Justice: Hiding in Translation


This post is part of the series “New Testament Justice.”

When I first started studying what the Bible said about justice topics, I thought I knew exactly how to find them: search for the word “justice.” But there’s a problem with looking for justice in the New Testament. If you type “justice” into a Bible word search engine, it doesn’t appear much. “Justice” appears only 11 times in the ESV translation,[i] 9 times in the NASB, [ii] and 8 times in the NKJV.[iii] For those translations, “justice” shows up more in the book of Isaiah—around three times more, in fact—than in the entire New Testament.[iv]

In the few instances where the word “justice” appears, the word primarily refers to legal justice, which feels distant from the Hebrew shalom-centered ideas of justice in the Old Testament. Verses like “Mercy triumphs over judgment [krisis](James 2:13b), or “Judge [krino] not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1) make it seem like justice and judgment are opposite of mercy and, therefore, don’t belong in the New Testament.

It’s hard to see that the New Testament values justice when it seems almost silent on the subject. Given this near-silence, I used to wonder if justice, especially “social justice” topics, simply didn’t belong in a New Testament paradigm. Maybe God meant us to leave behind anything that looked like humanity’s old ways of relationship, including the Old Testament’s model of justice.

Thankfully, I kept reading and discovered just how much justice is part of the New Testament—I just had to learn to see it. My simple Bible word search couldn’t show it.


Translating the Greek words for justice into English gives us yet a pretty big set of challenges. The Greek word most often translated “justice” in our English New Testament is krisis and is related to “judgment,” krima. The root is krino, meaning to sift and separate, like when a person evaluates something and makes a decision.[v] That’s a good picture of God as Judge—the compassionate, all-knowing one who sifts and makes judgments. That’s His job, not ours, because He sees things we can’t see like people’s hearts. The definitions of krisis line up with our English definitions: legal decision, condemnation, the authority to judge, punishment, or judgment.[vi] Krima has similar legal definitions.

But these meanings miss the more holistic dimensions of justice you see in the Old Testament. Those dimensions do show up in the New Testament, however, through the Greek word dikaiosune. Dik-stem words are common in the New Testament, showing up around 300 times. The concept of dikaiosune is captured by two English words—righteousness and justice—yet is almost always translated as one of the two: “righteousness.”[vii] Likewise, other dik-stem words, like dikaios and dikaioo, are translated as “right-” words—righteous, righteousness, right, etc.—instead of “just-” words.[viii]

At the time the New Testament was written, however, dikaiosune was not just used to mean “righteousness.”[ix] In fact, translators of classical Greek literature usually did the opposite when translating dikaiosune into English, opting for “justice” instead of “righteousness.”[x] In classical Greek, dikaiosune meant “well-ordering,” and it was an important word for understanding justice and government at the time. Plato’s Republic, written almost four hundred years before Jesus’ birth, was among the most influential books on the ideal structure of government of the day and was much concerned with “justice”—dikaiosune. [xi] To Plato, justice was important for understanding the human soul as well as the state.[xii] It was more than a personal quality; it was particularly demonstrated in relationships.[xiii] A “just” or “righteous” person fulfilled their proper role in civilized society.[xiv]

Not every language has the same challenge that we English-speakers have. Romance languages like Spanish and French don’t have a word for “righteousness,” so dikaiosune is translated almost entirely as “justice.” But if you look for the English word “justice” in the New Testament, it isn’t in there much. If you look for “righteousness,” you’ll see it all over.

This translation problem helps explain why the New Testament seems almost silent on justice. When English-speakers like me read the Bible, it seems like righteousness is what we are supposed to pursue, not justice. And because righteousness in our world is connected to private, personal morality, it can seem like the highest goal of Christian life is to be clustered inside of church buildings, never doing wrong, instead of doing right in the wider world.   

[i] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:3, 18:5, 18:7, 18:8; Acts 8:33, 28:4; Hebrews 11:33

[ii] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 7:29, 11:42, 18:7, 18:8; Acts 28:4, Col 4:1

[iii] Matthew 12:18, 12:20, 23:23; Luke 11:42, 18:3,; Acts 8:33, 28:4; Romans 9:14

[iv]ESV:  Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:23, 1:27, 5:7, 5:16, 9:7, 10:2, 16:3, 16:5, 28:6, 28:17, 30:18, 32:1, 32:16, 33:5, 40:14, 42:1, 42:3, 42:4, 51:4, 56:1, 59:8, 59:9, 59:11, 59:14, 59:15, 61:8 (28 total)

NASB: Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:27, 5:7, 9:7, 10:2, 16:5, 28:6, 28:17, 30:18, 32:16, 33:5, 40:14, 40:27 42:1, 42:3, 42:4, 49:4, 51:4, 56:1, 59:8, 59:9, 59:11, 59:14, 59:15, 61:8 (26 total)

NKJV: Isaiah 1:17, 1:21, 1:27, 5:7, 5:23, 9:7, 10:2, 16:5, 28:6, 28:17, 30:18, 32:1, 32:7, 32:16, 33:5, 40:14, 42:1, 42:3, 42:4, 51:4, 56:1, 58:2, 59:4, 59:8, 59:9, 59:11, 59:14, 59:15, 61:8 (29­ total)

[v] Schneider, W. “Judgment.” Vol. 2 of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Edited by Colin Brown. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986. 362-367.

[vi] Swanson, James A. A Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek (NT). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997. 

[vii] Blomberg, Craig, and Jennifer Foutz Markley. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

[viii] Wolterstorff, Nicholas. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

[ix] Marshall, Christopher D. Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime, and Punishment. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001.

[x] Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

[xi] Farley, Benjamin Wirt. In Praise of Virtue: An Exploration of the Biblical Virtues in a Christian Context. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1995. 

[xii] Schrenk, Gottlob. “δίκη, δίκαιος, δικαιοσύνη, δικαιόω, δικαίωμα, δικαίωσις, δικαιοκρισία.”  Vol. 2 of Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Edited by Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1964. 174-224.

[xiii] Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs.

[xiv] Schrenk,  “δίκη et al.”