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English Translation of the Terms for Covenant

The Hebrew word for “covenant” in the Old Testament is berith, which the Septuagint consistently renders with the Greek word diatheke. There is little doubt that the New Testament authors followed the practice of the Septuagint and employed the term diatheke to mean berith, “covenant.” However, because many classical Hellenistic sources also used diatheke to refer to a “last will” or “testament,” some older English translations (KJV) render diatheke as “testament” in certain passages. More recent translations correct this error, except in a couple of instances. For example, Heb 9:15–17 (RSV) reads as follows:

“Therefore he [Christ] is the mediator of a new covenant [diatheke], so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant [diatheke]. For where a will [diatheke] is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will [diatheke] takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive.”

The word diatheke is translated as “covenant” in Heb 9:15 but as “will” in the following verses. Some see the author switching to the classical meaning of diatheke in these latter verses, where the discussion seems to revolve around executing a will at a person’s death. However, the author of Hebrews may also refer to “covenant” in 16–17. Indeed, the covenant under consideration is the broken covenant at Sinai. The Greek of these verses may be translated as follows:

“For where a [broken] covenant is involved, it is necessary for the death of the covenant-maker to be borne. For a [broken] covenant is enforced upon dead bodies, since it certainly is not in force while the covenant-maker still lives.”

The author of Hebrews is emphasizing that the (broken) Sinai covenant required the death of the Israelites (Exod 32:9–10) because of the curse of death they put themselves under by swearing the covenant oath at Sinai (Exod 24:8). Due to God’s previously “sworn mercies” to Abraham, the curse of death was not executed at the time (Exod 32:14). But that is precisely what Christ endures, as He dies on behalf of Israel (Heb 9:15).

A similar translation problem occurs in Gal 3:15: “To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man’s will [diatheke], or adds to it, once it has been ratified” (RSV).

In the context (Gal 3:15–18), Paul is discussing the fixed nature of oath-sworn covenants. Since even a human covenant cannot be changed after it has been solemnly sworn (Gal 3:15; compare Josh 9:18–20), God’s sworn covenant certainly cannot be (Gal 3:17). God cannot change His covenant with Abraham (Gen 22:15–18) to bless all nations through his seed (Gen 22:18, compare Gal 3:14) by adding the Mosaic law as a condition four hundred years later (Gal 3:17–18). To Paul, if it is unjust for humans to attempt to add new conditions, or alter a covenant after it has been sworn, it is no less so for God.

All occurrences of diatheke in the New Testament may and should be translated “covenant,” following the consistent example of the Septuagint.


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