1. The Function of Salt
2. The Salt of the Earth
a. The Standard Interpretations
b. A Rabbinic Interpretation
c. Against an Aramaic original of the Gospel of Matthew
1. A city set on a hill
2. Let your light shine
We mustn’t think of these four verses as being wholly distinct from 5:3-12 which precede them for they only sit as the conclusion of a passage in which Jesus has been outlining the characteristics of the disciple and what it will be expected that they will be like.
Salt and light, therefore, are just as relevant concepts for the believer as being ‘pure in heart’ or ‘merciful’ and we should not try to extricate one characteristic to make it the be-all-and-end-all of christian living - each of these characteristics are important for the believer to demonstrate in the world and so to bear witness to the presence of God moving within their experience.
The difference between salt and light in this passage needs to be noted. The former verse speaks negatively to the disciples of what they should safeguard themselves from becoming while the latter is more positive and declares to them what they should achieve by their conduct in the world.
Both aspects are equally important, however - the one speaks about the maintenance of the witness while the other about its demonstration. Both aspects, therefore, need to be considered alongside one another.
When we come to the subject of ‘salt’, there are many authorities who speak concerning the uses and applications of the substance without actually giving any contemporary evidence for their conclusions and assertions.
This isn’t unsurprising, though. Salt was such a common and essential substance in the ancient world (as it is today) that there was never anything ‘special’ or ‘unusual’ considered about it and its mention in ancient writings was not necessary.
After all, Caesar marching against his enemies and triumphing over them warranted details of campaigns and battle strategies but the everyday application of salt onto cooked food was hardly of such cataclysmic occurrences that the historians felt that these needed to be recorded for posterity’s sake.
Therefore, AEHL’s statement that
‘Salt was one of the main items of international trade’
is probably correct but there is no way of knowing - as far as I can see - whether those who couldn’t obtain the substance (or who didn’t know that such a substance existed) were backward in the progress they made toward our modern day civilisation and the development of their culture. After all, salt may be vitally important within a society that has discovered it (in much the same way as the car is amongst present day Western society) but, if the discovery has never been made, society is not built upon it.
Salt does appear to have been used universally, though, and AEHL again notes that
‘The use of salt goes back to early prehistoric times and it has always been considered to be one of the vital elements of human food’
How true this statement is, though, is difficult to determine. I have extensively quoted the reference books below, however, to show the reader where my information comes from as, apart from the Mishnah and the Bible, I have been unable to find any ancient authorities which outline the ancient’s use of salt.
1. The Function of Salt
NIDBA makes the surprising statement that
‘...the Israelites shared with the ancient Chinese the technique of extracting and purifying salt’
but this cannot be taken to mean that only these two groups had the technique available to them. Certainly, there appears to be no archaeological evidence available that shows how salt was extracted from, for instance, sea water, but that there was a supply of salt to the fishing industry located in and around Tyre is certain from Neh 13:16 where the journeying time from that Mediterranean port would have caused all the fresh fish to be inedible when they reached Jerusalem had they not been preserved through some sort of smoking or pickling process.
Although this verse doesn’t prove the existence of salt conclusively, the salting of fish is the most likely explanation.
The area of Sodom and Gomorrah around the Dead Sea was a land renowned for both nettles (so it must have had some vegetation there where the salt deposits and salt water did not have too great an influence) and salt pits (Zeph 2:9). In Ezek 47:11 also, although a prophetic passage and difficult to determine which details are to be taken literally or figuratively, the comments presuppose that it is well-known that the swamps and marshes surrounding the Dead Sea were currently used for obtaining salt by the decision to leave them for the extraction of salt.
This appears to have been the main area for the obtaining of salt in ancient Israel and it seems likely that many a trader could have come here to dig his livelihood out of the hills, trading with the cities that he visited on his return journey.
AEHL notes that
‘The chief deposits in Palestine were in the Dead Sea region. Huge quantities of salt were extracted from Mount Sodom, a mountain 4 miles long and of pure salt...and collected in the marshes’
NIDBA being more specific in their mention of the elevation of Jebel Usdum
‘...the “hill of salt”, a 30 sq km elevation SSW of the Dead Sea was the source of Hebrew supplies’
Lion is the only authority that notes concerning the Dead Sea resource of salt that
‘The outer layer of rock salt was often impure and hard. It had no flavour and was used to spread on the Temple courtyards in wet weather to make them less slippery’
If this is the case, the salt was able to be leached out from the rock in which it had been resident and gives ample natural justification for Jesus’ teaching concerning salt losing its taste - something that is not possible to occur if pure sodium chloride is being referred to. If, however, salt was the name given not just to the pure product but to any substance which contained it, leaching could and would have occurred.
AEHL presupposes that salt was obtained on the western Israelite coast by taking seawater and running it into cavities - either artificially produced or naturally occurring - and then letting the water evaporate to extract the product. This must have been quite a laborious process seeing as it would have taken some time for the water to evaporate (and what happened when it rained? Did they have tarpaulin covers?!) but the evidence for such an assertion is lacking from their text.
