Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 299-304
Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary. Cited with permission.
"EVERYONE WILL BE SALTED
WITH FIRE" (MARK 9:49)
WESTON W. FIELDS
The meaning of Mark ("everyone will be salted with fire”)
has long perplexed interpreters. Although this saying is in a literary
context speaking of judgment. many have seen in it a reference to
purification. However, since Hebrew was probably the lingual back
ground to the Gospel of Mark, the saying may be easily understood!
as "everyone who is sent to hell) will be completely destroyed"
(destroyed by fire).
AMONG the difficult sayings of Jesus, Mark is one of the
most enigmatic. What could Jesus have meant when he said,
"Everyone will be .salted with fire"? Stated in a context of judgment in
the fire of Geh-Hinnom (the
Greek scholars for a very long time. :
SUGGESTED INTERPRETATIONS :
Bratcher and Nida have counted at least 15 different explanations
or the verse,1 and Gould calls it "one of the most difficult to interpret
in the New Testament.”2 He connects the saying not with the fire of
judgment in the preceding context, but with the idea of purification
as in the fire of a sacrifice. This is because both fire and salt were
used by the Jews in their
salt was put into the carcass of the sacrificial animal in order to soak
out the blood. After the blood was soaked out, the carcass was fit for
1 Robert G. Bratcher and Eugene A. Nida, A Translator's Handbook on the Gospel
of Mark, vol. 2 in Helps.for Translators (New York: United Bible Societies, 1961)
2 Ezra P. Gould, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According
to St. Mark (ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1896) 180.
300 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
consumption or sacrifice: "The priest. . . dried it by rubbing salt on it
[the carcass of the sacrificial animal] and cast it on the fire."3
The interpretation that the salt and fire have something to do
with purification or with dedication is in general the same one taken
by Montefiore, Rawlinson, A. B. Bruce, Alford, Calvin, Meyer,
Lange, Lane, Fudge, and F. F. Bruce.4 It is evident as well in TEV's
translation, "Everyone will be purified by fire as a sacrifice is purified
Such connection of the verse with sacrifice also appears in its
textual variants. Evidently the incomprehensibility of the verse led
some scribe to make a marginal note (which later found its way into
the text proper) or to make an outright change in the text. Whichever
it was, this change involved lifting part of a phrase out of the LXX of
Lev and adding it to this text. The phrase is: pa?n dw?ron qusi<aj
u[mw?n a[li a[lisqh<setai / 'everyone of your sacrificial gifts will be
salted with salt'. This connection with Leviticus is seen clearly in the
two main forms of the additions to the verse: (1) pa?sa ga>r qusi<a a[li>
a[lisqh<setai (D itb,c,d,ff,i, 'for every sacrifice will be salted with salt')
and (2) pa?j ga>r puri> a[lisqh<setai kai> pa?sa qusi<a a[li> a[lisqh<setai
(A K Byz al, 'for everyone will be salted with fire, and every sacrifice
will be salted with salt'). This last form seems to be a conflation of
the shortest version of the verse and the version of intermediate length.
Several other versions of the verse, which appear in only one manu-
script each, also seem to be the result of scribal attempts to make
some kind of sense out of the verse. Three of the four other pos-
sibilities mentioned by Metzger have something' to do with being
"consumed" or "destroyed,"5
3Philip Blackman, trans., Order Kodashim. vol. 5 in Mishnayoth
Judaica, 1983) 43.
4G. C. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels, with a series of additional notes by
I. Abrahams (3 vols.;
The Expositor’s Greek Testament (ed.
W. Robertson Nicoll;
Guardian, reprinted, 1976)
Mark and Luke. vol. I in Calvin's Commentaries (ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F.
A Critical and Exegetical Hand-book to the Gospels of Mark and Luke (ed. R. E.
Wallis, W. P. Dickson, and M. B. Riddle;
120-23; John Peter Lange, The Gospel According to Mark. revised with additions by
W. G. T. Shedd. vol. 8 in Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (
Zondervan, reprinted, 1971) 90-91;
(NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 349; Edward William Fudge. The Fire That
Consumes (Houston: Providential, 1982), 186-87; and F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings
of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1983) 38-39.
5Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual
Commentary on the Greek New Testament (
FIELDS: SALTED WITH FIRE (MARK ) 301
Most modern interpreters of the passage have not advanced much
beyond these ancient scribes. ]n fact one gets the feeling that many
commentators are not happy with their own conclusions; yet the
absence of a better alternative, coupled with the fact that in the
interpreters to apply the purificational and dedicatory objectives of
the sacrifices to Jesus' statement about the individuals in the passage
under consideration. It is as though many of the commentators knew
intuitively that the verse cannot say what it seems to say in Greek, for
a figure of speech based on these two features among the many
elements of a sacrifice hardly seems to fit the immediate context of
Mark's narrative, even if Jesus' statement is purely metaphorical. Yet
Mark or Mark's source must have felt that it made sense of some
kind, even though the sense is not now obvious.
AN ALTERNATIVE INTERPRETATION :
Perhaps the solution is not to be found in the Greek text. This is
one more saying of Jesus which is easily unlocked when it is translated
into Hebrew, currently considered by a number of scholars to be the
best candidate for the language of Jesus and of the earliest accounts
of his life. A couple of questions may be asked to ascertain whether a
Hebrew translation helps clarify the meaning of the Greek text.6 Does
the semantic range for the word "salt" in Hebrew give any clues about
what an expression like "salted with fire" (puri> a[lisqh<setai) might
have meant as an idiom in Hebrew? Could it be that a Hebrew
expression was translated literally into Greek, not dynamically, and
that in the course of time, as those who would recognize the Hebrew
idiom behind the statement became fewer and fewer, the original
meaning of it became lost?
There is indeed a Hebrew expression which can answer these
questions and solve the problem. Mark is one of many pas-
sages in Mark (some of which have been noted elsewhere by Lindsey)7
in which it is possible to translate word for word back into Hebrew
and not even change the word order. Lindsey suggests the translation
Hlam;yu wxeBA wyxi lKA.8 The UBS Modern Hebrew New Testament suggests
6 Cf. Robert L. Lindsey, "A Modified Two-Document Theory of the Synoptic
Dependence and Interdependence," NovT6 (1963) 245-47; idem, A Hebrew Translation
of the Gospel of Mark (2d ed.;
and Roy B. Blizzard, Understanding
the Difficult Words of Jesus (
Foundation, 1983). See also Weston W. Fields ("Understanding the Difficult. Words of
Jesus: A Review Article," GTJ 5  271-88) for a more complete listing of the
articles and books supporting Hebrew originals for the Synoptics and those supporting
Aramaic originals for the Synoptics.
7Lindsey, A Hebrew Translation of the Gospel of Mark, xxix-xxvi.
302 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
the addition of Nh at the beginning of Mark 9:49 to account for the
ga<r in Greek.9 Delitzsch, following the Byzantine text-type, translates,
HlAm;yA hlam,BA NBAr;qA-lkAv; HlAm;yA wxeBA wyxi-lKA yKi .10
Among the several usages of the word Hlm, the predominant one
is usually translated "to salt." But there is another usage of Hlm which
Even-Shoshan defines with the term hlABi / 'to destroy', and wFewFi / 'to
erase'.11 Alcalay translates the expression Hlm Mvqm frz / 'to destroy
completely',12 for which the literal translation is "to sow a place with
salt," an action described in Judg 9:45. There Abimelech destroys
Shechem. One of the actions which was part of the destruction was
sowing salt in the city. This is an illustration of the background of
what, according to Alcalay, is a figurative expression for complete
destruction-to be salted is to be destroyed.
The verb also is found in the passive in Isa 51 :6, where Even-
Shoshan suggests the glosses hlABA qHaw;ni, and rreOPt;ni.13 / 'decay, vanish',
'to be pulverized', and 'to disintegrate', and the LXX translates with
e]sterew<qh / 'negated', 'taken away', 'destroyed'.
Could the translation "to destroy" in place of “to salt” illuminate
the meaning of Mark 9:49? The new translation first must be tested in
the immediate context. In the preceding verses Mark records Jesus'
warnings about offending "these little ones" and Jesus' suggestions
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.”14 It would fit this context perfectly to translate
9:49, "everyone [who is sent to hell] will be completely destroyed"
(destroyed by fire).
