Freud’s Critique of Religion

Sigmund Freud

The thesis of God as a “father-wish” originated with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s main critique of religion, The Future of an Illusion (1927). This thesis has been widely discussed and analyzed; only some highlights will be reproduced here.

1. It is impossible to deny that “wishing for God” is a perennially recurrent phenomenon; even atheist Friedrich Nietzsche displayed this tendency: “I hold up before myself the images of Dante and Spinoza, who were better at accepting the lot of solitude… [and] all those who somehow still had a “God” for company… My life now consists in the wish that it might be otherwise… and that somebody might make my “truths” appear incredible to me” (Kaufmann, trans., The Portable Nietzsche, p. 441).

2. The deductive argument for atheism from Freudian Illusion Theory may be pronounced effectively dead, reduced in current thought to an instance of the genetic fallacy (the claim something is false merely by virtue of its ostensible origin). Something is not ipso facto illusory merely because it is wished for, but only if it is a mere wish. As Hans Kung observes:

“…is a faith bad and its truth dubious simply because –like psychoanalysis itself– it also involves all possible instinctual inclinations, lustful inclinations, psychodynamic mechanisms, conscious and unconscious wishes? …Perhaps this being of our longing and dreams does actually exist… the psychological interpretation of belief in God is possible and also legitimate. But is the psychic aspect itself the whole of religion? It should be observed that Freud has not in fact destroyed or refuted religious ideas in principle, and neither atheists nor theologians should ever have read this into his critique of religion. For, by its very nature, psychological interpretation alone cannot penetrate to the absolutely final or first reality: on this point it must remain neutral in principle. From the psychological standpoint, then, the question of the existence of God –and even the positive force of the argument must not be exaggerated- must remain open.” -Hans Kung, Does God Exist, p. 302

3. The God of Judaism and Christianity is as much an *anti-wish* as he is a wish. If it were not so there would be no human sin. Frequently God is precisely what no one wanted, or would be likely to want; he frequently demanded, and does demand, precisely the opposite of what any sane person would have placed on their wish list. It is not hard to imagine Abraham saying “You want me to cut off what part of my body?!” “You want me to kill my son Isaac?! The one you promised to bless the whole world through?!” Jeremiah had absolutely no desire to preach. Jeremiah’s audience had absolutely no desire to hear. God was not what anyone wanted; he was what everyone didn’t want. If Dietrich Bonhoeffer was correct in saying “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship), that is precisely what no one wants unreservedly. C. S. Lewis was mortified when he became a Christian; it was the last thing he ever wanted to be; he describes himself as having entered the kingdom of God “kicking and screaming.” Similarly once upon a time the last thing I ever wanted was to become a Christian. It seemed silly and false to me. Yet I have found it to be a pearl of great price…

4. Not only the existence of God, but also the rejection of God, or the rejection of a particular kind of God, can have a psychological origin in wishes. Mircea Eliade brilliantly articulated the nature of Freudian ideology as a cultural fashion:

“…a cultural fashion is immensely significant, no matter what its objective value may be; the success of certain ideas or ideologies reveals to us the spiritual and existential situation of all those for whom these ideas or ideologies constitute a kind of soteriology” (Mircea Eliade, Occultism, Witchcraft, and Cultural Fashions: Essays in Comparative Religion, p. 5).

Thomas Paine’s opposition to the ancien régime in France, for example, undoubtedly gave additional impetus to his desire to assault the Christian faith so virulently. Professor Eliade’s observation clearly suggests the alternate possibility, from a Christian point of view, of:

5. A Christian Psychology of Atheism. Fr. Andrew Angiorus presents a Christian view of this whole question:

“‘Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts’ (Rom 1:24). Generally, atheists and agnostics are talking about themselves when they talk about the absence of God. They simply express their personal subjective truth (that their souls are empty) in an objective way and try to generalize their experience. In other words, there is no theology, or even philosophy here, it is just their own ill or deficient psychology, which is what atheism is… In the Scriptures Christ says clearly that only the pure in heart will see God. In other words, intellectuals, examiners and professors will never understand God, if their minds are not pure… How do we know if someone has a pure heart? The pure heart is evidenced by the way we live. As Peter says, a person devoted to the Lord “does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2); “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Savior” (Ps 24:3-5).” +Fr. Andrew Anglorus

Cf. also the extensive documentation by Paul Vitz of New York University of socio-psychological correlates to affirmation of atheism in Vitz, Paul, The Faith of the Fatherless.

© 2011 by (text)

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Prof. Danny Shectman Receives Nobel Prize for New “Impossible” Form of Matter: Infinitely Variegated Quasicrystals

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Quasicrystals (

He was fired by two time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling. As of today he is the recipient of his own Nobel Prize for defending the very “impossible” form of matter he was fired over. His story of ridicule, ostracism, hostility, and rejection by the mainstream scientific community for affirming something anomalous/discordant to the predominant scientific paradigm reads like something straight out of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. But he was right! The scientifically impossible in this case was not only possible, it was actual.

“For a couple of years I was alone, I was ridiculed, I was treated badly by my peers and my colleagues, and the head of my laboratory [two-time Nobel Prize recipient Linus Pauling] came to me smiling sheepishly and he put a book on my desk and said ‘Danny, why don’t you read this and see that it is impossible, what you are saying.’ And I said, ‘I teach this book… I know what it says, and I know it’s impossible, but here it is! This is something new!’ That person expelled me from his group  He said ‘you are a disgrace to our group; I cannot bear this disgrace,’ and he asked me to leave the group. So I left the group. And he was a good friend of mine! But he could not stand that people would say ‘this nonsense came from your group!’ This was the atmosphere. People not only did not believe in what I said: people were hostile! The community of non-believers was very large in the beginning. In fact it included everybody! The leader of the group was Linus Pauling, a two-time Nobel laureate. He was a very important figure, and the idol of the American Chemical Society, and to his last day he was standing on stages and publishing papers saying that Danny Shechtman is talking nonsense.

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Hologram of a Quasicrystal (

“Two years later I came back to Technion, and here I met professor Ilan Blech who was the first person to believe in my observations, and we linked forces and he proposed a physical model that explains how these crystals could form. And the two of us for publication in a journal, the Journal of Applied Physics, and the paper was rejected on the grounds that it would not interest the community of physicists. And so that summer of 1984 I went back to NBS and met another colleague of mind, John Cahn who was the chief scientist there. Then he invited another scientist, from France named Denny Gratius, and the four of us published another paper (D. Shechtman, I. Blech, D. Gratias, and J. W. Cahn, “A Metallic Phase with Long Ranged Orientational Order and No Translational Symmetry”), which was published very quickly, and then hell broke loose, because it did interest the community, and many scientists around the world started to work on these materials, and they called me from around the world: ‘I have it! I have it! I have it too!'” And so the community of believers grew, slowly; the community of unbelievers shrunk. The new form of matter which had different symmetries than known before, which is called quasi-periodic crystals, or in short quasicrystals, is accepted into the community of crystal. So the definition of crystals was broadened to include crystals which were not known before.” -Dan Shechtman

Penrose Tiling

Penrose Tiling (

The Geometric pattern of Penrose tiling which occurs physically in quasicrystals was completely unknown even to mathematicians until the 1970s when it was presented as a mathematical model by Roger Penrose. As the tiling pattern expands over larger ratios it converges to the ever present Fibonacci/Golden Ratio known as phi[1] intrinsic to a vast swath of diverse yet similar structures including spiral galaxies, snowflakes, neural connections, flowers, electromagnetic field borders, circulatory and pulmonary structure, basic chemical arrangements (tetrahedron, icosahedron, etc.), and so on (see my article Fibonacci, Fractals, and Inorganic Teleology for further details and implications).

Decagonal Quasicrystal


[1] “For icosahedral quasicrystals [see image below], each approximant may be characterized by a rational approximant T,, = Fn,+1/Fn (Fn is a Fibonacci number) to the golden mean T. As TnT the lattice constants and the number of atoms contained in a lmit cell tend to infinity. The lattice constant of an nth order cubic approximant to an icosahedral quasicrystal may be expressed where aqc is a quasilattice constant – the edge of the golden rhombohedral tile. Each next approximant therefore has a lattice constant that is approximately 1.62 times larger. The volume of the next approximant, and correspondingly also the number of atoms in the unit cell, increase by a factor of T^3 = approximately 4.24. In practice, a third or fourth generation approximant is essentially indistinguishable from the infinite quasicrystal” (J. B. Suck, Michael Schreiber, Peter Häussler, Quasicrystals: An Introduction to Structure, Physical Properties, and Applications, p. 397).

Icosahedral Quasicrystal

Continue to Fibonacci, Fractals, and Inorganic Teleology

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What is the Largest Number Representing Something Empirical?

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"Infinity" (2002, Acryllic), by Geoffery Chandler

What is the largest number representing something empirical? I am not asking a question concerning immense hypothetical numbers that do not actually represent some *thing* …such as googol (10^100), googolplex (10^googol), Graham’s Number, and Moser’s number.

If you guessed it’s the total number of atoms in the entire universe which we can currently observe through our most powerful telescope (10^80 atoms), good try; sorry, that’s not it.

As it turns out, the largest number that actually represents something empirical relates to our brains. As John D. Barrow relates (John D. Barrow, The Constants of Nature (2002), pp. 116-118):

“…astronomy is not the place to look. The big numbers of astronomy are additive. They arise because we are counting stars, planets, atoms and photons in a huge volume. If you want really huge numbers you need to find a place where the possibilities multiply rather than add. For this you need complexity. And for complexity you need biology. In the seventeenth century the English physicist Robert Hooke [1635-1703] made a calculation ‘of the number of separate ideas the mind is capable of entertaining’ (the estimate was reported in Albrecht von Haller’s Elementa Physiologiae, vol. 5, London, 1786, p. 547). The answer he got was 3,155,760,000. Large as this number might appear to be (you would not live long enough to count up to it!) it would now be seen as a staggering underestimation. Our brains contains about 10 billion neurons, each of which sends out feelers, or axons, to link it to about one thousand others. These connections play some role in creating our thoughts and memories. How this is done is still one of nature’s closely guarded secrets. Mike Holderness suggested (in Holderness, M., “Think of a Number,” New Scientist, 16 June 2001, p. 45) that one way of estimating the number of possible thoughts that a brain could conceive is to count all those connections. The brain can do many things at once so we could view it as some number, say a thousand, little groups of neurons. If each neuron makes a thousand different links to the ten million others in the same [neuron] group then the number of different ways in which it could make connections in the same neuron group is 10^7 x 10^7 x 10^7 x … one thousand times. This gives 10^7000 possible patterns of connections. But this is just the number for one neuron group. The total number for 10^7 neurons is 10^7000 multiplied together by 10^7 times. This is 10^70,000,000,000. If the 1000 or so groups of neurons can operate independently of each other then each of them contributes 10^70,000,000,000 possible wirings, increasing the total to the Holderness number, 10^70,000,000,000,000. This is the modern estimate of the number of different electrical patterns that the brain could hold. In some sense it is the number of different possible thoughts or ideas that a human brain could.”