As to the uses of salt in the ancient world, there are many examples though perhaps the best are those which have come down to us recorded in the body of literature known as the Mishnah, a collection of the Rabbis' sayings and memories compiled some one hundred years after the destruction of the Temple in 70AD and so quite close to the time of Christ.
Salt water was used as a pickling agent, a seasoning for cooked food and as an ingredient in food about to be cooked. The definitive quote from the Mishnah comes in Shannath 14:2 where it is written
‘Pickling brine may not be prepared on the Sabbath, but a man may prepare salt water and dip his bread therein or put it into cooked food’
and this seems to be the same when the dry compound is also being considered. Maaseroth 4:3, although commenting on the liability to pay tithes, mentions both the seasoning and preservation aspects when it notes that
‘If a man took olives out of the vat he may dip them in salt and eat them one at a time, but if he salted them and set them down in front of himself he is liable to Tithes’
These three uses of salt, then, were important to the ancient societies and we shall deal with them one at a time. Although both seasoning and the use of salt as an ingredient in cooking must have been important to the cultures, pickling (using brine) and preservation (using dry salt) were, perhaps, the most important seeing as food could very quickly become foul and inedible, especially in hot regions when fish was a staple diet.
Either the nations had to provide a constant supply of fish on a daily basis or they had need to develop a way that fish could be preserved and stored away for use at a later date. As previously noted, the Mishnah notes the existence of pickling brine - similar to our use of vinegar, no doubt, but more important in the ancient world as a preservation of decomposable food rather than as a food product that gave the consumer a different taste to try!
Although pork was forbidden to be eaten in the Levitical food laws (and hence the need for salt in the production of bacon), dry cured fish would have been produced especially in regions where an over-production of fish was a regular occurrence and where fish were to be exported from the area to the surrounding nations and tribes through trade.
Lion notes that, in Israel during the first century AD
‘...the main industry at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, was the salting of fish’
and this was probably widespread throughout both the Galilean region where there was a healthy fish industry and on the shores of the Mediterranean.
But other food seems to have been preserved through the application of salt even though the only Scriptural reference we seem to have is a vague one in Is 30:24 where we cannot be sure whether a type of seasoning or preservation is in mind.
That pickling and dry cures were common place throughout Israel, however, does not appear to be in doubt.
Though pickling was vitally necessary, both as the seasoning of food and as an ingredient in a food product, salt was only added as a matter of taste and tradition.
I noted above some Mishnaic references to both these, but the only Scriptural example seems to be Job 6:6 where Job asks
‘Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt...’
It appears, then, that salt was used as a flavouring on tasteless food (an ancient ‘monosodiumglutamate’, I presume). Perhaps it gave more flavour to the food than our present day salt as the ancient’s substance probably had a great many impurities in it which added rather than enhanced flavour. Therefore, it didn’t matter too much that the end product of the cooking process was too bland, there was always the possibility to add a handful (or ‘pinch’?) of salt to it to improve its flavour.
Cooking, however, saw salt being used as a vital ingredient. Again, a Mishnaic reference above gives ample indication that salt was a prime ingredient in the preparation of some foods and Betzah (Yom Tob) 5:4 also relates concerning a regulation that
‘If a woman borrowed from her fellow spices, water and salt for her dough...’
showing that salt was considered of equal importance to be included along with water in the preparation of bread dough for baking.
Although there are a paucity of references concerning the preparation, preservation and production of food, it can be seen that salt was considered a necessary raw material from which these were achieved.
However, just as salt was used in producing food to eat, it could also be used to destroy vegetation and, therefore, we may not be going too far if we consider the compound as being the world’s first weed killer!
Although the use of salt may be figurative in Judges 9:45, it seems to be based on an agricultural practice and the salting of a piece of land would have had the effect of both suppressing and killing vegetation present. Indeed, Deut 29:23 implies that the presence of salt in a region excluded the presence of vegetation and Jer 17:6, where we read of an uninhabited salt land, implies that there is agricultural barrenness associated with its presence.
However, perhaps it is going too far to say that nothing was able to grow on regions with a high salt content. Zeph 2:9 speaks of the area of Sodom and Gomorrah around the Dead Sea as being a land which was renowned for nettles and salt pits, thus implying that it must have had some vegetation present.
Salt used as a cleansing agent presents us with uncertainties even though some commentators insist that Ezek 16:4 indicates that salt was used as a medicine or as a cleanser - but the reason for the procedure here described is far from certain.
Besides, I can’t help wondering whether a quick salt rub down of a newly born infant might create more problems than cures!
And, if this really was a known way to cleanse an individual, it may only have been in the context of ceremonial defilement as the presence of viruses and bacteria do not appear to have been discovered by the ancient Israelites even though they knew that food was set on a bondage to decay. It’s difficult to see how the Israelites might have viewed this practice, therefore.
