Without further ado, here is part II of my interview with Lee Irons on his book, The Righteousness of God: A Lexical Examination of the Covenant-Faithfulness Interpretation (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015).
5. Another very helpful section (pp. 65-68) is where you discuss Hebrew Parallelism. Discuss how a passage like Ps 143:1 has been used by those to support their relational interpretation of δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ and why this is erroneous?
Irons: New Perspective scholars, following Cremer, often cite verses where the terms “righteousness” and “faithfulness” (or “salvation”) occur in parallelism. For example, Psalm 143:1 reads:
“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
Give ear to my supplications!
Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness!” (NASB)
Those following in the Cremer line would then argue that the term “righteousness” can itself denote “salvation” or “covenant faithfulness,” and that this Old Testament background has influenced Paul’s usage. On this reasoning, Dunn and Wright argue that “the righteousness of God” in the Old Testament and in Paul means “God’s saving activity as an expression of God’s covenant faithfulness.”
Based on the work of Robert Lowth in the 18th century, older scholarship used to subdivide Hebrew parallelism into three subtypes: “synonymous parallelism,” “antithetical parallelism,” and “synthetic parallelism.” In the first type, synonymous parallelism, the two parallel phrases were viewed as saying the same thing in different words. However, after the paradigm-shifting work of James Kugel and Robert Alter in the 1980s, scholars no longer believe there is such a thing as strictly synonymous parallelism. Alter asserts that there are always “small wedges of difference between closely akin terms.” Kugel’s formula is: “A, and, what's more, B.” Research on Hebrew parallelism has advanced since the work of Kugel and Alter, but scholars still agree that the concept of synonymous parallelism ought to be set aside. It is therefore no longer valid as an argument for taking the righteousness of God as a cipher for God’s covenant faithfulness.
How should we understand a verse like Psalm 143:1? I argue that it is a case of hyponymy. Consider the poetic parallelism in Isaiah 3:8:
“For Jerusalem has stumbled,
and Judah has fallen.”
and Judah has fallen.”
Likewise, faithfulness is an important sub-category within righteousness. As Mark Seifrid argues in Justification and Variegated Nomism, Volume 1 (ed. Carson, O’Brien, Seifrid), faithfulness is covenant-righteousness. In other words, faithfulness is a species of righteousness, that is, righteousness with regard to keeping one’s promises. The way God is “righteous” within the terms of a promissory covenant is by being faithful to keep his promises and delivering his people. But this does not mean that the lexical denotation of “righteousness” is “faithfulness to a promissory covenant.” Nor can we assume that all divine acts of righteousness are instances of being faithful to a covenant or keeping a promise.
Just as everyone who is in Jerusalem is in Judah but not everyone who is in Judah is in Jerusalem, so all instances of faithfulness to a promissory covenant may be termed “righteousness,” but not all ”righteousness” is faithfulness to a promissory covenant.
Irons: These are terms used in linguistics generally, but allow me to explain their use specifically in Septuagint studies. A stereotype is a Hebrew-Greek equivalence, that is, a Greek word chosen by the translators to be the normal word representing a particular Hebrew word. It does not mean that they will always and only use that Greek word to render that Hebrew word, but it is their preferred habit. A calque is a Greek word that has taken on a new meaning due to its regular use in the Greek-speaking Jewish community. For example, the Greek word διαθήκη in extra-biblical Greek meant “a last will and testament,” but in Greek-speaking Judaism, it had become a virtual stand-in for the Hebrew word berith or “covenant.” It was a Greek word with a Hebrew meaning. Although the original meaning in extra-biblical Greek had not been completely forgotten, the Hebrew meaning was generally the one activated when the discourse had to do with any of the covenants mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures, most notably the covenant God made with Israel when he gave them the law.
This is relevant to the debate over “the righteousness of God,” because one of the arguments made in the past for interpreting the phrase as “God’s saving activity in fulfillment of his covenant promises” is the fact that in the Septuagint δικαιοσύνη is a stereotype for the Hebrew words tsedeq and tsedaqah. The argument then runs: because the Hebrew words tsedeq and tsedaqah mean God’s saving activity or God’s covenant faithfulness or both, therefore the Greek word δικαιοσύνη has taken on the Hebrew meaning.
The problem is that, as Septuagint scholars recognize, one cannot move so quickly from a stereotype to a calque without further examination. Evidence that a particular Greek word is a stereotyped equivalent for a particular Hebrew word is not in and of itself proof that the Greek word in question has become a calque, a Greek word with a Hebrew meaning. One needs evidence that this Greek word was actually used this way in Jewish literature composed in Greek. Aside from a few books in the Apocrypha, the Septuagint is a translation, not literature composed in Greek. The only solid evidence that a Greek word has become a calque is the use of that Greek word with a Hebrew meaning in Jewish literature that was originally composed in Greek, such as The Wisdom of Solomon, Fourth Maccabees, the writings of Philo, and so on.
For this reason, I have a chapter (Ch. 5) in my dissertation examining the usage of δικαιοσύνη in Jewish literature composed in Greek. I looked for evidence that δικαιοσύνη had taken on an alleged Hebrew meaning such as “salvation” or “covenant faithfulness,” and I could not find much evidence. I certainly did not find any instances where it meant “covenant faithfulness.” I found two instances where it seemed to have a salvific meaning. I concluded that it was barely possible but very unlikely that “salvation” had become one of the meanings of δικαιοσύνη in the Greek vocabulary of Hellenistic Judaism.
7. Cremer’s relational interpretation (“covenant faithfulness”) of the “Righteousness of God” terminology is put to the test in perhaps your most important chapter, “The Righteousness of God in the Old Testament” (Ch. 4; pp. 108-193). You convincingly demonstrate that God’s righteousness is one of distributive righteousness/justice rather than Cremer’s insistence on the exclusivity of salvation righteousness/justice. What are the implications of this conclusion?
Irons: It undercuts Cremer’s primary basis for the conclusion that the Hebrew concept of righteousness must be “relational.” Cremer (following Ritschl before him) had claimed that righteousness is used in an exclusively positive, saving, delivering sense. He said it was durchaus positiver (“thoroughly positive”). I argue that he was simply wrong in that claim, since negative, judging occurrences are also found in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod 9:27; 2 Chron 12:6; Ezra 9:15; Neh 9:33; Ps 7:11; 11:7; 50:6; 129:4; Isa 5:16; 10:22; 28:17; 42:21; Lam 1:18; Dan 9:7, 14). However, beginning from that mistaken starting point, Cremer argued that the “thoroughly positive” use of righteousness could only be explained by postulating that the Hebrew concept of righteousness is not a normative concept (as in Greco-Roman culture) but a relational concept in which righteousness is faithfulness to a relationship or covenant. But if the references to God’s righteousness in the Old Testament are not exclusively positive (saving righteousness) but sometimes negative as well (judging righteousness), then the terms for “righteousness” are not equivalent to “salvation.” The prime rationale for viewing “righteousness” in Hebrew as a relational concept is unsound.