“What does Hebrew parallelism have to do with the New Perspective?” you ask. Quite a bit, actually. Let me explain by starting with the New Perspective end of the equation. One of the pillars of the New Perspective on Paul (NPP) is the view that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ in Paul is a cipher for “God’s covenant faithfulness.” N. T. Wright is a well-known advocate of this interpretation. For example, in his recent book on justification, he writes:
“We can say with extremely solid assurance that ‘God’s righteousness,’ in Paul as in the Psalms and Isaiah, regularly refers to God’s own righteousness, not in the medieval senses which iustitia Dei generated, but in the Old Testament and intertestamental sense of ‘the covenant faithfulness of God’” (Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2009], 164).
According to Wright, in the Hebraic mindset, “righteousness” differs significantly from the Western, medieval concept of iustitia. Rather than being about conformity to an abstract norm or justice, it has to do with “covenant faithfulness.” Wright bifurcates Hebrew and Roman concepts of “righteousness.” The Western, Reformation tradition from Luther on got it all wrong because it interpreted “righteousness” in Roman rather than Hebraic categories.
But what is the basis for this view that “righteousness” in the Hebraic way of thinking has to do with “covenant faithfulness”? There are a number of arguments for this theory, but Wright appeals to the Psalms and Isaiah as the chief exegetical basis of this interpretation. Following Hermann Cremer, he is referring to the many passages in the Psalms and Isaiah where “righteousness” is used in parallelism with “salvation” or “faithfulness.” Wright argues that “the righteousness of God” contains a reference to both concepts, but the emphasis is on the latter; a fuller definition would be that it refers to God’s faithfulness to the Abrahamic covenant, which results in salvation, i.e., the defeat of evil and the restoration of creation.
Here are two examples, one from Isaiah and one from the Psalms, where these terms occur in Hebrew parallelism:
“My salvation is about to come;
and my righteousness is about to be revealed” (Isa 56:1 NASB).
“Hear my prayer, O LORD;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me,
in your righteousness!” (Ps 143:1 ESV)
Thus, Hebrew parallelism – or, rather, a certain theory of Hebrew parallelism – lies at the root of one of the foundational pillars of the NPP. I say, a certain theory of Hebrew parallelism, because, as Old Testament scholars know, there are a variety of theories as to how Hebrew parallelism works. Let me briefly sketch the history of interpretation of Hebrew parallelism.
In the 18th century, the Anglican bishop, Robert Lowth, in his lectures “On the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews” (published in 1753) argued that there were three types of Hebrew parallelism: synonymous parallelism, antithetical parallelism, and synthetic or constructive parallelism. The first two types are exemplified in Psalm 2:5-6:
A1 “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
A2 Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
B1 For the LORD knows the way of the righteous,
B2 But the way of the wicked will perish” (ESV).
A1 and A2 are a good example of synonymous parallelism, while B1 and B2 are clearly antithetical parallelism. Lowth’s third category was a kind of catch-all for the many instances that did not seem to be either synonymous or antithetical.
Although Lowth’s analysis was widely accepted for two centuries, in the 1980s, James Kugel and Robert Alter challenged the received Lowthian orthodoxy. They rejected Lowth’s category of synonymous parallelism, pointing out that even when the two lines seem to be saying something roughly similar, they are never perfectly equivalent, and that the difference, however small, when viewed in light of the similarity of the two lines, produces a new meaning that goes beyond what each line contributes individually.
James Kugel's label for this was “subjunction,” i.e., line B is subjoined to line A. To explain this, he invented the formula, “A, and what’s more, B.” The first line (A) is the primary statement; the second line (B) adds new information or a new perspective. (James L. Kugel, The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981].)
A few years later, Robert Alter took Kugel’s approach and moved the ball down the field a few more yards. He fleshed out the specific ways in which the B line heightens, intensifies, focuses and even dramatizes the A line. Alter speaks of “parallelism of specification” and “parallelism of intensification,” although he does acknowledge that, occasionally, one finds “static synonymity.” Alter’s main point is that “literary expression abhors complete parallelism … usage always introducing small wedges of difference between closely akin terms.” He quotes Viktor Shklovsky who wrote that “the purpose of parallelism … is to transfer the usual perception of an object into the sphere of a new perception – that is, to make a unique semantic modification.” (Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry [New York: Basic Books, 1985], 3-26).
More recently, the Dutch scholar J. P. Fokkelman vividly explained the Kugel-Alter theory of parallelism with the helpful metaphor of binoculars. Just as binoculars provide depth perception by bringing two nearly identical but nevertheless distinct pictures together to form a new unity, so in Hebrew parallelism the similarities and the differences between the two lines complement one another, and the result is that whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Parallelism helps us to see in stereo. (J. P. Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Poetry: An Introductory Guide [transl. Ineke Smit; Louisville: WJK, 2001], 78-79.)
As you can see, the New Perspective claim that “the righteousness of God” is a cipher denoting “God’s saving faithfulness to his covenant” rests on the outdated Lowthian theory of Hebrew synonymous parallelism. Rather than equating “righteousness” with “faithfulness” (or “salvation”), it is better to see the instances in the Psalms and Isaiah where these terms are used in parallelism as “binoculars” in which these different concepts mutually interpret one another and lead to a picture that is larger than the sum of its parts.
God’s salvation is the result of his faithfulness to his covenant with Abraham. God’s salvation is also an expression of his righteousness, because he executes salvation in a manner that is consistent with his justice and holiness; indeed, salvation itself is an essentially judicial activity, for salvation comes through judgment. For example, at the Exodus, God’s deliverance of his people was accomplished by judgment on the Egyptians. At the cross, salvation was accomplished because the judgment we deserved was borne by Jesus as our substitute.
In other words, when “God’s salvation” or “God’s faithfulness” and “God’s righteousness” are found in parallel, the conclusion we are to draw is not that the word “righteousness” itself means “salvation” or “faithfulness,” but that God’s saving activity comes in fulfillment of his covenant promises and is an expression of his righteousness. Especially in those cases where “salvation” and “righteousness” are parallel (see, e.g., Psalm 98:2; Isaiah 51:5-8; 56:1), the point is that God’s salvation has a strongly judicial dimension.
To conclude, the static Lowthian theory of synonymous parallelism has been superseded in the last 30 years by a more nuanced understanding, and this scholarly shift in the interpretation of Hebrew poetry undermines one of the pillars of the NPP. When properly understood, Hebrew parallelism provides no support for the theory that δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ is a cipher for God's faithfulness to his covenant.