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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Righteous vs. good in Rom. 5:7

Some time ago someone asked in a comment to a BBB post if we might blog on Rom. 5:7. That person said something to the effect that he had never understood this verse. I responded that I had not either. I like to learn what the meaning of verses that I do not understand in translation might be, so here is my post. Let's learn together!

Rom. 5:7 is worded fairly much the same in Bible versions, regardless of whether they are literal or more idiomatic, as can be seen by comparing the ESV (essentially literal) and more idiomatic GW (God's Word) translations:
It is a difficult thing for someone to die for a righteous person. It may even be that someone might dare to die for a good person. (ESV)

Finding someone who would die for a godly person is rare. Maybe someone would have the courage to die for a good person. (GW)
It has never made sense to me that someone might be more willing to die for a good person than for a righteous person. To me, it would seem that a righteous person would be more highly valued than a good person. Of course, this begs some questions, one of which is: In whose estimation is the comparison made between a righteous and a good person? Is it from the viewpoint of God or the viewpoint of people, who often have distorted views of the value of others?

Obviously, the most important question which needs to be asked is: What is Paul's intended meaning in this verse for the Greek words dikaios and agathos? The first word, dikaios, has traditionally been translated as "righteous" (KJV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, NET, NIV, TNIV, TEV, ISV). It has also been translated as "just" (REB, HCSB, ESV). I like the word "just" here since I think it might key us in to a Torah definition of dikaios even better than the word "righteous." To my mind, a person can be just but not righteous.

From the reading I have done to prepare for this post, I get the idea that a dikaois person is someone who follows God's laws. It is quite possible that Paul was thinking of a person who is Torah observant. Paul was dikaios before he became a follower of Jesus. He spelled out his dikaios pedigree:
If someone thinks he has good reasons to put confidence in human credentials, I have more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. I lived according to the law as a Pharisee. In my zeal for God I persecuted the church. According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. (Phil. 3:4b-6 NET)
The Greek word translated here as "righteousness" is dikaiosune, which is simply the nominalized form of the adjective dikaios.

Although the word "good" sounds weaker than "righteous" to us in English, there must have been something about being agathos 'good' that brought greater respect and admiration from others. My mind has gone back to Jesus' interaction with the young ruler in Luke 18:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ (Luke 18:18-20 NIV, TNIV)
Perhaps the Lukan young ruler, like Saul who became Paul, was dikaios but not agathos. He followed the rules, but was not truly good.

In a study of Romans 5:1-11, Greg Herrick says of verse 7:
The overall point of verse seven is clear even though the precise significance of its parts is debated. Its presentation of faulty human love stands as a marked contrast to the love which God himself demonstrated in Christ. But what does Paul mean by the contrast between a righteous (dikaios) man and a good (agathos) man? Some scholars argue that there is no contrast in the Greek text and the terms mean essentially the same thing. But a contrast seems to be the point of what Paul is saying and there is evidence that the two terms were contrasted by the Gnostics who held that that the God of OT was dikaios while the God of the NT was agathos (Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1. 27.1). The point, then, as it applies to men, is that a person will rarely (if ever) die for a purely righteous person, though for a person who was good, that is, benevolent and generous, a person might dare to die.
If in God's estimation an agathos person is truly better than a dikaios person, then Romans 5:7 makes sense to me. It becomes coherent.

One Bible version has stood out to me as having a coherent translation of Rom. 5:7:
Now, no one is likely to die for a good person, though someone might be willing to die for a person who is especially good. (NLT)
We would regard a righteous person as being good. But a person who not only follows God's laws, but also reflects God's character, would be "especially good."

What do you think? Might there be some other way for Rom. 5:7 to make sense in translation?


At Tue Feb 28, 01:10:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

If I'm not mistaken, I think I was the person who originally asked about this verse. My conclusion since then (after you clarified Paul's other uses of dikaios) is that the text would be better served if dikaios was simply translated as "just" here (other, similar texts would better be served as well).

The modern English understanding of "righteous" means far more than what Paul ever intended. "Righteous" is a big word to our ears, and a trait rarely ascribed to anyone. However, it seems that in many (or all) cases, Paul's use of dikaios carries judicial and legal aspects to it. In his usage, it seems that he's referring to something more common -- People who are law abiding and innocent (and perhaps, "good" on a passive level).

