By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The phrase ‘salt of the earth’ has entered common speech (and writing), and many people who use the phrase now may be unaware of its religious origins. Indeed, even those who suspect the phrase originates in biblical scripture may not be familiar with the specific passage in which the expression first appears.
But ‘ye are the salt of the earth’ is found in one of the most famous – and one of the most quotation-laden – passages in all of the New Testament. What is the meaning of this phrase, and what has salt got to do with it all?
‘Salt of the earth’: phrase meaning
As a phrase in extended use, ‘salt of the earth’ carries several meanings. If we turn to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), we find the evolution of the phrase concisely summarised: having defined ‘salt of the earth’ as meaning ‘the excellent of the earth’ (that is, the best people in the world), the OED goes on to note that ‘formerly’ the phrase meant, ‘in trivial use, the powerful, aristocratic, or wealthy’.
So although it no longer carries this meaning, ‘salt of the earth’ was once almost synonymous with the rich, well-heeled, and affluent people in society – if only when used in a ‘trivial’ sense. However, this meaning is somewhat ironic given the origins of the expression in Jesus’ sermon, where he announces that the meek – not the rich and well-to-do – will inherit the earth.
In any case, the OED goes on to note that the phrase is ‘now also applied to a person or persons of great worthiness, reliability, honesty, etc.’
And this is how ‘salt of the earth’ is usually employed today: to refer to a person, or persons, deemed reliable, honest, worthy, and so on.
‘Ye are the salt of the earth’ in the Bible
The phrase ‘ye are the salt of the earth’ appears in one of the most significant passages in the Gospels, in the Gospel of Matthew, during his account of the Sermon on the Mount.
This one moment in the New Testament has to be more responsible for some of the most widely used phrases in the English language than any other passage in scripture: as well as ‘salt of the earth’, we also find ‘light of the world’, ‘God and mammon’, ‘blessed are the meek’, ‘turn the other cheek’, and ‘pearls before swine’, among numerous others.
The Sermon on the Mount is a summary of Jesus’ teachings to his followers which is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. The Sermon on the Mount is widely regarded as representing a number of core aspects of Jesus’ teaching, although whether it was actually delivered as one sermon, or is instead a composite of his teachings delivered at various points, is something biblical scholars have debated for centuries.
The whole of Matthew 5:13 reads as follows (we quote from the King James Version of 1611):
Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
Jesus has just reassured those who follow him (and face persecution for doing so) that they will be repaid many times over in heaven.
He then describes them as ‘the salt of the earth’, with the expression carrying the meaning outlined above: Jesus’ disciples are the worthiest, most honest, and most honourable people in the whole world.
The origins of the idiom ‘salt of the earth’ can be found in the high value of salt in Roman times. Famously, Roman soldiers were paid an allowance which became known as a ‘salary’, a word derived from the Latin for ‘salt’; contrary to popular belief, this didn’t mean they were paid in salt, but that the money they were given could be used to pay for such (rare and highly sought-after) food.
Or, as the OED puts it in its etymological note for ‘salary’: ‘originally money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay’.
But there’s more to this salty expression. Remember, that after he has described his followers as ‘salt of the earth’, Jesus says ‘but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.’
In other words, if the salt loses its flavour, it is cast out as good-for-nothing. His point is that they are good and honest people, and such people are often treated badly by others. But if they follow Jesus all will be all right in heaven.
From this, we might also bear in mind the historical fact that salt was often used as a preservative for meat and fish. Salting these foods kept them from going ‘bad’. So Jesus’ followers are the ‘salt of the earth’ in this sense, too: they keep goodness in the world (‘the earth’), preventing it from growing fully corrupt and beyond salvation.