II Kings 2:19-22 is also used by some to indicate that salt was considered to be a purifying substance but the assumption needs to be made that the Israelites saw the throwing of salt into the bowl and then into the spring as performing some mystical function. Surely, Elisha is hardly likely to be bowing to the inhabitants of the city’s paganism and allowing them to misunderstand his actions as being something either naturalistic or occultic in the application of the mixture.
The point of the passage is that God cleansed the spring not that the salt did (and what are we to make of the newness of the bowl? What significance did that have?).
Salt was also used in the Levitical sacrifices and Lev 2:13 notes that all cereal offerings had to be offered with salt. Ezek 43:24 (which refers to the addition of salt on the burnt offering ) has been used by some commentators to teach that the entire sacrificial system and all the offerings were dependent upon the application of salt to them, but, as this is a prophetic passage speaking of a future time, it doesn’t necessarily follow that this was normal practice when the burnt offerings were laid on the altar under the Old Covenant.
However, salt was an important ingredient in the Temple of Jesus’ day, so much so that the Mishnah notes that one of the six chambers there was specifically set apart for its containment (Middoth 5:3), where the ‘salt for the offerings’ was put.
It is possible that salt placed here for the offerings was also used to put on the ramps of the Temple in either frosty or wet conditions when the priests were in danger of slipping over. Erubin 10:14 notes that
‘They may scatter salt on the [Altar] Ramp that [the priests] shall not slip’
If there needed to be a supply of salt kept for just such an occasion, it is difficult to imagine that it would have been kept anywhere else other than the Salt Chamber within the Temple precincts. If that’s so, perhaps some salt was considered to have been of secondary purity and so used to be laid down under foot.
Unfortunately, there is no indication that this was so and the previous quote from Lion simply notes that
‘...The outer layer of rock salt [in the Dead Sea region] was often impure and hard. It had no flavour and was used to spread on the Temple courtyards in wet weather to make them less slippery’
Finally, salt could be used as a symbol of eternity, especially in connection with the word ‘covenant’ and the phrase ‘covenant of salt’ was taken to mean an agreement made between two parties (usually between God and man) that could not be annulled or broken.
Therefore, Num 18:19 reads
‘All the holy offerings which the people of Israel present to the Lord I give to you, and to your sons and daughters with you, as a perpetual due; it is a covenant of salt for ever before the Lord for you and for your offspring with you’
and II Chron 13:5
‘Ought you not to know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel for ever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?’
It is presumably the preservative qualities of the substance which gave salt this figurative use.
2. The Salt of the Earth
When we turn to Mtw 5:13, you would have thought that the previous discussion would have helped us in our attempt at defining the meaning of Jesus’ words but, although commentators have opted for one or other usage of salt to interpret the passage (or more than one in some instances), Jesus’ teaching seems to go one step beyond the applications of salt to a Rabbinic turn of phrase.
Firstly, however, we’ll take a quick look at the interpretations that have been pressed upon the passage in question.
a. The Standard Interpretations
The description of the disciples as ‘the salt of the earth’ is often taken to refer to the flavour and seasoning of society by the disciples where II Cor 2:15-16 parallels the meaning when the apostle Paul writes that
‘...we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life...’
The disciple is therefore looked upon as being that which is good and wholesome in society in general (paralleled in Jesus’ use of the phrase ‘of the earth’), the distinctive taste of God to the people of the nations they encounter. When the world looks around the society in which they live, the disciples of Christ stand out as being something ‘special’ and ‘desirable’ and they are drawn to that certain uniqueness of the believer and so to Christ.
This would mean that the next three verses where Jesus talks about His disciples as being the ‘light of the world’ would be almost identical in meaning and would be seen to be a second way to say the same things so that the disciples didn’t miss the point.
‘...they give a tang to life like salt to a dish of food’
is just a bit too vague, however, and it seems Jesus would hardly be talking simply about making people’s lives more bearable - after all, this was not His mission to Israel and then, subsequently, to the world. He came not to make people’s lives more pleasant but to offer them the opportunity for radical change.
Alternatively, commentators often take the function of salt as retarding the speed of decay of foods as being the main meaning of the passage, though their assertions that salt is an antiseptic is, perhaps, going a little too far. It cannot be doubted that, in present day society, this is a correct interpretation but the word ‘antiseptic’ implies the knowledge of bacteriological organisms which infect organic material and, while it is true that such things are responsible for the corruption of organic matter, it is not necessarily true that the ancient people saw salt as being an antiseptic (for failure to perceive of micro-organisms) but, rather, as a preservative.
Therefore, the application to believers is quite straight-forward, them being seen to be the people who stand up for what is right (right according to God, that is) in society and who therefore serve as a positive influence upon the men and women of the world. Instead of being dragged down into the same traits and characteristics of men and women who don’t know God, they demonstrate what God is like by the way they live.