At Tue Feb 28, 01:30:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

To use a modern illustration, I think that it is sort of like the difference between people who follow traffic laws, pay their taxes, don't have a criminal history, etc.., and people who do all of those things, plus a lot more.

The first group isn't necessarily bad, but the second group actively partipates in charitable work, goes beyond just paying taxes (i.e. they give even more money and aid to the poor out of their own private means and efforts), and don't just merely follow laws and do what's required of them, but instead, they recognize the need and can find situations for even better laws. They take the initiative in making the world a better place, and not merely just an orderly and safe place.

The first group would be the "just" and "innocent" people, and the second would be the "good people".

At Tue Feb 28, 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

Could the word "righteous" be referring to someone who observed the commandments, but did so without love?

Jesus seemed to have a lot to say about the attitude we bring to observance of the Law -- simply obeying does not make us good. We need love for that.

Come to think of it, Paul says just that in 1 Corinthians 13.

At Tue Feb 28, 07:11:00 PM, Blogger KAT said...

Could the word "righteous" be referring to someone who observed the commandments, but did so without love?

Jesus seemed to have a lot to say about the attitude we bring to observance of the Law -- simply obeying does not make us good. We need love for that.

Come to think of it, Paul says just that in 1 Corinthians 13.

But it doesn't seem like he's necessarily condemning the "righteous" in this verse, as though they were loveless. If they were that type of person, then he probably wouldn't have even given them the credit of calling them "righteous" in the first place (Unless he was being sarcastic. However, it's usually easy to detect when Paul is being rhetorical and sarcastic. When he does it, it's always overt. The context here doesn't seem to permit though.).

Instead of calling some sort of judgement on their "righteousness", I think that he's just saying that it'd be hard to imagine anyone actually sacrificing their life for one of them, "righteous" though they may be. Decent and fair people, but nothing too out of the ordinary. It's nothing against them though.

The "good", however, are the type that people just "might" go out of their way for, in Paul's terminology. People whose goodness garners some attention, respect, and defense -- defense to the point that some might dare risk their lives for them.

At Wed Mar 01, 03:14:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Because of the surrounding context about human depravity and so forth, I had always read this verse as a bit sarcastic, and I got that impression from the Greek as well. Some theological (as opp. purely linguistic) lexicons, such as that of Spiros Zodhiates, say that the NT use of dikaios and dikaiosune refers to someone who recognizes the moral authority of God in his life, or something along those lines. Agathos, on the other hand, refers to someone who is just an "all around good guy," and I'm not sure it has deep moral connotations. It is of note in this connection that in classical Greek agathos has connotations of practical usefulness. So the verse could be saying that while people are rarely willing to die for those who are truly objectively good by God's moral standards, some people might even dare to die for those who are just "good guys." This also explains the extra kai - in the ESV "it may even be ..." but more literally "someone might even dare to die ..." In this way we might say that the agathos person is just generally well-disposed toward the person who might even dare to die for him, and then in the next verse, God demonstrates his love for us in that although we are neither objectively righteous, nor even generally well-disposed toward him, but, rather, are his enemies, he dared to die for us.

At Wed Mar 01, 04:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Straylight, Talmida and Kenny, I tend to think that you are all a bit closer to the mark than Wayne is on this one. But everyone seems to have missed one point. This verse is some kind of illustration relating to general human behaviour, not specifically to God's actions. As it seems to me, the point is that while people in general might theoretically admire those who are just and law-abiding, it is not this which touches their hearts. It is the truly good people of this world, the Mother Teresas (although she was righteous as well), the Bob Geldofs, the countless people who serve the needy but are mostly anonymous, who really strike a chord deep down, so much so that some people, inspired by their examples, give their lives, even to the point of death, to serve their good causes. This doesn't depend on their personal righteousness, but on them being perceived as good people. I think that is what Paul is getting at. But he is contrasting this unregerenate human response to human goodness with the divine response to human wickedness: to give up one's life even for those who are neither righteous nor good. And this should be the Christian response as well, Philippians 2:5ff.

At Wed Mar 01, 10:43:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

As it seems to me, the point is that while people in general might theoretically admire those who are just and law-abiding, it is not this which touches their hearts.

Actually Peter, I think you've just articulated my long-winded point in one sentence. This was basically what I was trying to say. :)


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