Species of Salt: A Historical Assessment

“If the importance of a food to a society can be measured by the allusions to it in language and literature, then the significance of salt is virtually unrivaled... ‘A grain of salt’ may be a recipe for skepticism. But there can be no doubt about how salt has seasoned history.”

3
1998

…by Jonas E. Alexis and Mischa Popoff

Mischa Popoff grew up on an organic grain farm in Saskatchewan where he earned a B.A. in history. He began a career as a USDA contract-organic inspector. He now lives with his wife and children in Texas where he works as a writer. He is the author of the book Is It Organic? The Inside Story of Who Destroyed the Organic Industry, Turned It into a Socialist Movement and Made Millions in the Process.

Jonas E. Alexis: Salt has been a necessity of life since the beginning of time.[1] It has been used to flavor and preserve food, and it has been a well-known antiseptic. It could be argued that life is almost impossible without it. As Time magazine itself put it way back in 1982,

“If the importance of a food to a society can be measured by the allusions to it in language and literature, then the significance of salt is virtually unrivaled.

“Nearly four pages of the Oxford English Dictionary are taken up by references to salt, more than any other food. ‘A grain of salt’ may be a recipe for skepticism. But there can be no doubt about how salt has seasoned history.”[2]

Salt has indeed seasoned history, for we know that Solnitsata, which is believed to be “the oldest town in Europe,” was “a salt production center. Although the 6-millenium-old town held only 350 people or so, it was apparently very wealthy because it supplied salt to much of what is now the Balkans. The town was functional more than 1,000 years before the beginning of Greek civilization. Remains of Solnitsata have been carbon-dated to 4,700 to 4,200 B.C., but salt production at the site began as early as 5400 B.C., according to archaeologist Vasil Nikolov of Bulgaria’s National Institute of Archaeology.”[3]

Yet is there something more here than meets the eye and ear? Our dear friend Mischa Popoff has done extensive studies on the historical, scientific, and even religious implications of salt. His brief assessment here is worth reading.

Mischa Popoff: Here’s how it begins…

Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill; but men cast it out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Luke 14:34–35

Before getting into more controversial stuff in my upcoming book, we first need to come to grips with what Jesus meant when he referred to the faithful as salt. Salt is good in so many ways. But, like any substance, or technology, it can also serve evil. And so, to really understand what Jesus is saying, we need to wedge ourselves firmly into the history of science, circa 1650.

Modern farming and warfare both stem from the development of gunpowder. Traditional gunpowder consists of one-part sulfur, one-part charcoal and six-parts saltpeter, making saltpeter the most significant ingredient. It is also the most expensive. The term “saltpeter” is derived from the Latin sal petrae, salt of stone, because it was observed to amass on stone walls in cellars, which resulted in many complaints from English property owners throughout the seventeenth century when forced by the crown to have their basements excavated in search of this elusive substance. Clearly, there had to be a better way to find the key ingredient of gunpowder, which turned out also to be the key fertilizer in farming.

Of course saltpeter is not actually a salt; it’s what we now refer to as nitrogen, or more accurately potassium nitrate, without doubt the most important fertilizer in farming, both in terms of sheer quantity used, as well as in terms of chemistry and biology, providing the basis for the creation of protein.

But, back in early seventeenth-century England, as in Biblical times, any white, crystallized substance that was not sweet tasting was assumed to be a variety or “species” of salt. Besides being the key ingredient in gunpowder, saltpeter was also used for separating metals, cleansing sand for glassmaking, various medicinal-aids, setting dye in textiles, and preserving meat.


The reason we now label saltpeter as nitrogen is that it was also referred to as salt of niter, sal nitre, niter, nitre or natron, in reference to the powdery white substance that was thought to rise from the bottom of Lake Natron in Egypt, the main source of the water for the Nile River which fertilizes fields along its banks when it inundates surrounding farmland on an annual basis. This substance was since time immemorial believed, erroneously, to be saltpeter.[4]

It turns out this substance consists mainly of sodium carbonate, which has no fertilizing properties, and no explosive character whatsoever.[5] Works great for making mummies though! In any case, the name taken from Lake Natron stuck, and the term niter provides us, by a misnomer, the etymological root of the modern term nitrogen. It is now usually in the form of ammonium nitrate when used for fertilizer in farming, which also happens to be its most common form when used as an explosive. And it is far more powerful than potassium nitrate, AKA saltpeter.

