Why They Call Them Testaments

A testament refers to a statement affirming the value of something. It is where the term “last will and testament” derives. To label the two divisions of the Bible “Old Testament” and “New Testament” is regrettable. In fact, use of the term “testament” conceals a core truth about the Scriptures that has contributed to 2,000 years of misunderstanding and serious doctrinal error.

The word “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, translated from the Greek diatheke. The Greek means either testament or covenant. Diatheke is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in an account of the Last Supper.

Paul recorded Yahshua’s words in 1Corinthians 11:25: “This cup is the new covenant [diatheke] in my blood.” We see how testament would not fit here because “new” is kainos (2537), as in freshness. Vines Expository Dictionary explains: “…not new in time [as if appearing for the first time] but as to form or quality, of a different nature…” The first recorded designation of the collection of the Hebrew books was by Melito of Sardis in the late second century (recorded in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History). In his listing of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures (the first such list among the extant Christian writings), he called the group of writings the “Old Covenant” (Greek: palaia diatheke).

The Greek word for “covenant” (diatheke) was translated by Jerome in the fifth century into the Latin Vulgate as testamentum. Because the Latin Vulgate was widely used throughout the Middle Ages, it greatly influenced later translations into vernacular languages. Thus, one of the first English translations of the Bible, made by John Wyclif in the fourteenth century (1382), translated diatheke as “testament,” following the Latin testamentum. William Tyndale’s sixteenth-century English translation followed suit (1524), along with the Geneva Bible (1557) and the 1611 King James Bible.

So now the two divisions of the English Bible are known as the Old and New Testaments, although in the English text diatheke is usually translated “covenant.” The two words are therefore regarded as basically synonymous, but this is misleading. Kainos in Acts 2 is said of Vines, “These languages, however, were ‘new’ and ‘different,’ not in the sense that they had never been heard before, or that they were new to the hearers, for it is plain from v. 8 that this is not the case; they were new languages to the speakers, different from those in which they were accustomed to speak.” If this were glossolalia, it would be totally new.

It’s the same with the “new” covenant. When Jerome translated the Greek to Latin in the fourth century, he used testamentum 30 times. The word for “covenant” (diatheke) is used only about 30 times in the New Testament — mostly in the letter to the Why They Call Them ‘Testaments’ The terms New Covenant and New Testament are often confused. At the core of the biblical covenant lies obedience, the first thing many want to throw out. No wonder “testament” was chosen over “covenant”! “ So now the two divisions of the English Bible are known as the Old and New Testaments, although in the English text diatheke is usually translated “covenant.”

The Scriptures are either absolute or they are obsolete. Your only permanent possession in this world is the record of your life. Hebrews. In the Evangels it is in reference to the institution of the Eucharist: for example, see Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24 and Luke 22:20 — just like Paul’s account. Contrasted with the Old “Testament” the word “covenant” appears almost 300 times. The Old Testament was written down as a whole unit in Greek (the Septuagint) in the second century BCE. Of course, parts of it had originally been recorded in Hebrew. In Hebrew texts the word for “covenant” is berith, which best translates as “to bind” as in an agreement. While the Latin testamentum and Hebrew berith all roughly translate as “covenant,” there are differences.

Understanding these differences makes the meaning of “Old and New Testament” more powerful. Berith most often meant an agreement, even a treaty, between two parties. Sometimes these were sealed in blood. (Berith can also mean “to cut.”) Yahweh made a covenant promise to make Abraham’s heirs a great nation and, again, to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. Not an Exact Translation While New Testament writers used the Greek diatheke for “covenant,” many scholars note that diatheke is not exactly a translation of berith. Another word that might might have been more appropriate is syntheke, which means “to bind together” as a law or treaty might do. Diatheke instead refers to an agreement more like a “last will and testament.” And diatheke was clearly the word chosen by the New Testament writers.

Why? Syntheke and berith usually refer to an agreement to be fulfilled in the future, like a treaty or the probate of our last wills and testaments. Old Testament covenants can indeed be seen in that light: Yahweh promised Abraham that, in the future, he would father a great nation. Our wills are seen by our heirs as things they will get in the future. We have to die first, though. But a Greek living in the Greek world of the New Testament would have understood diatheke differently.

In Syro-Grecian law of the time, as noted by the early 20th century biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos, a diatheke disposition of property (like a bequest in a will) could be made during one’s lifetime and have an immediate effect. So if you made someone your heir, it was an immediate form of legal adoption. No waiting on the future. So from the Old Testament covenant as a binding agreement between two parties, sealed in blood, with a future benefit, we now find a covenant that immediately makes someone part of the family.

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Posted in Bible Study References, Common Misnomers.
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