There was a small change in the Englishing of the Old Testament that took place in 1901 — of serious consequence to present day discussions of Biblical Justice — that to my knowledge has gone entirely un-observed in the recent justice discourses. For centuries — from the very first Englishings of the Old Testament in the early 16th century, through to the (British) Revised Old Testament of 1885 — the Hebrew word mishpat, when used in the abstract sense (as it often is in the psalms and prophets) had been translated ‘judgment’. In the American revision of the Bible in 1901 the translation ‘justice’ replaced ‘judgment’. This translation decision continued in the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and continues to this day in its predecessors: the NRSV (1989) and the ESV (2001/2016).
The consequence of this change is manifest in the majority of the verses that are typically brought forward as evidence for God’s concern for social justice. In this moment in American history, when ‘social justice’ seems to be the star that the church is orbiting around — either in acceptance or rejection — being clear about what the Bible means when it uses the word would seem paramount. Regrettably, many scholars who are ordinarily scrupulous in limiting semantic ranges when applying a Biblical text to a present cultural situation have overlooked this translation issue, and in many popular publications, simply import connotations of the English word ‘justice’ into the meaning of mishpat.
But the meaning is not hard to uncover. The standard in the field — Holladay’s Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT) — gives the following primary definitions for mishpat:
1. Decision by arbitration, legal decision.
2. legal case, lawsuit.
‘Judgment’ in the sense of ‘the ruling of a judge’ is plainly ground-zero for the semantic range of mishpat. Any connection to abstract notions of ‘justice’ are derivative, and this only makes sense when we consider the social and legal mechanisms in existence during the eras in which the OT was written. In Iron Age Israel, Law was, effectually, “judge-made”. If you didn’t like what a judge ruled, tough luck. This is why the Lord is so clear about his hatred of unjust judges and the perversion of bribes: If the judge is not just, then there is very little hope for justice under the sun. Exhortations for just judgments in the OT therefore, are primarily directed at those who are themselves making the judgments: Judges.
In the 16th-19th centuries, the English word ‘judgment’ signified the decision of a judge, and thus was a fine gloss for mishpat. Instance the ever-illuminating Shakespeare Lexicon of Alexander Schmidt, which gives the following as a 16th century received-definition of ‘judgment’:
- The act and power of administering justice and passing sentence…
- A sentence passed, a doom.
This is Mishpat to a T. But language is always shifting, and in the course of the 19th century, the semantic range of ‘judgment’ began to shift as the word was used in a wider range of discourses (Google’s ngram shows an explosion of the word in print in the 19th century). The meaning of the English word came to orbit around the concept of ‘mental assessment, discretion’ and even ‘informed taste.’ It’s connotation of ‘justice’ and ‘(legal) judging’ faded into the background. Instance the definition for ‘judgment’ in an 1880 edition of “Webster’s” Complete Dictionary:
- The act of judging; the act or process of the mind in comparing ideas, to find their mutual relations, and to ascertain truth; the process of examining facts and arguments….
- That which is discerned by the mind in judging; the cognition of some attribute…
By the turn of the century, the editors of the American revision of the Bible of 1901 could state as a matter of fact in their preface that “the English word “judgment” in common use never denotes a statute or command…” The British editors of 1885 still thought it prudent to leave ‘judgement’ alone for the most part — it occurs 214 times in the OT, compared to 218 for the Authorized Version (1611). But in the ASV (1901) it occurs only 108 times. In the ESV (2001) it is now down to 97. ‘Justice’ replaced ‘Judgment’ in almost every case. The word ‘Justice’ only occurs 28 times in the AV, but it occurs 113 times in the ASV (1901) and 124 times in the ESV. Thus we see a radical gloss replacement from ‘judgment’ to ‘justice’.
While the shifting nature of English had indeed rendered ‘judgment’ less capable for the task of translating mishpat, and while in 1901 ‘justice’ seems like a fine update, through the course of the twentieth century, the English word ‘justice’ also shifted. In 1880, the phrase “social justice” didn’t exist as a phrase. But now, in 2021, the word ‘justice’ can scarcely be used without connoting ‘social’ justice—justice qua the remedying of economic inequity and systemic oppression.
Much light is thrown on the biblical concept of “justice” when these shifts and subtleties of translation are accounted for—If we examine the “justice verses” and replace “justice” with “judgment”. Here is the 1885 Revised Version of some key-stone texts wielded by today’s preachers of social-justice:
learn to do well; seek judgment (mishpat), relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. (Isaiah 1:17)
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment (mishpat), but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (Isaiah 5:7)
Thus saith the LORD, Keep ye judgment (mishpat), and do righteousness: for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. (Isaiah 56:1)
But let judgment (mishpat) roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24)
It is clear from these verses that God’s people — whenever they are called to a vocation where they are executing judgment — are to judge justly, and to pay special attention to giving a fair hearing to those who are more vulnerable in society. It is less clear that all Christians are called by God through the voice of the prophets to advocate for a “social justice” in some generalized, chiefly economic sense. Certainly, when Christians in America have the opportunity to elect Judges, we should avoid electing Judges known to be unfair, or prejudicial, or harsh toward the vulnerable.
In all our inquiring to discern what exactly “Biblical Justice” is — we need to return to a more careful understanding of the judicial meaning of mishpat, and the differing weight this carries for those who sit as Judges (in some form), and those of us who do not.
Fr. Ben Jefferies is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, serving as the rector of The Good Shepherd Anglican Church, Opelika, Alabama. He was on the Task Force that produced the Book of Common Prayer 2019. Raised in England, he is married with three daughters.