Nitre is mentioned twice in the Bible but is recognized to be in reference to a form of cleansing agent, not an explosive or fertilizer. “For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD.” (Jeremiah 2:22.) A noteworthy seventeenth-century natural philosopher, Robert Boyle, who we will encounter many times in our story, “found that ‘Egyptian Nitre’ was a ‘lixivial salt’ quite different from saltpetre… and hence was probably the ‘nitre’ mentioned in the Bible which was not saltpetre.”[6]

This important distinction guided him in his research, saving him and his colleagues from heading down many dead-end paths of enquiry as so many before them had. As we’ll see, none other than Napoléon Bonaparte would subsequently fail to make this distinction. But most importantly for our purposes, Jesus did make this distinction, which should come as no surprise. And we have the historical documentation to prove it, in triplicate no less!

Indeed, there we have the words of our Lord Himself, quoted above, stating quite clearly that when this “salt” loses its saltiness, or “savour,” it “is neither fit for the land, nor yet for the dunghill,” which is a clear reference to what came to be referred to as true saltpeter, what we identify as nitrogen, and most definitely NOT salt.

Because, you see, unlike regular table salt, which is so commonly, and unfortunately, accepted by Christians to be what Jesus is referring to, and unlike lixivial “salt” used for cleansing, such as borax from which we get the cleaning detergent by the same name; true saltpeter is indeed fit for the land as fertilizer, and has since time immemorial been used to hasten decomposition in dunghills, which in turn results in more production of saltpeter from dunghills, dung or feces being a primary source for saltpeter.

So, we have to be careful when interpreting Biblical references to salt. In Luke 14 anyway, it’s genuine saltpeter, modern-day nitrogen. Elsewhere, it’s usually common table salt or a cleanser, or perhaps sodium carbonate which when mixed with vinegar becomes effervescent and can act as a cleanser.

It should come as no surprise to any Christian reading this that Jesus was well aware of the most important form of these three types of “salt;” that of fertilizer. Neither of the other two choices could ever be said to account for Jesus’ reference to salt being applied to land or dunghills, never mind the possibility of it originating from dunghills.

If you compare this “salt” passage from Luke to the equivalent passages in Matthew 5:13 and Mark 9:50, you will see that Matthew’s and Mark’s recollections of what Jesus said both lack the crucial reference to the land and the dunghill, thus leading so many Christians throughout the ages (not all, as will be shown) to the unfortunate assumption that Jesus was simply referring to common table salt, which is the opposite of what He meant.

Indeed, we read in Judges 9:45 that “Abimelech fought against the city all that day; and he took the city, and slew the people that was therein, and beat down the city, and sowed it with salt.” As is well understood, and quite unlike his forefathers of the same name, this King Abimelech was prone to extreme violence, murdering no-less than seventy of his brothers to become king of Shechem. (Judges 9:1–6) Indeed, it was common military practice, right up until the modern age, to render an enemy’s land barren for generations by applying salt to it. Hardly the basis for a strong metaphor describing the nature of a Good Christian.

But hang on. Don’t misinterpret salt. It’s still good for seasoning and preserving food. And besides, isn’t it two against one here? Couldn’t Luke be wrong while Matthew and Mark are right? It turns out they’re all a little bit right and a little bit wrong,
Luke being the most right. Here’s why…

One could argue for table salt in the analogy Jesus draws, except for one crucial missing piece: Light. And, sure enough, immediately after he quotes Jesus’ pronouncement on Believers being salt, Matthew immediately adds Jesus’ crucial pronouncement that we’re also light, right there in the next verse: “You are the light of the world,” providing the complete picture of where Christians derive the concept of being salt and light to the world that we see featured on all manner of Christian paraphernalia like bumper stickers and T-shirts.

But, if Matthew and Mark were completely right, salt and light would denote two separate attributes of the true believer: literal, or common salt, and light. If, however, Luke is right, salt and light are one and the same attribute, inseparable: a species of salt in the language of the day: saltpeter, AKA nitrogen, which literally becomes light when ignited! And besides, there is no circumstance at any time in history when regular salt or cleansing “salt” would be used on the land or a dunghill, except in the case of war, which is pure evil (we now use depleted uranium). So, Luke takes it.

Of course, to be fair, Luke for his part in this does not mention light in the same breath the way Matthew does. And so, we require all three interpretations to even begin to piece together what Jesus was saying, bearing in mind that the concept of Believers being the “Light of the World” does appear earlier in Luke, 8:16–18, and also in John 8:12, with John not even mentioning salt! No one should be surprised by any of this, least of all a true Christian Believer.