Fine and good you say. So why can’t I remember where I put my keys?
If we can’t blame the equipment, perhaps it comes down to operator error…

For more on large numbers, cf. Wolfram Mathworld’s article “Large Number,” and Scott Aaronson, “Who Can Name the Bigger Number?

The video below is a computer representation of the outer (pial) surface of a mouse’s cortex through all six layers and subcortical white matter to the adjoining striatum:

Addendum: “The Human Brain Has More Switches Than All the Computers on Earth” by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore

“The human brain is truly awesome. A typical, healthy one houses some 200 billion nerve cells, which are connected to one another via hundreds of trillions of synapses. Each synapse functions like a microprocessor, and tens of thousands of them can connect a single neuron to other nerve cells. In the cerebral cortex alone, there are roughly 125 trillion synapses, which is about how many stars fill 1,500 Milky Way galaxies.

These synapses are, of course, so tiny (less than a thousandth of a millimeter in diameter) that humans haven’t been able to see with great clarity what exactly they do and how, beyond knowing that their numbers vary over time. That is until now.

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have spent the past few years engineering a new imaging model, which they call array tomography, in conjunction with novel computational software, to stitch together image slices into a three-dimensional image that can be rotated, penetrated and navigated. Their work appears in the journal Neuron this week.

To test their model, the team took tissue samples from a mouse whose brain had been bioengineered to make larger neurons in the cerebral cortex express a fluorescent protein (found in jellyfish), making them glow yellow-green. Because of this glow, the researchers were able to see synapses against the background of neurons.

They found that the brain’s complexity is beyond anything they’d imagined, almost to the point of being beyond belief, says Stephen Smith, a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and senior author of the paper describing the study:

One synapse, by itself, is more like a microprocessor–with both memory-storage and information-processing elements–than a mere on/off switch. In fact, one synapse may contain on the order of 1,000 molecular-scale switches. A single human brain has more switches than all the computers and routers and Internet connections on Earth.

Smith adds that this gives us a glimpse into brain tissue at a level of detail never before attained: “The entire anatomical context of the synapses is preserved. You know right where each one is, and what kind it is.”

While the study was set up to demonstrate array tomography’s potential in neuroscience (which is starting to resemble astronomy), the team was surprised to find that a class of synapses that have been considered identical to one another actually contain certain distinctions. They hope to use their imaging model to learn more about those distinctions, identifying which are gained or lost during learning, after experiences such as trauma, or in neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.

In the meantime, Smith and Micheva are starting a company that is gathering funding for future work, and Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing has obtained a U.S. patent on array tomography and filed for a second.”


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Did Luther Get It Wrong? Most Major Contemporary Pauline Scholars Say “Yes”

the imageLuther’s understanding of the law was a keystone of his theology, and of much Protestant theology until the present century. In its essence it followed a view which originated in medieval Roman Catholicism (it is not found in first millennium Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy) Was this whole development simply wrong? That it was in fact wrong  has become a central axiom for a majority of contemporary Pauline scholars in our generation (see further below) -a development which took place primarily in the last half-century (since 1977, gathering momentum like a veritable  academic snowball.

If one can accept the notion -and it is difficult on academic grounds not to- that primary sources by Jews describing what their own religion was like before, around, and after the time of Christ are a better index of what Jews actually believed than majorly conflicting medieval Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and later accounts which first appeared in the middle ages, the conclusion might well appear on the order of a no-brainer.

The following brief excerpt from the article “Law” in Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993) by F. Thielman tells the basic story:

It is easy, when reading Luther, to concentrate on the theological argument with the Roman Catholic Church in which he is so energetically engaged and to miss a subtle hermeneutical impropriety in which the great Reformer and theologian has indulged. Especially in his lectures on Galatians, but elsewhere as well, Luther assumes that the Jews against whose view of the law Paul was arguing held the same theology of justification as the medieval Roman Catholic Church. This hermeneutical error would be perpetuated over the next four centuries and eventually serve as the organizing principle for mountains of Protestant scholarship on the Old Testament and ancient Judaism.

“It was frequently assumed among Old Testament scholars, for example, that at least from the period of the restoration of the Jews to Israel under Ezra, the history of Judaism was a story of spiraling degeneracy into legalism, hypocrisy, and lack of compassion. Similarly, when Protestant scholars discussed rabbinic Judaism they tended to assume Paul’s polemic against Judaism interpreted through the lens of Luther’s reaction against Roman Catholicism provided a sound basis for systematizing the religion of the Mishnah, Talmud and related Jewish writings of a later era. F. Weber’s “popular” description of Talmudic theology (1880) is typical. Keeping the many and peculiar commands of the Law, said Weber, was the means by which the rabbis believed salvation was earned. The ordinary rabbi, therefore, believed that the goal of rabbinic religion was the search for reward on the basis of merit, that God was a stern judge, and that the approaching death brought with it the fear of losing salvation due to a lack of merit.

“A large part of this portrait of ancient Judaism found its way into the interpretations of the NT generally, and especially into expositions of Paul’s writings. Widely used commentaries such as that of W. Sanday and A. Headlam on Romans (reprinted seventeen times fro 1895 to 1952), and influential books about the NT, such as R. Bultmann’s popular description of Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (1949, ET 1956) used this picture of Judaism as a backdrop for their explanations of NT theology. In Sanday and Heeadlam’s commentary, for example, Paul’s struggle with the law in Romans 7:7-25, which they take to be a portrait of his pre-conversion existence, is interpreted as the natural consequence of the “stern” Rabbinic view of the Law, which, they claim, “was fatal to peace of mind” (Sanday and Headlam, 189). Similarly, Bultmann, in a section of Primitive Christianity titled “Jewish Legalism” claimed that the Jewish view of the Law in the first century made “radical obedience” to God impossible because it held that once a certain list of commandments had been kept, one was in the clear and was free to do anything (Bultmann, 69). In addition, said Bultmann, it taught that God would punish sins strictly according to the law of retribution, that salvation was never a certainty, and that even repentance and faith could be transformed into meritorious works (Bultmann, 69-71).

“The Lutheran picture of ancient Judaism now clad in the impressive robes of scholarship, did not go unchallenged among Jewish scholars. As early as 1894 the distinguished Jewish reformer C. G. Montifeore objected forcefully to what he viewed as the tendency of Christian theologians to paint rabbinic Judaism as a dark shadow against which Paul’s theology could brightly shine. The rabbinic literature, pleaded Montifeore, reveals a compassionate and forgiving God ready to lay aside even grievous infractions of the Law at the slightest movement toward repentance by the offending party. It portrays rabbis, moreover, as those who regarded Law as a gift and a delight, who placed a value on faith in God as high as Paul’s and whose daily prayer was “Sovereign Lord of all worlds, not because of our own righteous acts do we lay our supplications before thee but because of thine abundant mercies” (b. Yoma 87b). “I wonder,” Montefiore asked in an address before England’s St. Paul Association in 1900, “if there is the smallest chance that you, unlike the theologians, will believe me when I say that all this business of the severe Judge and the stern Law giver is a figment and a bugbear?”

“Montifeore’s critique of the Lutheran caricature of Judaism at first fell on deaf ears, but through the work of several influential scholars over the next seventy years began to gain the ascendancy not only in Jewish circles, but among nearly everyone working in the field. In 1927 G. F. Moore published a two-volume study of rabbinic theology which, in contrast to Weber’s work, emphasized the role of grace, forgiveness and repentance in the earliest literature of rabbinic religion. This was followed in 1948 by W. D. Davie’s detailed study of Paul and Rabbinic Judaism in which Davies argued that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the Law was only one metaphor among many, probably developed first in the heat of argument (Davies, 71-73), and that the apostle’s letters revealed simply a Pharisee for whom the messianic age had dawned (Davies, 71-73).

“Without question, however, the pivotal event in bringing Montefiore’s complaint from the backwater to main stream was the publication in 1977 of E. P. Sander’s Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sander’s book was so powerful not because its approach was original but because Sanders addressed pointedly and exhaustively the distorted view of Judaism which Lutheran scholarship, and those under its influence, had produced. Sanders made his way step by step through the most influential works of modern NT scholarship in order to show that they departed from ancient Judaism as a religion in which salvation was achieved by meritorious achievement. He then embarked on a lengthy journey through not only the rabbinic literature of the first 200 years after Christ but through the Qumran literature, the apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha as well to determine how those documents answer the question. What must one do to be saved?

“His conclusion was that in all of this ancient Jewish literature, with the exception of the atypical document 4 Ezra, salvation came not through achieving a certain number of meritorious works but through belonging to the covenant people of God. The proper response to the covenant was, of course, obedience, but means of atonement were readily available for those who failed to obey fully. This “pattern of religion” Sanders called “covenantal nomism” (Sanders 1977, 75; 1992, 262-78), and, he claimed, it bears little resemblance to the description of Jewish “soteriology” in most handbooks of Protestant biblical scholarship.

“Largely as a result of this important work, most students of Pauline theology now believe that Montefiore, Sanders, and other dissenters from the classic Protestant perspective have proven their case…” (F. Thielman, “Law” in Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993).

BIBLIOGRAPHY. R. Bultmann, Primitive Christianity in Its Contemporary Setting (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1956); W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism : Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (4th ed.; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980); T. J. Deidun, New Covenant Morality in Paul (AnBib 89; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1981); J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990); R. B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven: Yale University, 1989); M. Hengel, The Zealots (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1989); H. Hübner, Law in Paul’s Thought (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1984); H. Maccoby, Paul and Hellenism (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991); C. G. Montefiore, “First Impressions of Paul,” JQR 6 (1894) 428–75; idem, “Rabbinic Judaism and the Epistles of St. Paul,” JQR 13 (1900–1901) 161–217; G. F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim (2 vols.; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1927); H. Räisänen, Paul and the Law (WUNT 29; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1983); idem, The Torah and Christ: Essays in German and English on the Problem of the Law in Early Christianity (SESJ; Helsinki: Finnish Exegetical Society, 1986); W. Sanday and A. C. Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (ICC; 5th ed; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1902); E. P. Sanders, Judaism : Practice and Belief 63BCE-66CE (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1992); idem, Paul and Palestinian Judaism : A Comparison of Patterns of Religion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977); idem, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); idem, Paul (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); S. Sandmel, The Genius of Paul: A Study in History (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979); idem, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); F. Thielman, From Plight to Solution: A Jewish Framework for Understanding Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians and Romans (NovTSup 61; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1989); P. J. Tomson, Paul and the Jewish Law: Halakah in the Letters of the Apostle to the Gentiles (CRINT 3.1; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); F. Weber, Jüdische Theologie auf Grund des Talmud und verwandter Schriften, gemeinfasslich dargestellt (2d ed.; Leipzig: Dörffling & Franke, 1897; 1st ed., 1880); A. J. M. Wedderburn, The Reasons for Romans (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988); S. Westerholm, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith: Paul and His Recent Interpreters (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988); N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991).

