["covenant" or "testament"?]

In 1988, God's Word to the Nations Bible Society published The New Testament: God's Word to the Nations (GWN). This distinctly Lutheran New Testament translation contained a huge set of Appendixes containing valuable information regarding the translation. One particular Greek word that was rendered differently from modern translations was diatheke. While most modern translations use "covenant", GWN went with "last will and testament," or a variation thereof. This word is very significant regarding the Lutheran understanding of the Sacrament of the Altar (Lord's Supper).

The Appendixes from The New Testament: God's Word to the Nations (GWN) did not make it to subsequent editions and the 1988 version of The New Testament is now out of print and no longer available. We are pleased to make available online this one, small, but significant section of the Appendixes from 1988. Our sincere thanks to God's Word to the Nations for granting us permission to post this section on our church website.




3. Diatheke


Diatheke is one of the most important and fascinating terms in all of Scripture. Its depth and conceptual richness, the history of its translation into English, and the debate over its meaning in several Biblical contexts have demanded as much in-depth research and prayerful decision-making as any other single term translated in GWN.

The Greek diatheke (coupled with the Hebrew term berith, which is rendered "covenant" in virtually every English Old Testament translation) needs—almost demands—a volume of explanation. This is illustrated by the many pages that have been written concerning both of these terms in the history of the church. This present article adds another contribution to that ongoing discussion, a discussion, however, which by our day has become quite one-sided. GWN, via its particular translation of diatheke in various New Testament contexts, hopes to encourage a renewal of discussions that are more willing to look once again at all the evidence available.

The questions are: (1) Should diatheke be translated "covenant" or "testament" ("last will and testament")? (2) Are the two English concepts mutually exclusive, or do they overlap? (3) How much should the usage and context of given passages influence the translation of the term, exegetically speaking, as one applies the raw Greek lexical data? Related to these questions is the call to examine translation history a bit and to reexamine additional Scripture passages quite a bit. By the fact that GWN variously translates the 33 New Testament occurrences of diatheke with "covenant," "last will and testament," or with one of the two terms followed by the other in brackets indicates that GWN does not believe that a simple answer can be given.

Setting the tone. After considerable research of the term diatheke, GWN conclusions have sought to avoid polarization toward either opposing position: (1) the almost exclusive usage of "covenant"; or (2) the almost exclusive usage of "testament." This approach reflects the evaluation of much evidence. (In fairness, it is also stated that not every GWN translator had a strong opinion in the matter, and parallel to the discussions-at-large in the field of Biblical scholarship, not all GWN translators saw eye to eye on the final translation of each passage.)

On the one hand, even though diatheke was used in the sense of a "last will and testament" from Democritus (c. 400 B.C.) onward, there is no evidence that the term was too narrow to permit its inclusion of "covenant" if New Testament writers wished to use it that way. (Those who see diatheke only in terms of a "last will and testament" and/or who also see berith ["covenant"] as an independent concept must explain how diatheke could have been used to designate the "berith" of Exodus 24:8 or Jeremiah 31:32 in passages like Hebrews 8:9 or 9:20, when the two Old Testament berith verses could hardly be viewed as "testamental" in their "law" contexts. This is especially true in the light of certain implications given in passages like Romans 4:13-25.)

On the other hand, one cannot help but be impressed with Moulton and Milligan's assertion that "…a Hellenist like the auctor ad Hebraeos [author of Hebrews], or even a Jew like Paul, with Greek language in the very fibre of his thought, could never have used d[iatheke] for covenant without the slightest consciousness of its ordinary and invariable contemporary meaning."5

Finally, from the Old Testament end of the spectrum, the idea that the Jews of the Old Testament were not accustomed to writing "last wills and testaments" is not decisive. For example, God gave His promises through the word; that was His signature. His people signed by faith. Thus, Old Testament Jews would not necessarily have had to put personal promissory testaments into writing in their everyday life. As God's people, they were also expected to be as good as their word (Prov. 6:1-3).

Diatheke: Its history of translation. Biblically speaking, the Greek term diatheke was first employed to translate the Hebrew berith some 250 years before Christ. This was done by the translators of the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Later, the New Testament used this same term to communicate given messages of the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20; 1 Pet. 1:12b).

In time, the entire Bible came to be translated into Latin. The Vulgate became the dominant Latin version. Jerome, its translator, consistently rendered diatheke with the term testamentum throughout his New Testament. He also used this word quite often in the Old Testament. It was Jerome who entitled Scripture's two distinct units as "Old Testament" and "New Testament," terminology that still holds to this very day.