We know we need all four Gospels – written by men living in the culture of their day, using the language of their day as surely as Jesus did – in order to have any hope of making sense of what the Son of God was conveying when He spoke, which, indeed, is why we have four Gospel writers (and other Biblical writers, as will be shown). God knew this is what was required to document the life and times of Jesus, and convey the message of His Good News.

While none of the Gospel writers perfectly nails what Jesus meant, there is one more crucial factor that must be considered.

Common salt cannot lose its flavor any more than water can lose its moisture. Saltpeter on the other hand, CAN lose its “savour” because nitrogen has solid, liquid or gaseous forms at ambient temperature on the surface of the earth. So, while salt does not evaporate, saltpeter does, leaving the medium it once resided in, i.e. the soil, manure or dunghill, devoid of it. Which is why, incidentally, aged manure at some point is no longer a fertilizer, and becomes nothing more than soil.

Reflect on this for a moment. For 2,000 years or so, millions of readers of the Bible (myself included) simply assumed Jesus was making some sort of loose analogy, asking us, hypothetically, IF salt lost its saltiness how would it become salt again? Which, let’s face it, is more than a tad dumfounding. What He’s actually asking us, literally, is, when saltpeter loses its savor, wherewith shall it be re-flavored? And the answer is it can’t be re-flavored. Once nitrogen evaporates, there is nothing left. Nothing! So it’s a rather serious warning He’s making. Do not lose your saltiness, your saltpeter-ness that is, i.e. your inner light. For you might never regain it.

Then there is this other so-oft misunderstood passage in Luke 22:36 in which Jesus urges any disciple who has no sword to sell his garment and buy one:

Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

Luke 22:36

As will be shown in my upcoming book, this ties in directly to His pronouncement on saltpeter in Matthew, Mark and Luke, commonly referred to, in the case of Matthew’s recollection, as His Sermon on the Mount. It also ties in with the conundrum of why Jesus said He would, like Jonah in the belly of the whale, be in the grave for three days and then rise again, when to most people it seems He was only in the grave for two days.

Summing up thus far, Old Testament references to true or common salt are always synonymous with desolation and waste, punishment, or a result of evil, as in the case of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt in Genesis 19:26 after she gave in to temptation and turned back to view the destruction of Sodom. Relating to that, and worthy of mention, we have also Zephaniah 2:9 warning of becoming like Sodom and Gomorrah, “A place possessed by nettles and salt pits, And a perpetual desolation.” And Deuteronomy 29:23, “All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste.”

The only exception to this is in frequent references to the Salt Sea, which is neither good nor evil; simply a natural observation. But, in the New Testament, we see this first reference to salt AS light. No… not salt and light as is so often misinterpreted; rather, salt that IS light; His light… as will be shown; His Parousia, one might say, the physical embodiment of His Logos.

Also, strangely perhaps for the uninitiated, we will discuss salt as fire: Mark 9:49, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” And this will become increasingly significant as we progress in our literal interpretation of what exactly Jesus was referring to in His sermon on salt and light that completely departs from the Old Testament, as indeed so much of what He said did.

It’s Jesus’ reference to the land and the dunghill, captured by the grace of God by Luke, that forces us to abandon common salt in these passages in the New Testament, and adopt saltpeter into our exegesis.

Biblical scholar Eugene P. Deatrick must be commended for being the first to come close to explaining this back in 1962.[7] His work was recently followed-up by Don Garlington,[8] Anthony B. Bradley[9] and  Jim Virkler[10] who also come close. But they all stick with common salt, missing saltpeter altogether. And, as explained above in regards to the evil undertaken by Abimelech, the punishment of Lot’s wife, and the final indignity inflicted by God upon those depraved citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, common salt is the greatest source of catastrophe in the Old Testament.[11]

Of course, these scholars are certainly welcome to continue interpreting the Christ’s words any way they see fit. Indeed, many Christian Evangelicals might already be offended by what’s written here, some perhaps even anticipating where this interpretation might lead.

But Jesus never minced words and seems not to have been concerned in-the-least with how His message would offend those who controlled the Word in His day. Indeed, as we delve into what early English scientists thought of these passages, hand-in-hand with many Old Testament passages that, you will see, only begin to make sense if we insert nitre – saltpeter, you might come to the conclusion that offending those who stand between Believers and God is the whole point of the Bible, especially the New Testament.

