Salted with Fire

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Among the difficult sayings of Jesus, Mark 9:49 is one of the most enigmatic. Almost all previous explanations of this verse have dealt with the Greek text, but like many of the difficult sayings of Jesus, this one simply cannot be explained from the Greek alone.

Among the difficult sayings of Jesus, Mark 9:49 is one of the most enigmatic: Πᾶς γὰρ πυρὶ ἁλισθήσεται (pas gar pyri halisthesetai, “Everyone will be salted with fire”). What Jesus meant by this strange mixture of “salt” and “fire” has perplexed Greek scholars for a very long time.

Many Interpretations

At least fifteen different explanations for this verse have been offered. Most scholars connect salt and fire with purification because these were both used in the temple sacrifices.

According to the Mishnah, the temple priests put salt into the carcass of a bird that had been slaughtered for a whole burnt offering, to draw out the blood:

He [the priest] would wring off its head…slit open the body…soak up [the excess blood on the inside of the body] with salt and throw it on the altar fire. (m. Zevahim 6:5)

The interpretation that the salt and fire have something to do with purification or dedication is evident in many translations, for example  Today’s English Version: “Everyone will be purified by fire as a sacrifice is purified by salt.”

Hebrew Idiom

Almost all previous explanations of this verse have dealt with the Greek text, but like many of the difficult sayings of Jesus, this one simply cannot be explained from the Greek alone. “Salted with fire” is one of the puzzling statements of Jesus that are unlocked when translated back into Hebrew.

A number of scholars today consider Hebrew to be the most likely language of the earliest written accounts of Jesus’ life. This theory seems to be confirmed in another, unexpected way. Mark 9:49 is one of the many passages in Mark that may be translated word for word into Hebrew without changing the word order: כָּל אִישׁ בָּאֵשׁ יֻמְלַח (kol ish ba-esh yumlakh; Every man with fire will be salted; see Robert Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark [2nd ed., 1973], p. 125).

I suggest that a Hebrew idiom was translated literally, not dynamically, into Greek. As those who could recognize the Hebrew idiom behind the statement became fewer, its original meaning may have become lost. The range of meaning of the word “salt” in Hebrew[1]  can give us a clue to the meaning of “salted with fire.”

Uses of Salt

The root מלח (m-l-kh, to salt) is used in the Hebrew Scriptures not only in contexts where it means “purification, reservation,” but also in contexts were it is a symbol of barrenness and destruction.

Alcalay’s The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary translates the expression זָרַע מָקוֹם מֶלַח (zara makom melah; literally, “to sow a place with salt”) as “to destroy completely.” Such an action is described in Judges 9:45, where Abimelech destroys Shechem. Part of the destruction was sowing salt in the city.

The case of Lot’s wife, who was destroyed when she disobeyed God’s command and was turned into a “pillar of salt,” is well known. It is probably as an allusion to this familiar incident that Isaiah 51:6 uses the root מלח (m-l-kh) in the sense of “destroy.”

A New Translation

I propose a new translation of the verse, based on the retroversion to Hebrew. In the verses preceding verse 49 (Mark 9:42-48), Mark records that Jesus warned those offending “these little ones,” and declared that one would be better off to rid himself of offending parts of his body than to be cast into hell, where the fire never goes out and “their worm does not die.” It would fit this context to translate verse 49, “Everyone [who is cast into hell] will be completely destroyed,” that is, destroyed by fire.

The Hebrew expression, literally translated in Mark’s Greek source, would have been understood figuratively by its first readers. But once the gospel left the world of Palestinian Judaism and its Hebrew-speaking constituency, the meaning of the phrase could have easily been forgotten.

It is interesting to note that several centuries ago two Dutch exegetes, Hugo Grotius in 1641 and Johannes Clericus in 1714, proposed this very interpretation. These interpreters provide independent confirmation of the plausibility of the meaning of “salted with fire” suggested in this article.


  • [1] Since Aramaic also has the root מלח (m-l-kh), if one prefers to posit an Aramaic rather than a Hebrew original for the sources behind the Greek Synoptics, the interpretation suggested here would probably still be valid.

Comments 3

  1. It has just occurred to me that according to the text having salt in yourselves is equivalent to having peace with God. The Goal of all Mosaic living. – Shalom.

  2. May l make a suggestion. Tell me what holes it has..

    For everyone shall be salted with fire, and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt. 50 Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his saltiness, wherewith will ye season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one of another. Mark 9v49-50.

    This is another one of those difficult set of phrases from Marks Gospel. What makes it particularly difficult, is that the second phrases in v 49, it is not found in the oldest manuscripts. The Greek reads like this…
    For everyone with fire shall be salted. Good (is) salt: but if – salt saltless becomes, by what it will-ye-season? Have in yourselves salt and be-at-peace among one-another.
    This seams to be the same sentiment to the teaching of Christ in Matt 5v13. The word ‘salt’ may be a word which was common in those days but is unfamiliar to us now, to mean an equivalent to being righteous before God. To being ‘in your right mind’, as opposed to being ‘unsalted – crazy’. We all know that lack of salt leads to hyponatremia which can cause confusion, unexplained tiredness and dizziness. What the ancients saw as a sort of craziness.
    Perhaps Christ is saying that everyone through the fiery discipline of God will come through to a right relation before God – in a right standing under the law – righteous, Being ‘salty’ is good says Christ, but if your saltiness become unsalted then how will you be restored to saltiness? If you get to the end of your life as a man under the law and are found to be unrighteous then how at that late moment will you be reckoned as righteous. So have ‘saltiness’ in yourselves and be a company that is at peace with God.

  3. Trevor Griffiths

    Glad you highlighted this article from so many years ago. The paragraph on the uses of salt is especially interesting. I will be studying through scripture to check for other references as I have tended to always think of salt as an essential flavouring rather than also as a symbol of destruction. I would be interested to hear from other readers.

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