During last Wednesday’s Bible study, I stumbled into something interesting. At first, comparing Jesus’ words about salt in Mark and Matthew’s seems wholly uninteresting, but hiding beneath the translation is something cool. Here are the two versions, both from the NRSV:
“Salt is good; buy if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?” (Mark 9:50)
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13)
Both verses are so similar as to be nearly interchangeable. But the translation is hiding something. The word in Matthew that’s translated as “lost its taste” only means that when Jesus is talking about salt. That word is used twice elsewhere in the New Testament where it has nothing to do with salt or flavor. In both of those other instances it’s about becoming foolish:
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools…” (Romans 1:22)
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor 1:20)
My theory, then, (and please remember: I know just enough Greek to be dangerous), is that Matthew changed the word in order to clarify Mark’s version of Jesus’ saying about salt. Like me, his audience was probably wondering how salt could become unsalty and what that apparent impossibility could possibly mean for them. Matthew wanted no such ambiguity, and so changed the word to make is absolutely clear: You’re here to season the world, Jesus says, but if you stray from the path and become foolish you won’t be able to do that. So take care of each other and stay salty.
Despite my best googling, I’ve been unable to confirm this theory. It’s entirely possible that I’m putting a stumbling block in front of you by offering some hare-brained theory about biblical translation. But I don’t think so. Even if this word can mean “loss of flavor,” it also certainly means “becoming foolish.” And that that overlap of meaning is helpful even—dare I say—intended. Jesus tells us, his followers, that we are the salt of the earth. So let’s not stray from the path—this world needs good seasoning now more than ever.
Let’s stay salty, my friends.
Yours in Christ,