In Matthew 6:1 the word ἐλεημοσύνην is translated as righteousness by both the NIV and the ESV, yet in Strong's concordance or Thayer's the meaning of the word seems consistently closer to "mercy", "compassion", or even the old KJV "alms". Can anyone give guidance on why the word is translated "righteousness"?

3 Answers 3


Short Answer: I noticed that if you look at the different Greek manuscripts, you will see that they use different Greek words.

I quote:

The Textus Receptus constituted the translation-base for the original German Luther Bible, the translation of the New Testament into English by William Tyndale, the King James Version, the Spanish Reina-Valera translation, the Czech Bible of Kralice, the Portuguese Almeida Recebida, the Dutch Statenvertaling and most Reformation-era New Testament translations throughout Western and Central Europe.

As an example, let's look at the Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550

  • Προσέχετε τὴν ἐλεημοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς· εἰ δὲ μήγε, μισθὸν οὐκ ἔχετε παρὰ τῷ πατρὶ ὑμῶν τῷ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς

Here we see the word ἐλεημοσύνην used.

On the other hand:

In the updated NASB, consideration was given to the latest available manuscripts with an emphasis on determining the best Greek text. Primarily, the 26th edition of Nestle-Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece is closely followed.3

Nestle Greek New Testament 1904

  • Προσέχετε δὲ τὴν δικαιοσύνην ὑμῶν μὴ ποιεῖν ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς τὸ θεαθῆναι αὐτοῖς· εἰ δὲ μήγε, μισθὸν οὐκ ἔχετε παρὰ τῷ Πατρὶ ὑμῶν τῷ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

Here we see the word δικαιοσύνην used.

In the first case the word used is ἐλεημοσύνην meaning:

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In the second case the word used is δικαιοσύνην meaning:

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To conclude: If we look at the context of the verse, in Matthew 6:1, Jesus is cautioning against practicing acts for the sole purpose of receiving praise from others. In other words, Jesus is focused on the sincerity and purity of one's motives rather than merely performing outwardly righteous deeds. So, whether alms, charitable deeds, or righteousness, the idea is to have a genuine desire to serve God and others, rather than seeking recognition and approval from people.

  • 2
    1. The KJV relies on Stephanus, Beza, The Computensian Polyglot and Erasmus, primarily, not just 'Stephanus'. 2. I recommend Herman Hoskier's Codex B and its Allies which proves a faulty Coptic-influenced recension in the 4th century of which Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are examples, providentially preserved not to be used but as examples of what is to be avoided.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Apr 4 at 11:56
  • @NigelJ Thank you for the comment! I have edited my answer with hopefully better wording. I also found an online archive of the book which I have bookmarked. Thank you for the recommendation!
    – Jason_
    Commented Apr 4 at 17:09

The NIV Study Bible makes an interesting point about Matthew 6:1, where Jesus is said to say, "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to be seen by them". The NIV note shows the translation philosophy at back of its rendition:

"acts of righteousness. This verse introduces the discussion of three acts of righteousness: (1) giving (vv.2-4), (2) praying (vv.5-15) and fasting (vv.16-18)." NIV Study Bible p.1421, 1987 ed.

It would seem that an opportunity for a point of interpretation has been taken. Verses 1 to 18 have been considered as constituting a whole topic containing three matters that can all be categorised as "acts of righteousness". Well, no doubt they were back in the day when Jesus addressed those people. Giving money or other alms to the poor was viewed as meritorious for the giver, and anyone seen to give to the poor would be considered to be doing something righteous. Likewise with public prayer - people admired those who stood in synagogues and on street corners, praying. As for fasting, that had to also be seen to be done in public for others to consider the person fasting as being righteous. All three acts had to be seen to be done in public for the person doing them to be hailed as "righteous" by others.

That was what Jesus was speaking about, but anyone going on to read the whole of that discourse would be left in no doubt that he was warning against such public acts done to be seen, for they were not God's idea of doing righteous acts. Nor were they his. Therefore, the Greek word for 'rightness, justice', dikaiosune, is only used by Jesus in verse 33 of that chapter, where he contrasts men's visible acts (done to be admired of by others) with God's righteousness. In contrast, those manuscripts that have the word for 'kindness, kind acts', elemosune, at Matthew 6:1 are in agreement with the whole tenor of Jesus' ministry with regard to God's righteousness.

Given that Jesus was out to expose all three public acts as contrary to God's righteousness, he would never have used the dikaiosune word at verse 1. He did use it at verse 33 - to admonish seeking first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, in contrast to sinful human attempts at their idea of righteousness. Guidance was asked for, and I suggest being guided by Jesus' actual words, as shown by the way he was warning against human ideas of righteousness.

EDIT - So often people suppose that newer translations are to be preferred because the claim is made (and unquestioningly accepted) that they had access to newer, 'better' Greek manuscripts, so that the likes of the A.V. end up shelved. But this example in Mat. 6:1 proves that to be wrong, given everything Jesus said on the matter. Here is how a very old translation reads, literally, under the untampered-with Greek text:

"Beware your alms not to do before men, in order to be seen by them: otherwise reward ye have not with your Father who [is] in the heavens. When therefore thou doest alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Verily I say to you, they have their reward. But thou doing alms, let not know thy left hand what does thy right hand, so that may be thine alms in secret: and thy Father who sees in secret himself shall render to them openly." The Englishman's Greek New Testament, giving the Greek Text of Stephens 1550 (third edition), Samuel Bagster & Sons Ltd


ἐλεημοσύνην can be translated narrowly as alms-giving/charity or broadly as righteousness. What is spoken of here might be best rendered in English as piety. Indeed, according to the Interpreters' Bible, "The three chief pillars of Jewish piety in the first century were alms-giving, fasting and prayer." In Jewish terminology this would be tzedakah. It too means both righteousness and charity.

In Jewish thought and tradition, material support for those in need is not a matter of “charity”–a term that implies generosity beyond what may be expected–but a requirement... Biblical prophets castigated the Israelites for neglecting and even exploiting the poor, insisting that God has particular concern for those in need. The rabbis of classical Judaism praised tzedakah, calling it, for example, “equal in value to all the other mitzvot [commandments] combined.” They also praised those who practice it, saying that they attain the level of holiness of someone who brought sacrifices in the ancient Temple. The Rosh Hashanah liturgy lists tzedakah alongside repentance and prayer as a human act capable of averting a negative divine decree.

Conclusion: Charity is one of the key duties of piety or righteousness. The Greek word ἐλεημοσύνην carries both connotations, just as does its Hebrew counterpart: tzedakah.

Psalm 37:21

The wicked one borrows but does not repay; the righteous one is generous and gives.

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