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Was the Tower of Babel a Ziggurat?

Fig. 1. Escher's Conception of the Tower of Babel

A cuneiform version of the familiar biblical story of the Tower of Babel from Sumer, the first civilization to appear in the ancient Near East, reads:  “The building of this tower (temple) highly offended the gods. In a night they (threw down) what man had built, and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad, and their speech was strange.”

The striking similarity of the biblical version (Gen 11:1-4) will be obvious to any reader.

As we will see below,  the story both ancient narratives tell us actually fits our best knowledge of earth’s earliest civilization in the ancient Near East like a well-tailored glove.

Fig. 2 “House Binding Together Heaven and Earth” at Nippur


In the ancient Near East, most cities were constructed around sacred towers with uncanny similarities to what we find in the biblical Tower of Babel narrative; these sacred towers are referred to as ziggurats. These massive structures first appear during the Uruk period (3500-3100 BC) in Mesopotamia (literally “the land between two rivers,” also referred to as the “Cradle of Civilization,” or commonly “land of the Bible”) from Babylonia to Assyria. It is in this land, explicitly, where the earliest events in Genesis take place. The earliest ziggurat discovered to date is at Erech/Uruk (cf. Gen 10:9-10: Genesis 10:9-10 “He [Nimrod] was a mighty hunter before the LORD… And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar”).

Fig. 3.  Ziggurat Locations in the Ancient Near East

A growing number of scholars and commentators running the spectrum from liberal to conservative believe the Tower of Babel, described in Genesis 11, was almost certainly a ziggurat. Why?

(1) Gen 11 uses typical ziggurat terminology (this point will be expanded below).

(2) Bitumen mortar and baked clay-brick construction of ziggurats is identical to the biblical description (Gen 11:3a: “let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly” and Gen 11:3b “And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar.” The building method described in Genesis precisely mirrors early Sumerian building practices in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley where the first civilizations were, but not later times or biblical places (like in Israel during the kingdom period) during and where such methods had centuries earlier passed into disuse and obscurity.

(3) Gen 11 “plains of Shinar” (SNR) is identified philologically as Sumer (SMR); the plains of Shinar/Sumer are between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

(4) Sumer also has narratives of the confusion of tongues and the destruction of a great tower.

(5) Modern research has clearly demonstrated that the earliest civilizations and ancient languages actually developed in the general area of Mesopotamia, the plain of Shinar.

Fig. 4. Remains of the Ziggurat of Eanna

A TOWER THAT REACHES UNTO THE HEAVENS (cf. constellation worship in the early ANE)

That the ziggurat symbolized the connecting link between heaven and earth is quite clear from cuneiform descriptions and reliefs. The biblical language describing “a tower that reaches to the heavens” is quite typical in comparison to the language used to describe the ziggurats (e.g. “Temple of the Stairway to Pure Heaven” (Sippar); “House binding Heaven and Earth” (Nippur); “Temple Linking Heaven and Earth” (Larsa); “Temple of the Foundation Platform of Heaven and Earth” (Babylon, also used of the Dilbat ziggurat); and so on). Mesopotamian ziggurats were typically given names demonstrating that they were intended to serve as “staircases” or “binding” locations between earth and heaven. So we see that a narrative about a tower whose top reached into the heavens fits the times quite well.

Fig. 5 Ur Nammu Atop the Ziggurat at Ur: “a Tower Unto the Heavens”

Further evidence relates a story of King Ur-Nammu of the Third Dynasty of Ur (2044 to 2007 BC) on a stele nearly five feet across and ten feet high (Fig. 5 above). At the top, the king stands in an attitude of worship. Above his head is the symbol of the moon god Nannar, and to the right are figures of angels with vases from which flow the streams of life (these are the earliest known artistic representations of angels). The lower panels show the king setting out with compass, pick, trowel, and mortar baskets. One panel contains just a single ladder used as the structure was rising. The reverse side depicts a commemorative feast.

Fig. 6. Close up of the baked bricks and bitumen mortar of the ziggurat at Ur “They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar… ‘Let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly'” (Gen 11:3).

We have already seen that the baking of bricks forms a significant and accurate portrayal of building practices in the Bible. ”Kiln-fired bricks are first noted during the late Uruk period and become more common in the Jamdet Nasr period toward the end of the fourth millennium (Finegan, J., Archaeological History of the Ancient Near East (Boulder CO: Westview, 1979), p. 8; cf. Singer, C., The History of Technology (Oxford: Clarendon). Bitumen is the usual mortar used with kiln-fired bricks. By contrast, the later building technology of Israel/Palestine used a mud mortar. Bitumen of any kind was very expensive in Israel (Forbes) though it was standard in the earlier Mesopotamian period. The biblical description of the building materials accurately reflects a major distinction between later Israelite and earlier Mesopotamian building methods, giving further credence to the fact Genesis contains some very ancient material that is accurate in the finest detail (see Fig. 6 above).

Fig. 7. The Ziggurat of Ur


The confusion of tongues is also spoken of in a Sumerian fragment initially published by S. N. Kramer which states:

“Enki… Changed the speech of their mouths/ (brought?) contention into it/ Into the speech of man that (until then) had been one.”

Another ancient cuneiform tablet reads,

“the erection of this tower highly offended the gods. In a night they [threw down] what man had built, and impeded their progress. They were scattered abroad, and their speech was strange.”

This is yet another of a host of examples which demonstrate the earliest chapters of the Bible have very close parallels with the ancient cuneiform literature of Mesopotamia; this was highly unexpected on the assumptions of the influential Documentary Hypothesis of the composition of Genesis in its original 19th century formulations, which stated the earliest portions of the Pentateuch were not written before circa 1000 BC in Palestine. Why are there so many parallels with Mesopotamian culture, from a place and a different time so far removed from Israel, which had turned to dust over a millennium, in some cases multiple millennia prior to the time Israel became a nation?

the image
Fig. 8. Ancient Sumer: The Origin of Writing


Writing develops first from Mesopotamia and subsequently to all other areas. (cf. Kramer, Samuel Noah, History Begins at Sumer (3rd Edition, 1989); Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character (1971); Crawford, Harriet, Sumer and Sumerians (1991); H.W.F. Saggs, Babylonians (1999; covering the Ubaid period and the Sumerians to 500 BC) and Crowe, Ivan, The Quest for Food (2000).

The earliest written texts date to Sumeria, the earliest civilization (c. 3500-2340 BC. Sumer as we have seen is also the first civilization mentioned in the Bible in the Tower of Babel narrative (Gen 11:1-9). Several hundred thousand of such tablets as the one depicted above have been recovered. This first system of writing is known as cuneiform (lit. “wedge-shaped”) after the pictographic wedge shaped impressions which were made on clay which was subsequently sun-dried. Because the clay tablets were so durable, we have an astonishing amount of information about the earliest writing cultures. The earliest texts were highly pictographic, and later became more stylized and simplified. The first ziggurats were built by the Sumerians, who built some of the largest brick buildings in the world; the ziggurat was the centerpiece of all their cities. The priesthoods owned most land and livestock, and probably were political theocratic rulers of the city as well, as agents of their gods. Their main cities included Eridu, Ur, Uruk, Umma, and Lagash, which were independent city-states, frequently at war with one another. They were conquered by Sargon of Akkad in 2340 BC who unified all Mesopotamia under his rule.

Archaeologists have discovered a strong continuity in the material culture among the earliest ancient Near Eastern peoples. Philologists, however, perceive a strong discontinuity in the language to such an extent that they claim only something like an infiltration or invasion could suffice to explain it -irrespective of the complete lack of physical evidence for such an event. This conflict between archaeologists and philologists is known in the literature as “the Sumerian problem.” These respective positions appear quite irreconcilable, but the biblical story itself suggests a possible resolution which accepts and explains all of the philological and archaeological data.

1. Archaeological evidence: The first major group of settlers in the region, the ancestors of the Ubaid people, exhibits physical/material /cultural continuity with later inhabitants of the valley. The material remains suggest the Ubaid people, the Uruk people, the Proto-Literate Jemdat Nasr Culture, and the Sumerians were the same people. Archaeologist see in this cultural continuity a disconfirmation of the idea of a great invasion by a new people. There are no changes in material culture that cannot be explained as normal technological development. To the archaeologist, the earliest major inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia were the Sumerians, even if they were unable to tell us who they were during the earlier period.

2. Linguistic evidence: E.A. Speiser and B. Landsberger, who insisted that the names of rivers, indigenous plants and animals, and some cities are non-Sumerian words unrelated to any known language. Landsberger demonstrated this is particularly true of words pertaining to agriculture suggesting basic farming vocabulary and common farming techniques were invented by non-Sumerian people. This lead philologists to posit an invasion or at least an infiltration into Mesopotamia, which philologists date at the beginning of the Uruk period.

3. Both ancient Sumerian and biblical literature attest a third alternative: a confounding of speech began within the context of an otherwise highly unified culture and ultimately fractured it. This perspective allows both archaeological data (unity of material culture) and philological data (disunity of language) to coexist. On this view, both the archaeologists and the linguists are correct.

Fig. 9. Ur-Nammu Ziggurat Dedication: “For his lady Inanna, Ur-Nammu, the mighty man, the king of Ur, the king of Sumer and Akkad, built her temple.”

The biblical view that the world/land (the Heb. word אָ֫רֶץ can be translated as either) had one tongue before a time of confusion, we have seen, is not unique to the Bible; it is multiply attested from independent sources as different as the Bible and Sumerian cuneiform literature. We should note that these “one tongue” narratives do not necessarily entail no language development whatsoever before the confusion of tongues; the narratives only affirm that the whole land spoke one language at the time; this would have been an amazing cultural achievement quite beyond what we are capable of today.


