The word “justice” brings to mind civil and criminal courts; attorneys, judges; laws that define illegal behavior, and our rights and responsibilities under the law. In a nation that holds to a principle of “separation of church and state” we associate the application of justice with the state. “Justice” is an official function of local, state, and federal courts.
Concerns for justice did not simply originate with the establishment of state and federal governments, however. Demands for justice can be traced back to earliest recorded history. Justice is one of the most frequently recurring topics in the Bible, appearing more than 1000 times. Readers today often fail to recognize how often the word “justice” appears in our English translations of the Bible, because the original Hebrew and Greek terms for justice (mishpat, sedeqah, diskaiosune, krisis) are often translated differently, such as “righteousness.”
Biblical justice touches every part of life, referring to both criminal justice and social justice. Multiple English translations for the Hebrew and Greek terms for justice in the Old and New Testaments are necessary because the biblical concept of justice is more comprehensive than our Western concept. The well-known statement of the prophet Amos offers an example of two Hebrew words for “justice” in a single Bible verse:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.” –Amos 5:24
In this verse one Hebrew word for “justice” (mishpat) is translated as “justice” and a second Hebrew word for “justice” (sedeqah) is translated as “righteousness.” Why is this? The biblical language of righteousness refers to “doing, being, declaring, or bringing about what is right.” When used in contexts that refer to conflict, coercion, or social distribution, the term often signifies the force of justice or justice-making.
Our English language meaning of “righteousness” carries the sense of personal moral purity and religious piety, while the Hebrew term relates to public judicial fairness and equality of rights. Unlike our English words for “justice” the biblical terms for “justice” are not limited to “secular” versus “sacred.” “Righteousness” to us signifies a moral or religious meaning, but in biblical use “righteousness” includes what we mean by “justice.”
Those of us who wish to study and better understand the biblical perspectives on justice must therefore include words like “righteousness” that are frequently used in our English translations of the Hebrew and Greek words for justice. The biblical view of justice is the focus of many Bible scholars. The work of Christopher Marshall (The Little Book of Biblical Justice, 2005) and many others have been invaluable to me in my explorations of the Bible and justice.
I invite you to join me in further explorations of the Bible and Justice, and a theology of justice—both of which are extensions of the criminology-theology connection.