Let’s get rid of righteousness

One of the challenges of writing and teaching on the New Testament in English is the way δικαιοσύνη (dikaiosyne) and its cognates are translated with two different families of words in English: righteousness/righteous (words of old English derivation) and justice/ just/ justify (of French and Latin derivation). The NRSV translation of Rom 3:25-26 is a good example of the problem: God “did this to show his righteousness (τῆς δικαιοσύνης), because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous (δίκαιον) and that he justifies (δικαιοῦντα) the one who has faith in Jesus.” This translation, like most others, obscures the link between the attribute predicated of God and the action that God takes on behalf of others.

Some Anglophone scholars attempt to solve this problem by replacing the words of French and Latin derivation with awkward verbal forms of righteousness such as “rightwise.”

In my own writing I am tempted to solve the problem by taking the opposite route. Why not drop all “righteousness” language and use only the “justice” word-family? The advantages of this approach are many, it seems to me. Here are a few: 1) One would not need to invent any horrifying new verbs, since “justify” exists. 2) The words “righteous” and “righteousness” have come to possess almost exclusively negative connotations in everyday English. “Righteous” very nearly means “self-righteous.” 3) I suspect that most English speakers think of an inward state of rectitude when they hear “righteousness” but active, public goodness when they hear “justice.” Some will disagree with me of course, but on the whole I think early Christian δικαιοσύνη is usually closer to the latter.

There will never be a perfect solution to a problem like this because English words will never correspond exactly to words in other languages. So, unless my courage fails, I will henceforth rid my writing of all righteousness.