I’ve spent the last few weeks blogging on Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill, found in Acts 17.16-34. There are two reasons I absolutely love this passage. First, it provides a template for how to speak about Jesus Christ in a way that is inclusive of a variety of religious and cultural perspectives. Second, it is one of the most comprehensive sermons in the whole Bible for describing a holistic vision of Jesus Christ.
Here is how Paul concludes this really important sermon (NIV translation): “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
When I re-read this passage a couple of months ago, my heart skipped a beat. I’ve come to such a strong conviction that justice is one of the core attributes of Jesus Christ, and should therefore be one of the core attributes of all those who fervently follow him.
Some Christians challenge that assertion however, and one of their primary reasons is due to the fact that the actual word justice is not used all that often in the New Testament. I maintain in these conversations that it doesn’t matter if the word justice is technically used or not. It’s clear that this is what Jesus came to both proclaim and lead us towards. Jesus would consistently announce his presence by declaring the good news of the Kingdom of God, and it’s clear that the pursuit of justice is central to that kingdom message (self declarations like this and this seem incredibly straightforward to me on this point).
But nonetheless, it troubles me as well that the word justice doesn’t actually show up that often in English translations. It perpetuates the myth that justice is a secondary activity in the life of Christ followers.
That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised to discover that the capstone of Paul’s sermon at Mars Hill pointed to the justice nature of the Resurrected Christ. I was also surprised that I had never noticed this before, as I’ve often heard/read expositions on this passage.
I do not consider myself a scholar, but I have come to really enjoy the study of words in their original context (I generally love words in all contexts!) This is an aside, but an important one I think for others who want a simple way to examine words in their original Biblical context. There is a free website called Blue Letter Bible, and you can look up any passage (it has to be in King James to work) and see not only the original words, but other places in the Bible where that same word was used (click here to see an example of looking up this specific word justice).
When I looked up the word translated to justice, I came to discover that the original Greek word used by Paul here was dikaiosynē. For me, this was quite a surprise. I don’t always recognize Greek words at first glance, but this was an easy one. It’s an important Biblical word, and it is consistently used to describe both the identity of Jesus and the mission of what he came to do. It’s repeated over 300 times in the New Testament, yet I don’t recall ever seeing it translated as justice. In every instance I can remember it is translated as righteousness. It’s hard to dispute the assertion that when put next to each other in English, justice and righteousness elicit very different meanings.
What followed next was an intense, two-day, deep dive into this history of this word dikaiosynē (and it’s related conjugations). I am embarrassed to admit that I had no idea how much of a history this word has. It’s actually been quite controversial for centuries, particularly in its translation into English.
I won’t attempt a full summary of my research, but I will highlight a couple of important learnings that I discovered along the way. For one, when you begin to research this word, you continually come back to the name of a particular scholar: Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff. He is the Professor of Philosophical Theology Emeritus at Yale University, and the author of numerous books, including the one that’s most relevant to this: Journey Towards Justice (read a helpful review of it here).
There is a ton of stuff available if you Google him, but here’s one of the shortest and most helpful videos of him explaining this history:
Dr. Wolterstorff describes his journey of becoming a Greek scholar here, which began with some intense work of studying Plato’s Republic. One of the primary themes of the Republic is justice (so I’m told), and the Greek noun in Plato’s text that is standardly translated as “justice” is “dikaiosune” (nearly identical to the word used by Paul; the adjective standardly translated as “just” there and elsewhere is the root “dikaios.”) He notes that when it comes to Plato’s Republic, there is no contention that dikaios and dikaiosune are to be universally translated there as just and justice.
Shortly after his work with the Republic, Dr. Wolterstorff began to study the Greek New Testament. One of the first big surprises that he stumbled upon was that dikaios and dikaiosune were rarely translated as just and justice, but instead were translated as righteous and righteousness.
He did a lot of digging into this to figure out what had changed. How could dikaiosune (and words with the same dim-stem root) have been so universally understood to translate as justice during Plato’s time, but then having switched to the translation of righteousness during the time of the Greek New Testament (which was about 300 year period of time)?
Part of the answer is found specifically within the English language. In the Romance languages, for example, there is only way to translate dikaiosune: justicia. But within English we have two possible words: justice OR righteousness.
The etymology of each of these has very different roots. Our English word righteousness, according to Wolterstorff, has German origins. It has connotations of being morally up-right, and focuses more on private, individual behavior. (This matches how I’ve always understood the word righteous — I’ve often heard it described as the pursuit of individual holiness or “right” living before God).
Our English word justice, on the other hand, has Latin origins. Unlike righteousness, which is focused more on individual behavior, justice is focused on communal behavior… and even structures. Lowell Noble, who is a fantastic scholar in his own right, does a blog on Wolterstorff’s work (check it out in Chapter 9 of his blog). I liked how he defined justice here: “actions taken to restore broken social relationships, to restore a standard or quality of justice.”
If you follow all of this logic, then it leads to a basic question: When a New Testament writer uses the word dikaiosune, how do the translators know whether to use the English word justice or righteousness?
Wolterstorff’s answer is simple: they have to take a guess at the context. Which word best describes what the writer is attempting to communicate in that passage: justice or righteousness?
He acknowledges that there are times where it might make sense to use the word righteousness. But there are other times where only justice makes sense. One of the clearest of these, according to him, is the use of dikaiosune by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. When talking through the Beatitudes, Jesus says:
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for [dikaiosune], for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of [dikaiosune], for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5.6-10)
In almost every single English translation, dikaiosune is translated as righteous. But does that make much sense? Wolterstorff asks, “How many people do you know that have been persecuted for morally upright living? I’ve never seen that. The people who are persecuted are the ones that seek justice.”
So while context matters, Wolterstorff can’t help but speculate whether there is a “spiritualized” bias of the translation of the word dikaiosune. Is it possible that somewhere along the way righteousness was seen as a more valuable spiritual attribute than justice? It would certainly seem so.
With that history as a backdrop, it leaves us with the quandary of what to do with this righteousness/justice split. How can we possibly know what the Biblical author was pointing towards whenever the word dikaiosune was used?
Here’s my take.
I think that when understood fully, righteousness and justice mean something very similar. Right living will lead us to the pursuit of justice. The pursuit of justice demands righteous living. They both are reflective of the character of God, and they are both dependent on each other. Jesus has come to make us righteous before God, and Jesus has come to call us to right living. Jesus has come to satisfy the justice of God, and Jesus has come to call us to a just society. You can’t have one without the other.
One of the suggestions that I came across on a consistent basis found favor with me. What if, instead of choosing which English word to use for dikaiosune, we just use both? Perhaps it makes each verse that uses the word a bit more clunky. But doesn’t it also enrich the meaning?
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness & justice, for they will be filled.”
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of justice & righteousness for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice & righteousness by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
I just don’t see how you can ever capture the full meaning of the word dikaiosune without understanding this history of both righteousness and justice. It has been a meaningful exercise for me to go back to some of the key Biblical passages that use dikaiosune and now read in both sides of the equation.
And that is my hope with this blog entry – I am hoping that you come to see a fuller vision of Jesus Christ, who comes to both make us both righteous as a people AND seekers of justice!