Strange but Rich Verses File: What Does Acts 1:4 Mean by Saying That Jesus Was "Eating Salt with Them"?

"Salt shaker on white background” by Dubravko Sorić SoraZG on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“Salt shaker on white background” by Dubravko Sorić SoraZG on Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There is an unusual verse that occurs in the first chapter of the Acts the Apostles, describing a gathering of Jesus and the Apostles after the resurrection but before the ascension. For the most part, modern translations do not reveal the full oddity of the verse. The verse in question, as rendered by the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition, is,

And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father (Acts 1:4).

However, a number of scripture scholars, including none other than Joseph Ratzinger, point out that the verse is more literally translated as follows:

And while eating salt with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.

We will discuss in a moment the significance of eating salt (basically a reference to the New Covenant), but first there do seem to be some differences about how to understand the Greek.

The most common Greek lexicon, Strong’s, makes no mention of the connection of the word συναλιζόμενος (synalizomenos) to salt. It parses the word as syn (with) + halizo (to throng or accumulate), therefore “to assemble together.”

However another Greek dictionary, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament (Pontifical Biblical Institute), includes a different analysis of the word: syn (with) + halas (salt), therefore “to take salt together,” or by extension, “to share a meal.”

So there seem to be two rather different notions of the root words or etymology involved. It is also interesting that none of the writings of the Greek fathers that I was able to consult make any mention of the possible connection to salt, though St. John Chrysostom does connect the word to a meal rather than a mere gathering.

I know just enough Greek to be dangerous; I certainly cannot sort out why some Greek sources make no mention of salt and seem to parse the word differently. But for our purposes let’s just chalk it up to a difference among experts, much as is the case with another passage on which I have written here: Agapas vs. Phileo.

I would like to explore the view that the verse says that the Lord was “eating salt with them.” How odd to our modern ears, especially in times when the “food police” treat salt almost as a poison! But salt remains very precious today, even if less necessary than it was in the ancient world.

Let’s consider what Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote (as Joseph Ratzinger):

For a correct understanding … the word used by Luke—synalizómenos—is of great significance. Literally translated, it means “eating salt with them.” Luke must have chosen the word quite deliberately. Yet what is it supposed to mean? In the Old Testament the enjoyment of bread and salt, or of salt alone, served to establish lasting covenants (cf Num 18:19; 2 Chrin 13:5). Salt is regarded as a guarantee of durability. It is a remedy against putrefaction, against the corruption that pertains to the nature of death. To eat is always to hold death at bay—it is a way of preserving life. The “eating of salt” by Jesus after the Resurrection, which we therefore encounter as a sign of new and everlasting life, points to the Lord’s new banquet with his followers … it has an inner association with the Last Supper, when the Lord established the New Covenant. So the mysterious cipher of eating salt expresses an inner bond between the [Last Supper] and the risen Lord’s new table fellowship; he gives himself to his followers as food and thus makes them sharers in his life, in life itself … the Lord is drawing the disciples into a New Covenant-fellowship with him … he is giving them a share in the real life, making them truly alive and slating their lives through participation in his Passion, the purifying power of his suffering  (Jesus of Nazareth Vol. 2, pp. 271-272).

So indeed salt and covenants are tied. Here are a few verses that make the connection:

Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring (Numbers 18:19).

Don’t you know that the Lord, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt? (2 Chronicles 13:5)

Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings (Leviticus 2:13).

It makes sense that Luke would refer to Jesus as eating salt with the disciples. To untrained ears it may seem odd, but to ears tuned to the biblical world the reference has great significance. Jesus is affirming the New Covenant and this expression points to that.

Of course it is no mere table fellowship; it is the meal of the New Covenant we have come to call the Mass. Hence without doing disservice to Luke’s description we can say (in our more developed theological language) that during the forty days before He ascended, the Lord celebrated Mass with them. And thus the Emmaus description (Luke 24:30) of Him at the table giving thanks, blessing, breaking, and giving them the bread so that they recognize him therein is not the only allusion to a post-resurrection Mass.

