‘dikaiosyne’ – to translate is to betray

David Bosch’s Transforming Mission (Orbis Books, 1991) continues to stretch my thinking. In a section entitled “God’s Reign and Justice-Righteousness” (pp. 70-73), he studies the Greek word, dikaiosyne. Bosch (p. 71) observes that this noun can be translated three ways:

1) justification, which is “God’s merciful act of declaring us just” – N.B. – John Wesley rarely spoke of justification, i.e. forgiveness, without pointing beyond it to sanctification, but that is another discussion;

2) righteousness, which is “an attribute of God or a spiritual quality that we receive from God,” and –

3) justice, or “people’s right conduct in relation to their fellow human beings”.

What Bosch rightly points out is that English translations of the Bible uniformly translate dikaiosyne as “righteousness.” A  quick look at five or six English translations on Biblegateway.com validates Bosch’s observation.

Why is this translation point important? Bosch (Ibid.) explains:

If, on the other hand, we translate “set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well” (NEB), it may mean that Jesus asks us not to be concerned with our own desires and interests but with the practice of justice in respect to those who are the victims of circumstances and society, that this is what God’s reign is all about.

And so Bosch invents a term that doesn’t exist in English, a homely, hyphenated expression, i.e. justice-righteousness. In doing so, his logic is clear. You simply cannot say that you are “righteous” on the one hand, then turn around and practice injustice toward your neighbor. The two go hand-in-hand.

As a speaker of French, I find it fascinating that all three French translations that I own (Bible de Jérusalem, la Bible Semeur, and La Colombe) for dikaiosyne in both Matthew 5:6 and Matthew 6:33 translate with the French noun, « justice. » According to the  exhaustive English/French Harrap’s Unabridged Dictionary (2001), the word “righteousness” in English translates into French as « vertue » or « rectitude. » Yet no French translation that I’ve seen uses these words! They keep the broader « justice, » which can encompass the personal realm, but doesn’t rule out the social aspect of dikaiosyne. So, my hat’s off to French Bible translators. They’ve done far better than almost every English Bible translator, with the except of the New English Bible (1961), as cited by Bosch above.

And so, the French proverb proves true: « Traduire, c’est trahir. » To translate is to betray.

For students of biblical Greek, wondering if it’s worth it, David Bosch proves the worth of studying the original. Let’s all keep at it.

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One thought on “‘dikaiosyne’ – to translate is to betray

  1. Bosch and the French translations are NOT correct in this instance, in my opinion. As much as I advocate justice–distributive and retributive, I cannot do so by appeal to the way the Greek term dikaiosynE is used in the LXX or NT.

    Bosch correctly emphasizes concerning Matt 6:33 that Jesus’ concern is not the human pursuit of personal piety. This is not what “righteousness” is about. In a world in rebellion against God, the concern of dikaiosynE is the vindication of God as right and the recognition that only God can rectify wrong.

    The problem with “justice” as a translation is that it is a weasel-word–thus Alasdair McIntire’s aptly titled 1989 “Whose Justice? Whose Rationality?”

    Justification in Evangelical circles is often equated with “getting saved,” being “forgiven,” “becoming a Christian.” This individualizes the cosmic concern of dikaiosynE and turns soteriology into a sub-category of anthropology.

    DikaiosynE as comprehensive, cosmic salvation is often emphasized in the LXX, where righteousness describes the saving activity of God, especially in the Psalms and Isaiah.

    Thus, I think Kasemann (see esp. his commentary on Romans) is a better guide than Bosch. DikaiosynE is God’s vindication of his power to make things right. Thus, vindication and rectification may be better synonyms, if righteousness and justification have become threadbare in Evangelical Protestant usage.

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