W. F. Albright suggested that the Hebrew word sem does not mean “name” but “an (inscribed) monument.” He says “It was, therefore, as a tremendous monument to its builders that the Tower of Babel was intended” (Albright, W. F., Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, p.87). There is much to commend the view that one of the central foci of Mesopotamian ziggurat builders was that their memories be preserved for posterity in a fashion which emphasized their role in building these structures, which were not only physically central to their cities, but around which their entire lives seemed to be centered.

Fig. 10. Ur-Nammu, King and Lawgiver of Ur; Builder of the Ziggurat of Ur
Notice the bowl of clay on his head, for construction of the ziggurat.

“King Ur-Nammu rebuilt and enlarged one of the most important temples in ancient Mesopotamia – the E-kur of Enlil, the chief god of the pantheon. The figurine above, which was buried in a foundation box beneath one of the temple towers, represents the king at the start of the building project – carrying on his head a basket of clay from which would be made the critically important first brick. The foundation deposit also contained an inscribed stone tablet; beads of stone and gold; chips of various stones; and four ancient date pits found perched atop the basket carried by the king”

( Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Ur-Nammu’s empire lasted about 100 years after which the cities of southern Mesopotamia fell under the control of others.

Fig. 11. Massive Ancient Tower Near Babylon

One of the most famous ziggurats was in Babylon. It was dedicated to Marduk, the god of the city, and was called Etemenanki meaning “House platform of Heaven and Earth.” The ruins of this massive crumbling tower are near the site of ancient Babylon in Iraq. Some scholars assume this was the tower of Babel. The remaining tower may have been built on a previous structure “Each ziggurat was dedicated to the city’s most important god or goddess. For example the ziggurat at Ur was the home of the moon god Nanna, while Enki, the god of wisdom and fresh water, lived at Eridu. Temples in Mesopotamia were given names. The ziggurat at Eridu was called Eunir which means ‘House Temple-Tower’ while at Nippur the ziggurat was known as Eduranki, which means ‘House binding Heaven and Earth.’”


Fig. 12. Ziggurat at Ur Before Restoration

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the first stage of the ziggurat was reconstructed by the Iraqi Department of Antiquities. The manner of restoration was carefully guided by the principle excavators.

Fig. 13 Ascent to the Ziggurat of Ur

Fig. 14 Ascent to the Ziggurat at Nippur


Civilization, culture, and language did, according to archaeology, indeed develop from the center of its origin, in Mesopotamia, which is also the narrative setting of Genesis.  Archaeology and even the earliest portions of the Bible tell the same story to a degree that is far greater than is commonly realized. The observations above only just begin to illustrate this fact.

Posted in Ancient Orient and Old Testament | 6 Comments

Dikaiosyne Theou (The Righteousness of God) in Contemporary Biblical Scholarship

the imageThe following material is excerpted from the excellent discussion in K. I. Onesti and M. T. Brauch, “Righteousness, Righteousness of God,” in  Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (1993), pp. 827-837. The material below under section 3 The History of Interpretation is especially worthwhile. If the reader lacks time to read the entire 10 or so pages, section 3 at the very least should not be missed.

“In the Pauline corpus the teaching about the righteousness of God and the related doctrine of the justification of the sinner hold an important place. Though the centrality of these concepts in Pauline thought has in recent times been questioned (Schweitzer, Fitzmyer, Sanders; cf. DPL “Center”; “Justification”; “Paul and His Interpreters”), they have in the past been the object of vigorous discussion, especially since these terms have been widely affirmed as a key to Paul’s understanding of salvation. But while there has been broad scholarly consensus about the significance of these terms in Paul’s thought, there has not been agreement as to the precise meaning these terms have in Paul’s usage.
1. Terminology, Background and Issues
2. Righteousness in Paul
3. History of Interpretation
4. God’s Righteousness as Relation-Restoring Love

1. Terminology, Background and Issues.
The voluminous discussion has been focused largely on two questions: (1) how is the genitive construction dikaiosyne theou (“righteousness of God”) to be interpreted, and (2) what does it mean in the overall context of Paul’s thought? Is it to be understood in the so-called objective sense (somewhat straining the grammatical definition of objective genitive but frequently used by commentators to label this sense), that is, the righteousness which is valid before God? Or is it to be interpreted as a subjective genitive, referring either to God’s own righteousness, describing his being (he is righteous) or God’s action (God acts justly)? Further, is righteousness, or God’s righteousness through Christ, received by impartation or imputation? Does this righteousness give juridical standing, a new status, or a new nature? And from the human side, is the righteousness of God experienced as ethical power, a new relationship with God, or a change of lordship? Is Paul using these terms within the context of Greco-Roman jurisprudence, where righteousness means “justice” or “righteous judgment” (in a legal sense), or is he using them in light of OT meanings?
    1.1. Philological Concerns. In the interpretation of the theme righteousness of God, the problem begins when one considers the meaning of words. Words neither exist by themselves without a context, nor are texts written as free-floating packages of meaning without a historical basis or a place in their cultural milieu. The language Paul used was Greek, but as a Jew he participated in a culture that was Hebrew as well as Greco-Roman. Since Paul quotes passages of the OT throughout his letters, one must understand Paul as writing within the tradition of the Hebrew Bible. By reason of Paul’s frequent use of the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, the same concepts in the LXX should be given due consideration. In English translation the words righteousness or justification are used to translate the Greek dikaiosyne. These words may or may not connote the same meaning as the Greek term. These are just some of the linguistic issues that lie at the foundation of interpretation. If one couples the linguistic possibilities with various theological presuppositions, the interpretive options increase (see Hermeneutics/Interpreting Paul).
    1.1.1. Etymology. Hebrew. G. Quell provides an excellent introduction to the issues that are at the basis of the Hebrew understanding of righteousness. The concept of righteousness in the Hebrew Bible emphasizes the relational aspect of God and humanity in the context of a covenant. Among the various Hebrew word groups associated with righteousness, sedeq (“straightness,” “justness,” “rightness”) and sedaqa (“justice,” “straightness,” “honesty”) suggest a norm. In the LXX dikaiosyne (“righteousness”) is used 81 times for sedeq, 134 times for sedaqa  and six times it renders freely the adjective saddîq (“just,” “righteous,” “honest”). There are eight instances in which dikaiosyne (“righteousness”) renders hesed (“loving-kindness,” “mercy,” “piety,” “goodwill,” “covenant-faithfulness”; e.g., Gen 19:19). Other Hebrew words meaning “genuine,” “good,” “evenness,” “purity” and “simplicity” are occasionally translated by dikaiosyne. Dikaios (“observant of right,” “righteous,” “fair”) renders the Hebrew saddîq 189 times. In sum, of the predominant Hebrew terms the root sdq is the only one to be rendered mainly by dike (“right,” “law”) and its derivatives, especially dikaiosyne  while other synonymous Hebrew terms such as hesed are not given their due when the LXX translates them by eleos (“pity,” “mercy”), which introduces an emotional element not present in the Hebrew. Dikaiosyne would have been a more accurate rendering of these words as well.
The common Hebrew word for righteousness is sedeq  or its feminine form sedaqa  which occurs in the OT 117 and 115 times respectively. The Hebrew meaning of justice means more than the classical Greek idea of giving to every one their due. Usually the word suggests Yahweh’s saving acts as evidence of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. For this meaning of righteousness of God, dikaiosyne is not as flexible as the Hebrew word.
In the Tannaitic literature of rabbinic Judaism there was a theological and semantic shift restricting sedeq and sedaqa to proper behavior, withsedaqa being used primarily for almsgiving (Przybylski, 75). God’s righteousness was increasingly understood as God’s willingness to protect and provide for the poor. This association was already present within the Hebrew Bible; for example: “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor; their righteousness endures forever” (Ps 112:9). Greek. The richness of the Hebrew usage is generally well reproduced in the LXX (Quell). Of the relatively few instances in which sedeq, sedaqa and saddîq are not translated by dikai–  words, eleemosyne and eleos (“alms,” “mercy”) are employed for sedaqa (cf. LXX Is 1:27; Ziesler, 59–60). Similar evidence of this is found in the NT at Matthew 6:1, where the variant readings of later MSS read eleemosynen for dikaiosyne (see Przybylski, 78). Latin. In the Western Roman Empire, the Old Latin versions of the NT displaced the Greek NT, and Paul was consequently understood via the Latin translation. The Old Latin and later Latin Vulgate rendered dikaiosyne by iustitia (“justice”). The legal connotation of this term in Roman Law was superimposed upon the word dikaiosyne  which Paul had employed. The Roman legal understanding of justice was in a distributive sense: to give to each their due, the bestowal of rewards and punishments according to merit. The OT sense of righteousness as grounded in covenantal relationship was weakened, and its place was taken by the courtroom image of the sinner before God’s tribunal. Although righteousness in the OT had a legal aspect, it was that of a litigant being adjudged righteous by God before their enemies. The biblical image of the covenant between God and humanity faded into the background, while the Latin context called to mind stark legal realities of the court. The shift in language from Hebrew to Greek to Latin resulted in an alteration in theological content as the words that were employed either overlaid the earlier meaning or signified something new in the receptor language. English. Modern English partakes of a double portion of Indo-European languages: a Germanic base from Anglo-Saxon as well as Latinate words from the Norman Conquest. Because of this characteristic of English, one can say either “to be righteous” (from the Anglo-Saxon verb rightwisen meaning “to make right, to rightwise”), or “to be justified” (a verbal form derived from ius, iuris and iustitia  meaning “to be declared just”). The semantic ranges of the two are not identical.
    1.1.2. Worldviews. Hebrew. An essential component of Israel’s religious experience was that Yahweh was not only Lord of Law but also the one who was faithful to it. God was faithful to the covenant. God’s righteousness was shown by saving actions in accordance with this covenant relationship. A person was righteous by acting properly in regard to the covenant relationship with Yahweh. One’s relationship with others reflected the relational aspect of the covenant with Yahweh. Righteousness was understood in terms of being in proper relation to the covenant rather than in terms of “right” or ethical conduct as determined by some abstract standard. When Judah says of Tamar, “She is more righteous than I,” he is referring to her being righteous in her pursuit of covenantal, familial responsibility (Gen 38:26). Greco-Roman. The gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon were thought to be subject to forces beyond their control (see Religions). This understanding later degenerated into a sort of inexorable fate to which even the gods were subject (see Worship). The Hellenistic theory of universal law meant that both the gods and humanity had to comply with these overarching norms in order to be righteous. Giving others their due was the basis of righteousness; one acted in accordance with a norm (Plato). In Greek thought, righteousness was a virtue. According to Aristotle, righteousness was the correct functioning of all the virtues. In Roman Civil Law, justice (iustitia) was done when one acted toward another in accordance with one’s respective status established by tradition and the Roman legal corpus.
    1.2. OT Background. While the OT uses righteousness terminology in numerous contexts involving all areas of life, the touchstone of righteousness is Israel’s covenantal relationship with Yahweh. It is based on the standard of God’s covenant faithfulness. Righteousness is not primarily an ethical quality; rather it characterizes the character or action of God who deals rightly within a covenant relationship and who established how others are to act within that relationship. “Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is right?” (Gen 18:25). The covenant faithfulness of God, the righteousness of God, is shown by Yahweh’s saving acts. This salvation is variously experienced as Israel’s victory over enemies, or personal vindication of one’s innocence before God in the presence of one’s enemies, and it involves both soteriological and forensic elements (see Triumph).
In the classical prophets of the eighth century, there is a greater emphasis on the juridical and ethical views of sedeq  Amos, on behalf of the poor, associates righteousness with doing justice (misÎpaœt√  Amos 5:7, 24; 6:12). Corrupt judges who do not judge rightly do not reflect the righteousness of the covenant relationship. Their oppression of the poor is the antithesis of righteousness. Hosea, emphasizing divine love, links righteousness with loving-kindness and mercy as well as justice (Hos 2:19; 10:12). Micah refers only to God’s righteousness as being his faithfulness to act within the covenant to save Israel from her enemies and to vindicate the penitent (Mic 6:5; 7:9). Isaiah associates the righteousness of the people and God’s righteousness with just decisions (Is 1:26; 16:5; 26:9). God’s faithfulness to deliver Israel is seen in the Servant of the Lord and Cyrus as God’s chosen leaders/deliverers (Is 42:6; 45:8, 13, 19). Covenant relationship is the basis of righteousness (Is 51:1). God promises to bring righteousness, which is often understood as deliverance or vindication (Is 51:5, 8; 62:1, 2). In sum, the covenant understanding of righteousness in the classical prophets relates persons to the living God and his covenantal purposes in restoring order to his creation, not to an abstract norm of conduct (see Scullion).
    1.3. Intertestamental Literature.
    1.3.1. LXX. The Hellenistic idea of righteousness as a virtue, a meeting of the norm, was replaced with the idea of meeting God’s claim in this covenant relationship (Schrenk). Thus the semantic range for dikaios in LXX Greek was enlarged due to the influence of the Hebrew background. In fourteen instances the Hebrew word sedaqa  which could have been translated by dikaiosyne, was rendered by eleemosyne (meaning “pity,” “mercy”; e.g., Is 1:27; 59:16; Ps 34 [35]: 24). This added emotional element also limited the semantic value of dikaiosyne in later Judaism to almsgiving.
    1.3.2. Apocrypha/Deuterocanon. In addition to the understanding of righteousness in the Hellenistic manner as personal virtue, there are Stoic virtues “associated” with righteousness: integrity, courage, constancy, even in the midst of personal woe, and self-control. In the apocryphal works there is an increasing interest in good works and the merits of the righteous. Tobit’s farewell advice to his son Tobias portrays charity (eleemosyne) as bringing safety rather than fulfilling the prayers of the poor: “For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness” (Tob 4:10). In Tobit the focus is on the individual rather than on the community. We further find an emphasis on the relation between suffering and righteousness (Wis 3:1–5). The belief that the merits of some will assist others to gain righteousness appears in the Maccabean literature (2 Macc 12:38–45).
    1.3.3. Pseudepigrapha. In the apocalyptic literature such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Enoch and Jubilees, the idea is prominent that the righteousness of God will characterize the end time (e.g., T. Dan 5:7–13). In this literature God not only is faithful to the covenant, but beyond the present difficulty God will vindicate the covenant people in the eschatological future.
Characteristic of apocalyptic is an added sense of the distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous. And righteousness is seen as an eschatological reality in that Yahweh will vindicate the righteous (1 Enoch 95:7). The righteousness of God will be shown in the vindication of the persecuted righteous. Thus there is a coupling of the motif of the suffering righteous with the traditional Hebrew understanding of God as the one who vindicates (Ps 26; 31:14–18).
    1.3.4. Qumran. In the documents from Qumran we find references to God’s righteousness providing salvation and forgiveness. “And when I stumble, the mercies of God are always my salvation. When I stagger because of the evil of my flesh, my justification is in the righteousness of God which exists forever” (1QS 11:12). In the Thanksgiving Psalm, the righteousness of God shows God’s faithfulness to the community: “You forgive the unjust and purify people from guilt by your righteousness” (sedaqa 1QH 4:37). In The War of the Children of Light, Yahweh is able to bring them to the joys of future vindication through the righteousness of God (1QM 18:8). “Essentially it means the covenantal faithfulness of God which is being revealed especially in the eschatological warfare for the rule of God’s justice” (Kuyper).

