A look at the important religious word saved from a historical literary perspective.
Saved in the English contemporary language has many nuances and evokes powerful emotions. In Evangelical circles, this word is the basis for religious conversion. It is a required action to get into heaven while others see it as an archaic and outdated term that religious people fervently force on contemporary society. Many more have taken religion right out of the definition and use it for referring to the saving of data.
The traditional Protestant English mind immediately connects the word saved with this passage as momentary but necessary ritualized confession. However, it does not take into account that centuries of English Bible literary tradition has shaped our thinking. It may not exist with the same understanding in earlier times or different Church traditions.
This article looks into this question that delves into a number of ancient languages and texts. The reader does not need to know these languages to follow. The evidence in the original languages is to demonstrate the source work was done. A necessary step missing in many discussions on Christian doctrine.
The approach utilizes comparative historical literature to find how the doctrine progressed through the centuries. It traverses through Greek, Latin, Syriac, and earlier English texts to find answers.
What exactly is the question pursued? It is to find what the Greek verb for saved, σῴζω, sōzō, meant to the ancient writers. Once that is discovered, we can apply the meaning for today.
This article is introductory. It is restricted to four Bible passages and cannot entirely speak for the religious meaning of the word saved. Even with such a small sampling, the results demonstrate that the ancient writers understood this word more comprehensively than the current definition.
There are many accounts of the word saved throughout the New Testament. In this case, I have restricted the word saved as it relates to when Jesus often said, “Your faith has made you well.”
Here is the actual idiom in Greek: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε.
The word saved does not seem apparent here, but it exists in the original Greek. The Greek, σέσωκέν, sesōken, can mean saved or made well. This difference between selecting made well and saved by the various English translators demonstrate that the meaning has a much wider semantic range than most contemporary Evangelicals appreciate.
In fact, sōzō is a core religious word for the Evangelical religious system. The Evangelical definition makes the study even more interesting.
The phrase “Your faith has made you well” is an idiom found in a number of places:
- Mark 5:34, Matthew 9:22 and Luke 8:48 which recounts the story of a woman suffering years of persistent blood loss
- Luke 18:42 is about Jesus healing a man of blindness
- Luke 17:19 narrates His healing a man with leprosy
- Luke 7:50 tells about Jesus who absolved a woman of her sins and thus freed her mind from shame.
The phrase, ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε is unchanged in every place mentioned. The English translations vary and prompts one to understand how saved fits within this context.
Since all these passages above have a similar connection, I randomly chose two to look at for doing a comparative historical literary analysis. Here is a sampling of the critical English translations and the Greek, Latin, and Syriac source works of Mark 5:34 and Luke 7:50.
- The 14th century Wycliffe version, “thi feith hath maad thee saaf”1
- Tyndale Bible: “thy fayth hath made the whoale.”2
- The 1611 King James: “thy faith hath made thee whole”3
- The New King James Version and the New American Standard: “Your faith has made you well.”
- Douay-Rheims (English translation for a Catholic audience): “thy faith hath made thee whole.”
- New International Version: “your faith has healed you”
- The Greek: ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε4
- Latin: “fides tua te salvam fecit”5
- and the Syriac:* ܗܰܝܡܳܢܽܘܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ ܐܰܚܝܰܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ
- The Wycliffe version: “Thi feith hath maad thee saaf.”6
- Tyndale Bible: “ Thy faith hath saved thee.”7
- The 1611 King James Version: “Thy faith hath saued thee.”8
- The New King James Version, the New American Standard, and the New International Version: “Your faith has saved you.”
- Douay-Rheims “Thy faith hath made thee safe.”
- The Greek: Ἡ πίστις σου σέσωκέν σε9
- Latin: “fides tua te salvam fecit”10
- and the Syriac:* ܗܰܝܡܳܢܽܘܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ ܐܰܚܝܰܬ݂ܶܟ݂ܝ
The statements are almost identical in both the Mark and Lukan passages. The circumstances prompting this phrase are different.
The first result of this investigation reveals that the idea of saved was not present in the 14th century Wycliffe version, which is the oldest English Bible. This Bible concentrated on the word saaf instead, which means the person is safe and secure from any spiritual or physical harm.
The Tyndale Bible printed in 1525 is the earliest that the actual word saved can be found in Luke 7:50. The Tyndale version used whoale (whole) for Mark 5:34. The Geneva Bible in 1587 and the King James in 1611 followed the tradition set by Tyndale while the Bishop’s Bible in 1568 used saved for both. Tyndale’s Bible is the standard by which all English Bibles have followed. The use of well for Mark 5:34 and saved for Luke 7:50 became entrenched. English Bibles have maintained this tradition since then.
It is funny how both the Mark and Luke passages are the same in Greek, but English translation tradition brings them on separate paths.
What did earlier works have?
The Greek keyword for saved in Luke 7:50 and Mark 5:34 is σέσωκέν, which comes from σῴζω, sōzō is described by the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament as:
- to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction
- to save a suffering one (from perishing), i.e. one suffering from disease, to make well, heal, restore to health
- to save in the technical biblical sense
- to deliver from the penalties of the Messianic judgment
- to save from the evils which obstruct the reception of the Messianic deliverance.11
The definition above demonstrates that sōzō has a wide semantic range. It is not simply for the world to come, but also has a present meaning.