Again, however, the meaning definitely bleeds over into Mtw 5:14-16 and the thought is seen to be almost identical.
Mathen states that
‘Christians, by showing themselves to be Christians indeed, are constantly combating moral and spiritual decay’
and Matmor that
‘What is good in society, His followers keep wholesome. What is corrupt they oppose; they penetrate society for good and act as a kind of moral antiseptic’
That believers who have taken the name of Christ upon themselves down through the Church age have not always stood up to be counted is obvious but, as Mattask notes, all disciples
‘...are called to be a moral disinfectant in a world where moral standards are low, constantly changing or non-existent’
Both interpretations of Jesus’ words are supported by other Scriptures and make good sense in the context in which the passage sits (therefore Matfran’s inclusion of both when he states ‘Disciples, if they are true to their calling, make the earth a purer and more palatable place’), even following on to the subsequent phrase from Jesus about the salt losing its taste in society and, therefore, its uselessness.
But Mattask’s assertion that
‘The most obvious general characteristic of salt is that it is essentially different from the medium into which it is put. Its power lies precisely in this difference’
is too vague an application to warrant very much attention.
The commentator is torn between many differing interpretations, all of which seem to make good sense in the context in which they sit, so that Mathag’s statement
‘Since it is virtually impossible now to know which of its several associations would have come most readily to the minds of the disciples when they heard these words, it may be best simply to take the metaphor broadly and inclusively as meaning something that is vitally important to the world in a religious sense, as salt was vitally necessary for everyday life’
is probably the most that can be said on the matter. But there are indications within the text itself - and also in Rabbinic literature - that indicate that none of the above understandings of the passage are the correct ones.
b. A Rabbinic Interpretation
Beginning with the Rabbis, then, Stendahl (quoted in Mathen) writes
‘The connotation of “salt” in Rabbinic metaphorical language is mainly “wisdom”’
a point which Matfran also notes, citing Bekhoroth 8b in the Talmud as justification. Although the Talmud is taken to be the product of many and various more ancient Jewish documents and authorities, it is necessarily younger than the Mishnah and is, therefore, more likely to be separated from the real world of first century Judaism in which Jesus lived.
Certainly, in the Mishnah, I was unable to find any definitive statement that would associate salt with wisdom - a fact which holds true for the OT also - so the link may be somewhat tenuous if it wasn’t for the use of the Greek word translated ‘has lost its taste’ (Strongs Greek number 3471) used in the second half of Mtw 5:13 which we will turn to shortly.
Commentators also cite Origen (Homin Gen 5:12) and Plutarch (De Garrulitate 23 [514, 515]) but these authors are also well outside the time of being contemporaries of Christ so their testimony is difficult to accept as relating back to His teaching.
The word translated ‘has lost its taste’, then, is used only four times in the NT (Mtw 5:13, Luke 14:34, Rom 1:22, I Cor 1:20) and means specifically ‘to become a fool’ or ‘to make foolish’ rather than ‘to lose taste’.
Vines comments on the word that it means
‘...primarily “to be foolish” [the word] is used of salt that has lost its “savour”...’
while Kittels gives only the meaning of ‘to make foolish’ in its header on the word group even though it accepts that the proper meaning of Mtw 5:13 is ‘to lose one’s taste’.
But there appears to be no justification for this concept being inherent in the word, so that the translation relies more on what interpreters think Jesus said than what is actually recorded for us.
The indication is, however, that the Greek word employed is simply a translation of an Aramaic one which held both the meaning ‘to become foolish’ and ‘to lose taste’, so that Matfran can justifiably say that
‘The Rabbis commonly used salt as an image for wisdom...which may explain why the Greek word represented by “lost its taste” actually means “become foolish” (Aramaic “tapel”, which conveys both meanings, was no doubt the word used by Jesus)’
and Mathag that
‘The verb...means “to become or to make foolish”...The unusual use of it here to describe what has lost its saltness goes back to the underlying Hebrew root tpl, a word that had both meanings...A Greek translator then chose the Greek word...because it applied more readily to the disciples’
If a translator of an Aramaic account (see on my introduction here for comments concerning this and the quotes of the early Church Fathers concerning this possibility) chose rather to use the Greek word ‘foolish’ than one that would represent the words ‘lose taste’, this should, I believe, indicate to us that the original word was understood in the context of a play upon the allegorical usage of salt as representing wisdom to the early Church.
After all, as Luknol says concerning Luke 14:34-35 where the word recurs (my italics)
‘...there is no documented use of the term in the sense that is clearly required here’
The contrast, then, in Jesus’ words has nothing primarily to do with either the preservation of food stuffs, not the taste imparted by the application of salt, but an association of the disciples with wisdom, Jesus going on to speak of the need not to lose wisdom and so become foolish.