2. Righteousness in Paul.
The noun “righteousness” (dikaiosyne), its related adjective “righteous” (dikaios), and the verb “to justify,” “to pronounce/treat as righteous” or “put right” (dikaioo) are found in the Pauline writings over 100 times. The sheer volume of occurrences in their various usages and meanings indicates the central place they had in the theology of the apostle.
We will present the meaning of Paul’s language of righteousness / justification in its various contexts, bearing in mind that not every instance of “the righteousness of God” carries the same meaning. We will then proceed to explain these terms within the history of interpretation, the currents of contemporary scholarship, and summarize our own conclusions regarding this central Pauline affirmation.
    2.1. Dikaiosyne. Paul uses this word both in relationship to God and to human beings. In the latter case its ultimate origin is without exception the character and/or action of God. The term is used in various contexts or associations.
    2.1.1. Righteousness Declared. A distinctive usage is found where Paul states that righteousness in believers is the result of a word, or declaration, of God. In Romans 4, where Paul interprets Abraham’s relationship with God as a scriptural foundation for his understanding of believers’ “justification by faith” (explained in Rom 1–3), righteousness is said to be “reckoned to” (RSV) or “credited to” (NIV) Abraham by God on the basis of Abraham’s believing/trusting in God (Rom 4:3, 5, 6, 9, 11, 22), rather than on the basis of his works. In Galatians 3:6 Abraham’s faith in God is “reckoned to him as righteousness.” Here, Abraham’s trusting submission to God is evaluated as “righteousness.”
    2.1.2. Righteousness as Gift. Closely related are those usages where righteousness is stated to be a gift of God reigning in the believer (Rom 5:17, 21). Here it is seen as a new reality which dominates or directs the life in Christ (cf. Rom 8:10). According to Galatians 2:21, this righteousness results from God’s grace, for if it were possible to achieve it via obedience to the Law, Christ’s death would have been in vain. In Galatians 3:21 righteousness (in us, or as our new situation “in Christ”) is equated with life, which the Law is powerless to produce.
    2.1.3. Righteousness of Faith. Righteousness, based on God’s word and work in Christ, a gift of God’s grace, comes to believers in the context and through the instrumentality of faith. Where righteousness and faith are related by Paul, it is almost always contrasted with a legalistic, or Law-oriented, righteousness. Thus in Romans 4:11, 13–14 the “righteousness of faith” is said to be based neither on circumcision nor on the deeds of the Law. In Romans 9:30–32; 10:4–6, 10 the righteousness that comes by faith is contrasted with that which is based on the Law and the doing of the works of the Law. Only the former leads to life, to salvation. Philippians 3:9 speaks of the righteousness that results from faith in Jesus, rather than “my own righteousness” based on Law. This righteousness by faith is of course the righteousness from God, “which depends on faith.” This conviction is affirmed by Paul in contrast to his own former experience where, on the basis of Law-based righteousness, he judged himself as “blameless” (Phil 3:6). Such moral perfectionism as that which Paul had by pedigree and personal endeavor does not, however, bring one into right relationship with God. According to Titus 3:5 believers are saved, not because of deeds done in righteousness (here righteousness means “legal obedience”), but by God’s merciful, atoning work in Christ.
    2.1.4. Righteousness of Obedience. A final context is the use of righteousness in an ethical sense, characterizing the life of obedience of those who have been justified. Romans 6:13, 18, 19, 20 contrast lives/bodies as instruments or slaves of wickedness with lives yielded to God as instruments of righteousness. What is clearly in view here is the expected result of life lived in relationship with Christ, right living that is in keeping with God’s purposes. Righteousness (together with peace and joy) is that which marks the believer’s relationship with others (rather than judging or offending others) and is the result of God’s reign.
This view of righteousness is expanded in a number of Pauline passages. In 2 Corinthians 6:7, 14 it is given as a mark of the Christian life (acting rightly, justly, morally), in contrast with evil, falsehood, inequality (see Ethics). Righteousness is that quality of life which bears fruit in generous giving (2 Cor 9:10) or in purity and blamelessness (Phil 1:11). In Ephesians 4:24 righteousness is paired with holiness as resembling God, in contrast to corrupt, deceitful living. It is one of the marks of those who are “children of light” in distinction from those who perform “unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:9). In the Pastorals there are the exhortations to “aim at righteousness” (1 Tim 6:11; 2 Tim 2:22) and to receive “training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16); the context is clearly that of moral, ethical living. Finally, on the basis of faithful service, “the crown of righteousness” is granted at the eschatological judgment by God, “the righteous judge” (2 Tim 4:8).
    2.2. Dikaios. The adjective dikaios (“upright,” “just,” “righteous”) is ascribed to both human beings and to God. When applied to persons, it defines them as those whose lives are in keeping with God’s purposes (Eph 6:1); who live before him in faithfulness (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11); who are obedient to God’s commands (Rom 2:13; 3:10; 1 Tim 1:9); live good, upright, virtuous lives (Rom 5:7; Phil 4:8; Tit 1:8); and exercise fairness and justice (Col 4:1).
Several times God is defined as “righteous” in his nature and action as the just one, the one who can be counted on to mete out justice and do what is right (Rom 3:26; 2 Thess 1:5–6; 2 Tim 4:8). Related to this is the conviction that God’s Law is “holy, righteous and good” (Rom 7:12).
Paul’s conviction (Rom 5:19) that Christ’s obedience to God (in contrast to Adam’s disobedience) will result in “many being made righteous” must be understood within the context of God’s Law, which reveals the righteous purposes of God. In terms of God’s will for humanity, the goal of God’s work in Christ is to transform humans into those who are righteous, whose lives are aligned with God’s purposes, and who, therefore, are in conformity with the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).
    2.3. Dikaioo. The verbal form of the noun righteousness, (dikaioo  “to justify” RSV, NIV, NEB; “to put right” TEV) is used almost always to describe that divine action which affects the sinner in such a way that the relation with God is altered or transformed (either ontologically, as a change in nature; or positionally, resulting from a judicial act; or relationally, as one who was alienated and is now reconciled [see 3 below]). Everywhere this action of God, emerging from his nature as the righteous one, is seen as an act of grace and takes place in the context of the exercise of faith, or trust or believing in Jesus.
Romans 3:21–31 is the most thorough statement of this distinctive Pauline theme. Its validity is grounded by Paul in the story of Abraham (Rom 4). Further reflection is given to it in such central theological texts as Romans 5:1, 9 and Galatians 2:17; 3:8, 24. The negative formulation of this truth is in the contrasting affirmation that no one is justified “by the Law.” In Romans 3:20; 4:2 and Galatians 2:16; 3:11 Paul states categorically the impossibility of receiving this justifying action of God by means of successfully keeping the requirements of the Law.
There are several texts where this action of God is addressed not to the sinner but to those who are already “justified.” The setting for this action is always eschatological judgment (Rom 2:13; 8:33; Gal 5:4–5). The issue in these instances is not salvation (either by works or by faith). Rather, those who have been justified (by grace through faith) appear before “the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5:10) where “the empirical reality of one’s life before God as ‘works’ will be revealed and evaluated” (Cosgrove, 660; see Judgment; Rewards.
    2.4. Dikaiosyne Theou. The concept of God’s righteousness, its nature, function and result, is central to Paul’s teaching on the justification of the sinner. The genitive construction dikaiosyne theou  “righteousness of God” (Rom 1:17; 3:5, 21, 22; 10:3; 2 Cor 5:21), or dikaiosyne autou  “his righteousness” (Rom 3:25, 26), or he ek theou dikaiosyne  “righteousness from God” (Phil 3:9) are found ten times. Most of these are located in Romans, Paul’s fullest discourse on God’s redemptive work in Christ.
Romans 1:16–17 is foundational for understanding the meaning of this concept. For Paul the gospel —the event of the life, death and resurrection of Christ—is the historical manifestation of divine redemptive power. In that gospel “God’s righteousness is revealed.” Here God’s righteousness and the gospel (God’s saving work in Christ) are virtually synonymous (with the revelation of the saving righteousness of God being contrasted with the revelation of the wrath of God in Rom 1:18). Faith responds to God’s act of righteousness and life results.
In contrast to human faithlessness and wickedness (Rom 3:3–5), God remains faithful, and in that faithfulness his righteousness is manifested. This faithfulness (or righteousness) is given its historical particularity (according to Paul’s sustained presentation in Rom 3:21–31) in the sacrificial atonement of Christ’s death (Rom 3:24–25). It is explicitly stated that in this redemptive act God’s righteousness has been manifested (Rom 3:21, 25, 26; see Death of Christ).
In all three passages in Romans (Rom 1; 3; 10), as well as in Philippians 3:9, the apprehension of God’s righteousness and of its coming into the sphere of human experience is related to faith in Jesus and understood as a gift of God’s grace. In addition, all the texts explicitly include a rejection of “works of the Law” as a valid instrument for attaining or receiving this righteousness of, or from, God.
The use of “righteousness of God” in 2 Corinthians 5:21 is in a context which does not share all the elements of those in Romans and Philippians. References to the instrumentality of faith or works are absent here. The context is the new creation brought into being through God’s work in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). This new creation consists of those who have been reconciled to God (2 Cor 5:18–19) and who at the same time become instruments of that reconciling work within the yet-existing old creation (2 Cor 5:19–20; see Center; Peace, Reconciliation. Paul climaxes this passage with the affirmation that the purpose of Christ’s identification with us in our sin-bound existence (2 Cor 5:21a) is so that we, in relationship with Christ, “might become God’s righteousness” (2 Cor 5:21b). It is highly significant for the overall understanding of this term that Paul does not say that we in Christ “might become righteous” or “might receive God’s righteousness,” but rather “that we might become God’s righteousness” (see 4 below).

