Paul’s Use of "Righteousness"

Dikaiosyne. A simple enough term, but endlessly disputed. Does Paul use “righteousness” in a more declaratory/judicial sense — as when God acquits or restores someone to fellowship — or in a behavioral/ethical sense — as when the person leads a new life in Christ?

Neither, actually.(1) According to Philip Esler, “righteousness” meant the same thing to Paul as it did to the rest of his contemporaries: “a form of ascribed honor, that is, an honor gifted to someone by a notable person of authority, in this case God, as an exercise of will and choice by that person, not because the recipient of the honor has done anything to deserve it”. Righteousness conveyed the simple sense of privileged and blessed identity, often in contrast with ungodliness (Rom 1:17-18).(2)

Esler looks to the Septuagint for confirmation of this, and zeroes in on the book of Proverbs:

“It is important to note that Proverbs 10-15 contains the greatest concentration of [righteousness] and [godlessness] in the Greek Old Testament. Thus, of some 375 examples of [righteousness], 100 are found in Proverbs, with a full 50 of these in Proverbs 10-15, while 50 of the 240 examples of [godlessness] also occur in Proverbs 10-15. No other sections of the Septuagint approach such an intensity of use, apart from Psalm 36 (LXX)… Both Proverbs 10-15 and Ps 36 (LXX) concretely illustrate the meaning of righteousness by offering numerous antitheses that contrast the happy and blissful identity of the righteous with the wretched and doomed identity of the godless and impious person.”(3) (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 165)

For Paul’s opponents in Galatia, blessing came from being Judean (“Jewish”), and the main content of that blessing was the Torah. The pagan, ipso facto, was godless. Paul gave this a sectarian twist: blessing now came from believing in Christ, and the main content of that blessing was the Spirit. He radically co-opted dikaiosyne while keeping its general sense intact. Esler again:

“That he should have chosen this path at all is noteworthy. He could have simply agreed that righteousness was a purely [Judean] phenomenon and instead opted for defining the identity of the gentile believers in terms of the language of sanctification which he employs in I Thessalonians. The fact that he did not pursue this option was probably a result of the evident appeal of the prize of righteousness; its advocates were finding a ready ear for their arguments (Gal 4:10) that Paul was simply unable to abandon this trophy to the opposition. No, he must wrest it from them for his congregations, never mind how challenging the objective might be.” (Galatians, pp 169-170)

This is an important point, and shows how insignificant the idea of righteousness was for Paul outside a Judean-Gentile context. Esler follows Wrede and Schweitzer aggressively here. Though there are many Galatians-and-Romans-type issues present in a letter like I Thessalonians (faith, the Spirit, Christ’s death, etc.), none is linked to the theme of righteousness. Paul didn’t use the word at all — he even went out of his way to redact it out of Isa 59:17 (I Thess 5:8) — instead using sanctification language. Righteousness was so keyed to Judean identity, and it would have been foolish to use it in a context where only Gentiles were involved.

But once Judeans entered the picture, Paul became audacious, co-opting the Israelite term for his Torah-free converts. “Righteousness”, in effect, was called forth by his opponents,(4) forcing him to raise the stakes of his game even higher.


(1) Anyone who understands honor-shame cultures knows that trying to distinguish between “forensics” and “ethics” is misguided anyway, because it assumes that ethical behavior exists independently of its recognition by others. That may be true of us in the individualized west, but in Paul’s world one was ethical to the extent it was credited by others. (See Esler, Galatians, pp 149-150)

(2) Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 167. See also Bruce Malina and John Pilch, Social Science Commentary on the Letters of Paul, p 394. The latter note that “the closest English equivalent to this usage is ‘acceptability'” (p 200).

(3) Esler catalogs the comparatively few usages which involve forensic/judicial understandings. For instance, there are only eight examples of righteousness used in a literal legal sense, with respect to the action of the judge (Exod 23:7, Deut 25:1, II Sam 15:4, Ps 82:3, Isa 1:17, Isa 5:23, Ezek 44:24, Sir 42:2). “This is hardly a large number when one considers how many scholars assert that the primary meaning of the word is ‘forensic’.” (Galatians, p 161)

(4) Mark Nanos thinks the term “opponents” is misleading, because it implies that the circumcision advocates in Galatia were initially and intentionally opposing Paul, and that Paul was defending himself accordingly. But Paul may just as easily have been making an offensive and preemptive strike, anticipating that these advocates would become his opponents after his letter arrived. Nanos thus prefers the more neutral term “influencers”. (See The Irony of Galatians, pp 119-127)


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