And if a handful of Goy living in pre-industrial England could figure this out, perhaps the rest of us can as well. As such, my upcoming book will use only the King James Version so as to more accurately capture what seventeenth-century Bible readers would have read. The reasons will become clear-as-day as we progress, now that you’re familiar with this Divine Species of salt that we now call nitrogen.


  • [1] See Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History (New York: Penguin Books, 2003); “The history of salt production at Droitwich Spa,” BBC, January 21, 2010.
  • [2] “A Brief History of Salt,” Time, March 15, 1982.
  • [3]  Thomas H. Maugh II, “Bulgarians find oldest European town, a salt production center,” LA Times, November 1, 2012.
  • [4] For the misconception that the Nile was a source of saltpeter, see for instance Monsieur de la Chambre, A Discourse About the Causes of the Inundation of the Nile, where he states, “that the Waters of the Nile are Nitrous, explacating the Nature of Salt, and Saltpeter, and imputing the fertility of the Earth, as well as the fecundity of Animals, to Salt.” As quoted in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 1, 1665, p. 251.
  • [5] “As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singeth songs to an heavy heart.” Proverbs 25:20. We’ve all had the experience of mixing common baking soda with vinegar. This is what’s being referred to in this particular passage, not true nitre, saltpeter, AKA nitrogen.
  • [6] Thomas Birch (ed.), The works of the Honourable Robert Boyle : in six volumes. To which is prefixed The life of the author, London : Printed for J. and F. Rivington [etc.], 1772, p. 602.
  • [7] Eugene P. Deatrick, “Salt, Soil, Savior” in The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 25, No. 2 (May, 1962), pp. 41-48.
  • [8] Don Garlington, “The Salt of the Earth in Covenantal Perspective” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 54.4 (December 2011), pp. 715–48.
  • [9] Anthony B. Bradley, “You Are the Manure of the Earth: Jesus’ metaphor about salt was actually about fertilizer” in Christianity Today, September 23, 2016. Like Deatrick, Bradley’s analysis remains based on salt, not saltpeter or nitrogen. He even goes as far as to say that he “discovered that salt was used as a fertilizer in Palestine,” which is simply incorrect.
  • [10] Jim Virkler also comes close in his article, “Salt as Feltilizer” on The John Ankerberg Show website, December 31, 2016, but also misses saltpeter, believing that “salt properly spread on the manure pile preserves the fertilizing properties of manure. Otherwise, the manure would rot or ferment and become useless as fertilizer.” This is also incorrect, as explained in the following footnote in Fensham’s analysis.
  • [11] See F. Charles Fensham, “Salt as Curse in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East,” in The Biblical Archaeologist, 25 (1962), pp. 48–50. Commenting on Judges 9:45, Fensham explains that “salt is regarded as effecting infertility. One of the greatest catastrophes to overtake the Near Eastern man is infertility. This idea is then used as a curse against a person who breaks a covenant, and is extended to his property. The curse is demonstrated by the ritual act of sowing salt.” P. 50.

3 COMMENTS

  1. As a child my mother would mix salt with baking soda/powder, I can’t remember which, and we brushed our teeth with the mixture. When my stainless steel pans become difficult to clean I use Kosher salt as an abrasive against the stain of burnt fat and oils. So, I can imagine Jesus meaning exactly what he said … “salt”.

  2. Thanks! I enjoy reading about B-I-B-L-E and other interpretations of what Jesus was thinking/saying. Of course, this is the author’s opinion of what Jesus was saying/thinking. We’ll never know, will we?

    I like the “by way of background”, intro. If accurate, i.e., Solnitsata and salt production dating back to 5400 BCE . . . well, there’s your “salt of the earth” people right there! With 2,018 added that’s 6,400 years. Sure beats the Hebrew calendar by a millennium. Good to know! Salt of the earth people . . .

    King James Bible
    For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord GOD. Jeremiah 2:22

    The issue is not what was stated about nitre, or not nitre . . . etc . . . the message is . . . drum roll please . . . the stain of “thine iniquity” is marked before me, saith the Lord God, and that stain will not come out with nitre, bleach, scouring powder. The quote in Jeremiah was referencing Judah. That’s the message of the verse.

    The Lord is like LUMINOL. When it comes to folks who want to hide “thine iniquity” and think they can bleach it, salt it, white wash it, scour it away . . . doesn’t work that way.

    • Jesus implying that he knew that some “salts” could explode? Except, his name was Yeshua, and that “knowledge” did not make it far. It took the Chinese to come up with black powder. All this biblical referencing assumes that this information was not put in at a later date. We do know that a LOT of stuff was kept out, and don’t even get me started on the King James version.