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The Lost Secrets of Christianity

Righteousness Doesn’t Even Necessarily Mean Righteousness

            The Bible word “righteousness,” and the related words “justify,” “justification,” etc., are the most important words in Western, i.e. Roman Catholic and Protestant, Christianity, but it turns out, “righteousness” doesn’t even necessarily mean “righteousness.
 

            The problem shows up most clearly in 2 Corinthians. In chapters 8 and 9 Paul is writing to the Corinthians about raising money to help the Christians in Jerusalem. Paul finishes by telling them that the more they give, the more they will receive:

2 Corinthians 9:6 KJV “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.”

Paul continues on that theme for a few verses (From the NIV translation):

7 Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

God loves cheerful givers and he will bless you when you give cheerfully so that you’ll never lack for anything and will have enough left over to give to every good cause. As proof of this proposition Paul quotes Psalm 112:9

9 As it is written:
“He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;                                              
his righteousness endures forever.”                                                 

 

            And there’s the difficulty. What could “his righteousness endures forever,” mean? In the past I’ve just sort of mentally fudged this phrase. I’d read it as goodness or holiness. I suppose if I was going to be quite literal I would interpret it as indicating that giving to the poor makes the giver perfect, without sin, before God or something like that. But the Hebrew word translated “righteousness” in Psalm 112:9, and throughout the Old Testament, is tsedakah, (Or tzedakah, tsedaka, tsedaqah, sedaqa, sedaka, or sedakah depending on how you transliterate into English the Hebrew letters, ts-d-k-h.), and in New Testament times, (And even today among Jewish people.) tsedakah meant not “righteousness” as we use that word in English, but alms, charity, charitable giving, and in a more general sense, rescuing, saving, redeeming, blessing.

It is very significant that the usual word for alms in this period is sedakah, which in the English version of the Bible is all but uniformly rendered ‘righteousness’ whether used of God or of man. Like every such conventional equivalent, this one not infrequently misleads the reader, all the more because ‘righteousness’ is frequently coupled with ‘justice’ (mishpat) and because the Christian reader brings to the word Pauline associations. The righteousness of God is frequently shown, however, in his vindication of his people by delivering them from their enemies or from other evils, so that the word becomes parallel to the words for deliverance, salvation, blessing, kindness, and as a result, even to property, wealth. The Greek translators sometimes render it not by dikaiosunh but by elenmosunh as better expressing the implications of the context as they understood it. In Dan. 4, 24 (English version 4, 27) the corresponding Aramaic sidkah is ‘alms-giving’; ‘Redeem they sins by alms-giving and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.’ Judaism In The First Centuries of The Christian Era, pg. 170-171, George Foot Moore (Even though this book is almost 90 years old, it is still the preeminent book about Judaism in the time of Jesus and the Apostles.)

You can see that, “alms” fits better than “righteousness,” in 2 Cor. 9:9,  especially since the context is raising money to help the Christians in Jerusalem:

9 As it is written:                                                                                          
“He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;                                              
his righteousness (giving of alms) endures forever.”                                    

Paul is saying that the Corinthians giving to the poor, their charitable giving, their alms, their blessing of the poor, their redeeming the poor, their rescuing of the poor, will never be forgotten or fade away, it will continue to return benefits, it will produce a continuing harvest. I like to think of it like planting a fruit tree, charitable giving will continue to bear fruit, it’s not just a one time crop.

            Even using what Moore calls the parallels of tsedekah “…deliverance, salvation, blessing…” the scripture still makes more sense than using “righteousness.”

9 As it is written:
“He has scattered abroad his gifts to the poor;
his righteousness (act of deliverance, or blessing, or salvation) endures forever.”

            Paul again uses the word “righteousness” but meaning “tsedekah” in verse 10, stating that their alms, like seeds planted, will return to them an abundant harvest of blessings.

10 Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness (charitable giving, act of deliverance, or blessing, or salvation). 11 You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

            To recap what George Foot Moore said above. In these scriptures the Greek word Paul uses, that we translate into English as “righteousness” is “dikaiosune, which means about what our English word “righteousness” means. In Paul’s day "dikaiosune" had already been used to translate "tsedekah" in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible and that may be why he uses it here. But Paul is using “dikaiosune” not to convey the Greek idea of “dikaiosune” but to try and convey the Hebrew idea of “tsedekah.” Paul’s not thinking in Greek trying to express some Greek idea of righteousness, he’s thinking in Hebrew, trying to find a Greek word to convey the Hebrew idea of “tsedekah. In other words, for Paul the meaning of the Greek word he’s using here isn’t determined by the normal Greek usage of “dikaiosune” but by normal Hebrew usage of “tsedekah.” 

            You can tell that’s what’s happening in this passage because if we read it with the definition of the Greek “dikaiosune” or English “righteousness” in mind we’re lead astray. But if we have in mind the Hebrew understanding of “tsedekah” the passage makes perfect sense. Put differently we could study the Greek word "dikaiosune" for years and never discover what Paul meant by that word in this passage. In order to discover what Paul meant when he used this Greek word, “dikaiosune” we have to find out what the Hebrew “tsedekah” meant to first century jews.


            This isn’t the only place in the New Testament where what has been translated “righteousness” clearly means alms giving or acts of deliverance or blessing or salvation, from the NASB:

Matthew 6:1-4 Beware of practicing your righteousness (Your tzedekah, your charitable giving. gm) before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. When therefore you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

            One interesting point about this scripture. As any good reference Bible would indicate, the earliest Greek copies of Matthew 6:1 vary in word use. Some use the Greek word “dikaiosune,” i.e. righteousness and some use the Greek word “eleemosune,” from which we get our English word eleemosynary, meaning alms. The variation in word use seems to indicate that the earliest Greek transcribers understood that by “righteousness” Jesus meant “alms.” In either case we know from the context that Jesus meant alms and we know that the Hebrew word used for “alms” in Jesus day was "tsedekah," and we know that it's usually translated into English as “righteousness.

            It’s only becasue of the absolutely clear context of these scriptures that we’re able to break free from the traditional Christian understanding of “righteouness” and see that what is meant is the First Century understanding of the Hebrew “tsedekah,” i.e. alms giving, acts of deliverance, blessing or salvation. But what about those places where the context isn’t as clear? Where else in the New Testament might “righteousness” really mean salvation, deliverance, alms, rescue, redemption, blessing?

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