The Latin gives a slightly different read with the keyword. The Latin word is salvam, which is the accusative of salvus. It is not a verb, as it is in the Greek text, but rather a noun, which emphasizes a state rather than an action. The emphasis is on the external and internal condition of the person, not an act seized upon them.
Salvus, doesn’t necessarily mean saved in this context either. The meaning of salvus extends its meaning to be well, unhurt, safe, sound, or uninjured.12 So the verse can contain three combinations of meanings: the person is saved in the religious, metaphysical sense only, made well physically or emotionally, or a combination of the two. It is hard to distinguish.
There is a tension here where the Greek and Latin texts are colliding on a crucial word. The reader may invariably think the oldest version, which is the Greek, would be the most accurate. Such an assumption is correct, but modern perceptions of how the Greeks used or understood this word may be a problem that clouds judgment. A third party must be consulted to find out where the truth is.
This is where the Syriac text comes in and gives a compelling clue.
It is found in the Syriac version of Luke 7:50. How they translated the Greek for saved, σέσωκέν, is the critical factor. They used ܐܰܚܝܰܬܼܶܟܼܝ܂ with the feminine pronoun singular attached at the end, which is pronounced ‘aḥyaṯeḵ(y). Its root is from the word chai, which in the ancient Hebrew vernacular, is full of religious symbolism.13
Chai means life. Although the Syriac Dictionaries gives the translator the option to use the English word saved when encountering this verb, it also suggests “given to life” or “restored to life”.14
This is the same root used in Genesis 2:7 “and the man became a living being,” The living part here is where the chai noun appears — an authoritative statement on the meaning and definition of man. It is the life-giving force that distinguishes between living and non-living things.
Life, according to the ancient Hebrews, is unending and cannot be eradicated. Death is considered the most powerful weakening of the life-force but cannot destroy life entirely. Illness, poverty, and environment also deprecate the ability of life to work at its fullest.
If one can extrapolate further on this subject, Jesus did not come to destroy death, but to bring life, and offer everyone its fullest capacity without hindrance. A disposition evidenced when the Apostle John quoted Christ saying, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10 NKJV)
When the woman was healed, the Syriac says that her life-force was restored to a full state. She didn’t have to worry about her physical malady anymore; it didn’t dominate her life, finances, or relationships. She learned what it meant to be alive and complete on every level.
When Christ spoke to the sinful woman in Mark 5:34, the stress was on the woman’s mental state. She was not mentally, emotionally or socially at peace and needed a cathartic episode to be whole. Unable to do it herself, Christ afforded her the opportunity.
Wherever Jesus spoke about faith making you well, He then added, “go in peace”. The word for peace in the Syriac is shalom. If one uses a Hebrew dictionary to look up this word, and in this instance, Marcus Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary, the root of this term means to be whole, complete, perfection, soundness, health, peace. It is a synonym with the word saved. These women had no more crushing worries. They were content — free from the forces of life and circumstances that controlled their thoughts and bodies.
The Syriac agrees with the Latin, the emphasis is not merely an action, or a prepared emotional or mental state for the world to come, it is about improvement of the overall person’s mental, physical and spiritual condition to what it ought to be, both now and in the hereafter.
The idiom refers to the practice and authority that Jesus and few others can ever achieve, but there is an application for the followers of Jesus. It means that whatever a person is lacking, Christians are to meet that particular need in an individual’s life.
If a person has a physical disability, we are to pray for a miracle. If this does not occur, we are to support people through the potential economic deprivations caused by their limitations so that they can lead a whole life.
If a person has an emotional disability, symbolized by the sinful woman, what path will lead her to a whole state? We are to provide an environment of encouragement and acceptance. In some cases, it may require financial or social assistance. Preaching the Gospel or implying repentance on someone who already feels shame increases the emotional turmoil. It may be counter-productive. They need to feel love for who they are as-is. The sense of unconditional love from others is one of the gateways for many to enter into a state of peace.
On the other hand, if God has blessed a person with perfect health and all abundance and lacked a place in eternity, we are to assist that one in becoming complete.
If someone is terminally ill and in need of spiritual direction for eternal life, bringing foodstuffs, gifts, hugs or encouragement, will not entirely satisfy his or her soul. It would be a travesty to deny a person information on how to get to heaven in such a situation.
However, one must realize that we are not God, nor have the immediate powers of Christ to call people out of wheelchairs, restore blindness, or reverse genetic problems. Being whole often requires the ability to accept the limitations imposed on us or others and necessitates to adapt to the circumstances.
We also have to be whole ourselves, content with our own identity, at peace with any physical limitations, emotional histories or difficult realities before one can encourage others to be complete.
This is a much more complicated definition to fulfill than just evangelism. It involves intensely and intentionally loving people in the little things and the big ones too. It requires a commitment to others everyday lives and self-sacrifice for their betterment.
References to the Syriac text can be found at http://dukhrana.com/peshitta/index.php
- Vulgate http://www.latinvulgate.com/verse.aspx?t=1&b=3&c=7
- Originally taken from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. http://www.bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Lexicon.show/ID/g4982/page/3 I have slightly modified the original version
- Payne-Smith Lexicon, and Jennings Lexicon as found at http://dukhrana.com/peshitta/index.php
- William Jenning’s Lexicon to the Syriac New Testament. Pg. 74 as found at http://dukhrana.com/peshitta/index.php