiah as stated in Matt 16:16, Jesus immediately responded: ”Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by people, but by my Father in heaven – and on this solid foundation I will build my church.” Matt 11:25-27 is a basic passage for our understanding of the concept of ministry and wisdom based on revelation from God: ”Jesus said: I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Of course, the ”little children” is a metaphor for people who are open and willing to be taught, to receive revelation from God. The philosophers of this world base their mental understanding on human reasoning rather than spiritual revelation. Paul has something to say about that, too. He was a learned man, but had to re-think his whole understanding of God and spiritual truth from scratch when Jesus stopped him in his tracks. He writes in Phil 3: ”But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage so that I can gain Christ – I want to know Christ.” In Galatians he emphasized how Jesus had revealed himself on the way to Damascus: “when God … decided to reveal his Son to me … my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” And he says: ”I want you to know, brothers (and sisters), that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from a human being, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” Paul tells us about revealed, inspired wisdom as opposed to worldly wisdom in 1 Cor 1: “For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God decided through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ – the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”

I am saying this to show that the light/wisdom the NT talks about is not human wisdom or wit or philosophy or even the accumulated religious knowledge of the “teachers  of the law.”

Paul’s talk about wisdom and foolishness leads us to the first metaphor in Mat 5:13: ”YOU are the salt of the earth/land/world, but if the salt should become foolish, with what can its saltiness be restored?” The Greek word μωραίνω means ”make foolish.” It occurs here in a passive form meaning ”become foolish.”  Another way of saying the same thing would be ”lose your wisdom.” There is no evidence that this Greek word could mean what it is often translated as. NIV says ”loses its saltiness,” and by doing so they have lost the meaning and the metaphor. If only they had kept ”should lose its wisdom” or “should become foolish” the reader would have had a chance to understand that ”salt” is a metaphor for those who have received spiritual wisdom and bring light to others, while “saltiness” is a metaphor for spiritual wisdom, the kind of wisdom revealed to the disciples by Jesus.

Jesus did not say these words in Greek, but in Hebrew or Aramaic. Whatever the case, the word spoken by Jesus was probably tapel תָּפֵל because this word has two senses which fits perfectly with the salt metaphor. It can mean either to be tasteless or to be foolish. The Greek translator chose to render the sense of losing wisdom in order to give a clue to the topic of the metaphor, not just describe the illustration of salt.

When a metaphor is translated literally into a language that does not have the same or a very similar way of speaking metaphorically, the readers will automatically try to make sense of a nonsense saying. They will look for possible uses of salt within their own culture or maybe in the ancient culture. Are the disciples supposed to make the earth/world more tasty? No, that is nonsense. Are they supposed to somehow preserve the earth/world? Hardly. We don’t use salt as a metaphor for wisdom as the rabbis sometimes did. The Exegetical Summaries quote three commentaries for the following statement: ”In Rabbinic literature salt often stood for wisdom [Mor, NCBC, TNTC2].” Mor=Morris, NCBC=New Century Bible Commentary, and TNTC2=France, R. T. The Gospel According to St. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary. The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. I have looked at Morris and France, but did not find their comments very helpful. Once we accept that ”saltiness” refers to spiritual wisdom, all problems are solved. It is not important to ask whether salt can lose its saltiness. It is important to ask whether disciples can lose the spiritual wisdom and revelation given to them. Jesus warns that this should not happen, because how will you return to your former state of wisdom? What wisdom can be used to make you wise again? Hebrews 6 has a similar thought: ”It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.”

I wish we could regain and rediscover the saltiness of the words of Jesus – and of Paul in Col 4:6.

10 thoughts on “The salt of the earth – the light of the world

  1. John Hobbins says:

    Hi Iver,

    To start things off, I want to contest your statement that:

    ”salt” has no metaphorical meaning or usage in English.

    End quote. Here are some examples:

    Stop rubbing salt into my wounds.
    My father is a deacon in a salt and pepper congregation.
    Is he worth his salt? I don’t think so.
    His speech is as salty as a sailor’s.

    Directly to the point (cut-and-pasted from the internet):

    our message is hugely unpopular but we have been given a responsibility: to be salt and light, helping to prevent decay in our society and clearly showing the authority of God at work in our lives.

    As far as I can see, you cannot claim that “salt” is not used in metaphorical frames of reference in English. It is.