Undoubtedly 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 constituency, the meaning of the phrase was eventually
forgotten and has remained ambiguous to most, though not all,
interpreters throughout the Christian era.15
9 hwdHh tyrbh (
Jvxrp, tyrpf Nvwll Nvy Nbwlm Myhtfn hwdHh tyrbh (
Trinitarian Bible Society, 1968).
11 Avraham Even-Shoshan, wdAHAh, NOl.miha (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sefer, 1983 [Hebrew])
12 Reuben Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (
sada, 1981) col. 1345.
14 A hyperbole quoted from Isa 66:24, which evidently refers to an inexhaustible
supply of dead bodies upon which worms may feed (and thus not die for lack of food).
15 After this article was completed, H. J. de Jonge (private communication,
FIELDS: SALTED WITH FIRE (MARK ) 303
[Alizw, then, is perhaps another example of the way in which
the Greek lexicon needs to have its glosses expanded at certain points
to take account of the multilingual situation in first century
a situation also much influenced by the LXX. This Septuagintal
influence is already recognized by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and
Danker, who say in the introduction to their lexicon that ''as for the
influence of the LXX, every page of this lexicon shows that it out-
weighs all other influences on our literature.”16
There are a number of references in BAGD to Greek words
whose semantic range was expanded by this multilingual influence.
One of these is the word di<kaioj, used by Matthew in the narrative
about Joseph, who was a di<kaioj man" (Matt ). Much better
sense is made of the passage if one translates "merciful" for di<kaioj in
this context, rather than "righteous," and the translation "merciful" is
suggested by BAGD. This accords well with the range of the Hebrew
word hqdc, which either lies behind the Greek di<kaioj or influenced
it. This is plausible because hqdc has a total semantic range which is
broader than that of di<kaioj--a range which includes usages which
are best glossed in English by the word "merciful."17
There are a number of other words in the Greek lexicon which
have been glossed too narrowly in English. One must not forget that
usage defines meaning, and the meaning of a Greek word in the NT is
what is meant to its writer and first readers. If that meaning was
influenced by the use of Hebrew/Aramaic side by side with Greek,
and by the sometimes rather literalistic rendering of the Hebrew OT
into Greek in the LXX, then the most accurate glosses of Greek in
any bilingual dictionary (such as our Greek-English lexicons) will be
those which take account of these facts. There is yet much progress to
be made in this area, and that progress is perhaps furthered yet a little
more by understanding that in Mark 9:49 a Hebrew idiom was
translated into Greek and is best glossed into English as suggested
exegetes proposed this very interpretation. These interpreters provide independent con-
firmation of the plausibility of the solution to this passage suggested in this article, a
solution which de Jonge calls "plausible indeed." See H. Grotius, Annotationes in
Libros Evangeliorum (
Novum Testamentum Domini
Nostri Jesu Christi (2d ed.;
16 BAGD, xxi.
17 See Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary, cols. 2155-56.
304 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Since Aramaic also has the verb Hlm, if one prefers to posit
Aramaic rather than Hebrew originals for the sources behind the
Greek Synoptics, the interpretation suggested here would probably
still be valid.18 Everyone who is cast into hell will not be salted, but
will be destroyed.19
18 Although Marcus Jastrow (A Dictionary of the Targumim. the Talmud Bibli,
and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic
not suggest a gloss like "destroy" for the Aramaic verb, he does list contexts in
which salt is considered as much an agent of destruction as it is an agent of preserva-
tion. The standard reference books for Aramaic backgrounds do not discuss this pas-
sage (cf. Gustaf Dalman,
The Words of Jesus [
Black, An Aramaic
Approach to the Gospels and Acts [3d ed.;
1967]; and J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament
19"I.e., "punished." This verse does not decide the question recently raised again in
Fudge's book (see n. 4 above) concerning everlasting punishment or annihilation of the
wicked. If ***aAICJ61']CJEtQI is a metaphorical term for the more common NT a]po<llumi it
should probably be understood in the general theological sense of "perish" or "be lost"
(see LSJ, 207).
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