Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun αλς (hals) means salt and for a lengthy look at the function of salt in the Bible, please see our article on the word מלח (melah), which is the Hebrew equivalent. But long story short: salt was not the proverbial taste-maker but the proverbial extractor.
The primary function of salt was not to make food tastier but rather to extract moisture and contaminants so that it preserved longer. Salt is an essential nutrient and plays a crucial part in the functioning of muscles and nerves, and helps to regulate the body's fluid balance and excrete wastes. Salt also cleans wounds and works as a disinfectant that over the eons has saved many lives.
Salt was a preservative and sanitizer and such a godsend that it became a strong proverbial element of speech: Having "salt between" you and your friend not only meant that you consumed salty dishes together but also that your relationship had no contaminants and was expected to last long; hence the "everlasting covenant of salt" as mentioned in Numbers 18:19, 2 Chronicles 13:5 and Ezekiel 43:24. "Rubbing a child in salt", as described in Ezekiel 16:4 is of course not literal but speaks of cleaning and decontaminating (and bonding perpetually) with one's offspring.
Our noun αλς (hals) stems from the Proto-Indo-European root sal-, meaning salt (hence words like halogen, salad, salary, salt, sauce and sausage). When our word αλς (hals) is masculine or neutral it describes salt in its various forms, whereas when the same word is feminine it describes the sea (see below). Some scholars insist that these two faces of our noun are really two whole separate words with different etymological heritage, but even if this is theoretically true, it was probably not very relevant to native speakers of Koine Greek, and subsequently also not so much for students of the New Testament.
What is relevant, however, is that the transition between genders has a huge function in the Bible, even to the point that it becomes its own character. Both Jacob and Jesus started out as males but their "bodies" became female (Israel and the Body of Christ, respectively). When we reverse the genders of the riddle of Samson (Judges 14:8), which speaks of the feminine bee (דברה, deborah) in a masculine lion (ארי, ary), we get the masculine word (דבר, dabar) in the feminine manger אריה ('urya), which sounds a lot like Christmas (Luke 2:7).
Note the curious fact that the otherwise notorious Sea of Salt is not mentioned in the New Testament. Our masculine noun αλς (hals), meaning salt, occurs only once, in Mark 9:49, but it comes with the following derivations:
- The noun αλας (alas), also meaning salt. It probably is the same word as the noun αλς (hals), meaning salt, but with a fancy α inserted for obscure reasons. This expanded version is used 8 times in four verses; see full concordance.
- The verb αλιζω (halizo), meaning to salt — not to make tasty, but to purify and perpetuate in whichever way; either with or without actual salt. Or as it says in Mark 9:49: Everyone shall be salted/purified with fire.
Salt extracts water and contaminants and in effect salt was used to concentrate nutrients. An identical verb αλιζω (halizo) means to bring or gather together (of fragments, soldiers, and so on). When Jesus called his people the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13), he didn't call them a tasty bunch but a bunch that is able to sanitize, and concentrate the things that matter and bleed off the nonsense that doesn't. Jesus promised streams of living water flowing from within (John 7:38), and although that's been explained in all sorts of flowery ways, it simply describes the act of urination: the removal of wastes and excess water.
Our verb is used in Matthew 5:13 and Mark 9:49 only, and from it in turn derives:
- The adjective αλυκος (halukos), literally meaning sea-like: salt (James 3:12 only).
- Together with the particle of negation α (a), meaning without: the adjective αναλος (analos), meaning un-sea-like, without saltiness (Mark 9:50 only).