Martin Luther followed Jerome's diatheke or "last will and testament" approach, but not blindly. He knew the writings of the church fathers well. Church fathers, such as Chrysostom, had spoken consistently of Christ's "last will and testament." Reformers like Martin Chemnitz, "the Second Martin (Luther)," continued this tradition. Though such reformers occasionally interchanged testamentum (when they wrote in Latin) with pactum or foedus (the regular words for "covenant"), their writings clearly indicated why they were using testamentum in the narrow sense in particular contexts. In such passages, they contended, diatheke referred to a "last will and testament," not to a "covenant" in the wider sense.

Luther, in his German Bible, displayed amazing insight as he skillfully moved back and forth between Bund ("covenant") and "Testaments" in his New Testament. (He did, however, consistently use Bund to translate berith throughout his whole Old Testament.) Luther's writings ably explain his methodology. Whenever the diatheke was a mere promise, he used Bund, that is, when the context implied that the fulfillment of a "covenant" promise, especially in terms of Jesus' death and His work as the God-Man, Luther used some form of Testaments.

For Luther the berith of the Old Testament was, in essence, the Gospel-promise of Jesus Christ, while the diatheke was the Gospel-promise completed in the Christ who was already born, sacrificed, risen, and who was coming again to give His people the ultimate inheritance: forgiveness of sins in heaven. This is why he writes: "And so that little word 'testament' is a short summary of all God's wonders and grace, fulfilled in Christ."6

Luther knew that every faithful Bible translator also has to be a capable exegete. This means letting "Scripture interpret Scripture." Hebrews 9 and Galatians 3, therefore, settled much of the diatheke question for Luther: "Between a testament and a promise there is this difference: a testament is made by someone who is about to die: a promise, however, is made by someone who expects to continue living…. Since God in the Scriptures again and again calls his promise a testament he means to announce thereby that he will die;…. A testament is nothing but the last will of one who is dying, telling how his heirs are to live with and dispose of his properties after his death…. The testator is Christ, who is about to die."7

Luther clearly distinguished between the "old covenant" and the "new 'last will and testament'" (cf. Ex. 24:8; Jer. 31:31; 1 Cor. 11:25). The "old" was picturesque, physical, outward, and temporal; the "new" was real, spiritual, inward, and eternal.8 This comprehension was gained from the whole of Scripture in general and from 2 Corinthians 3:7-15 in particular.

As the Reformation spread, the Scriptures were translated into many different languages.

Following Jerome and Luther, the King James (KJV) or Authorized Version (A.V.) translated diatheke with "covenant" and "testament" according to the basic guidelines laid down by Luther.

In time, the pendulum began to swing. Between 1881-1885 the Revised Version (R.V.) of the KJV translated diatheke in almost all instances with the term "covenant." The trend continued but was also cautioned against by men of the caliber of Adolf Deissmann (to be quoted below) and Geerhardus Vos. In fact, Vos not only advocated a return to "testament" in certain passages like those of the Lord's Supper, where he said that it "may seem advisable," but he also had a clear concept of the difference between the "old" diatheke and the "new" diatheke.9 But the trend to use "covenant" was to continue.

The late 1940's, especially the 1950's, and the years on down to the present all produced writings by such scholars as G. E. Mendenhall, writings which noted various parallels between the berith forms of the Bible and those forms of the ancient Near East, forms discovered by archaeologists.

Such a trend has continued to foster a one-sided conclusion. This has caused every modern translation of the past few decades to turn almost exclusively to "covenant" as its translation of diatheke. Even the New King James Version (NKJV) and the Roman Catholic translation known as The Jerusalem Bible have followed this trend. Only in a few selected passages, like Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16,17, has the term "will" or "testament" been retained.

A choice. THE NEW TESTAMENT: God's Word to the Nations (GWN) makes conspicuous use of "last will and testament" for diatheke. What warrants such a bold move? Does it merely reflect an older tradition, or is it a serious call for a renewed and ongoing evaluation?

There can be no doubt that much of the switch to "covenant" was well-intentioned and still is. "Covenant" seems to be a more familiar English word, and it introduces an explicit connection between the Old and New Testaments, a golden thread, if you will, that holds both Testaments together as a unified whole.

