Salt by Taylor Hollern; Jonathan Schwiebert

“A civilized life is impossible without salt” (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 31.41)

How was salt used in the ancient world?

Salt is an essential nutrient in the human diet. It allows our muscles and cells to function properly. The diet of a person living in the ancient Mediterranean region consisted of vegetables, breads, and occasionally meat. Salt does not naturally occur in these foods in sufficient quantities and was often added as a seasoning to make the food more flavorful. Salt was also used to preserve meat and to tan leather. Because of its versatility as both a condiment and preserver, salt became an important economic commodity from as early as 3,000 BCE. Salt was so important that the Roman army was provided a special salary (salarium) so that their soldiers could purchase salt (sal).

Salt was obtained in several ways (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 31.39). Salty seas and marshes were a common source. Salt water, collected in shallow pans or shallow ponds, evaporated, leaving behind the salt. Certain plants like seaweed and kelp were also common sources. Burning the plants and boiling the ash would leave behind a residue of salt. The Dead Sea in Palestine, also called the Salt Sea, provided a large amount of unrefined sea salt, which contained other minerals that needed to be removed through purification prior to human consumption. There were also salt quarries in the salty mountain on the Sea’s southwestern shore.

How is salt portrayed in the Bible?

There are more than thirty references to salt in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. In the Pentateuch salt is specified for grain offerings (Lev 2:13). The phrase “a covenant of salt” may refer to salt’s preservative ability: like salt, the covenant preserves the priesthood (Num 18:19) and the dynasty of David (2Chr 13:5). Alternatively this phrase could symbolize the communal meal. Elisha heals a spring of unwholesome water with salt (2Kgs 2:19-22). But salt could also render soil infertile (Judg 9:45) and so could symbolize judgment (Deut 29:22-23; Ps 107:33-34; see also Gen 19:25-26).

In the New Testament, salt is mentioned in all three synoptic gospels. Most famously in Matt 5:13, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says to his disciples:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” 

Scholars debate the meaning of the puzzling phrase “salt of the earth.” A common interpretation is that Jesus is telling his disciples how they should act to flavor or preserve the world. The disciples exist for the good of others, not themselves. Otherwise they are useless, like flavorless salt.

The Greek phrase “salt of the earth” could also refer to an earthen oven, in which salt was used as a catalyst to burn fuel. Over time, the salt would no longer create the necessary chemical reaction and would be thrown out. By this reading, the disciples improve the world, not as a condiment, but as a catalyst: mixing fully into the world without being an agent of change would be a fundamental failure. Either way, the cultural importance of salt is key to the meaning of this verse: the disciples are like this precious commodity, which was critical for food preparation, preservation of meat and leather, and cooking.

Taylor Hollern, Jonathan Schwiebert , "Salt", n.p. [cited 17 Aug 2022]. Online:



Taylor Hollern
undergraduate student, Lenoir-Rhyne University

Taylor Hollern is an undergraduate student at Lenoir-Rhyne University double majoring in history and religious studies.


Jonathan Schwiebert
Professor of Religious Studies, Lenoir-Rhyne University

Jonathan Schwiebert is Professor of Religious Studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina. He is the author of Knowledge and the Coming Kingdom (T&T Clark, 2008) and numerous articles exploring New Testament interpretation and early Christian rituals.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

first five books of the Bible

The means of cleansing oneself of any ritual impurity that would prevent participation in religious observance such as sacrifice at the temple.

A message usually delivered orally by a religious leader.

Lev 2:13

13You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.

Num 18:19

19All the holy offerings that the Israelites present to the Lord I have given to you, together with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due; it is a covenan ... View more

2Chr 13:5

5Do you not know that the Lord God of Israel gave the kingship over Israel forever to David and his sons by a covenant of salt?

2Kgs 2:19-22

Elisha Performs Miracles
19Now the people of the city said to Elisha, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is ... View more

Judg 9:45

45Abimelech fought against the city all that day; he took the city, and killed the people that were in it; and he razed the city and sowed it with salt.

Deut 29:22-23

22 The next generation, your children who rise up after you, as well as the foreigner who comes from a distant country, will see the devastation of that land an ... View more

Ps 107:33-34

33 He turns rivers into a desert,
    springs of water into thirsty ground,
34 a fruitful land into a salty waste,
    because of the wickedness of its inhabita ... View more

Gen 19:25-26

25 and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. 26 But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked b ... View more

Matt 5:13

Salt and Light
13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is th ... View more

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