    But you can argue that “salt of the earth” in English as a translation of “salt of the earth” in Greek is not easily construed to have a denotative reference to “wisdom.”

    I continue to wonder whether you are right that Jesus is telling his disciples that they are to be the wisdom of the earth. It would be interesting to see who, in the history of interpretation, thought likewise.

    If the trend among interpreters whose mother tongue was Greek goes in a different direction, you might explore interpretation in the Aramaic language area – the Syriac Fathers. If you come up empty-handed there, you may have a problem.

  2. J. K. Gayle says:

    Thank you for posting, Iver! The most powerful thing you’ve said or suggested here is this: that what Jesus said (and what Paul wrote), with respect to salt imagery, has different meanings in (spoken) Hebrew and Hebrew Aramaic and in (translated) Greek and (written translated) English. The gospel’s Greek, for example, may indeed be a literal translation of the sort that Wayne was steering us all away from in his most recent BBB post. Samuel Tobias Lachs corroborates this, as examples below show.

    John, Thank you for showing how in English we do use “salt” in proverbs and idioms and how also we use the word metaphorically. I don’t even have to take what you say with a grain of salt. 🙂

    Now, Lachs offers how “Bischoff suggested that there is a wordplay [in Aramaic] here, tabla de’tebel, ‘salt of the world’.” And he shows that, if Bischoff is correct, how the Greek translation of Matthew may have missed:

    The word “earth” means world. F. Perles reads it le letabla wela lezable khasher, “fit neither as a spice (tabla, confused with tebel, which is rendered in the Gr[eek] by ge) nor as fertilizer (zabla).

    And Lachs turns to B. Bekhorot to spell out more fully one of the variants of a rabbinic “salt” riddle or proverb that Jesus may be alluding to:

    The question “how shall it be restored” is purely rhetorical. Salt cannot lose its saltiness. All attempts to prove that it can are unconvincing. Understood rhetorically, it is admirably illustrated by a rabbinic passage in the same vein: “They asked [R. Joshua]: ‘When salt became unsavory wherewith is it to be salted?’ He replied, ‘With the afterbirth of a mule!’ ‘And is there an afterbirth of a mule?’ ‘And can it become unsavory?’ (page 82)

    For those who don’t have it in their library or can’t buy it, below a peek into A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke by Lachs.,+Mark+and+Luke&hl=en&ei=3u06Td-GM4GCgAfR2dTHCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAA#v=snippet&q=salt&f=false

  3. iverlarsen says:


    What I meant to say with the statement you took out of context was that “salt” does not have any metaphorical meaning in English that would fit in the context of Mat 5:13.

    Such metaphors are very specific to a language. Although my language is closely related to English I did not know some of those expressions you cite. The only two we have in Danish is rubbing salt in the wound and taking something with a grain of salt. We do say about a poor person that he does not have salt for his egg. I know the one about being worth his salt, because I have learned it. I have no idea what a salt and pepper congregation is. I guess it is a congregation that often meet for sharing of meals so they would take salt and pepper along. How a sailor’s speech could be salty I do not understand. The picture I get is a sailor standing in a storm and getting salt water in his mouth. What I am trying to say here is that if a particular metaphor is unknown to me, I would be groping in the dark for its meaning, trying in vain to make some sense of it.

  4. Gary Simmons says:

    One thing I think we all can agree on: Lot’s wife never became a pillar of wisdom. [Pillar of wisdom is a turn of phrase in English]

    Concerning μωραίνω: I had always assumed that μωραίνω in the passive meant something like “to become dull,” an English phrase that could refer either to losing one’s wits or a spice losing its flavor. I more or less took that at face value, but now that you mention it, I don’t know of any evidence that μωραίνω would be used in conjunction with salt, either.

    I had always also taken what I was told at face value, namely that the salt image here referred to its preservative effect against decay. Now, putting that idea aside and entertaining your suggestion that salt refers to wisdom: this use of μωραίνω could be an example of blurring between what is literally stated (salt) and what is metaphorically referenced (wisdom). Is this what is meant by the phrase “live metaphor?”

