Professor Cullmann in his book on the Christology of the New Testament says that in the early Church the term "Saviour" was not a common title of honour for the Lord. "With the exception of one passage in Philippians (ch. 3:20), this designation is completely missing from the most ancient of the early Christian writings." It first occurs relatively late in occasional passages in the Gospels of Luke and John; more often in the Pastoral Letters, 2. Peter, and the letters of Ignatius.
He says that Vincent Taylor, in "The Names of Jesus" suggested that the title Soter (Saviour) was so widespread in the non-Christian environment of the Hellenistic world that it had a bad connotation for Christians. But such an objection would have been applicable to a much greater degree to the Kurios (Lord) title, which very early became the central expression of all early Christian faith in Christ. Cullmann thinks the real reason for the late appearance of the title Saviour is connected with the fact that the name Kurios played such a predominant role in early Christianity. "Saviour," an Old Testament attribute of God, was conferred upon Christ on the basis of faith in Him as the risen Lord. But just because Kurios was "the Name above every name," it necessarily overshadowed and took precedence over all other titles which pointed in the same direction. So it is not surprising that Soter often appears in the New Testament only as a supplement to Kurios (Phil. 3:20; 2. Peter 1:1, 11; 2:20; 3:2, 18).
The Pastoral Letters, which witness most frequently to Jesus as Soter, are the very ones that often call God 'Saviour' too—sometimes in the same passage in which the title is given to Jesus. This gives all the more reason to assume that this; Christological designation is an Old Testament title of honour for God transferred to Jesus, and confirms the assumption that the name 'Saviour' (like all the Divine attributes) was ascribed to Jesus in connection with His dignity as Kurios. Cullmann then proceeds to consider the Soter Title in Judaism and in Hellenism.
In the Hebrew there is one root word meaning Saviour. In the Greek Septuagint the word is Soter. The Psalms and Isaiah give God the title most often, but it can be traced through all the Old Testament and Jewish literature (The Apocrypha). The title originally referred to God. But it does also sometimes distinguish definite men of God who were deliverers of the people. Moses was one such, and after him other leaders of Israel were called "saviours." In line with this the Messiah is seen as the coming Saviour who will finally and permanently save His people. This designation corresponds perfectly to the function which the Messiah is expected to fulfil. But it is surprising that He is not called Saviour more often.
Whereas in the Old Testament and in Judaism the Soter is the Saviour of the people, the title has a different meaning in Hellenism. Here gods and also heroes, and above all rulers are called 'saviours,' because they deliver human beings from all sorts of physical distresses such as sickness and infirmity, dangers such as shipwrecks, and especially from the terrors of war and an uncertain existence.
Asklepios, who attained great fame as a physician in Rome in the first century B.C., was the 'saviour' who delivered from sickness. Galen of Pergamos (130-200 A.D.) must have been another 'saviour.' He attended Roman Emperors. For many centuries his writings were the chief text-book of the medical profession.
But above all the term Soter was one of the most popular designations for deified rulers. The ruler is Soter because he brings peace and order. In the mystery cults the Soter concept had other aspects: the divinity saves from the power of death and matter, and bestows immortality.
Almost all the passages in which Jesus is called 'Saviour' contain exclusively Christian motifs. Even if the narrower meaning of the Greek verb for 'to save' is often 'to heal,' none of the Christian Soter passages indicate even the trace of a recollection of Jesus' activity as a physician. During the lifetime of the Lord on earth, neither by Himself nor by others was Jesus ever called Soter. Like Kurios, the title Soter presupposes the completion of Jesus' earthly work and its confirmation in His exaltation. God Himself is shewn to be Saviour in 1. Tim. 1:1; 2:3; 4:10; Titus 1:3; 2:10; 3:4. Moreover, in Luke 1:47, the Magnificat, God is called Saviour, whereas the Christmas story proclaims in 2:11, 'To you is born this day a Saviour, who is Christ Kurios.' Then the final doxology of Jude is addressed to 'the only God, our Saviour through Jesus Christ our Lord' (last verse). Perhaps Rotherham's rendering here is better: 'to our alone Saviour God. ..' It is thus not surprising that 2. Peter, so closely related to Jude, often speaks of the Soter Iesous Christos (Saviour Jesus Christ)—and indeed, like Luke 2:11, in connection with the Kurios title. This confirms the fact that the idea of Christ's exaltation to the dignity of divine rule decisively influenced the introduction of Soter as a Christological designation. It is certainly not irrelevant, then, to point to the use of the title in Hellenistic ruler worshipas a secondary source.
Jesus is the Soter because He will save His people from their sins. This is how Matthew 1:21 explains the name Jesus. The name means nothing other than Saviour.
But the connection of the Soter title with the Old Testament lies above all in the emphasis upon deliverance of the people from sin and death. This idea of salvation lies behind the statements about the appearance of the 'Saviour' Jesus Christ as His birth (Luke 2:11), after His resurrection (2. Tim. 1:10: 'the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who abolishes death'), and at His still awaited coming in glory (Titus 2:13 f.: 'the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for Himself a people of His own').
It is just when it praises Him as the coming Lord that this last passage reminds us of Jesus' earthly work upon which His lordship rests. In a remarkable but characteristic way, Acts 5:31 also connects the already accomplished exaltation of Christ as Soter with the statement that this exaltation will bring Israel 'repentance and forgiveness of sins.'
This connection between Jesus' lordship and His work of atonement shows us that while the Soter title does grow out of the Kurios title, it nevertheless emphasizes an idea which is not a prominent part of the Kurios concept; the idea that the exaltation of Christ to divine Soter very definitely presupposes His work of atonement. We are reminded of Phil. 2:9: 'therefore (i.e., on the basis of Christ's obedient humiliation of Himself even to death) God has more than exalted Him' and given Him the Kurios Name which is above every name. The designation of Jesus as Soter implicitly includes precisely this idea of His atoning work. The Christian inclusion of the concept of reconciliation within the Soter title becomes clear also from another fact: the above mentioned doxology of Jude (v. 25), at least, indicates with the words' through Jesus Christ our Lord' that now, even when God is called Soter after the Old Testament pattern, the foundation of all divine salvation is the atoning work of Christ.
The importance of the atonement is also not forgotten in John 4:42 and 1. John 4:14, Which refer to Jesus as the 'Saviour of the world.'
1. Thess. 1:10 corresponds exactly to the thought of Phil. 3:20, although it does not use the Soter title itself: we 'wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.'
A.T. Last updated 13.11.2005