3. History of Interpretation.
A. E. McGrath’s study of the history of the doctrine of justification is instructive for discerning some of the reasons why the West has understood Paul’s theology of God’s saving action in Christ largely in terms of justification rather than relying on the varied richness of the biblical understanding of salvation in Christ. Several complex reasons for this include the interest in Paul evidenced by the rise in Pauline scholarship during the theological renaissance of the twelfth century, especially the use of Pauline commentaries as vehicles of theological speculation. Coupled with this, the Western church had a high regard for classical jurisprudence, which made possible the semantic relationship between iustitia (justice) and iustificatio (justification), and allowed theologians of High Scholasticism to find in the cognate concept of justification a means of rationalizing the divine dispensation toward humankind in terms of justice. Luther interpreted the scholastics as understanding the righteousness of God as that by which God punishes sinners (WA 54.185.18–20). Therefore, Luther could not see how the gospel revealing the righteousness of God could be “good news.” Luther’s “discovery” of the free imparting of the righteousness of God to believers is instructive in explaining why the Reformation came to be perceived as inextricably linked with the doctrine of justification. The Roman Catholic desire to establish a Catholic consensus on this issue resulted in the discussion at the Council of Trent of the reconciliation of humanity to God under the aegis of the doctrine of justification.
3.1. Patristic-Medieval: East. In the East Paul’s concept of the righteousness of God and the justification of the sinner was not a prominent means for understanding God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ. J. Reumann notes that the apostolic fathers maintain the biblical view of righteousness as what God does, but they show a greater interest in the human response. Rather than giving importance to the righteousness of God and justification, Eastern Christianity emphasized the divine economy and the condescension of the Son, which led to human participation in the divine nature understood as deification (rather than justification). McGrath sees the theological differences between East and West as due to their different understandings of the work of the Holy Spirit: the West tended to subordinate the work of the Holy Spirit to the concept of grace interposed between God and humanity; the Eastern church holds to the immediacy of the divine and one’s direct encounter with the Holy Spirit expressed as deification. With this emphasis it is natural that the Eastern Church did not evidence the Western commitment to justification as the fundamental soteriological metaphor.
3.2. Patristic-Medieval: West. In the Latin fathers and Origen, the righteousness of God is understood as distributive justice: God gives to all their due, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. The Reformers turned to Augustine for his views on the righteousness of God.
3.2.1. Augustine. Augustine thought the righteousness of God was not the righteousness characterizing God’s nature, but rather that by which God justifies sinners. His idea of faith involved an intellectual aspect: to believe is to affirm in thought. Augustine coupled faith with love (Augustine Serm. 90.6; 93.5; Ep. 183.1.3). The love of God is the theme dominating his view of justification, whereas the Reformers would coin the slogan sola fide (“by faith alone”) to characterize justification and their understanding of the righteousness of God. In his work On the Trinity, Augustine makes the statement that true justifying faith is accompanied by love (De Trin. 15.18.32). In his comments on 1 Corinthians 13:2 he remarks that genuine faith always works through love (recalling Gal 5:6: see Crabtree). Augustine, along with some Greek fathers, underscored the gift aspect of justification. He believed that one’s nature was changed through this gift.
3.2.2. Roman Catholicism. In the Roman tradition the righteousness of God was understood more as that which was demanded by God. The medieval understanding of the nature of justification referred not merely to the beginning of the Christian life, but to its continuation and ultimate perfection, in which the Christian is made righteous in the sight of God and the sight of others through a fundamental change in nature (McGrath). The prevailing pre-Reformation view in the West of the righteousness of God was that of a distributive justice whereby God judges justly according to God’s holiness. A common theological position was that righteousness of God was a subjective genitive, God’s holiness being the norm by which all would be judged. Luther’s personal struggle with the inexorable righteousness of God resulted in an understanding of the righteousness of God that was deeper than his tradition had grasped. In Catholic thought, justification was not considered something in the present as much as a process leading to the ultimate future judgment.
    3.3. The Reformation. Generally the Reformers and their theological heirs have interpreted the righteousness of God as a so-called objective genitive (see 1 above) in all instances in Paul’s writings, with the possible exceptions of Romans 3:5, 25, 26. The righteousness of God was understood from the viewpoint of the individual, as that righteousness which God gives to people, and on the basis of which the sinner is approved by God. The theocentric OT meaning of the righteousness of God in the sphere of covenant relationship was displaced by an anthropocentric focus. The reformers and their successors often interpreted the righteousness of God from the human aspect because they had replaced the biblical basis of covenant relationship with the Hellenistic theory of universal law which both God and humanity had to fulfill in order to be regarded as righteous. The emphasis on the individual under universal law rather than in covenant relationship contributed to the later “legal fiction” theory whereby those who believe in Jesus are justified, deemed righteous, even though they are not actually righteous. In this view faith in Jesus takes the place of actual righteousness.
    3.3.1. Luther. Luther’s concern was personal and pastoral. The fine theological distinction maintained by the Roman Catholic magisterium did not “trickle down” to villages parishes. Luther interpreted the righteousness of God distinctively as a so-called objective genitive, rendering the Greek term dikaiosyne tou theou in Romans 1:17 as righteousness “which counts before God.” Luther states the righteousness of God is the cause of salvation, and thus it is not the righteousness by which God is righteous in himself but the righteousness by which we are made righteous by God. This happens through faith in the gospel. Luther points to Augustine for the sense that the righteousness of God is that by which God imparts and makes people righteous. Luther emphasized the immediacy of justification. A person is at once just and unjust: this suggests a composite view of Luther’s new understanding of the righteousness of God, in addition to the traditional understanding of the distributive justice of God.
For Luther works are the result of the righteousness given by God. Sanctification is a process that will not be consummated in this life. Luther clearly separated justification from regeneration and sanctification. This perspective gave rise to the understanding of justification as a new status before God: “Thus in ourselves we are sinners, and yet through faith we are righteous by God’s imputation. For we believe Him who promises to free us, and in the meantime we strive that sin may not rule over us but that we may withstand it until He takes it from us” (WA 56.271). In Catholic thought, God responds to those who do what they can by giving them enabling grace which then leads to saving grace. Luther broke with this tradition in that he found that God provided the preconditions for justification (see Watson).
    3.3.2. Calvin. Calvin in his Commentary on Romans presents his understanding of the righteousness of God in Romans 1:17 as that which is approved before God’s tribunal. Calvin associated sanctification with justification and described sanctification in terms of being in Christ. According to Calvin, God communicates his righteousness to us. In a nearly mystical sense, through faith Jesus communicates himself to those who believe. Works have no place in the justification of sinners. Calvin refutes the notion of a fiction involved in the justification of sinners. God provides all that is necessary. He cautions not to understand righteousness as a quality; we are righteous only in so far as Christ reconciles the Father to us. Calvin, more so than Luther, emphasizes the relational aspect of the righteousness of God. Luther’s view of the righteousness of God seems to contain the aspect of acquittal. Calvin emphasizes the marvelous nature of the communication, or imparting, of God’s righteousness to us.
    3.4. Post-Reformation. Just as the Western Church experienced the scholasticism of the twelfth century, Protestant Orthodoxy shifted from Calvin’s christological emphasis to other matters, such as predestination, federal theology and the perseverance of the saints. Lutheranism shifted its emphasis from justification of sinners and the righteousness of God to deal with these developments within the Reformed camp. The Pietist movement within Lutheranism was a reaction against a strictly forensic understanding of righteousness. The pastoral aspects of Pietism later influenced Lutheranism to emphasize practical aspects of righteousness, reflecting an interest in promoting personal piety.
 John Wesley argued for the Pietist position in his emphasis on personal righteousness subsequent to justification. In his sermon on “The Lord Our Righteousness” he adheres to imputation but understands the Holy Spirit to have a sanctifying aspect upon the believer [imputed and imparted]. The believer’s basis of justification is the righteousness of Christ “implanted in everyone in whom God has imputed it.” He maintains there is no true faith —justifying faith —which does not have the righteousness of Christ for its object. Wesley sees faith in Jesus’ death, and hence the imputation of his righteousness, as the cause, end and middle term of salvation.
    3.5. Currents of Recent Discussion. The variations within the history of interpretation reflect two basic views: (1) that God’s righteousness is a quality of God (or Christ) imparted, making the sinner righteous; (2) that God, the righteous one, declares the sinner to be righteous in a legal transaction (imputed). These dominant views have increasingly been challenged (see Paul and His Interpreters). J. Reumann contends that there is a stronger basis in Christian hymnody for these views than in the NT. For Paul does not speak of Christ’s merits or God’s righteous essence being so imputed to us. G. E. Ladd contends that forensic (declared) righteousness is real righteousness because our relationship with God is just as real as one’s subjective ethical condition. One is in fact “righteous” (defined as right relationship with God) based upon what has been done for us objectively in Christ. The ethical content follows on its heels. Ladd maintains that righteousness as acquittal and right conduct belong together.
H. Cremer (1900) launched scholarship in a new direction by pointing to the OT understanding of sedaqa (“righteousness”) as covenant faithfulness, and seeing this meaning as the subjective genitive, not in the ontological sense, but as referring to God’s saving activity as Redeemer.
Some scholars, such as R. Bultmann, attempted to combine both the objective and subjective aspects of the righteousness of God, suggesting a “genitive of the author” to describe God’s righteousness which is given to believers as the basis of one’s relationship with God. The righteousness of God is the gift which makes possible this new existence for the individual. His existential interpretation involves the kerygmatic reality of the individual: one continues to appropriate God’s “rightwising” verdict in obedient existential decision and becomes what one is declared to be. Bultmann’s inattention to OT background and to Paul’s apocalyptic understanding of history resulted in an anthropocentric and individualistic orientation of the righteousness of God.
There have been various attempts to reevaluate the meaning of the righteousness of God in Paul’s writings (see bibliographical details in Brauch). In 1954 J. Bollier, a critic of the legal fiction theory of justification, suggested that God requires a person to be righteous, to recognize God’s sovereignty and to submit to God’s Lordship. Under the old covenant as well as the new, God has graciously offered faith as the way a person may recognize God as one’s Lord and so gain God’s approval. Faith is the appropriate human response to the self- revelation of God. Faith actually is righteousness, for it is the way in which one may fulfill this obligation toward God within the covenant relationship. Thus Paul speaks of the “righteousness of faith” in Romans 4:11, 13. Bollier opted for a subjective genitive, maintaining that the righteousness of God is God’s own inherent righteousness rather than the righteousness of which God is the author and which he approves. Anticipating E. Käsemann, Bollier further posited that this righteousness of God has a transcendent as well as an immanent aspect, for one is directly affected by the manifestation of this righteousness.
 E. Käsemann [advocating the subjective genitive] has had a great impact on the discussion. Although he sees the righteousness of God in Romans 3:5, 25–26 as referring to God’s character, he emphasizes that Paul’s view of the righteousness of God accents its gift-character against the backdrop of Jewish apocalypticism. “The gift itself has the character of power, salvation -creating power” (Käsemann). The gift is never a personal possession separated from the giver. In this way Käsemann captures the eschatological nature of the relationship of God with creation in a forward orientation toward the consummation of God’s saving acts in Jesus Christ. God’s faithfulness is faithfulness to the creation, not simply to the individual (cf. Bultmann). God’s sovereignty over the universe is established eschatologically in Jesus. A person within that framework experiences a change in lordship. Johannine and Pauline language now go hand in hand, since by “abiding” in Jesus, believers become what they are. The righteousness of God is God’s power in Christ reaching out to the world. Salvation is experienced in the sphere of Christ’s lordship, which is entered in response to God’s righteousness (Käsemann; on this see Way, 177–236).
The subjective genitive is also maintained by two of Käsemann’s students, C. Müller and P. Stuhlmacher. Müller (1965) agrees with Käsemann, but places his emphasis on the eschatological victory of God, the final cosmic trial at which creation submits to God (see Eschatology). God’s ultimate victory reveals his righteousness and is acknowledged by humanity. That final victory is anticipated in the present, where God’s lordship is a reality in everyday life. P. Stuhlmacher stresses the saving aspect of the righteousness of God in that the creator makes right the world on account of his creation -faithfulness, even by raising the dead. The righteousness of God is God’s creating power fostering faith and recreating the world. Stuhlmacher sees the righteousness of God as the center of Pauline theology whereby Paul shows a complete correlation between judicial and ontological ideas of righteousness. Thus justification refers to a divine creative activity, the actualization of the righteousness of God as a “Word event” which creates a new being at baptism. Stuhlmacher understands justification for Paul to mean the obligating, renewing call of the individual, by the power of God, into the realm of encounter with God which has been opened by Christ. The renewed calling culminates in service.
The Roman Catholic scholar K. Kertelge follows a similar line of thought to Stuhlmacher. The righteousness of God denotes God’s redemptive activity and not God’s gift of righteousness to us which leads to salvation. This reality consists of nothing except the new relationship between God and humanity created by God, which from the divine side is lordship and from the human side is obedience. For Paul the present and the future character of God’s eschatological redemption are essentially identical, because both have their basis in the Christ event. Righteousness is by faith, not as a possession, but as a relationship in which one acknowledges God’s claim upon one’s life.
H. Brunner understands the OT material regarding righteousness to refer to a comprehensive order corresponding to God’s will, which encompasses both nature and humanity. In Paul the theme is the change from alienation to reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17–21), from the old world to the new, from the old creation to the new. Humans are re-created by Christ: his death means his subjection to sin, namely the power of alienation from God; but it also means believers’ becoming “God’s righteousness.” They become transformed by God’s power into the people of the reestablished created order, the reconciled new world of God’s people of the new covenant. In Romans 1 Paul speaks of the will of the creator being obscured by human rejection, but the gospel has revealed God’s power for redemption. The righteousness of God is God’s redemptive saving act. God’s saving action has always been at work, as evidenced in the OT, but has now been clearly revealed in the Christ event. For those who believe in Christ, the reality and power of sin have been put aside. God’s new created order, which is the removal of the alienation of sin, has been brought into being. To be righteous or declared righteous is neither a juridical act nor an ontological transformation, but a state of being restored to right relationship with God because the alienating reality of sin has been set aside.

