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The ESV translation of Matthew 5:13 says

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty?[a] It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

The footnote that corresponds with [a] says, "Or how can the earth be salted?"

The first translation option would imply a focus on the salt (or Jesus' audience). The second translation option would imply a focus on the earth.

The two options for understanding this part of the verse are basically:

  1. How can the earth be salted if you lose your saltiness?
  2. How can you be made salty again if you lose your saltiness?

It seems that at least a few ancient witnesses are operating with the "or how can the earth be salted?" based on the commentaries from Cantena https://catenabible.com/mt/5

Augustine:

But if the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? i.e., If you, by means of whom the nations in a measure are to be preserved [from corruption], through the dread of temporal persecutions shall lose the kingdom of heaven, where will be the men through whom error may be removed from you, since God has chosen you, in order that through you He might remove the error of others?

Chromatius:

And so Jesus says, “But if the salt loses its flavor, with what will it be seasoned?”

I suppose there are two options:

  1. Slightly conflicting/differing early manuscripts
  2. Different ways of translating the same sentence

I'm not knowledgeable in Greek or in the manuscripts available and can't find much more than what I have already found. Any insight as to the best option (for how to read this passage) would be great!

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  • Earth is the source of salt. That is its origin. Its character, is saltiness. And if it loses its character there is no other source from which to fetch its characteristic. Ye are the salt. (The focus is not on earth being salty.) I do not understand why there is a problem of any kind, here. I think the question needs more detail in order to explain what the problem is. 'Of the earth' is a genitive of origin. – Nigel J Jan 6 at 16:17
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Here is a very literal rendering of the Greek from BLB for Matt 5:13. (I was going to translate it but came to the same wording as BLB). It is not difficult Greek to translate. The Greek text is undisputed.

You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt becomes tasteless, with what will it be salted. For nothing is it potent any longer except, having been cast out, to be trampled upon by men.

Essentially, the question revolves around the translation of two words: μωραίνω (mórainó), and, γῆ (gé). Let us take these one at a time.

μωραίνω (mórainó)

BDAG provides two basic meanings for this word of which the second is the relevant one here.

  1. make foolish, show to be foolish, eg, 1 Cor 1;20, Rom 1;22
  2. make tasteless, eg, Matt 5:13, Luke 14:34

γῆ (gé)

BDAG gives six basic meanings of this word plus some sub-meanings within some of these. Thayer is similar. However, they all boil down to either the arable land itself, or the inhabitants that live on the land. The latter is in view here in a metaphoric sense.

That is, Jesus is comparing his followers to "salt" that enhances society generally. He actually reinforces this idea with a second metaphor about light. Thus, Jesus uses two metaphors about Christians enhancing and improving society generally:

  • V13 - You are the salt of the earth [and if you are tasteless then you have not done you job]
  • V14 - You are the light of the world [and if do not shine that light then you have not done your job]

Note that these two metaphor immediately follow the beatitudes of Christian virtues and should not be disconnected from them. Barnes comments on this passage as follows:

Ye are the salt of the earth - Salt renders food pleasant and palatable, and preserves from putrefaction. So Christians, by their lives and instructions, are to keep the world from entire moral corruption. By bringing down the blessing of God in answer to their prayers, and by their influence and example, they save the world from universal vice and crime.

Salt have lost its savour - That is, if it has become tasteless, or has lost its preserving properties. The salt used in this country is a chemical compound - chloride of sodium - and if the saltness were lost, or it were to lose its savor, there would be nothing remaining. It enters into the very nature of the substance. In eastern countries, however, the salt used was impure, or mingled with vegetable or earthy substances, so that it might lose the whole of its saltness, and a considerable quantity of earthy matter remain. This was good for nothing, except that it was used to place in paths, or walks, as we use gravel.

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There are no differences here in the manuscripts available.

Which version of ESV are you quoting? I could not find such a version or footnote, e.g. here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+5%3A13&version=ESV

It is a difficult verse to translate, so one would expect translations to handle it a bit differently. NIV says:

But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?

The word "it" has to refer back to the salt and cannot refer to the earth. The problem is how to understand the metaphor of "salt". In what way are the disciples like salt and what is the function of salt?

The word translated "lose its saltiness" is a word that in all other places means "become foolish" or "lose one's wisdom".

When I translated this verse into my language (Danish) I tried to capture this idea and also had a long footnote. I can give you an English translation of the Danish version here in case you find it helpful:

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its power, what can be used to salt it?

Footnote: In Jewish tradition salt was a symbol of spiritual wisdom and connected to full obedience and surrender to do the will of God. The Greek word here translated by "lose its power", normally means to be without wisdom and wholehearted obedience. If that happens to the disciples, they have lost there spiritual power. In Hebrew there is a word (tapel), which can mean both "lack of wisdom" and "lack of salt, tasteless".

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