“Eating salt with them” or “staying with them”? You decide. (I vote for salt. 😉 )

15 Replies to “Strange but Rich Verses File: What Does Acts 1:4 Mean by Saying That Jesus Was "Eating Salt with Them"?”

  1. Your explanation of significance of salt in a covenant, and for use on holy offerings begs the question (for me, anyway) of what might be deeper meanings of Jesus calling the disciples *the salt of the earth.*

    1. I also think the eating with salt is a better reading. I look at Lk 14:34, there the salt with the lost saltiness is an introduction to the three that are lost: the sheep, the coin and the son. The Pharisees and the scribes become the ones in whom should have been with salt (have salt in your selves Mk9). Sheep, coins and sons can be lost and found. Being without the “salt of the covenant”, men cast them out and are not found. Of course, even the lost salts can be found. That is why “What man … looks for one sheep, what woman looks for one coin and a “certain” man waits for his son. Thank God for Jesus.

  2. That’s interesting. Perhaps this is why salt is given to infants baptized in the extraordinary form, since it is their entrance into the new covenant(dying with Christ, and rising to new life, etc.).

  3. I would not have understood without the additional verses that you provided. I think “salt.” However, if it was a truly significant event or practice, exclusive of those we have institutionalized, I would think that the Apostolic Fathers would have passed it down to us as a tradition to be continued…why would it not be passed down? Well, as Pope Emeritus Benedict suggests, perhaps it is not for us in this life, but for the next life – eternal life.

    The next teaching does not seem to address the matter above, but to point to our constant need for God’s help…His grace [a teaching challenged by the heresy of Pelagianism.]

    “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is good for nothing any more but to be cast out, and to be trodden on by men.” [Matt 5:13, Douay-Rheims Holy Bible]

    1. I think I point this out in the article that the Fathers do not mention it. Perhaps you should write Benedict? I present this as an interesting theory I am not going to debate it per se. Like any theory it has faults. take it or leave it.

      1. I was not being critical; I was also arriving at your conclusion. I was enjoying participating with you in theological conversation.

      2. it is good to welcome theological speculation (on matters open to speculation) even when it differs from the speculation of a doctor of theology. For is not theology, “Faith seeking understanding”?

  4. ….I can see how salt defines the meal as a covenantal meal as well, in the present life…but why wouldn’t we already practice the tradition now? I think that could be the crux of the matter…

  5. Ok but quick question. In the Mass the wafer that becomes the bread of life is wheat alone right? No salt , is that correct? If so salt is symbolic of preservation but not literally included.

  6. Monsignor,

    I obtained the following Commentary in “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs” Second Edition (1972), edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz for the passage in Leviticus 2:13.

    13. salt, Was to be used with every cereal offering: leaven and honey with none. Salt prevents putrefaction, while leaven and honey produce it. Salt is a preservative, and typifies that which is abiding; cf. ‘an everlasting covenant of salt’ (Num xviii, 19). Among most ancient peoples it was a sign of friendship ‘to eat salt together’.
    with all thine offerings. Also with animal and bird offerings. And as, according to the Rabbis, a man’s table has the sacredness of the Altar, this law led to the custom of dipping bread in salt for the Grace before meals.

    My vote is for ‘eating salt with them’ since, as noted above, salt was a sign of friendship and a covenant.

  7. I think the salt is not included or mentioned by the Early Church Fathers for the same reason they didn’t write down the descriptions and instructions for crucifixion: it was practiced so widely there was no need to explain it.

    Your article reminded me of my time with the Society for Creative Anachronism, the medieval historical recreation society. At events, especially royal ones, during the feasts there would be small casks of salt at the tables. You would take a pinch from the common cask to salt your food, rather than use a salt shaker. Salt was too expensive to just shake it out; and by providing the casks of salt the hosts showed they were both wealthy and generous.

    In addition, before every meal, each person would tear off (break) a piece of bread, dip it in the salt, and eat it. Sharing bread and salt, especially among nomadic peoples, was a sacred act and guaranteed everyone’s safety: any arguments between guests would be set aside during the meal and blood would not be spilled

  8. In addition, perhaps to the native Greek speakers of the time, it was recognized as a word with multiple related meanings, rather like the American “Thanksgiving”. As I understand it, people in the East pronounce the name of the holiday as “THANKSgiving”; while those of us in the Midwest pronounce it “thanksGIVING”. A difference in emphasis that alters the perception of the word, but not its meaning.

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