4. God’s Righteousness as Relation-Restoring Love.
The history of interpretation, including the recent perspectives sketched above, reveals two facets; (1) that the understanding of the righteousness of God has been largely dominated by Greek and Latin categories, where righteousness as a quality of God’s character is either given to us and makes us righteous, or is the basis for God’s judical pronouncement, declaring us righteous; (2) that the more recent discussion, in seeking to take more seriously Paul’s grounding in the OT, has found the earlier understanding to be an inadequate explication of Paul’s meaning. Particularly important has been the insistence on the OT covenantal context of the righteousness of God as an interpretive background for the Pauline formulations.
Within that OT context, and beside other meanings and nuances (Brunner), the idea of God’s righteousness appears prominently in salvation texts, where God’s redemptive action toward his covenant people is defined by this term. It is God’s righteousness which saves from enemies, from threatening situations, from the state of alienation from God. In such settings God’s righteousness is frequently defined by the terms “steadfast love” [hesed: mercy] and “faithfulness” (e.g., Is 11:5; 16:5; Ps 5:7–8; 89:13–14; 98:2–3). These relational attributes are in some contexts virtually synonymous with “righteousness” and “salvation” (e.g., Ps 85:7–13). Thus, God’s righteousness may be rendered as “saving deed” or “relation-restoring love.”
Paul’s use of righteousness of God may best be understood against the background of this particular OT concept. For Paul “unrighteousness” results from disobedience, whether of persons generally, who refuse to acknowledge God (Rom 1:28), and obey unrighteousness and disobey truth (Rom 2:8), or of God’s people who refuse to acknowledge God, and are disobedient within the covenant relationship (Rom 3:3–5; 10:21).
It is the reality of alienation, defined synonymously as “faithlessness” (Rom 3:3) and “unrighteousness” (Rom 3:5), which Paul knows to have been addressed by the revelation (Rom 1:16–17) or manifestation (Rom 3:21–26) of God’s righteousness. In both texts the concrete historical expression of “God’s righteousness” is the event of Christ: defined in Romans 1:16 as “the gospel” and “the power of God for salvation”; and in Romans 3:24 as “the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.”
Paul contends that God is faithful to his creation / covenant relationship (Rom 3:3–4), his action is righteous (Rom 3:26), and it is this action in response to his rebellious creation which Paul therefore calls the righteousness of God. The term designates that act of God which restores the broken relationship. “Righteousness” in this context is not an attribute of God, but designates God’s forgiving love and redemptive intervention in the world through Christ.
The righteousness of God understood as God’s relation-restoring love is central to Paul’s argument in Romans 3:21–26. The incarnation of the righteousness of God in the redemptive work of the cross leads to forgiveness; and forgiveness restores broken relationships. Because this is purely the act of God, Paul calls it a gift. Since a gift is ineffective unless appropriated, it must be “received by faith.” The result of this gracious act of God is the justification (“setting right”) of the sinner. The passage says nothing about an essential or judical transaction; rather, it declares the restoration of the divine-human relationship through what Christ did by his death (see Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat).
The language of “submitting to the righteousness of God” in Romans 10:3 confirms Paul’s understanding of it as God’s relation-restoring intervention. The attempt to establish one’s own righteousness —one’s own position before God—is a rejection of the coming of God’s righteousness in Christ, God’s way of saving the world. For to submit means to acknowledge one’s severed relation with God and to confess the lordship of Christ (Rom 10:7; see Lord).
The difficult expression of 2 Corinthians 5:21, that in (relationship with) Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” further underlines a relational rather than a judicial or ontological meaning. The text is concerned with reconciliation to God in and through Christ (see Center; Peace, Reconciliation and calls those who are reconciled to become instruments of that reconciling work (2 Cor 5:18–19). In that context, the phrase “to become God’s righteousness” means that believers become participants in God’s reconciling action, extensions of his restoring love.
For Paul, then, God’s righteousness is God’s saving deed. In continuity with OT expressions of God’s righteousness as God’s faithfulness and steadfast love toward Israel, Paul sees this divine action finally expressed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The acceptance of that divine condescension through the act of faith justifies us (makes us right) with God. Righteousness is present in this restored relationship when life is lived in conformity with God’s purposes.

