“Rigtheousness” (צדקה) in the Second Temple Period…

L1: Repentance (teshuvah), L2: Prayer (tefilah), L3: Charity (tsedekah). Inscribed Plaque from a former synagogue in Detroit

L1: Repentance (teshuvah), L2: Prayer (tefilah), L3: Charity (tsedekah). Inscribed Plaque from a former synagogue in Detroit

I had posted this on another, now defunct, blog—MEVASER. Since I think that the idea is important and often missed when we read texts from the Second Temple Period, I figured that I would post it again. In reality the kind of “righteousness” discussed briefly below is not a foreign concept within Judaism, but remains an elusive concept within many Christian circles.

“Righteousness” can be a touchy subject. The Pauline corpus, specifically the book of Romans, has assured that the concept of righteousness can rarely be discussed without considering the theological assumptions of scholars since the days of the Reformation. Moreover, “justification by faith” (i.e. declared righteous solely by faith, not by works) has compounded a plethora of tradition upon any serious discussion of what righteousness entailed during the Second Temple Period. This is of course not to say that the concept of “justification by faith” is wrong, but rather, the manner with which we arrive at such a conclusion may be erred. In other words, defining a concept somewhat central to both Jesus and Paul is a complex task. Furthermore, one must acknowledge that both Jesus’ and Paul’s definitions of “righteousness” may have not been exactly the same (It is often the mistake of people to let years of religious tradition form a myopic filter on two individuals, who as such, may have had differing opinions).

Using Matthew 25: 31-46 contextually, will help us to understand the nuances of righteousness in the first century. Chapter 25 depicts final judgment as the separation of sheep and goats. The sheep who care for those in need (i.e. thirsty, hungry, naked, and imprisoned) are allowed to enter eternity, while the goats—those who ignored the needy—are given over to eternal punishment. Unbeknownst to both groups depicted in the pericope was that caring for the poor, or the way one responds to them, is the same as doing these things unto the Lord (caveat: Our intention here is not to wholly define ‘righteousness’ as one thing, but to shed light on this concept as it was understood during the Second Temple period and as Jesus would have understood it.).

Notice the TSADE-DALET-KAF-HE on the Top of the Design

Notice the TSADE-DALET-KOF-HE (i.e. צדקה) on the Top of the Design

Notice, the Matthew 25 passage refers to those who take care of the poor as ‘righteous’. This is strongly undergirded by the Hebrew tsedekah (צדקה), which during this period came to be associated with alms-giving and acts of charity. Today, one can walk into a synagogue and see that the charity box often has צדקה etched on the front of it. The box is intended to indicate the place for charitable donations, while what is written upon it literally means “righteousness”. The Septuagint, translated in the 3rd century BCE, attests to the translation tendency of dikaiosunh (δικαιοσυνη, cf. Gen 15:6; 18:19) in place of tsedekah, which is the term present in Matt’s Greek. The Septuagint’s rendering of Deut 6:25 and 24:13 attests to the Second Temple understanding of ‘righteousness’. In both these passages the LXX renders tsedekah with the elehmosunh (ελεημοσυνη), ‘acts of charity’ and ‘alms‘. In Matt 6:1-2a, Jesus usage of this Hebrew idiom is clear when he states: “Take heed not to do your righteousness (δικαιοσυνην) in front of men…when you give alms (ελεημοσυνην)…”. Likewise those that collect charity are referred to in the Mishnah as gabaei tsedakah (גבאי צדקה, lit. ‘collectors of charity’; Dem 3:1, Qidd 4:5). In Avot 5:13 the givers of charity are literally described as givers of ‘righteousness’ (נותני צדקה). The author of The Manual of Discipline (1QS 5:4) makes a list of righteous deeds that the members of the Yahad are to undertake. Among them are tsedekah, which seems to be intimating charity. The doubling up of justice (משפט) and justice/rigtheousness (צדקה) suggests that the author of the scroll intends charity in his use of tsedekah. Consequently, this concept penetrates into to the New Testament and can be found elsewhere in James (c. 2) and in 2 Corinthians 11:15, where Paul uses the term ‘ministers of rigtheousness’ (διακονοι δικαιοσυνης). As a Pharisee, he would have been very familiar with what later would become codified in the Mishnah and Rabbinic Literature.

As to why this hasn’t been addressed further in New Testament scholarship I am stumped. The concept of ‘righteousness,’ this side of the Reformation can be a touchy subject, but initial difficulties are resolved if we view the concept of righteousness like a diamond. A cut jewel is made up of many facets and the view is dependent on the position of the angle. All of these differing views placed together make for a whole, and therefore provide us with a greater depth of understanding. It should not be mistaken, especially in light of Matt 25, that Jesus understood taking care of the poor as a commandment of the highest priority. Moreover, Jesus would have adhered to the biblical command to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan (Ex 22:22; Deut 10:17-19). Interestingly, the haftarah portion that Jesus reads at the synagogue of Capernaum indicates the importance of this command:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because the Lord has anointed me,

to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent to proclaim freedom from the prisoners

and recovery of sight for the blind,

to release the oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18-19; cf. Is 61:1-2a)

Giving to the Poor

Giving to the Poor

In Luke 6:20-22, notice to whom the blessing is being directed to:

“Blessed are you who are poor,

for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,

for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,

for you will laugh.”

On a side note, there are some talmudic discussions as to who exactly are the ‘poor’. But beyond that point, the way that we understand ‘righteousness’ should begin to be seriously nuanced with an elucidation of the obvious Hebraic influence. Therefore, in some cases, the New Testament’s use of the Greek dikaisounh is strongly undergirded by the Hebrew tsdekekah; but, even more important, is the recognition that Hebrew seriously influenced the Evangelist’s sources.



