Updated: Feb 27, 2020
This week’s Bible word is the Greek noun soteria. The word – in the variant soterion – appears in the gospel of the feast of The Presentation of the Lord (Lk 2:22-40), where it is translated (by the Jerusalem Bible) as “salvation”.
The Greek noun soteria has a related verb, sozo, which means “save” or “rescue”. And there is also a noun soter, which refers to a saviour. This soteria group of words is the basis for the English word “soteriology”, which is the branch of theology concerning salvation. As with previous episodes of Bible Words, I will consider these soteria words as a group, since their meanings are closely related – except where it is necessary to focus on one specific word.
In the secular Greek of the ancient world, words in the soteria group had a variety of meanings:
Being saved from serious peril, such as war, or other physical danger, including safe return from travel;·
Being sustained, including keeping a fire alive, or wine in good condition;
The most common use of soteria in the Greek domestic papyri relates to family members inquiring about another person’s health.
Most concerns were secular rather than spiritual, but the gods sometimes played a role: Soteria was the name of the Greek goddess of safety and preservation from harm, and Zeus and Dionysus were on occasion titled Soter. However, humans such as physicians, philosophers and especially statesmen could also be described as soter. Under the Middle Eastern Ptolemies and Seleucids, soter was one of the official royal titles. In the cult of Roman emperors, soter could be used in a more general sense of “benefactor”. The stone inscription at Priene (which I described in more detail in last week’s article about the word euaggelion), hails Augustus Caesar as soter, who has “put an end to war”.
In the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, words in the soteria group are widely used, especially the verb sozo, which accounts for over half of the more than 500 occurrences. Sozo in the LXX translates a variety of Hebrew words, but the most common is the verb yasha. The root of this Hebrew word means to be open or spacious, and thus yasha signifies freedom from what binds or restricts, and therefore deliverance. It also provides the basis for the name Yeshua, which is the source for the name "Jesus". We’ll look later at how the evangelist Matthew picks up on this sense of Jesus’ name.
Many occurrences of soteria words in the LXX follow secular Greek use, regarding human protection and safety:
Jacob hopes to journey to his father’s home in soteria (Gen 28:21).
David thanks God for being his salvation (soteria) and saving him (sozo) from violence and his enemies (2 Sam 22:3-4). Israel was threatened throughout its history by hostile nations, so it is not surprising that its salvation is often seen as protection from physical harm. Such concerns are also reflected, as we will see later, in parts of the New Testament, especially those that consciously evoke the Old Testament context.
In the Psalms, God saves against legal attacks, injustice, violence, sickness and imprisonment.
Soteria can even describe security of mind, as in Proverbs 11:14, where there is soteria in an abundance of counsellors.
The pre-eminent instance of soteria in the LXX is the Exodus from Egypt. Moses promises that Israel will see the soteria of the Lord before God acts to save them in the Red Sea (Ex 14:13); the Song of Moses hails the soteria of the Lord (Ex 15:2); and Moses had the people offer sacrifices of soterion to the Lord (Ex 24:5).
But the LXX is not without a sense of salvation as spiritual deliverance: Psalm 51 asks God to give the joy of His soterion to the one acknowledging his sin (Ps 51:14); and Isaiah 45:17 declares that the Lord saves Israel (sozo) with an everlasting salvation (soteria), which appears not to be confined simply to human concerns.
Whatever the nature of salvation, the LXX is unambiguous in its understanding that God is its sole source (Ps 62:1). Looking for soteria from man is in vain (Ps 60:13); neither idols nor astrologers can provide soteria (Isa 45:20, 47:13-14). In 1 Samuel 10:19, for Israel to seek a king is to reject God, Who alone is Soter.
The New Testament has a wide range of senses for soteria words, reflecting a holistic concept of salvation:
Some meanings mirror the secular Greek and LXX concern with physical deliverance - Physical safety is the objective in Paul’s escape from shipwreck in Acts 27:20-44. This story contains the noun soteria, the verb sozo and even 4 of the 8 New Testament occurrences of a variant of the verb, diasozo. - Protection from enemies is foremost in passages that reflect either explicitly, or in their style, the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Zechariah’s prayer in Luke 1:69, 71, 77, and also Acts 7:25.
But the New Testament gives even greater emphasis to physical soteria as a sign of spiritual deliverance – for example in the healing miracles of Jesus, which bring soteria not only from sickness and disability, but are also a sign of the inbreaking of the kingdom of God, and of Jesus as Soter. Faith is the means by which individuals can gain access to this soteria: on 4 occasions in Luke’s gospel (Lk 7:50, 8:48, 17:19 and 18:42), Jesus says “your faith has saved you”, and in Acts 14:9, Paul heals a man at Lystra because he sees that the man “had faith to be healed”. In all these cases, the verb is sozo, whether the restoration is physical, spiritual, or both.