Paul’s use of the Greek word makes the same contrast between the wise and the foolish, Rom 1:22 saying of men and women who were rebelling against the plain revelation of God that can be clearly perceived in the things around them that
‘Claiming to be wise, they became fools’
while I Cor 1:20 asks the rhetorical question
‘...Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...’
In both places, then, foolishness is contrasted with wisdom and, if we take ‘salt’ in Mtw 5:13 to be indicative of wisdom, there is an equal contrast being presented to us.
Also of significance here, though, is Col 4:6 where Paul states the disciples’ need to ‘season with salt’ their words ‘so that you may know how you ought to answer every one’
This seasoning is explained by the quoted words of my last sentence and is given the meaning that wisdom is required in order to be careful to phrase and give content to replies that are fitting and adequate in each and every situation.
It is not sufficient simply to rely on verbal formulae and think that, by so uttering formats, the will of the Lord will be done. The disciple must, rather, be concerned to speak the right word for the right occasion and be gracious in his speech (the other instruction given by Paul prior to this).
Colwright probably goes too far when he notes that
‘The metaphor of “salty” speech was a common one in the ancient world. Paul knows that a tedious monologue is worse than useless in evangelism. Christians are to work at making their witness interesting, lively and colourful...’
but his point is well made and we could all do with remembering that both dull monotone and speaking in religious jargon is hardly likely to overcome barriers to people accepting Jesus’ work for them (indeed, it will probably have the adverse effect of putting barriers up!).
Colbrien initially notes the same meaning, stating that the phrase ‘seasoned with salt’
‘...could be taken to mean “witty” since salt had this significance in pagan usage (apparently derived from the pungent power of salt) or “winsome”, so that the Colossians’ speaking was to exercise a wholesome influence in conversation which might otherwise become debased or crude. However, attention has been drawn to Rabbinic parallels for a metaphorical use of salt as wisdom...while in Hellenistic contexts as well as Rabbinic ones, salt could describe the appropriate word used in speech...’
Therefore, ‘with words of wisdom’ or ‘with wise words’ would be a more fitting paraphrase of Col 4:6 and seems to be the best understanding of the verse in question.
Taking these pointers as a whole, it would seem best to understand Jesus’ meaning as contrasting wisdom with foolishness, paraphrasing His words to say
‘You are the wisdom of the earth; but if wisdom has become foolish, how can wisdom be restored?’
the disciples personifying wisdom. Of course, the final sentence concerning the trampling underfoot by men can only be understood in the context of literal salt but the application must also be to the disciples.
It has been accepted that salt, once its taste has been lost through the leeching out of the pure compound, was applied to the Temple courts and ramps to prevent the priests from slipping when conditions proved either icy or damp. This was the assertion of Lion (as quoted above) but there doesn’t appear to be any real justification for such a practice and Luke’s parallel passage (14:34-35 - though the words were spoken at a different time and place and were therefore capable of teaching something slightly different as the context appears to demand - not only here but in Mark 9:49-50. This mention of salt may have been an Aramaic idiom of which we have now sadly lost the meaning as it is spoken in three places where different concepts are being taught) goes on to say
‘[Salt that has lost its taste] is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill [or ‘for manure’]; men throw it away’
This would show that the practice of using tasteless salt in the Temple area was not considered to be normal practice but was good for nothing - if this is a literal observation that was grounded in the religious culture of its day.
These final words of Jesus, however, are a hard saying and, if Mtw 5:10-12 is compared, it can be seen that it would be possible for a believer to be able to justify himself on the grounds of being persecuted for righteousness’ sake when, in fact, he could have lost the ‘wisdom’ he had and was being discarded (either by society or God Himself) as being foolish and irrelevant to the people amongst whom he finds himself. It is, perhaps, not surprising but highly ironic that those who have forsaken wisdom would be able to consider themselves as being righteously persecuted, demonstrating how foolish their lives have actually become!
‘Wisdom’ is taken to mean ‘the knowledge of what is right to do in any given situation’ and contrasts with other Biblical words such as ‘knowledge’ which can mean facts and learning even though some experience of the knowledge possessed is often implied (for example, in sexual intercourse) and ‘understanding’ which is best defined as ‘a working knowledge’ or a ‘perception’ in certain matters.
Therefore, Jesus’ intention in speaking these words is to show His disciples the importance of being careful to continually do what is right in every given situation - that is, to be wise in all their dealings (Mtw 10:16) but especially amongst the people of the world. It’s quite correct to say that believers aren’t always careful to think about what they are portraying into the world and so bring about a dilution of the witness to Christ through a life that consistently both acts and reacts incorrectly.
No believer is perfect, but wisdom should be a characteristic of the life in ever-increasing measure as they grow in stature in Christ.
In one sense, ‘salt’ is the antithesis of the teaching on ‘light’ which follows (Mtw 5:14-16) for the former speaks to His followers in words of warning that are to safeguard and protect what they should already have, while the latter teaches the disciples not to be shy in allowing what they have to be displayed in the sight of all men.
