A portion of Acts 16:17 reads as follows in three popular translations:
“. . . which shew unto us the way of salvation” (King James Version)
“. . . who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation” (New American Standard Bible)
“. . .who are telling you the way to be saved” (New International Version)
These translations agree on the meaning of the words, “the way of salvation,” even though the New International Version restructures the words. One wonders, however, why Paul became so agitated. A seemingly helpful slave girl follows Paul and his associates crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God who are declaring to you the way of salvation.” Rather than seeing this as a problem, why not praise God for the “free advertisement?” As an evangelist Paul does appear to have a strange attitude!
The Greek text, however, allows an interpretation not permitted by the above translations. The key phrase, “way of salvation” (ὁδὸν σωτηρίας), consists of two nouns and no definite article (“the”). There are two ways this phrase can be understood. (1) It can be definite emphasizing quality, that is, focusing on the various characteristics of the words in question. The best that English translations can do here is to use the definite article that in English points to identity without emphasizing quality inherent in the Greek non-article usage. (2) It can be indefinite where English would insert the indefinite article “a” before the phrase and translate, “a way of salvation.”
Exegetically, the second option is the only one that meets the interpretive criteria of sense and history. The citizens of Philippi would not have understood “the way of salvation” as the only way of salvation. Historically there were many “ways of salvation” in Roman and Greek societies. The populace would naturally position Paul and his associates as another group of philosophers roaming the world peddling a brand of “salvation” unique to them, and one that merely provided another “salvation option” for people. In light of this, the indefinite article translation provides the better interpretive probability. As an indefinite phrase one can readily understand why Paul was so upset. To him there is only one way of salvation, and to be classified as “just another philosopher” proclaiming “just another philosophy” would hinder the progress of the true Gospel.
In this instance, some of the major translations should be reevaluated; but without looking at the Greek text, few would realize that another interpretive option exists. Such was not the case apparently for the translators of the International Standard Version of this verse that correctly reads, “a way of salvation.”
On a practical level, Bible studies or sermons based on this verse could conceivably waste time needlessly trying to rationalize the strange attitude of Paul in Philippi, and probably coming up unconvincingly. In our day, postmodern thinking has captured the minds of unbelievers and, not unlike the demon-possessed servant girl following Paul around, they marginalize the Gospel and the absolute claims of Jesus Christ, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The Gospel is not “another alternative to salvation” but the only way of salvation. Paul’s attitude, it would seem, was not strange after all!