    In any case, it is possible this is a completely unique use of μωραίνω specifically to blur the lines between the metaphor and its referent. Consider, for instance, the lyrics to “The Red Strokes” by Garth Brooks:

    Moonlight on canvas, midnight and wine
    Two shadows starting to softly combine
    The picture they’re painting
    Is one of the heart
    And to those who have seen it
    It’s a true work of art

    Oh, the red strokes
    Passions uncaged
    Thundering moments of tenderness-rage
    Oh, the red strokes
    Tempered and strong
    Burning the night like the dawn

    Steam on the window, salt in a kiss
    Two hearts have never pounded like this
    Inspired by a vision
    That they can’t command
    Erasing the borders
    With each brush of a hand

    (Full lyrics here and song here)

    The song speaks of the act of lovemaking and uses the metaphor of the act of painting a picture. Several lines blur between the two ideas. Most specifically, the last line I quote could refer either to smoothing the outlines in a painting, or it could refer to unclothing one another.

    “The picture they’re painting is one of the heart” also reminds me of the concept of “circumcision of the heart.” Perhaps this is similar to Matthew’s use of μωραίνω, in that using “circumcision” to mean “cleansing/renewing” was otherwise unknown (or uncommon).

  5. John says:

    John Hobbins wrote:

    “I continue to wonder whether you are right that Jesus is telling his disciples that they are to be the wisdom of the earth. It would be interesting to see who, in the history of interpretation, thought likewise.”

    Hello John & Iver,

    Regarding the above, the following might help answer the question.

    HILARY; There may be here seem a propriety in our Lord’s language which may he gathered by considering the Apostles’ office, and the nature of salt. This, used as it is by men for almost every purpose, preserves from decay these bodies which are sprinkled with it; and in this, as well as in every sense of its flavor as a condiment, the parallel is most exact. The Apostles are preachers of heavenly things, and thus, as it were, salters with eternity; rightly called the salt of the earth, as by the virtue of their teaching, they as it were, salt and preserve bodies for eternity…

    More quotations on Matthew 5:13 can be found at:

    John McBryde

  6. Iver Larsen says:

    This morning I checked the original Luther version (1545): “Ihr seid das Salz der Erde. Wo nun das Salz dumm wird, womit soll man salzen?”

    A fairly literal translation of the last question: If now the salt becomes dumb/foolish, with what can you salt it?

    The tradition in Danish versions is to say “loses its power.” I don’t normally follow tradition, but this happens to be so good that we used the same in our own Danish translation (with a substantial footnote about the double meaning of the presumed underlying Hebrew/Aramaic.)

  7. John Hobbins says:


    Thanks for the Hilary citation. He took “salt” in Matthew 5 as a metaphor for that which preserves the earth (mortality) from complete corruption by flavoring it with eternity (immortality). The disciples were to be salt in that sense.

    I am open to enlightenment, but I remain convinced that Hilary got the metaphor right. At the very least, “salt” is deployed in this passage to reference a preserving agent and something that flavors something else. To be sure, the notion of salt becoming dull or insipid activates a reference to intellectual and pedagogical power.

    This is not an either/or. It is a both/and. Metaphors are often multidimensional. So here.

    On the level of translation, I would think, it makes sense to preserve the wording of the original – “salt of the earth,” “light of the world,” in order to allow the multidimensionality of the metaphor to flavor our sense of calling at full strength – though that will be possible only at the level of exposition.

    A replacement strategy and/or an abstract-for-concrete strategy are best worked out at the level of exposition rather than translation.

  8. Tracey says:

    Old Canaanitish salt was harvested by evaporating water off it, and it could lose its flavor by being contaminated with other minerals. (Got that from wikipedia, but heard it in Church once—made a lot of sense then.)

    Salt losing it’s flavor would be more about the disciple becoming contaminated by the world, and therefore not as zealous to Church as they once were. [And therefore of little more use than to be stomped under foot, as was ancient salt which had lost its flavor.]


  9. Casey says:

    “If now the salt becomes dumb/foolish, how can it be salty again? It is no longer good but to be thrown out and trampled”

    Does this imply that once a disciple become unwise, he can never be brought back to true spiritual health? Does God reject him forever because he turned away from truth for a season…does this passage imply that? (I hope not…scary!)

  10. Wayne Leman says:

    Casey, you’re asking a good question, but I don’t think we can answer it from just this one verse. Ultimately, I think you’re asking a theological question, one that we can’t answer from Bible translation alone. Sincere Bible scholars use the same Bible translations and come up with different theological conclusions on this and a number of other important topics.

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