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In Acts 16:30, after the earthquake and the loosing of the chains of Paul and Silas, the Philippian jailer asks them (NA28):

κύριοι, τί με δεῖ ποιεῖν ἵνα σωθῶ;
Sirs, what must I do to be saved?

I'm wondering what he meant by “saved.” My understanding is that the jailer was likely a pagan Roman with little exposure to the Christian notion of salvation. Was he referring to something within the framework of Roman mythology? Or is this a reference to “the way of salvation” proclaimed by the demon-possessed girl whose exorcism had landed them in jail?* Or simply a request for rescue from the worldly dangers he faced? Or is there reason to suspect that he had heard the preaching of Paul and Silas and was specifically asking for more information about their message?


*With the duly noted caveat that demons are unreliable and misleading witnesses.

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May I suggest a slightly different approach? Rather than viewing the passage primarily as an historical record and thus exploring the jailor's original meaning behind his original words, I would suggest viewing this first and foremost as part of the story that Luke is telling and thus exploring Luke's usage of the word "saved" in the book of Acts. This methodology will allow you to get at the jailor's original meaning -- though not necessarily his original words -- through (what I would consider) sound interpretive methodology.

By saying this I am not in any way suggesting that the event was un-historical; rather, I am suggesting that the human authors of Scripture wrote intentionally, with specific purposes in mind, and they crafted their writings to these ends. So the author, Luke, used the language which best conveyed his intent to his readers. Luke's story most likely does not exactly reproduce the jailor's original verbiage.

To offer some support for this claim, consider NT "quotations" in Greek of OT passages which were originally in Hebrew. The "quote" is not the exact words used, but it does nevertheless accurately convey the meaning. Similarly, "quotes" from the Septuagint are not always verbatim. We see this also (I think) in the Gospels, where multiple authors record Jesus' words slightly differently. Each author's representation is faithful and accurate to Jesus' meaning, but it is not necessary for it to be a verbatim quote. (The idea that quotes need to be verbatim, in the original language, with [sic's] and all is a very modern standard. Keep in mind, too, that the quotation marks you sometimes see in your English translation were not there in the autographs.)

So in following this methodology, we need to first and foremost ask what is Luke communicating here? When viewed in this light, against the backdrop of his language throughout the book of Acts, it is clear that Luke meant this as a plea for spiritual salvation. It simply cannot mean anything else when approached from this angle.

The jailer wanted to get saved, made an inquiry to this effect, and the answer was no doubt "Jesus". What his exact words were -- or what language they were spoken in -- is irrelevant to the interpretation of this part of Luke's narrative.


Q&A

"My understanding is that the jailor was likely a pagan Roman with little exposure to the Christian notion of salvation." I would imagine he had exposure to the Christian notion of salvation through Paul during his imprisonment.

"Was he referring to something within the framework of Roman mythology?" This is unlikely, given Luke's presentation of the inquiry and Paul & Silas' response.

"Or is this a reference to 'the way of salvation' proclaimed by the demon-possessed girl whose exorcism had landed them in jail?" In a manner of speaking, yes, as Luke presents them each independently as referring to spiritual salvation through Christ, though we cannot be sure that this was the jailor's point of reference.

"Or simply a request for rescue from the worldly dangers he faced?" This is unlikely, given Luke's presentation of the inquiry and Paul & Silas' response.

"Or is there reason to suspect that he had heard the preaching of Paul and Silas and was specifically asking for more information about their message?" This seems to be the most likely scenario. Additional evidence would be that Luke presents Paul as one sent by the Son of God to spread His message in new places, and the story of the jailer is presented as an example of Paul carrying out this work even amidst extreme difficulties.

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    I like this approach, thanks and +1. I appreciate that the demand for verbatim quotes is a modern standard, but I still imagine Luke's original audience hearing the story thinking, "I wonder what the jailor meant by that," even if not concerned about the exact words. Although it's Luke's story, there was a jailor who made some request, and that he "wanted to get saved" in conceptual terms still seems remarkable to me. – Susan Nov 25 '14 at 21:00
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    Long time waggling on the tee -- short swing! ;) What does it mean to be "saved", here, in this verse (or verses - see also 16:31, but do Paul & Silas mean what the jailer means?)? Cf. Ac 11:14; 15:1, 11; 27:20, 31 - all using σώζω. Also cf.2:37, 40. On Jas 3.1's methodological point, cf. Soards, Speeches in Acts, and F.F. Bruce's brace of articles, from 1942 and 1974. On σώζω: Foerster classes 16:30-31 among the "general terms for Xn salvation" (like 4:12) in TDNT vol. 7 p. 997. FWIW. – Dɑvïd Nov 26 '14 at 11:12
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    @Davïd Thanks for the supplemental info. Would you consider either posting a separate answer or editing this info into my answer? (Otherwise your research here may disappear in time, as comments are very temporary on this site.) – Jas 3.1 Nov 26 '14 at 16:20
  • @Davïd Regarding the "short swing", see my edits & let me know if that's better. – Jas 3.1 Nov 26 '14 at 16:34
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There is no need to assume that a Roman prison guard would not have known both the circumstances of the city riot, as well as the conditions for which the new prisoners were in stocks.