But as Deissmann says, the whole diatheke decision involves much more than the question of whether we retain the two divisions labeled "Old Testament" and "New Testament," instead of changing to "Old Covenant" and "New Covenant." His words are as relevant today as they were in the 1920s:

Perhaps the most necessary investigation still waiting to be made is that relating to the word diatheke, which so many scholars translate unhesitatingly "covenant" …. To St. Paul the word [diatheke] meant what it meant in his Greek Old Testament, "a unilateral enactment," in particular "a will or testament." This one point concerns more than the merely superficial question whether we are to write "New Testament" or "New Covenant" on the title-page of the sacred volume; it becomes ultimately the great question of all religious history: a religion of grace, or a religion of works?10

Those who favor "covenant" for diatheke see berith and diatheke as one-sided promises (suzerainty covenants) wherein God the Suzerain makes the promises and keeps all of them in Christ His Son. In many cases—and in line with Scripture—they teach that a person's response to God's covenant is faith, a faith that is solely created by God Himself (1 Cor. 12:3).

In defense of scholars like Deissmann, it is true that certain problems have been created by some "covenant" proponents. Those problems force us to consider very carefully how we translate the term diatheke.

There are some reasons for the above. It is a truism that many church liturgies still retain "new testament" in the words of institution at celebrations of the Lord's Supper—and without laypersons or even a number of the clergy being aware that modern Bibles exclusively use "covenant," not "testament," in those Supper passages.

Moreover, the concept of "covenant" has been advocated by some and used by others to deny ideas, such as the fact that "God died" to enact His testament (cf. Heb. 2:14; 1 Tim. 3:16), or that salvation is solely by grace (cf. Eph. 2:8,9). Those who know Scripture well and who are subordinate to it are well aware that no text presents the "covenant" concept as a "deal" between God and mankind.

The latter misunderstandings are often permitted or promoted in certain quarters where "covenant theology" is strong. There one finds a significant amount of the mixing of grace with works under the heading of "covenant." Some of these conclusions have been reached most innocently. Unwisely, many proponents—in zeal to emphasize man's response to God's initial grace—have overstated the human covenant role. (By no means do all advocates of "covenant theology" fall under this particular category.)

It does not seem proper within this article to state the names of those who advocate that which runs so counter to Biblical truth nor to list materials that promote such error. Thus, the avoidance of certain supportive footnotes! Rather, in the spirit of a friendly call toward a reopening of the whole diatheke discussion, let it be suggested that those interested read the article entitled "COVENANT" by Leon Morris in his The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), pp. 60-107. As far as it goes, it is an excellent, unbiased treatment of diatheke by a Christian scholar who favors the translation "covenant."

In addition, the present article includes other data to facilitate and encourage renewal of discussion. GWN puts an old choice with new approaches before the Bible-reading public by using both "covenant" and "testament" in a varied format.

The English problem. Some would say that diatheke presents more of a problem to translators in English than it did to the writers of Scripture in Greek. It is true that the terms "covenant" and "testament" do not track as well with each other in English; on the surface they seem like two unrelated concepts. We talk of a "baptismal covenant" and a "last will and testament," but never of a "baptismal testament" or a "last will and covenant." Obviously the two concepts were also not totally interchangeable in Latin and German, as is evidenced by the fact that (1) Jerome, who uses pactum, foedus, and testament rather interchangeably in his Old Testament, does not interchange them for diatheke in the New; and (2) Luther, who translated the Bible into very down-to-earth German, often decided to avoid the simpler Bund in favor of the more complex Testaments in the New Testament portion of his translation.

This would indicate that the "testament" approach, followed for over 1,400 years in the history of New Testament translation, had been used after much thought was given to it. The occurrence of "covenant" in one passage and "testament" in another was not arbitrary.

It should also be stated that proponents of the "covenant" concept, perhaps unwittingly, may have made "covenant" too much of a focal point in their theology. In fact, their view may tend to limit Christ and His work (cf. Jn. 5:39). At times it tends to obscure other Biblical concepts, preventing them from exhibiting their full value. It may be accurate to say that modern Biblical scholarship has become overly enamored with the undeniably beautiful concept of "covenant."

Such shift in interpretation and translation has caused many "covenant" advocates to become less precise in terms of communication. This lack of precision is also a symptom in the "testament" camp. In English the words of Jesus, "This cup is the new testament in My blood," easily permit one to think of the New Testament portion of the Bible, not the concept of a "will." This is why GWN uses "new 'last will and testament'" to avoid such miscommunication. Likewise, the average churchgoer and English-speaking person who hears the word "covenant" will usually think of a contract between two parties, each of whom makes concessions, has obligations, and contributes something; "covenant" just sounds like it means "let's make a deal."