While the interpretation of the passage as meaning either the preservation from decay or the flavouring of society equally work here, it is because of the verb used for ‘lost its taste’ as noted above and the Rabbinic considerations that it seems best to take Jesus’ meaning to be, on the one hand, a declaration of what the believer should be (the wisdom of the world) and of what they must safeguard themselves from becoming (foolishness).
c. Against an Aramaic original of the Gospel of Matthew
I noted in my introduction to the commentary that numerous commentators have assumed or believed from what they saw that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in the Aramaic or Hebrew language (commentators seem not to differentiate between the two though they were quite different) and that it was subsequently translated into Greek by unknown scribes to produce what we have today.
I there noted the testimony of Papias who stated that the apostle Matthew composed ‘sayings’ of Jesus rather than a full Gospel and that many others translated them into their own languages as best they could - a statement which pulls away from the former belief.
There are also those today who believe that the Aramaic manuscripts that have come down to us are more reliable as source documents for the original text than any of the Greek manuscripts simply because they have preserved the original wording of the Gospel (having been written in Aramaic, so the argument goes, and so are not secondary translations as the Greek are). There is even a web site which is attempting to translate the entire Aramaic New Testament into English with the sole intention of rediscovering the original meaning of all the inspired writings, linked in my references page.
But, if the argument has been followed above and accepted to be correct, it can be seen that there is an indication here that, although it cannot prove one way or the other whether Matthew was written originally in Aramaic, could go a long way to stating the likelihood of it being so.
I noted above that the phrase ‘has lost its taste’ in Mtw 5:13 represented a translation of a Greek word which meant ‘to be foolish’ and that the commentators suggest that this word was a translation of the Hebrew or Aramaic root tpl (as Mathag) which is represented by ‘tapel’ (as Matfran) and has been translated this way because the original could mean both ‘to lose the taste’ and ‘to become foolish’.
The reason for the latter being chosen, it was stated, was because this meant more to the disciples reading the text than the former interpretation. In other words, the scribe who translated or compiled it decided to give the text meaning rather than to leave it as hanging in the balance as to what was meant.
Now, if the Aramaic versions which have come down to us use this word ‘tpl’ then it would mean that the possibility that the Gospel was originally written in Aramaic is distinctly plausible. If it isn’t used it would point towards the likelihood that the present Aramaic manuscripts are only translations of a Greek original, a translation of another translation.
That is, that instead of the Aramaic manuscripts representing the original sentence construction, it would be seen to be just another translation of a Greek original which was compiled from an Aramaic original (the ‘sayings’ of Papias) now lost to us.
Now, the Aramaic NT on line actually translates the word as ‘flat’ which I found, initially, to be surprising (the full sentence reads ‘You are the salt of the earth. However, when salt becomes flat, with what do you salt it? It does not go with anything, except it is thrown out, and is trampled by man’), so I asked a good friend of mine, Stephen Ring (his web site can be found here), who has started to look into the possibility of the Aramaic manuscripts being the original documents, to hunt out the Aramaic manuscripts and to let me know which word appears in Mtw 5:13.
In personal correspondence dated 21-12-99, he writes that in
‘...the ES Peshitta ancient Syriac version I have access to today, Jesus uses the verb “tepkah” which according to 2 dictionaries I have means “to pour out” or “start to flow”’
This would indicate not that the Aramaic texts are original documents but are translations from a Greek source. Of course, it doesn’t categorically prove the point one way or the other but it is an indication, I feel, to be weighed against any other evidence that will subsequently come to light.
In my notes on the Festival of Tabernacles (section 3biii) I interpreted these few verses in the light of Jesus’ proclamation that He is the light, the visible presence of God, to the world and that, likewise, He has called His disciples to be visible representations to mankind of what God is like.
I did no more than gloss over the statement there but did point out that, whereas Jesus was the personification of God’s presence, His disciples were merely reflections of His presence, giving no specific illustrations as to how they may do just such a thing.
I was going, perhaps, just a little too far in my interpretation there because being reflections of God’s presence is only one aspect of the reason that God calls His disciples ‘the light of the world’ here, it being more tied up with what they do in their lives than simply the abiding presence of God (5:16) and it is only the deeds of the disciples which are a demonstration of this.
We will, therefore, look at this passage in somewhat more detail.
As I noted above, this short three verse section cannot be made to stand alone either with the verse which precedes it (where Jesus’ words on ‘salt’ are a warning to the disciples not to lose what they have and the words on ‘light’ here are an exhortation to demonstrate what they have through their lives) or in the context of 5:3-16 in which Jesus has been outlining what the disciples should be before He goes on to expound the Law and its fulfilment in Himself.
It is, therefore, an integral part of two sections and needs to be understood in the context of both.
