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 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)
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.