BIBLIOGRAPHY. O. Betz, “Der gekreuzigte Christus: unsere Weisheit und Gerechtigkeit (der alttestamentliche Hintergrund von 1 Kor 1–2,” in Tradition and Interpretation in the New Testament, ed. G. F. Hawthorne with O. Betz (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) 195–215; P. Blaser, “Paulus und Luther über Gottes Gerechtigkeit,” Catholica 36 (1982) 269–79; J. A. Bollier, “The Righteousness of God,” Int 8 (1954) 404–13; M. T. Brauch, “Perspectives on ‘God’s Righteousness’ in Recent German Discussion,” in E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977) 523–42; H. Brunner, “Die Gerechtigkeit Gottes” ZRG 39 (1987) 210–25; R. Bultmann, “eleo” TDNT II.477–87; C. H. Cosgrove, “Justification in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Reflection,” JBL 106 (1987) 653–70; A. B. Crabtree, The Restored Relationship (London: Carey Kingsgate, 1963); H. Cremer, Die Paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre im Zussammenhang ihrer geschichtlichen Voraussetzungen (1900); J. A. Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology (Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967); E. Käsemann, “ ‘The Righteousness of God’ in Paul,” in New Testament Questions of Today (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969) 168–82; K. Kertelge, “Rechtfertigung” bei Paulus (NTAbh n.s. 3; 2d ed.; Münster: Aschendorf, 1971); idem, “dikaisune, dikaioEDNT 1.325–34; L. J. Kuyper, “Righteousness and Salvation,” SJT 30 (1977) 233–52; G. E. Ladd, “Righteousness in Romans,” SWJT 19 (1976) 6–17; E. Lohse “Die Gerechtigkeit Gottes in der Paulinischen Theologie,” in Die Einheit des Neuen Testaments (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1973) 209–27; A. E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification (2 vols. Cambridge: University Press, 1986); R. K. Moore, “Issues Involved in the Interpretation of Dikaiosyne Theou in the Pauline Corpus,” Colloquium: The Australian and New Zealand Theological Society 23 (1991) 59–70; C. Müller, Gottesgerechtigkeit und Gottesvolk (FRLANT 86; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964); J. Piper, “The Demonstration of the Righteousness of God in Romans 3:25, 26,” JSNT 7 (1980) 2–32; B. Przybylski, Righteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought (SNTSMS 41; Cambridge: University Press, 1980); G. Quell and G. Schrenk, “dikh,TDNT II.174–225; J. Reumann, “Justification of God: Righteousness and the Cross,” Moravian Theological Seminary: Bulletin (1964) 16–31; idem, “Righteousness (Early Judaism-New Testament),” ABD V.736–73; idem, Righteousness in the New Testament: Justification in the United States, Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983); idem, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ and the ‘Economy of God’: Two Great Doctrinal Themes Historically Compared,” in Askum-Thyateira, ed. G. Dragas (London: Thyateira House, 1985) 615–37; L. Sabourin, “Formulations of Christian Beliefs in Recent Exposition on Paul’s Epistles to the Romans and Galatians,” RSB 1 (1981) 120–36; A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul (London: A & C Black, 1931); J. J. Scullion, “Righteousness (OT),” ABD V.724–36; M. L. Soards, “The Righteousness of God in the Writings of the Apostle Paul,” BTB 15 (1985) 104–9; P. Stuhlmacher, Gerechtigkeit Gottes bei Paulus (FRLANT 82; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965); idem, Reconciliation, Law, and Righteousness (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986); P. Watson, Let God Be God (London: Epworth, 1953); D. V. Way, The Lordship of Christ: Ernst Käsemann’s Interpretation of Paul’s Theology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991); S. K. Williams, “The ‘Righteousness of God’ in Romans,” JBL 99 (1980) 241–90; J. A. Ziesler, The Meaning of Righteousness in Paul: A Linguistic and Theological Inquiry (SNTSMS 20; Cambridge: University Press, 1972).

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The “Born Again” Narrative in John 3: An Aramaic Impossibility? Well, No!

John 2:24-3:11/ Syriac Peshitta.

Bart Ehrman has published an argument concluding  the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in Jn 3 “could not have happened, at least not as it is described in the Gospel of John” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, p. 155). We present Ehrman’s argument here with brief critique. As a preview, our main gripe with Ehrman’s presentation (more fully explained below) is that whereas Ehrman supposes an original Aramaic conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus would necessarily have had Jesus using an Aramaic word which can only meanfrom above,” but not “second time,” it turns out the ancient Aramaic versions we do actually have, such as the Syriac Peshitta, have Aramaic men derish  (“again” -or a second time- …which can indeed also mean “from above,” or lit. “from the head”[1] Both the Greek text and Aram. translations suggest two possibilities: (1) the possibility of an original Aram. conversation (with Ehrman we presume Christ and Nicodemus would have probably spoken Aramaic, from which the Gospel of John was translated into Greek) with double entendre on men derish or (2) the possibility that the narrative considered from the perspective of both Aramaic and Greek reads just fine with a single meaning of either ανωθεν/anothen (Gk.) or men derish (Aram.) in view, as “again” without inductively presuming there absolutely had to have been an original double entendre (which is certainly possible, but is not an absolute exegetical necessity, but an inference, however plausible it may be made to seem by ancillary arguments). Either way, (1) since there is an Aramaic word that allows the double entendre, or (2) since it is not an absolute exegetical necessity to presume the narrative requires a double entendre in the first place, Ehrman’s novel argument has come to ruin.

Here is Ehrman’s original argument:

“In the Gospel or John chapter 3, Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which says, “You must be born again.” The Greek word translated “again” actually has two meanings: it can mean not “a second time” but also “from above.” Whenever it is used elsewhere in John, it means “from above” (Jn 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus: a person must be born from above in order to have eternal life in heaven above. Nicodemus misunderstands, though, and thinks Jesus intends the other meaning of the word, that he has to be born a second time. “How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb, he asks, out of some frustration. Jesus corrects him: he is not talking about a second physical birth, but a heavenly birth, from above. This conversation with Nicodemus is predicated on the circumstance that a certain Greek word has two meanings (a double entendre). Absent the double entendre, the conversation makes little sense. The problem is this: Jesus and this Jewish leader in Jerusalem would not have been speaking Greek, but Aramaic. But the Aramaic word for “from above” does not also mean “second time.” This is a double entendre that works only in Greek. So it looks as though this conversation could not have happened—at least not as it is described in the Gospel of John” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, p. 155).

Note that Ehrman does not actually specify what exact Aramaic word or phrase he has in mind. We will proceed on the assumption that the Aramaic men derish in the Syriac Peshitta (and also the Old Syriac) could have served nicely in an original Aramaic conversation with Jesus and Nicodemus, later translated into Koine Greek in the Gospel of John narrative, and still later translated into our early Aramaic versions which are still extant using the Aramaic men derish.

As we have seen, (1) if we presume double entendre, men derish (lit. from the head) s translated “again” -i.e. a second time, and serve the purpose of double entendre just fine;[1] but that, alternately, (2) if it is not absolutely irrefutable to presume double entendre in the Greek narrative (which it isn’t) the narrative in both Gk. and Aram. could make perfect sense understanding the respective words to simply mean “again” without any double entendre.

Let us look at possibility (2) more closely.

Here is an English translation[1] of the dialog as it occurs in the original Aramaic of the Peshitta:

John 3:3 – “Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, If a man is not born AGAIN he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John 3:4 “Nicodemus said to him, How can an old man be born again? Can he enter again a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”

Verse 4 follows quite nicely from verse 4 in the Peshitta under the second hypothesis Nicodemus would have understood “again” in vs. 3 to mean… well.. “again“(!), and his reply in vs. 4 would have made perfectly good sense -no “double entendre” required (nor was it ever supposed by any of the numerous early ancient translations of the Greek NT into other languages (versions), all of which simply render Jn 3:3 with equivalents of “again.” In the ancient world it seems the natural reading “again” was obvious and unanimous. No direct ancient evidence for anything else exists in Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, or any other language into which the Greek text was translated).

Here also is an interlinear translation from with Jn 3:3 in red; the footnote to their English rendering “again” has Lit. ‘from the start’ (‘over again’).

The final bone we have to pick concerns Ehrman’s monolithic/uncompromising understanding of the Greek text.

Concerning the Greek text, Ehrman wrote “Whenever it [Gk. ανωθεν/anothen] is used elsewhere in John, it means “from above” (Jn 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus…”

Maybe ανωθεν was meant to convey the same meaning in John 3 and maybe it wasn’t. If it wasn’t there is no problem with the consistency of the narrative either originally understood or subsequently translated as “again” in either Greek or Aramaic. If it was, the Aramaic men derish, literally “from the head” also means “again” and is so translated in every major English translation of the Aramaic version into English, so there is no problem supposing an original dialog in Aramaic with a double entendre.

How have the major English translators rendered the Greek text? Most major translators have not rendered the Greek narrative Ehrman’s way. Using we find a minority of 4 translations using Ehrman’s preferred rendering “from above”; 17 translations have “again.”

Unless the majority not only “might” be wrong to translate John 3:3 as they have, but are absolutely and definitively incorrect, Ehrman’s argument has lost its punch at the level of the Greek text in addition to having completely evaporated at the level of his assertions about an underlying Aramaic narrative. But even on the assumption, with no argument in Ehrman’s book, that the preferred rendering of a majority of our major English translations of the Greek narrative were just flat wrong, that too would work out fine if an original Aramaic narrative had men derish where John used anothen. The narrative potentially reads just fine in both languages on either assumption about the correct meaning of anothen. Ehrman’s novel argument is creative, but it fails to convince.


[1] Cf.  Etheridge, Murdock, Bauscher, Lamsa, and all render it as “again” or “anew.” Men derish suggests from the “head” or beginning of a process (cf.  Heb. bereshith: “in the beginning”). Men derish also occurs in the Old Syriac version.


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