The primary meaning of the Hebrew and Greek words translated “salvation” is nonreligious. Thus, the derivatives of the Hebrew root yšʿ are used frequently in military contexts, as of victories by Gideon (Judg. 8.22), Samson (Judg. 15.18), Jonathan (1 Sam. 14.45), and David (1 Sam. 23.5; 2 Sam. 19.3); of projected defeats of Aram (2 Kings 13.17) and of the enemies of Gibeon (Josh 10.6); and of victory in general. In fact, recent translations often translate nominal derivatives of yšʿ with “victory.” An analogous sense is found in Deuteronomy 22.27: a woman who has been raped “in the field” is not guilty, because there would have been no “rescuer” (Hebr. môšîaʿ) to hear her cry for help. And, in poetry, synonyms used in poetic parallelism for yšʿ often mean “to rescue, to deliver, to help escape, to protect.”
This sense of victory or rescue from danger, defeat, or distress is also primary when God is the agent. Thus, in the clearly military metaphors of Psalm 91, the conclusion sums up the divine promise of protection as follows: “I will satisfy him with length of days, and show him my victory (yešûʿātî)”; the NRSV is inconsistent both here and in other places where God is the source of the victory, often using the theologically weighty word “salvation.” In fact, when God is the source of “salvation” in the Hebrew Bible the meaning is overwhelmingly physical rather than spiritual, and in this life rather than in some afterlife (Exod. 14.30; 2 Sam. 8.6; Pss. 44.3; 144.10; Isa. 59.16; Zeph. 3.17). It is difficult to stress this too much, since Christian readers of the Bible especially have understandably read back into the Hebrew Bible the spiritual and eschatological nuances of the concept of salvation found in the New Testament. Despite the fact that in a great majority of the occurrences of the root yšʿ in the Hebrew Bible God is the agent of “salvation,” it rarely if ever has an unambiguously spiritual nuance. An eschatological sense is of course present in such passages as Ezekiel 34.22 and throughout Second Isaiah, but the “salvation” prophesied is the restoration of Israel in its land, not some otherworldly bliss. Even in the New Testament salvation can be physical and this‐worldly. In the healings of both the woman with the hemorrhage (Mark 5.34 par.) and the blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10.52 par.), Jesus proclaims that their faith has “saved” them; most recent translations correctly render the Greek verb sōzō “has made you well”; cf. Mark 3.4; 5.23, 28; 6.56; Luke 17.19; Matt. 27.42 par.). Likewise, sōzō is used by the disciples when they thought they were drowning (Matt. 8.25; cf. 14.30) and (in a compound form) of Paul's escape from shipwreck (Acts 27.44; 28.1).
But the majority of occurrences in the New Testament of the Greek verb sōzō (“to save”) and its derivatives, especially the noun sōtēria (“salvation”) have to do with the ultimate salvation of believers in Christ Jesus. The same phrase used in the stories of healing is also used of forgiveness of sin (Luke 7.48–50; cf. 18.52), and in the account of the paralytic (Matt. 9.2–8 par.) forgiveness of sin is a spiritual kind of healing concomitant with the physical restoration of health. For the one forgiven this spiritual healing is thus “salvation,” in the sense of admission into the kingdom of God understood as both a present and a future reality. The salvation of individuals is the principal focus of the earlier New Testament writings. In Paul this salvation is both present and future; the two are closely linked, in part at least because of Paul's expectation of a prompt Second Coming (Rom. 5.8–11; 8.18–25; 13.11). So Paul can speak of those “who are being saved” (1 Cor. 1.18; 15.2; 2 Cor. 2.15), as well as those who will be “saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5.5), both Jews (Rom. 11.26) and gentiles (1 Thess. 2.16). This same kind of “realized eschatology” is also found in the synoptic Gospels and in Acts, though in both it is a future salvation that dominates (Mark 8.35; 13.13 par.; Acts 15.11; contrast Luke 19.9: “Today salvation has come to this house” and cf. Acts 2.47).
In the gospel of John not only is Jesus identified as “savior,” an interpretation of his name (see below), but the object of salvation is frequently identified as “the world” (Grk. kosmos), the created order now at enmity with God and therefore in need of salvation through Jesus (John 3.16–17; 12.47; cf. Rev. 12.10–12).
A large number of personal names are derived from the Hebrew root yšʿ, including those of Moses' successor Joshua, the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, and probably Elisha, the Moabite king Mesha, and Jesus (a Grk. form of Hebr. yēšûaʿ; see Matt. 1.21; John 4.42; Acts 5.31; Phil. 3.20; Eph. 5.23; Titus 1.4; 2 Pet. 1.1); in all of these names God rather than the person with the name is explicitly or implicitly the agent of salvation. The exclamation transliterated “Hosanna” is also from this root.
Michael D. Coogan