- Together with the preposition παρα (para), meaning near or nearby: the adjective παραλιος (paralios), meaning near the sea. This adjective is often used substantively, in which case it denotes the cost or shore (Luke 6:17 only). A shortened form of this word, namely παραλος served as the name of one of the sons of Poseidon, who in turn yielded his name to a famous and oft-mentioned Athenian ship, the Paralus. The crew of this ship consisted of only free citizens, and they were all strongly united in their vehement pro-democratic and anti-tyranny and -oligarchy stance, which in that time (BC) were still competing models. At that time the proverbial Virgin was Pallas Athena (see our article on Mary), whose tyrannical government had made way for the great democratic experiment starting in 510 BC (quite possibly inspired by the Phoenicians). Essential to that great new thing was the Assembly, which was open to all citizens. The Greek word for Assembly is εκκλεσια (ekklesia), which in the New Testament is routinely (but inappropriately) translated with "church". Our adjective occurs in Luke 6:17 only, and not a soul in Luke's original audience would have missed the pun.
The masculine noun αλς (hals) means salt (see above), and its identical feminine twin αλς (hals) means sea, or the Big Salt. It needs to be noted that although the sea might look like a big wash of water, it's in fact a bone dry desert much more akin a sand desert than a fresh water lake. The ancients were fully aware of the hydrological cycle (Ecclesiastes 1:7, 11:3, Isaiah 55:10-11) and realized that the sea is the planet's sewer (or bladder, if you will) where all the land's dust and dirt collect. They were also quite aware that rain falls on the land and breaks rocks into sand, which creates more dust and dirt to be averted to the seas.
Mariners of both salt and fresh water were known as "salties" not because the water upon which they operated was salt (salties also operated on fresh water lakes) but because they extracted things: fishers extracted fish and maritime merchants extracted goods.
When our word αλς (hals) is masculine it means "extractor" (or salt) and when it's used feminine it means "extracted" (the sea). The feminine version of our noun doesn't occur independently in the New Testament but from it derive the following words that do occurs in the New Testament:
- Together with the verb αισσω (aisso), which also doesn't occur independently in the New Testament, and means to dart or rush (of the swell of a sword, the fluttering of a horse's manes, darting birds, zipping arrows or beams of light, and so on): the noun αιγιαλος (aigialos), which denote the sea coast or beach. How a beach came to be known as a sea-dart is a bit of a mystery, but possibly because that's where the local sewer (the town's river) rushed into the sewage collecting basin (that's the sea). This noun is used 6 times in the New Testament, see full concordance. It was also the former name of Achaea, and the name of a town on the north coast of Anatolia, mentioned in Homer's Iliad.
- The noun αλιευς (alieusfin), literally meaning a salty, but denoting person who extracts things (from either the sea, lakes or rivers): fishermen or maritime merchants. It's noteworthy that Jesus' core disciples were such salties. This word is used 5 times, see full concordance, and from it derives:
- The verb αλιευω (alieuo), meaning to act like salt; to catch and extract (John 21:3 only).
- Together with the preposition εν (en), meaning in, at, on: the adjective εναλιος (enalios), meaning in or of the sea: maritime. This word occurs only once, namely in James 3:7, as a substantive denoting things that exist in the sea.
- The noun θαλασσα (thalassa), meaning sea. It's not clear how this word was formed, or how it relates to our parent noun αλς (hals) or even what the difference between the two are. But the noun θαλασσα (thalassa) occurs about twice as often in literature and the parent noun doesn't even occur in the New Testament. Our noun θαλασσα (thalassa) occurs 92 times, see full concordance and also describes the fresh water Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18), which indicates that our word does not refer to the taste of salt but rather to the function of it: to collect and purify. This also explains why the new earth won't have any sea (Revelation 21:1): there will be nothing to purify. From this noun in turn derive:
- Together with the adverb δις (dis) means twice: the adjective διθαλασσος (dithalassos), denoting the confluence or meeting point of two seas. In the classics this word described several confluences, but in the New Testament this word occurs only in Acts 27:41, where it surely describes the notorious currents in the Gulf of Syrtis (Acts 27:17, modern Sirte, north of Libya). Dio Chrysostom used this exact word to describe the treacherous waters of the Gulf of Syrtis (Or.5.9).
- Again together with the preposition παρα (para), meaning near or nearby: the adjective παραθαλασσιος (parathalassios), meaning near the sea, by the seaside (Matthew 4:13 only).