The concept savior is here treated first as it is found in non-Biblical contexts, then in the Bible, and finally in theological synthesis.
In Non-Biblical Contexts. The title σωτήρ (savior) was frequently applied to pagan gods who intervened in times of need, such as sickness, shipwreck, or war, to rescue their clients. Asclepius received the title because he was the god of healing; Zeus, because he was a helper in daily necessities; and the gods of the mystery religions, because they freed from death and matter and dispensed life. Later the title was given to various Hellenistic kings, such as Ptolemy I, since the divinized ruler was a symbol of peace and order. In the 1st century b.c. Roman emperors appropriated the title. Augustus became the "world savior" because in his reign men saw the fulfillment of their desire for peace.
In the Bible. In the Septuagint the Greek verb σῳζω (save) translates various Hebrew verbs, such as yš', nṣl, and plṭ, but especially yš' when God's activity is described. The basic meaning of yš' is to be broad or spacious, and the causative form means to take one out of straits. Positively, the notion involves an exercise of strength that gains victory; negatively, it connotes liberation from danger, misfortune, hostile powers, and above all, from death and Sheol. The Greek word σωτήρ always translates some form of yš' (y ešû‘â, yēša’, môšîa’ ). Yahweh is frequently called the savior of His people (Dt 32.15; Is 12.2; 25.9; 45.15, 21–22; 62.11; passim in the Psalms) and even of the pagans (Is 45.24). The salvation He brings becomes more individual, more spiritual and eschatological as revelation progresses. In the beginning, the sacred writers speak of deliverance from merely temporal evils (1 Sm 10.19; 11.9), then of the deliverance of the chosen people from Egypt (Ex 14.13) and from the Babylonian Exile (Is 45.17). Gradually, as the Prophets look forward to messianic times, salvation comes to mean deliverance from sin (Is 33.22–23; Ez 36.28–29) and the conferring of all God's gifts (Is 45.17; 49.6).
In the New Testament the words σωτήρ and σῴζω are used of both God the Father and Christ. As Yahweh saved His people in the Old Testament, so now in the New Testament God the Father is viewed as the initiator of salvation: He "saves" (1 Cor 1.21; Ti 3.5; 2 Tm 1.9) or is a savior (1 Tm 1.1; 2.3; 4.10; Ti 1.3; 2.10; 3.4; Lk1.47) of all who believe. Frequently the verb is used in the accounts of Christ's miracles; in healing the Samaritan leper (Lk 17.19), the woman suffering from hemorrhage (Mk 5.34), and the blind Bartimeus (Mk 10.52), as well as in forgiving the penitent woman (Lk 7.50), Christ says: "Thy faith has saved thee." It is also used of Christ's work of delivering from sin and eternal death and conferring messianic salvation (Mt 18.11; 1 Tm 1.15; 2 Tm 4.18; Heb 7.25; Jn 12.47). Christ is, therefore, called "the Savior" from the earliest preaching (Acts 5.31) to the later apostolic catechesis (Eph 5.23; Ti 1.4; 2.13; 3.6; 2 Tm 1.10; Lk 2.11; Jn 4.42). From all these texts it is apparent that the New Testament develops and brings to perfection the Old Testament notion of Yahweh as savior. God the Father Himself is the initiator of salvation. Christ carries out this work of salvation on both a temporal and a spiritual level. His miracles of healing are a deliverance from temporal evils; but they belong also to the spiritual sphere insofar as they are a sign and a kind of inauguration of spiritual salvation (Acts 4.9–12). Both God the Father and Christ are called savior principally because they deliver men from sin and confer eternal life. This is essentially an eschatological reality (Acts 5.31; Phil 3.20), but it already begins on earth (Ti 3.5; 2 Tm 1.9). A synthesis of this twofold aspect of salvation is found in Ti3.4–7. Finally, it becomes clear that God the Father and Christ are saviors in a much more profound and comprehensive sense than the saviors of the pagans. It may easily be that Paul used the title as a polemic against the cult of the emperors.
See Also: hope of salvation (in the bible); messianism; redemption (in the bible); salvation history (heilsgeschichte).
