Grace Theological Journal 6.2 (1985) 299-304

          Copyright © 1985 by Grace Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.



                    WITH FIRE" (MARK 9:49)


                                     WESTON W. FIELDS


     The meaning of Mark 9:49 ("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 9:49 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 valley of Hinnom outside the southwest

walls of Jerusalem), this strange. mixture of salt and fire has perplexed

Greek scholars for a very long time. :




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 Temple sacrifices. According to the Mishnah,

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

by salt."

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 2: 13 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 (Gateshead:

Judaica, 1983) 43.

4G. C. Montefiore, The Synoptic Gospels, with a series of additional notes by

I. Abrahams (3 vols.; London: Macmillan, 1909) 1.233; A. E. J. Rawlinson, St. Mark

(7th ed.; London: Methuen, 1949) 131; A. B. Bruce, "The Synoptic Gospels" in

The Expositor’s Greek Testament (ed. W. Robertson Nicoll; London: Hodder and

Stoughton, 1897) I. 407; Henry Alford, Alford's Greek Testament (Grand Rapids:

Guardian, reprinted, 1976) I. 380; John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew,

Mark and Luke. vol. I in Calvin's Commentaries (ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F.

Torrance; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted, 1975) 176-77; H. A. W. Meyer,

A Critical and Exegetical Hand-book to the Gospels of Mark and Luke (ed. R. E.

Wallis, W. P. Dickson, and M. B. Riddle; New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1884)

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 (Grand Rapids:

Zondervan, reprinted, 1971) 90-91; William L. Lane, The Gospel According to Mark

(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 (London

and New York: United Bible Societies, 1971) 102-3.

FIELDS: SALTED WITH FIRE (MARK 9:49)                  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

Temple sacrifices salt and fire were found together, has led most

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.




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 9:49 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.; Jerusalem: Dugith, 1973) xxix-xxvI; an.d David BIvin

and Roy B. Blizzard, Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus (ArcadIa, CA: Makor

Foundation, 1983). See also Weston W. Fields ("Understanding the Difficult. Words of

Jesus: A Review Article," GTJ 5 [1984] 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.

8Ibid., 125.

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 (Jerusalem: wdvqh ybtkl tvdHvxmh tvrbHh, 1979).

10 wFlfd Jvxrp, tyrpf Nvwll Nvy Nbwlm  Myhtfn  hwdHh tyrbh (London:

 Trinitarian Bible Society, 1968).

11 Avraham Even-Shoshan, wdAHAh, NOl.miha (Jerusalem: Kiryath Sefer, 1983 [Hebrew])


12 Reuben Alcalay, The Complete Hebrew-English Dictionary (Jerusalem: Mas-

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,

February 9, 1985) kindly pointed out that several centuries ago two well-known Dutch

            FIELDS: SALTED WITH FIRE (MARK 9:49)                              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 Palestine,

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 1:19). 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 (Amsterdam: Cornelium Blaeu, 1641) 568-70; and J. Clericus,

Novum Testamentum Domini Nostri Jesu Christi (2d ed.; Frankfurt: Thomas Fritsch,

1714) 243-44.

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 Literature [Brooklyn: P. Shalom, 1967] 788) does

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 [Edinburgh: Clark, 1902]; Matthew

Black, An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts [3d ed.; Oxford: Clarendon,

1967]; and J. A. Fitzmyer, Essays on the Semitic Background of the New Testament

[London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971]).

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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