Spiritual soteria is most consistently emphasised in the Apostle Paul, who accounts for ⅓ of the 183 occurrences of all soteria words, including ½ of the uses of Soter. Paul gives the fullest expression of the idea of salvation from sin, and its consequence, death, through the grace and saving power of Jesus Christ. To take just one of many examples: in Romans 5:9-10, Paul explains that we will be saved (sōthēsometha) through Christ’s blood and His life (in other words, His death and resurrection). Paul prefers to use other Greek words (such as rhuomai) to refer to rescue from physical perils, retaining soteria words more for their spiritual sense. Elsewhere in the New Testament, such spiritual salvation is expressed as saving one’s life, in Matthew’s gospel (for example, Mt 16:25), and in Luke’s gospel, as saving the lost, for example Lk 19:9-10, and especially the whole of Luke 15 (even though soteria words are never mentioned explicitly in that chapter).
Like the LXX, the New Testament is uncompromising in its insistence that soteria comes solely from the action of God. It is always a work done by God, for the benefit of man. What is new, is the personification of soteria in Jesus Christ. - In the story of the Presentation of Jesus, in Luke chapter 2, Simeon identifies Jesus as the Lord’s soterion, translated as “salvation” (Lk 2:30). This latter form of the word is relatively rare in the New Testament, occurring only 5 times. Its use here in Luke may be a deliberate echo of the more frequent LXX use of soterion, for example in Ps 119:166, 174. - Matthew makes reference to the Hebrew root yasha, which means “save”, and which is the basis of Jesus’s name (in Hebrew Yeshua), when in Matthew 1:21, the angel tells Joseph that Jesus’s name refers to His role in "sav[ing] (sosei) the people from their sins". - Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners (1 Tim 1:15); soteria is obtained “in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:10); in Hebrews 2:10 Christ is the archegos (first leader) of soteria, and in Hebrews 5:9 its aitios (cause or source); in Acts 4:12, there is no other name by which we can be saved (sōthēnai). - The title Soter is more common in the later New Testament: Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy and 2 Peter account for 15 of the 24 occurrences of the word. Soter is used equally to refer to God and to Jesus, and in some cases (such as Titus 1:3-4) to both. The use of soter to refer to Jesus stands in opposition to the secular attribution of the word soter to a Roman emperor. The identity of Jesus as Soter became the basis of one of the secret symbols of the early Church: the fish symbol. The Greek word for fish is icthys, and the symbol was explained by Augustine as representing an acronym of the Greek phrase Iesos Christos Theou Yios, Soter – "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour".
The New Testament also strengthens another idea that is already present in the LXX, of soteria being extended to the Gentiles, not just Israel. In John 4:42, the Samaritans recognise that Jesus is Soter for the whole world, reinforcing Jesus’s own statement (John 3:17) that He had come that the world might be saved (sozo) through Him.
Although soteria may be offered to all, it can either be accepted or neglected, as Hebrews 2:3 makes clear. Therefore the Apostle Paul advises us to “work out our salvation (soteria) with fear and trembling” in Philippians 2:12, and describes how he and we can help others to be saved, in 1 Corinthians 7:16 and 9:22.
One final point: salvation has past, present and future dimensions.
He can also talk of “those being saved” (sōzomenois) as an action in the present, in 1 Cor 1:18 and 2 Cor 2:15. The same Greek word is also used of those the Lord “kept adding… to their number” in Acts 2:47.·
But salvation is also something in the future, that will reach its fulfilment only when we are “saved into the heavenly kingdom”, as Paul hopes in 2 Tim 4:18. The first letter of Peter chapter 1 speaks of a soteria that is “ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Pet 1:5, 9).
So, what does all of this mean for us?
Well, if salvation has a past, a present and a future, we should respond by knowing, believing and hoping:
First, we need to know: that salvation has already been offered to us, through the saving action of Christ Knowing and understanding the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, as an event that changed human history, is a fundamental first step to being able to benefit from His sacrifice. We cannot accept what we do not know or understand.
Second, we must believe: that the gift of salvation is something for us to accept, to celebrate, and to change our lives now The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Catechism, 15) tells us that “God’s salvation, accomplished once and for all through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit, is made present in the sacred actions of the Church's liturgy…, especially in the seven sacraments”. So we can not only accept the grace of salvation as a matter of will, but also live it through the Church’s liturgy, including by continuing to repent through the sacrament of reconciliation.
Finally, we must wait in hope: for the future return of the Lord, and the fulfilment of our salvation At every Mass, the embolism prayer after the Lord’s Prayer asks God to grant us peace and safety from all distress as “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Roman Missal, p699). This prayer is itself a quotation from Titus 2:13, which had reminded us 2 verses earlier (Titus 2:11) that "the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation (soterion)". So what better way to pray in hope for the fulfiment of our salvation, than each time we are at Mass?