You said, My understanding is that the jailer was likely a pagan Roman with little exposure to the Christian notion of salvation. There is no reason to assume this.

Specifically, the passage says,

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.

Acts 16:25

It is sufficient to understand that even if the jailer had not heard about it by other means, he would have had plenty of opportunity to heard the witness of the Gospel through this, or other un-recorded activities. The two may have specifically evangelized both the jailer and the other prisoners without it having been recorded.

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It's important to remember that salvation is not a Christian concept. Nearly all pagan religions (non-Jewish) had some concept of salvation as well. In addition, there is not reason to assume that by "saved" (sozo) he meant eternal salvation, but rather he could have simply meant, "How do I get rescued 'from danger and to restore to a former state of safety and well being?' (Louw/Nida) We see in the next two verses that Paul and Silas used this as a door to enter into sharing the gospel with him and his house.

Whether you take it that he means eternal salvation or simply restoration to the state of one who did not allow the prison to be broken, the next two verses are more important as they tell how Paul and Silas responded. This, to me, seems to be the essential focus of the passage. And, of course, the result that he and his household went out that night and were baptized.

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  • Welcome to BHSE! We're a little different here, please read our site directives before asking and answering questions. Thank you! – Tau Nov 27 '14 at 8:46
  • You did use some references, but you should indicate where you got them. Also, it would help if you could reference your sweeping generality(...all pagan religions had some concept of salvation). I don't disagree, but to some it may not be self-evident. Thank you! – Tau Nov 27 '14 at 8:49
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The jailor would have killed himself had Paul not intervened at the very last moment. After the jailor realized that no one had escaped, he wanted to be saved from the burdens of life that had brought him to that point of self-destruction. He wanted to have what Paul and Silas had, that, notwithstanding their chains, beatings and public humiliation, they were praying and singing hymns in the jail. Their own outward testimony indicated that there was an inner joy that the vicissitudes of life could not disturb.

Acts 16:31-34 (NASB)
31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. 34 And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.

The night the jailor could have killed himself turned out to be the night when "he rejoiced greatly" in the company of his household. How sad that night would have been for that man's family had Paul not cried out to him in that pitch black of darkness. It was the dark crisis of escaped prisoners that had brought that jailor to his knees to seek the salvation preached by Paul and Silas.

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  • Well he may have killed himself, but only because Roman law was that he would have been killed for letting his captives escape. This fact is important for a number of instances, including why it is so unlikely the guards cooperated with a conspiracy for Jesus body, and why the Jewish leaders were able to convince the guards to say Jesus followers stole his body. Matthew 28:14 ESV And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” – Joshua Nov 26 '14 at 12:19
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    @JoshuaBigbee - The jailor did not check the facts (no one had escaped the jail). His impulse was to kill himself without checking the facts - such is the person who is at their wit's end, when fear engulfs, and suicide seems to be the most attractive option of escaping the fear and pain. – Joseph Nov 26 '14 at 17:50
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    Yes but my point is that he wasn't just trying to escape fear and pain, he was preemptively going to kill himself before the Romans did it for him, and probably not as quickly and cleanly as he was going to. Sometimes we don't need to spiritualize things, the harsh reality is enough. They literally saved his life by staying under his care voluntarily. And, much like Jesus often did, once that physical need was taken care of they offered him spiritual salvation. Read the rest of the passage, they are still in jail in the morning, thus saving the guard's life. – Joshua Nov 26 '14 at 17:58
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Consider what the reason for their incarceration was in the first place: healing a well known girl whom for multiple weeks (v.18 "many days") had been stating that these men were "servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation (noun form of sodezo)." Their incarceration was in fact due to preaching the way of salvation or as the masters of the slave girl stated "teach(ing) customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans." It was illegal to push other religions within the Roman empire, especially in a predominantly Roman military colony such as Philippi. These "customs" that they were accused of, I would suggest, are the core of Christianity as we know it, namely salvation.

Thus after Paul and company completely transforming a well known prophetess of Python in town and then causing an earthquake after they were incarcerated and beaten, I'd think the jailer would take seriously what had been accused of these missionaries. Thus it's reasonable that he would ask "what must I do to be saved (sodezo)."

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The answer lies in the reason Paul and Silas went to Philippi in the first place. Earlier in Acts 16 we have this (from the KJV):

  1. Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia,
  2. After they were come to Mysia, they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not.
  3. And they passing by Mysia came down to Troas.
  4. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.
  5. And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them.
  6. Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis;
  7. And from thence to Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Acts+16%3A6-12&version=KJV

The Holy Spirit forbade them to go anywhere but into Macedonia, specifically Philippi, according to the vision, which was interpreted to mean Jesus wanted them to preach the Gospel there, which they did. And of course, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Gospel itself, is the means whereby God saves people, both in this life, and in the life to come (See, e.g. Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, and etc.).

Therefore, it's clear the jailor wanted to be saved according to the Gospel, that very thing for which Paul and Silas were sent there to deliver.

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