The best part of SBL is seeing old friends.
My book, Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin, was the subject of a panel review by John Meier, Amy-Jill Levine, and Donald Senior. I thought the session went very well. I’ll post more on this if I get the chance.
Here are a couple of pictures of the session stolen from Michael Barber:
The Pauline Soteriology unit hosted a session on righteousness and justice in Romans and Galatians. Beverly Gaventa and Martin de Boer presented and then Willie Jennings and I responded. Both Gaventa and de Boer talked about the meaning of δικαιοσύνη as well as the notorious translation issue.
Often we are told that “justice” is a bad translation of δικαιοσύνη because it makes people think of versions of justice (e.g. retributive or distributive) that are different from Paul’s. Sometimes it argued that δικαιοσύνη had no such negative connotations. I disputed both the characterization of δικαιοσύνη in Paul’s world and the resonances of “justice” in ours. Here’s that portion of my response:
First, a few proposals regarding δικαιοσύνη:
1. There is no English word that captures what Paul is describing because the δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ, as Paul understands it, is not something that can be inferred from our everyday experience and language. This point follows from Professor Gaventa’s important observation: she noted that the translation justice could only be used if we understand that God’s justice looks nothing like any recognized definition of fairness or equal standing. I agree and would suggest that the same thing holds for other translations. God’s righteousness cannot be inferred from human righteousness either, and so on.
2. Just as we have no translation that captures what Paul means by δικαιοσύνη, Paul himself had no word free of problematic associations to describe what God had done through the πίστις Χριστοῦ. The impossibility of moving from everyday experience and language to an understanding of God’s apocalypse applies to Paul’s Greek as much as our English. Even if we disagree with Paul – that is, even if we don’t believe that God had actually done something new, it is undeniable that Paul is describing something different from what his contemporaries meant by δικαιοσύνη.
3. More specifically, the word δικαιοσύνη was liable to be misunderstood by Paul’s interlocutors in ways analogous to the word justice today. A few examples will illustrate the point:
a.Book 5 of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics contrasts δικαιοσύνη with ἀδικία and distinguishes between distributive and corrective δικαιοσύνη [note: Prof Gaventa had discussed Paul’s opposition of δικαιοσύνη and ἀδικία]. In Paul’s day philosophical reflection on δικαιοσύνη continued apace. Both Dio Chrysostom and Philo, for instance, write often and thoughtfully on the subject.
b. Josephus never reflects on the meaning of δικαιοσύνη, but uses it frequently in connection with the strict application of laws and punishment.
c. Kings and gods were commonly associated with δικαιοσύνη. According to Plutarch δικαιοσύνη was another name for Isis. Nero minted coins in 56-57 with his face on one side and on the other a woman with a scale and the word δικαιοσύνη. δικαιοσύνη is also common in honorific inscriptions, occurring together with ἀρετή and εὐσέβεια.
d. In closest proximity to Galatians and Romans, there is δικαιοσύνη as described by Paul’s opponents. Professor de Boer argues that the question of δικαιοσύνη was raised not by Paul but by these others. If this is correct then from the very beginning Paul had to overcome an understanding of the word which from his perspective took insufficient account of the gift of the rupturing Christ-event.
4. The Pauline understanding of δικαιοσύνη emerges, therefore – not from the intrinsic fittingness of the Greek word – but in his description of it. So perhaps we Anglophones aren’t in such a bad situation after all. In Paul’s day kings, philosophers, and everyone else – including Paul’s opponents – had their own ideas about δικαιοσύνη. Paul attempts to overcome these other claims to δικαιοσύνη by redefining the word in light of Christ.
Now a few observations about the two main English words vying for the privilege of translating Paul: righteousness and justice. I leave some of the other, quirkier translations (e.g. “rightwise”) to one side because I don’t see them catching on and because δικαιοσύνη itself was a common word.
In his recent book, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes the difference between “righteousness” and “justice” in common use as follows: “‘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” (111). I think this is exactly right. For the past few years I’ve asked my students what comes to mind when they hear righteousness and justice. They usually say that righteousness is a personal quality or state but justice is about doing the right thing in the world. Sometimes they say “justice” involves social justice or giving people what they deserve. Frequently they add that “righteousness” makes them think of self-righteousness. I don’t wish to ignite a debate about what justice means to each of us – it is after all a notoriously pliable concept. But there is an important difference in common usage between these two words: righteousness is a personal quality; justice is more outward focused. In Romans, δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ denotes God’s eschatological saving power and action. I would suggest that “justice” is a less imperfect description of this than “righteousness.” There is always the danger that this translation will call to mind other forms of justice, but Paul faced this same challenge with the word δικαιοσύνη.
[end of quotation]
Here’s an earlier post on this issue.
My biggest disappointment this year was missing a number of sessions that I really wanted to attend.