These very realities certainly create a dilemma for translators. However, the possibility of communicating two beautifully combined concepts in a meaningful way ought to offer them a positive challenge.

Superimposed concepts that challenge. GWN has faced what every translation faces: the question of primary dictionary meaning, plus or minus considerations that let the translation be shaped by the context. In other words, do exegetical considerations play into translation? In the case of diatheke it is hard not to answer in the affirmative, especially when diatheke is used to speak of the "old covenant" of Mount Sinai, a covenant that certainly did not promise the death of any type of testator. Sacrificial lambs certainly did not put much of anything into effect, as is the conclusion of Hebrews 9:13 and 10:4 (cf. Ex. 24:5-8).

To be sure, no one should deny the presence of a "covenant" concept on the pages of the Old Testament. At the same time, who can ignore the various "testamental" components that sit in so many "covenant" contexts? All should agree that from a Gospel point of view Genesis 12 and 15 are the key "covenant" chapters of the Old Testament. Note how chapter 12 contains the threefold promise (land, seed, and blessings) made to Abraham, a promise that for all intents and purposes contains nothing more than an inheritance oath that was never totally attainable until Christ completed His work (Heb. 11:13). Chapter 15 is even more amazing as it speaks of God "cutting" a covenant with Abraham. This is done right in the midst of a context that contains "testamental" terminology: "heir," "child," "inherit," "property" (vv. 2,3,7,14). Also compare Acts 3:25.

These Genesis examples are so crucial that the adding of other examples of "promissory testaments," like those of Leviticus 24:8 or Deuteronomy 32:48-33:29, seems superfluous.11

In short, there is a mixture of two concepts on the pages of Scripture, that of "testament" superimposed over the top of the "covenant" picture, but not vice versa.

This can lead one to believe that the translation "testamental covenant" (not "covenantal testament") may be the best possible translation for both berith and diatheke. This, of course, would not work in a modern translation that aims at simplicity of communication. Possibly the easiest of all would be to translate berith or "covenant" as "promise" and diatheke and its completed "testament" concept as "fulfilled promise." But this would also be unacceptable since the original idioms would be lost.

This forces the faithful translator to consider each individual context and to shape his translation accordingly. "Covenant" seems fine in the Old Testament where animals, not God, died (Gen. 15:10). Once again, Luther says it so well. Quoting Jerome, he writes: "…Jerome mentions, namely, that in the Hebrew one finds "covenant" rather than "testament." Then Luther explains why: "He who stays alive makes a covenant; he who is about to die makes a testament. Thus Jesus Christ, the immortal God, made a covenant. At the same time He made a testament, because He was going to become mortal. Just as He is both God and man, so He made both a covenant and a testament."12

And how things changed at the time of Jesus, "on the night He was betrayed," during the earlier hours of the day on which He would die! Finally God the Testator was ready to make His "last will and testament" (1 Cor. 11:23-25), which would put the inheritance into effect (Heb. 9:16,17). For that reason Paul adds that every time Christians go to the Supper they are "proclaiming the Lord's death—until He comes," that is, they acknowledge that Jesus the God-Man died, that His death has put His testament into effect, and that at His return He will take His people to their ultimate inheritance. This concept cannot be overemphasized.

Let every Bible reader who is interested in the whole diatheke question take the time to scan a concordance, looking up words like "adoption," "blessing," "heir," "inherit," "possess," "promise," and "son." One will also be amazed at how many times "testamental" ideas are present in the berith ("covenant") contexts of the Old Testament.

The above conclusions tend to reveal a need for permitting "testament" to overshadow "covenant" in several contexts. The idea of fulfillment or enactment of the "testament" by Christ's death dare not be blurred. Just note how the placement of the word "new" within the Lord's Supper accounts indicates the idea of fulfillment (Matt. 26:29; Mk. 14:25; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25).