1. A city set on a hill
Jesus uses two metaphors to speak of the disciples’ need to be visible in the world before He goes on to explain His statement that they are ‘the light of the world’ in 5:16.
Firstly, then, He speaks of them in terms of a city which is set on the summit of a hill.
I’m sure that some people, having travelled extensively through the land of present day Israel, would be able to give an example of a city there which may - or may not - have been visible to Jesus’ listeners as they sat about receiving the teaching Jesus brought to them. Certainly, it would be wrong of us to imagine that Jesus is only thinking of a city at night which is giving it’s light to the surrounding region - the idea is that any city at any time of day cannot be hidden from view if it is perched high on the top of a hill or mountain for its elevation raises it into a place that travellers can witness.
On the other hand, Jerusalem would have been a city in ancient times which may not always have been easily spotted unless one was using a route that led directly to the place for, although one must always go ‘up’ to enter the city, it hides the fact that one must also go down first, the summit or hilltop of ancient Jerusalem being at an elevation which is lower than the surrounding mountainous area.
During the early months of 1985, I was staying for a few weeks in Dartmouth in SW England and, around late dusk, was returning to my accommodation. Having turned the corner of one of the main streets, I found myself walking along the river front, looking over the bay onto the land which rose sharply on the other bank.
Shrouded in darkness, the silhouetted hill shone with the twinkling lights of the homes and streets as they settled down for the evening. It hit me then just how relevant the observation was of Jesus that a city set on a hill cannot be hid (though I have pointed out previously that the light of a city at night is not necessarily being implied).
A person who walks through the darkness of the world and who stumbles upon a sight which glitters and sparkles before him, cannot ignore what he sees. It stands out to him like some fantastic treasure even though the locals of Dartmouth had so often seen the sight that they probably didn’t pay much attention to it anymore!
Such is the intention of Jesus’ words, then. A disciple must be observable within the society in which he lives and not be hidden away in some corner where no man is able to see God’s presence both through him and in him.
Secondly, Jesus goes on to speak of a lamp that is used by a householder and the correct placement of the light - not under an object that hides the light but in a place that gives light to the entire house.
As some background, we need to consider both the bushel, lamp and lampstand which Jesus speaks of.
The bushel was a measure of grain roughly equivalent to 9 litres (most authorities place it almost exactly equivalent to 8.75 litres - about the same volume as twelve bottles of wine. The commentators’ statements that the capacity was almost exactly equal to one peck hardly helps the modern man imagine the volume intended!) and is thought to have been a household measure though what purpose it actually served is difficult to imagine. After all, what sort of recipe demanded that 9 litres of flour or grain be used? Perhaps, if it was in common use amongst the Jews, the women baked large quantities of bread through the day along with cakes of various descriptions so that a measure was needed.
Equally possible is that the measure was taken to the market traders and filled up with grain and cereal to be brought home - after all, the humble plastic bag or pre-wrapped 8lbs of flour weren’t readily available in those days! However, trying to get this quantity of solid substance back from the market traders must have presented somewhat of a problem due to the weight.
Some commentators envisage the placing of the lamp under the bushel as teaching that the disciples’ light was not to be extinguished which it would have been once the oxygen had been sufficiently used up by the burning wick but this does not appear to be the reason behind Jesus’ words here and, although Truth may be gleaned from it, it hardly seems likely that this was Jesus’ original intention in speaking of the bushel measure.
The point is that, due to the opacity of the container, the light cannot be seen and it cannot provide illumination to the occupants of the house. In like manner, the actions of the disciples, hidden away from the gaze of mankind, cannot give any clear revelation of the presence and character of God unless they are displayed openly for them all to witness and observe.
The ‘lamp’ has suffered at the hands of some translators and the AV’s translation ‘candle’ (Strongs Greek number 3088) probably owes more to the use of such an item in the role and function of that day’s traditional and liturgical church than it does on any perception that this sort of product was used in first century Israel to light up the room of a house.
Vines interprets the word to mean
‘a portable lamp usually set on a stand...a hand lamp, fed with oil’
contrasting it with another Greek work used in the NT (Strongs Greek number 2985) which seems to have indicated a smaller object that frequently needed its oil replenishing to maintain the light source.
Kittels comments that the word was used initially to denote
‘...an open bowl, then a closed lamp in various forms, usually put on a stand to give better light...’
However, it appears to be quite difficult to distinguish between these two words and to tie them down to a definition which could be placed upon the archaeological finds unearthed throughout the land of present-day Israel.
Because olive oil was commonly available in Israel, it was probably the most often used substance which was burnt to produce light and the wick was possibly normally made from flax. However, Shabbath 2:1-3 in the Mishnah needs to be read here if one is under any disillusionment as to the variety of substances which could be used for either.