Bibliography: p. wendland, "Σωτήρ," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 5 (1904) 335–353. w. wagner, "Über σῴζειν und seine Derivate im N.T.," ibid. 6 (1905) 205–235. d. m. stanley, "The Conception of Salvation in Primitive Christian Preaching," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 18 (1956) 231–254; "The Conception of Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels," ibid. 345–363. c. spicq, Saint Paul: Les Épîtres pastorales (Études bibliques 1947). s. lyonnet, "De notione salutis in N.T.," Verbum Domini 36 (1958) 3–15.
Theology. Jesus Christ, the god-man, is the Savior sent into the world. "… and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins" (Mt1.21). salvation includes a liberation of mankind from sin, a gracious deliverance of man by God in the Person of His Son, Jesus. However, this is not the whole truth; St. Paul completes the description of this reality when he says Christ "was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification" (Rom 4.25). Justification adds to the notion of salvation the positive blessings of grace, i.e., a sharing in the divine life of the risen Christ, which brings man back into living union with God the Father.
Simply speaking then, salvation means the return of humanity to God in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. This is the culminating point of God's intervention in the history of man to bring mankind back to Himself. Salvation then is something that God has been bringing about since the Fall of Adam; it is something that He is accomplishing now and will continue to accomplish until Christ comes in judgment. Christ is the Savior promised to Adam (Gn 3.15), prefigured in Moses, prophesied elsewhere in the Old Testament (especially Jeremiah and the Songs of suffering servant of Isaiah), and definitively realized in His passage from this world to the Father. This transition of Christ in His human nature from this world to the new order of glorified creation is a transformation by which His manhood is taken up into manifest eternal union with the Trinity.
In history, God's action, bringing man back to Himself, has taken a variety of forms, yet there exists a certain continuity and similarity that is more than analogical. Between these realities, there is a living unity, that progresses but is constant, can to effect change without itself changing, and can operate on different levels without losing its unifying dynamism. For example, in the call of mankind to salvation in Abraham, Moses, and Christ there is a liberation initiated by God, for a sacrificial act of worship that transforms man's living relationship to God and promises a glorious destiny with God's faithful protection. In Abraham a single individual is called to salvation. Abraham's faith liberates or separates him from his pagan relatives to worship the one true God (he would even have sacrificed his own son Isaac). In view of his faith and love he is given a promise that in his seed all nations shall be blessed. In Moses the whole nation of the Jews is liberated from slavery in Egypt in order to become the people of God by the sacrificial covenant sealed in blood (symbolic of a mingling of their life with God's), and it receives a promise to become a great nation in its new land. In Christ, salvation is extended to all men; the types and figures above receive in Him their complete fulfillment. Through Christ all men are liberated from slavery to sin, to become one family with Christ in the New Covenant sacrifice sealed in His own blood (the real mingling of men's life with God in Christ), and they receive the promise of eternal life with God in a new and glorious resurrection.
Traditional theology has tended to consider salvation in terms of an act of merit, of a satisfaction of divine justice capable of repaying man's debt, and of a sacrifice of Christ's life for the remission of man's sin. Recent Biblical scholars (e.g., F. X. Durrwell, L. Cerfaux, S. Lyonnet) have focused on the importance of the resurrection of christ as a necessary and essential aspect of man's salvation. A restricted view of the saving action of Christ is giving way to a more dynamic view of salvation as a rebirth of mankind from the death of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ the Risen Savior. [see rebirth (in the bible).] Transformed by his new life man is now motivated interiorly, with his hope of victory firmly rooted in the victory of Christ over sin and its consequences, to act in the service of God and his fellowmen in charity.
Bibliography: a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., (Paris 1903—50) 8.1: 1227–46. c. davis, Theology for Today (New York 1962). h. f. davis et al., A Catholic Dictionary of Theology (London 1962–) 1:189–198. f. x. durrwell, The Resurrection: A Biblical Study, tr. r. sheed (New York 1960). s. lyonnet, "Redemptive Value of the Resurrection," Theology Digest 8 (1960) 89–93. k. o'sullivan and j. t. nelis, Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 2101–07.
[j. c. murray]