It is in relation to these points that Bible students can do themselves and the church a great favor. They also need to obtain a crystal clear understanding of the "old and new covenants" in relation to the term diatheke.13

Something else besides! The blood emphasis which is so present in the "covenant" picture as well as the heir/inheritance thought in the "testament" concept will help students of the Bible endorse an acceptable balance of emphasis. Then books like Hebrews will come to life in a new way, as one notices that Hebrews 1:2 mentions Jesus as the "Heir"; that 1:14 and 6:12-14 continue the "testament" emphasis; that 9:11-28 speaks of the Testator Jesus in action; and that chapter 11 on no less than eleven occasions uses words that relate to a "testament." For example, Hebrews 11 speaks of Noah as "an heir of righteousness that comes by faith" (v.7); of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "heirs…of the same promise," who had lived in the "Promised Land" (v.9); and so forth. Then to top it off, the book ends—as it began—with a diatheke reference (13:20), speaking of "the Great Shepherd of the sheep" who died, and who "by His blood [implying both "covenant" and death] of the everlasting diatheke can take care of all needs. Need it be said that the gifts of inheritance take care of all needs?

An attention getter—John 3:16. Ask a crowd of believers for the most famous passage in the Bible. "JOHN 3:16!" a large percentage of them will reply. Isn't it interesting that this passage just happens to be in "testamental" form?

When a person goes to an attorney to draw up his "last will and testament," five things are usually involved: (1) a testator, the one who makes the will; (2) heir(s); (3) a method of effectuation, the way by which a testament goes into effect (by death); (4) a testator's promissory signature, which validates—through his word of promise—that which will be given to the heir(s); and (5) the actual inheritance to be left behind.14

John 3:16: "For God (the Testator) loved the world (the heirs) so much that He gave (into death) His one-and-only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him would not perish (the Testator's signature by word of promise) but have everlasting life (the inheritance)." Amazing!

A pleasant duty. God calls on us not to add or subtract from His Word (Rev. 22:18,19). Christians joyfully comply and seek to be a check, even on themselves. Several generations have now grown up without having heard much of an emphasis on the "last will and testament" concept of Scripture. GWN translators pray that this present translation may play a part in successfully encouraging many leaders and followers to reexamine God's whole diatheke truth.

NOTE: GWN has used "last will and testament" where God's "new diatheke" stands fulfilled and "covenant" when it has not yet come to fulfillment. In texts which go back and forth between prophetic promise and fulfillment, a system of brackets is used to help communication, so that the mind of the reader can better track the thoughts being expressed.

Numbers are from the original text, thus they do not begin with "1".

5"Diatheke," The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament. The words "…its ordinary and invariable contemporary meaning" refer to "last will and testament."

6Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), XXXV, 84.

7Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), XXXVI, 179.

8Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), XXXV, 84f.

9Biblical Theology; Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), pp. 34-36.

10.  Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1965), pp. 337f.

11.  Compare Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), pp. 144-149.

12Luther's Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), XXVII, 268.

13Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1960), XXXV, 84f.: "Therefore whenever in Scripture God's testament is referred to by the prophets, in that very word the prophets are taught that God would become man and die and rise again, in order that his word, in which he promises such a testament, might be fulfilled and confirmed. For if God is to make a testament, as he promises, then he must die; and if he is to die, then he must be a man. And so that little word 'testament' is a short summary of all God's wonders and grace, fulfilled in Christ….
     "The old testament was a promise made through Moses to the people of Israel, to whom was promised the land of Canaan. For this testament God did not die, but the paschal lamb had to die instead of Christ and as a type of Christ. And so this was a temporal testament in the blood of the paschal lamb, which was shed for the obtaining and possessing of the land of Canaan. And as the paschal lamb, which died in the old testament for the land of Canaan, was a temporal and transitory thing, so too the old testament—together with that very possession or land of Canaan allotted and promised therein—was temporal and transitory.
     "But Christ, the true paschal lamb [I Cor. 5:7], is an eternal divine Person, who dies to ratify the new testament. Therefore the testament and the possessions therein bequeathed are eternal and abiding. And that is what he means when he contrasts this testament with the other. 'A new testament,' he says, so that the other may become obsolete [Heb. 8:13] and no longer in effect. 'An eternal testament,' he says, not temporal like that other one; not to dispose of temporal lands and possessions, but of eternal blessings. 'In my blood,' he says, not in the blood of a lamb [Heb. 9:12]. The purpose of all this is that the old should be altogether annulled and should give place to the new alone."

14.  J. Barton Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962), p. 87 with modification.

The New Testament: God's Word to the Nations (GWN) (Cleveland: Biblion Publishing, 1988), pp. 531-540.

Copyright 1988 by God's Word to the Nations.
Used by permission.


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