Although this passage specifically refers to the Sabbath lamp in the Temple, it follows that the varying items listed here could also have been employed by ordinary men and women in their houses. The passage lists cedar-fibre, flax, silk, bast, apple-fibre and duckweed as being forbidden for the Temple lamp and, as oil, pitch, wax, tar, castor oil and even oil from the fatty tail of an animal.
There does not appear, then, to have been any one specific material employed for either and it is quite certain that, should an inhabitant have found a naturally occurring supply of raw material for use as either the oil or the wick, they would have used this rather than spend hard earnt money on obtaining pure olive oil and flax.
Apart from the label ‘lamp’, then, very little definitive can be said about the size, shape or which material was used to either make the lamp, to use as fuel or as a wick - but this is not important to Jesus’ teaching. That the lamp was a common and everyday implement in use (just as the light bulb is today) shows us that Jesus is speaking into His listener’s ears in terms that can be easily understood and contemplated.
The ‘stand’ (Strongs Greek number 3087) is universally mistranslated ‘candlestick’ by the AV throughout the NT and refers simply to a stand upon which the lamp is placed. This ‘stand’ could have been many various objects and need not be considered to be a specialised piece of furniture designed for such a task. It could be simply a beam which projected overhead or a shelf or bracket attached to the wall that cast the light into as wide an area as possible.
Zondervan suggests that, if specialised lampstands were used, they were probably constructed of wood for only ceramic and metal ones have been discovered in archaeological excavations and these in the ruins of shrines which would have bought the more expensive and longer lasting objects for use.
In the context of Jesus’ words, we shouldn’t think of this lampstand as being anything like the candelabra, the image of which comes to mind whenever we think of the menorah, the seven-branched candlestick of OT times.
Again, Jesus metaphor is plain and simple. No person would think of putting a lamp in a place where its light could not be witnessed - therefore, why should the disciple think that he could hide himself away from society and not allow it to have the witness of their deeds as they live out rightstanding with God into their society.
2. Let your light shine
Jesus now goes on to apply both His statement that the disciples are ‘the light of the world’ and His two metaphors concerning the city and the lamp, bringing out the Truth that ‘light’ is to be considered primarily in the sense of the things that the disciples do as a response to the Kingdom of Heaven.
But there needs to be some explanation here of Jesus’ words which appear in Mtw 6:1-6 where Jesus says to His followers
‘Beware of practising your piety before men in order to be seen by them...’
seemingly contradicting these words here recorded. The context in both cases is different and in the later passage is pointing out that to deliberately perform religious acts and rites in order that men might see them being done, so attracting attention and praise to oneself, is unglorifying to God.
After all, such deeds have been done solely for the purpose of glorifying self, not with any attempt on the part of the religious person to glorify the name of the God of Israel. Here, though, Jesus instructs His disciples not to hide away the things they do in secret and to extricate themselves from thinking that service to God is solely a matter of deeds done away from society’s gaze.
As Mattask notes
‘...the disciples must not hide themselves, but live and work in places where their influence may be felt and the light in them be most fully manifested to others...’
and, though Matfran turns the phrase into a negative one, he sums up the burden of the verse when he writes that
‘A secret disciple is no more use in the world than one who has lost his distinctiveness (5:13)’
A relationship with God must overflow out into the nation and, therefore, will necessarily be seen by all men - but religious acts (such as praying and almsgiving) needn’t be done openly to attract the attention of our fellow men and women.
This is the reason for Jesus’ observation that society should be able to witness the outworking of the disciple’s relationship with God and so
‘...give glory to your Father who is in heaven’
The christian life is so distinctive from that of the society in which disciples find themselves that even their attitude in certain matters and their refusal to follow after the ways of the world cannot continue to remain hidden. After all, a worker who refuses to attend an office party because of the debauchery which takes place there is going to be one in a million and will even testify to the will of God by his absence, even though society has so drifted away from a knowledge of or, perhaps better, an awareness of God that the world may not think of the believer’s actions in terms of the glorification of God but in the goodness of humanity!
Tertullian in his ‘Apology’ gives an alternative reaction of those who witness the goodness of the christian disciples and, after outlining many varied characteristics of the life, he writes (chapter 39)
‘See, [the world] say, how they love one another, for they themselves are animated by mutual hatred; how they are ready even to die for one another, for they themselves will sooner put to death. And they are wroth with us, too, because we call each other brethren; for no other reason, as I think, than because among themselves names of consanguinity are assumed in mere pretence of affection’
The glorification of God, therefore, does not appear to have been that which was uttered by those around the believers and persecution is an alternative aspect of a life lived righteously before God. But that many will point towards God Himself and acknowledge His handiwork is also certain.
The thought does not appear to be, however, that the disciple deliberately attempts to bring glory to God by doing the things he does but that, because he tries to do what is pleasing to God, glory and honour is attributed to God through the lives of the people who witness what is being done.
When living out God’s will becomes a natural reaction and experience, even what seems second nature to the disciple is necessarily a witness to the One he serves.
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