Is “Righteousness” a Relational Concept in the Hebrew Bible?

Most modern lexica and wordbooks of the biblical languages make the claim that “righteousness” (tsedeq/tsedaqah) in the Hebrew Bible is a relational concept, in contrast to “righteousness” (dikaiosyne and iustitia) in Hellenistic contexts, where it is a norm concept. This claim is repeated as an established lexicographical fact in countless Bible dictionaries, commentaries, and works of theology. The relational interpretation is the view that “righteousness” in the Hebrew Bible does not mean conformity to a norm or distributive justice, as it often does in Greek and Latin contexts. Rather, in the biblical/Hebraic thought-world, “righteousness” denotes the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, since the relationship itself is the norm. Although there were precursors in the 19th-century Ritschlian school, the relational interpretation was first articulated in this form by Hermann Cremer in 1899. On the basis of his relational interpretation of “righteousness,” Cremer argued that “the righteousness of God” is his faithfulness to the covenant expressed in his saving activity toward his people. Cremer’s novel lexical theory has exercised a profound influence in both OT and NT scholarship throughout the 20th century to the present. In this paper, I examine Cremer’s chief arguments for the relational interpretation of “righteousness” and attempt, in the spirit of James Barr, to raise some doubts about this widely-held scholarly assumption.