What is the background to δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ (God’s righteousness) in Paul’s letter or the Romans? Jonathan Linebaugh observes that for Ernst Käsemenn, the righteousness of God came to Paul from Deuteronomy 33.21 via apocalyptic Judaism.1 N.T. Wright consider Psalm 143.1 as a background for it due to Paul’s echo of Psalm 143.2 in Romans 3.20, although he considers is to be in the same spirit of prayers contained in Daniel 9, Ezra 9, and Nehemiah 9.3
However, as important as it is to investigate the Scriptural backgrounds for the phrase, a hint of caution must be observed in connecting Paul’s language about God’s righteousness to specific background texts. Given the varous equivalent formulations through the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s righteousness” would have such a general, familiar ring to. It would been a concept that would have been intuitively understood by many Jews, but not necessarily with any clear and universal sense of exactly what God’s righteousness is. In that sense, it is must like how the phrase “God’s love” is understood today, with it being very familiar due to its prominent role in the New Testament, but there is no clear, precise sense of what the nature of this love is.
Understood against this backdrop, it may be more beneficial to understand God’s righteousness as a stock phrase in Second Temple Judaism. From that point, then, we may consider Paul to be provided a specific account of what God’s righteousness through quotations, echoes, and allusions to the Scriptures. To appropriate a the potter metaphor in Romans, Paul is a potter over the Jewish conception of God’s righteousness that he (a) shapes according to specific Old Testament Scriptures and his understanding of Jesus Christ than he then (b) describes the shape of to the Romans.
The distinction between (a) and (b) is important as the way Paul came to his own theological convictions about Christ as God’s righteousness does not necessarily reflect itself directly in his epistolary communication. For instance, my research on 1 Corinthians 2 has been highly instrumental in forming the way I think about the Triune God, but that doesn’t mean when I talk about the Trinity I am directly or even indirectly echoing or alluding to 1 Corinthians 2.
The point then is that the concept of God’s righteousness does not just have a Jewish pre-history, but it also has a Pauline pre-history. Given the impressive nature of Paul’s argument in Romans and the various echoes to other literature of Second Temple Judaism, the epistle is likely no ad hoc reflection on God’s righteousness, but it is the expression of an apostle who has given deep reflection. However, as tenuous as it may be to try to reconstruct a Jewish pre-history of the concept given the fragmentary evidence we have, how much more difficult would it be to explain the Pauline prehistory of God’s righteousness? The former requires historical and sociological knowledge that we can have various information to reconstruct from, whereas the latter requires biographical and psychological knowledge, of which we are limited primarily to Acts and the Pauline epistles. And yet, we may be able to make sense tentative hypotheses about a Pauline pre-history.
δικαιοσύνη is one of the dominant concepts of Romans, occurring 33 times in Romans, whereas the thematically similar message in Galatians only has the word occur 4 times. The divergence is not quite as pronounced when it comes to the cognate δικαιόω (“justify”), with 15 uses in Romans and 8 uses in Galatians. This divegence in linguistic patterns means that we should not simply regard Romans and Galatians addressing the fundamentally same concerns and toics. The marked preference of the noun in Romans suggests Paul’s is addressing something that hits to the core of what righteousness is. Most likely, in my estimation, this is explainable to the theological conflict and rejection of a vision of righteousness that is contained in 1 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Yet, because Galatians and Romans are so similar, we may be able to draw some inferences about the Paul pre-history of God’s righteousness by comparing and contrasting the letters.
Perhaps the best place of contrast is Paul’s discussion of the relationship of Torah to Christ. In both Galatians and Romans, the Torah is considered to historically lead to Christ in some manner. In Galatians 3.23-26, Paul portrays the Torah like a guardian that protected Israelites until Christ came. The metaphor is that of a family servant who safely escorted the children to school for instruction. The Torah protected Israel so that can now be instructed by the revelation of the faith of Jesus Christ. By contrast, Paul describes a different, more antithetical relationship between Torah and Christ in Romans, with the Torah leading to the increase of sin (Rom. 5.20, 7.7-13) that Christ then comes to redeem Israel from. While these two images of the Torah are not necessarily mutually exclusive, the pronounced shift in how Torah is understood bears noting. Again, I would put forward that this is circumstantially situated in contrasting with how the Torah is understanding in 1 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, and Wisdom of Solomon.
Yet, this different portrayal of Torah does reflect a pronounced development from Galatians to Romans. Paul does not describe the idea of Torah-observance as a cause of greater sin in Galatians. It is perhaps implicit 4.21-5.6, where to go back to the Torah is to submit to a slavery that Christ has set one free from. We see that theme of slavery and freedom be picked up against in Romans 6, but with enough differences that they can not be simply equated. Some further reflection about God’s righteousness in relation to Torah is likely to explain how similar themes from Galatians to Romans are used, but in significant changes and developments.
What can explain these differences? At this point, I would put forward a primarily abductive argument that Daniel 9.1-19 is perhaps the best explanation for the Pauline pre-history of the concept of God’s righteousness. How can Daniel 9.1-19 explain Romans?
- God’s righteousness is emphasized very prominently.
- The repeated motifs of Israel’s sin and shame match the content of Romans.
- The phrase “tesfified by the Torah and the Prophets” in Romans 3.21 may be consider to be an echo of Daniel 9.10.
- Similarly, that God’s voice is given priority over Torah, with the Torah as the instrument of God’s voice, in Daniel 9.10 can provide an explanation for Paul’s point in Romans 10.1-3.
- The contrast between God’s righteousness and God’s wrath in Romans 1.17-18 corresponds to Daniel 9.16.
- The reference to Egypt in Daniel 9.16 is brought up in Romans 9.17-18, further developing on the contrast between God’s righteousness in mercy with God’s wrath in hardening.
To be clear, Paul is not alluding to Daniel 9 in Romans, to my knowledge. Rather, as a hypothesis, we might consider as Paul’s thought has developing through Daniel 9, he began to “integrate” his wider understanding of God’s righteousness in Christ within the whole of Israel’s story and Scriptures. So, when we hear an echo from Psalm 143.1 via an quotation/allusion to 143.2, we may consider that Daniel 9 has provided a Scriptural framework by which to bring his understanding of Israel’s narrative to a decisive climax in the revelation of God’s righteousness in Jesus Christ. So, we can distinguish a Pauline pre-history about the concept of God’s righteousness from the discursive presentation of God’s righteousness in Romans.
A corollary to this hypothesis, if true, is to further strengthen the thesis of a Danielic Paul rather than a broader “apocalyptic” Paul that I have presented earlier. 1 Corinthians contains multiple echoes of Daniel, particularly in 1 Corinthians 2 and 15. Given than 1 Corinthians was likely written written in the mid 50s AD, whereas Romans in the late 50s AD, we can surmise that Daniel could have played a significant role in Paul’s theological development.
- Jonathan A. Linebaugh, “Righteousness Revealed” in Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination, EPUB Edition.
- 2N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, 995-996.