Debate Magazine

No One is Persecuted for Keeping the Rules

Posted on the 31 July 2014 by Alanbean @FOJ_TX
Nicholas Wolterstorff

Nicholas Wolterstorff

By Alan Bean

A few years ago,Michelle Alexander reminded me of a curious fact.  English translations of the Bible almost always translate the Greek word for justice, δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosune) as “righteousness” instead of justice.  This is curious for two reasons.

First, in classical Greek–Plato’s Republic for instance–δικαιοσύνη is almost always translated into English as “justice”.

Second, Romance languages (Italian, Spanish etc.), lacking the word “righteousness” (from the German “recht”), unwaveringly translate δικαιοσύνη as “justice” simply for lack of an alternative.

So, how do we explain the preference for “rightousness” over “justice” in English translations?

For some background, check out Fred Clark’s helpful post on the subject, On justice vs. ‘righteousness’ in which he shares Yale professor Nicholas Wolterstorff’s answer to the “why” question.  Here’s the heart of the discussion (my emphasis):

It goes almost without saying that the meaning and connotations of “righteousness” are very different in present-day idiomatic English from those of “justice.” “Righteousness” names primarily if not exclusively a certain trait of personal character. … The word in present-day idiomatic English carries a negative connotation. In everyday speech one seldom any more describes someone as righteous; if one does, the suggestion is that he is self-righteous. “Justice,” by contrast, refers to an interpersonal situation; justice is present when persons are related to each other in a certain way.


… When one takes in hand a list of all the occurrences of dik-stem words in the Greek New Testament, and then opens up almost any English translation of the New Testament and reads in one sitting all the translations of these words, a certain pattern emerges: unless the notion of legal judgment is so prominent in the context as virtually to force a translation in terms of justice, the translators will prefer to speak of righteousness.


Why are they so reluctant to have the New Testament writers speak of primary justice? Why do they prefer that the gospel of Jesus Christ be the good news of the righteousness of God rather than the good news of the justice of God? Why do they prefer that Jesus call his followers to righteousness rather than to justice? I do not know; I will have to leave it to others to answer that question.

Consider the familiar admonition from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.”  How would our interpretation of that seminal Jesus-saying change if we were read it the way non-English speakers read it: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and God’s justice”?

The most charitable synonym for “righteous”, as Wolterstorff points out, is “upright”.  Or we may refer to the “moral rectitude” of someone we admire.  But are upright people persecuted, Wolterstorff asks.  In his experience, and in mine, upright people are either admired or ignored.  We may find them annoying, but we don’t persecute them.  No one is persecuted for keeping the rules.

The reason is obvious.  Uprightness refers to being law-abiding, or morally pure. Justice is interpersonal; it refers to the way we interact with other people.  In particular, it deals with how the poor and vulnerable are treated by the powerful.  Only when δικαιοσύνη is used in a context suggesting the criminal justice system do English translators translate it as “justice”.

In other words, we have no quibble with courts passing sentence on miscreants; but we are uncomfortable with the notion that powerful people must protect the rights of poor and vulnerable people because God insists they must.

A simple suggestion: when you come across the word “righteousness” in an English translation of the New Testament, substitute “justice” and watch things change. “Righteousness” is the rhetoric of the status quo; “justice” is revolutionary.


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