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Justice and Righteousness

We tend to think of 'justice' as something public, and often think of it as retribution. When we say "I want justice", we often mean "I want my rights (often from another, or for the legal system to give us redress)". On the other hand, we tend to think of 'righteousness', if we think of it at all, as a property of an individual (e.g. the old singing group 'The Righteous Brothers'), and usually of the private sphere.

But, in the Bible they are the same word, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. One Hebrew and one Greek word is used for both, and seldom translated into any other word.

Hebrew/Greek word Tr. as 'Justice' Tr. as 'Righteousness' Tr. as other
H: tsedeq 102 394 14
Other Hebrew words 5 11
Gk: dikaios 38 135 7
Other Greek words 0 1

What do these figures tell us? First, it implies very strongly that, to both Hebrew and N.T. Greek thinking justice and righteousness are the same thing. Second, it implies that our conception of 'justice' and 'righteousness', by which we give them different meanings, is likely to be wrong.

So what is the real meaning of both words? I like the definition of 'justice' given by Paul Marshall:

Righteousness and Justice is: right relationships among all things in the created order of things.

Now, that definition is different from both of our conceptions above. Our conventional conception of righteousness is centred on an entity (a human being); Marshall's conception is centred on relationships. Our conventional conception of justice is centred on a legal framework, whereas Marshall's conception is centred on our 'dwelling' amongst all created things. Our conventional conception of justice is of a balancing act; Marshall's conception is of quality of relationship.

Why have we got it so wrong? As e.g. the late Lesslie Newbiggin discussed at length in his book Foolishness to the Greeks, Western thinking tends to divorce the public and private spheres of life. We tend to assume a fundamental difference between 'fact' and 'value'. We tend to put state, business and academic life on one side and family life on the other. This is dualistic thinking, which splits reality down the middle into two mutually exclusive parts. He traced this tendency to dualism to the presuppositions of the old Greek academic thinkers like Plato and Aristotle. Our thinking also shares with those academic Greeks a fascination with existence more than with meaning. (Note: New Testament Greek language that we referred to above differs from the classical Greek. And note that Plato himself was not so dualistic, but his ideas led towards dualism.)

So we tend to split the integrated, relational concept embodied in tsedeq and dikaios into two different things, attached to what we think of as the public and private spheres of life, and in both, centre the meaning of the concept on entities rather than relationships. A pretty fundamental error; no wonder we have long got it wrong!

If you want further 'reading' on this, see:

How Were These Figures Arrived At?

I used Young's Analytical Concordance, as follows:

So the accuracy of my figures depends on: the accuracy of Young's Concordance, the words I picked to look at, my assumption that e.g. tsedeq, tsadaq, tsaddiq, tsedaqa, etc. could all be grouped under 'tsedeq' and so on, and my accuracy in counting and arithmetic.


This page drew many genuine hits for some years. It seemed to serve a need.

In 2016, I received a query from John O, "Shouldn't you include in your analysis the words "krites-krisis-krima" (Strong's Greek 2917-2923) and "umishpot" (Strong's Hebrew 4941)? What about the combined word "dikaiokrisia" (Strong's Greek 1341)?" These are about judgement rather than justice, i.e. the state or activity of judging, rather than the quality of the judgement given. Currently the page is about how justice and righteousness are the same, rather than judgement, but I might expand the page in that direction. Thank you, John.

This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2013. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

Part of his pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext.

Created: 1999. Last updated: 29 March 2004 some typos corrected and rewrote para on dualism, in response to comments by Kim McCall, to whom many thanks are due. Also .nav, .end and two links. 19 November 2006 unet. 21 December 2008 13 October 2010 added Explanation of figures, after Kendall Thorsell asked me about them. 27 April 2014 rid ../, new .nav, .end. 15 September 2016 Responses, JO. 23 April 2019 labelled the definition. 14 November 2020 Corrected typo found by JT; many thanks; added canonical.