10 thoughts on ““Rigtheousness” (צדקה) in the Second Temple Period…

  1. Shalom Jeffrey,

    I agree with you that this aspect of righteousness is given too little attention in lexicons. Your post would have benefited from juxtaposing Paul’s usage with Jesus’ usage. Moreover, I have the feeling that in order to give a true picture on the lexical development and range in 2nd temple literature, it would be fair to discuss not one particular meaning of the word, ie almsgiving. In other words, the different meanings in the Hebrew Bible and 2nd Temple literature for the Hebrew term and its Greek equivalent, will give a better understanding of the term. And as you remarked about the meaning of ‘poor’ (cf 2 Cor 6), does this really ONLY mean poor as we see it? I bet you there is a lot more to say about Jesus’ enigmatic sayings in this regard and thus righteousness as well. All said, I agree with your main exposition here.

    • Unfortunately, the length of a blog does not allow one to give the full lexical range of a term that carries several different nuances depending on the context in which it is being used. My purpose with this blog was to briefly discuss the one nuance that is commonly overlooked but is as important as the others. “Righteousness” in most of its other forms has been discussed in abundance and there is no need to comment on them here.

      Barring any theological apriori, I don’t see the a need to read ‘poor’ in any other way than those lacking the needs, e.g. food, money, clothing, etc., to survive in antiquity. This seems to be the simple reading. Furthermore, I don’t think that Jesus’ sayings are always as enigmatic as scholars have presumed. I think that people lack the necessary background in Second Temple Judaism to place his sayings in their proper context and thus give them an appropriate meaning. Added to that, of course, are discussions of the transmission of these saying within the Synoptics and which one provides us the clearest picture of the historical Jesus. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Shalom again,

    Your point is well taken. I added my cautious remarks in order to prevent an one sided view. Believe it or not, I was once put on the wrong track by precisely this explanation by a R. Lindsey protoge 1/2 generation, whom I will leave further unnamed, who never told me about the other forms of righteousness. As a matter of fact he said… why would God change the meaning of this word in the Greek. In other words: righteousness in the OT and NT mean the same, they mean the same for Paul and Jesus. (Now this was indeed a weird mix of inspired-ness from a Hebrew perspective.) Now it is precisely because of that that you can come up with some pretty weird theology. Now you did not do this, but I just added my cautious remarks in order to point to the balance for readers.
    PS: I am sure we will meet once, seeing the subject you’re studying, Lord willing.

    Matt 25:44 (NASU) “Then they themselves also will answer, `Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’
    45 “Then He will answer them, `Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’
    46 “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

    About the passages. The Mathew 25 ref most likely refers to physical down to earth stuff, except that the sheep were not (always) aware of what they had done. Then jumping to Paul: 2Cor 6:10 (NASU) as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.
    So why was Paul “poor” and did he have yet “all things”? This does not seem that simple to an average reading. (Did Paul have a creditcard or something:-), ie he bought everything on credit so he had all things, and he was poor at the same time, o how American )

    Matt 5:3 (NASU) “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
    5 “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
    6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [dakaiosunee, tsedaka], for they shall be satisfied.
    What are the poor in spirit? Is that a down to earth understandable passage. Yes indeed an Is. reference sheds light.
    What about verse 6? Translating Jesus’ words here as almsgiving will it work?
    6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for almsgiving, for they shall be satisfied.
    Does not sound very likely here.

    But yes it likely works in the beginning of Mathew 6 (almsgiving, right hand left hand context) and also Mathew 25 sheeps and goats story. But again I don’t think even Mathew 25 is necesssarily all that clear, because of its own context the Mathew 5 and 2 Cor 6 passages above.

    • I am not sure what you mean by “R. Lindsey protoge 1/2 generation.” However, the majority of my undergrad education was with Steven Notley, who is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research, and a former student of David Flusser. I too am a member of the Jerusalem School, have dear friends that are members, but cannot speak to what they taught, only to say that there teachings most likely came from a sincere place of wanting to understand Jesus in his original context.

      I think that perhaps my blog has given you the incorrect perception. The Hebrew tsade-dalet-kof-he has several nuances, most of which I left out in my blog, e.g. justice. That being said, regarding the texts you quoted I would need to look at the texts a bit closer. To the best of my knowledge this concept regarding tsedakah developed in the Second Temple Period (See Flusser’s, A New Sensitivity in Judaism) and is not the only meaning for this word, as if any Hebrew word could have only “one” meaning :). In any event, I think there is an argument to be made for Matt 5 being understood a “justice” and that the underlying ideas of charity and taking care of the poor are used as a framework to speak to spiritual matters.


  3. I respect Steven Notley a great deal, he produces great work out along with the JS. You have been fortunate to be able to work with him. I haven’t had such fortune.
    Lindsey’s influence has gone well beyond the JS. So not all Lindsey protoges are within JS. Anyway my point was not to talk about an individual, but about a balanced approach. The mentioning of “Lindsey protoge” is only relevant in that someone was overly enthusiastic in placing Jesus in a 1st century Hebrew Jewish setting, forgetting the broader meaning of certain words as you already indicated. Not only did Jesus and Paul often (not always differ on the word diakosunee, but also did Jesus himself have different meanings for this words in different contexts. Anyway, thanks for the refresher, it was helpful to read. Peace.

  4. I just ran across your comments and find them fascinating.
    Did 2nd Temple Judaism have a set process for colleting these alms? You mention the box in present day synagogues. Was the almsgiving back then collected and dispersed by the Temple apparatus? Or was it very decentralized?
    If you are not sure, is there any source you could point me to?

    • The Mishnah speaks of charity collectors (gabei tzedekah) on several occasions. Also, according to the Mishnah, there is a Secret Chamber (lishkat hashayim) on the Temple mount that is used for collecting charity.

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