Do you think of yourself as pious? In the practice of religion, the word pious is construed today in contradictory ways. The first definition for pious in my dictionary is: "marked by or showing reverence for deity and devotion to divine worship." The second reads: "marked by conspicuous religiosity." The first definition is positive; reverence for deity (if such there be) and devotion to worship of the divine (if such there be, and if one believes in behaving in such a way) is a positive act. The second definition sounds like "excessive religiousness." How could anything in excess be positive? Too much of anything is not a good thing (nothing in excess is an ancient Greek maximum). The fourth definition is divided into two parts: 4a reads: "marked by sham or hypocrisy"; 4b is: "marked by self-conscious virtue."1 So it seems the definitions for piety range from a humble reverence for deity at one end and conspicuous hypocrisy at the other.
Several words for piety from the ancient Greek world appear in the New Testament. The verbal forms (eusebeō and thrēskeuō) and their derivatives receive different translations from scholars. These words appear in what I construe as the later books of the New Testament. The words do not appear in the gospels or the undisputed Pauline letters. In the Bauer/ Danker lexicon eusebeō is translated as "to show uncommon reverence or respect, [that is,] to worship." And thrēskeuō is translated "to practice cultic rites; to worship." Here are some passages that use these verbal forms or their derivatives (1 Tim 5:4, Acts 17:23, I Tim 2:2, 2 Tim 3:5, 2 Pet 1:3, 2 Pet 1:6, Tit 1:1, Acts 10:2; James 1:26-27, Acts 26:5, Col 2:18). These words in the New Testament do not seem to have the strange positive/negative definition found in the meaning of the English word "piety." Likely because they do not address the issue of motivation.
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-7:29), created by the gospel's flesh and blood author,2 one finds a short section (Matt 6:1-7, 16-18) directly addressing motivation for religious behavior. (Motivation constitutes the reasons why one behaves as one does.) Matthew does not use eusebeō or thrēskeuō. Instead Matthew uses dikaiosunē a word usually thought of as "righteousness." In its context here it is best translated in English as "righteous behavior,"3 but translators have rendered it variously into English as piety, religion, good deeds, charity, acts of righteousness, and righteous deeds in the few translations I checked. In these few verses Matthew condemns conspicuousness in the practice of religion and directs that charitable deeds, prayer, and fasting should be quietly and inconspicuously done.4 Those who do these acts in order to be seen by others get no credit with God (6:1, 2, 5, 16). Those who do receive credit with God for their righteous behavior are those who do their religious acts "in secret" (6:3-4, 6, 17-18).
In Matthew's view righteous behavior (think of it as pious acts) in the earliest Christian tradition consisted of unostentatiously giving charitable gifts (alms), praying privately, and inconspicuously depriving oneself of food (i.e., fasting) for religious reasons. In addition, one must do these activities motivated by the right reasons (Matt 7:35 = Luke 6:45). The writer we call James adds to these behaviors, humane consideration for others (1:27-28; cf. Matt 25:31-46):
Devotion to God (threskeia) that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
To judge by Matthew's words our modern ecclesiastical ideas about piety may be misguided. Piety does not consist of church-based religious activities. For example, attending a preaching hour of the church is not a "service" rendered to God. (I assume we attend such a gathering for ourselves.) Piety is an attitude toward deity that may be judged positive, negative, or misguided by its behavioral expression. In other words, piety is expressed in specific activities that are commensurate with a certain attitude toward deity. Modern piety, which seems to consist of serving God through group activities in a church context, differs from piety in the early Jesus tradition, which, idealistically, was a deep reverence toward God expressing itself in certain private acts performed with no pretentiousness—or so Matthew thought.
Missouri State University
1Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v. "pious."
2There are five addresses by Jesus that the flesh and blood author of Matthew's gospel has arranged throughout the gospel: Matt 5:1-7:28; 10:1-11:1; 13:1-53; 18:1-19:1; 24:1-26:1. Note especially the endings to the addresses: "when Jesus finished these…"
3Some manuscripts use the word "alms" (eleēmosunēn), suggesting the tradition found the word (dikaiosunē), as used in most manuscripts, to be unclear or unsatisfactory.
4Very little of this material (6:3 and perhaps 6:6a) was found to have originated with Jesus by the Jesus Seminar: Funk and Hoover, The Five Gospels, 147-48. Two of these religious acts (giving alms and praying) are found linked in Acts 10:2.