Biblical Backgrounds: New Testament Covenant?

As one reads through the New Testament, they will encounter a word which has various meanings, “covenant.” Within the Pauline corpus one can find ten uses of this word covenant. To complicate matters, the letter to the Romans and the Galatians would have been read in mixed ethnic company. So, how did the Greek / Roman hearers of the New Testament understand this word?

My research hypothesis is that Greek and Roman concepts of covenant entail not only paralleling structure to the ANE, but add significance via the last will and testament understanding. As such, the Roman and Greek hearers of the New Testament could have associated their cultural understanding without any theological lessening of the word in context.

Within the New Testament, there are two words which could allude to, or directly mean covenant. The first to be considered is the word, ὀμνύω. Though often translated as “oath,” this Greek word bears within its etymology a concept similar to the ANE covenants. Louw and Nida define it as such “ὀμνύω is to affirm the truth of a statement by calling on a divine being to execute sanctions against a person if the statement in question is not true (in the case of a deity taking an oath, his divine being is regarded as validating the statement)—‘to swear, to make an oath, oath.’” Therefore, if an oath is a legal means of binding with divine consequences, and if the word is frequently associated with covenant, then Greek and Roman oaths may shed light on how the New Testament hearers understood the letters of the Apostles.

What is an Oath?
Richard Janko defines an oath as such, “to take an oath is in effect to invoke powers greater than oneself to uphold the truth of a declaration, by putting a curse upon oneself if it is false”.27 Thus, a Greek oath is an utterance where a speaker swears by named gods to accomplish some sort of task. The invocation of deities implies eternal consequences if the oath is broken. However, if one were to strive to uphold an oath, the deities can be summoned to aid the oath swearer.

What is the Oath Structure?
Sommerstein and Torrance, in their great research document, have found the following structure to be consistent across surveyed literature.
(1) The swearer makes a declaration.
(2) The swearer specifies, explicitly or implicitly, a superhuman power or powers as witnesses to the declaration and guarantors of its truth.
(3) The swearer calls down a conditional curse on him/herself, to take effect if the assertion is false or if the promise is violated, as the case may be; that is, (s)he prays that in that event (s)he may suffer punishment from the guarantor power.

What is the results of an Oath?
As mentioned earlier, the basic result of an oath was that a person promised to do an action and would do it. Other results of an oath parallel ANE covenants in that oaths usually had implied blessings and curses. Further paralleling ANE covenants Greek Oaths often entail some kind of sacrifice to remind the oath maker of what would happen should he or she break the oath. The ritual of self-sacrifice can also be found in other modes of ritual. Other ritual acts, such as pouring libations of wine, melting wax images or sinking iron-lumps into the sea, were other means of making a self-curse. Read into each of these modes is the concept of reflexive punishment if one were to break the oath.

The second word which alludes to or is translated as covenant is διαθήκη.
διαθήκη is not only found within Koine Greek, but also classical sources. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament notes, “It means ‘order,’ ‘institution.’” However, as one considers secular Greek texts the word διαθήκη is “most commonly used for ‘last will and testament’” This classical Greek background leads one to wonder if διαθήκη should be translated as “covenant” or as “will and testament?”

What is a Last Will and Testament?
A very basic definition of a Last Will and Testament is the same as the modern meaning; “a legal declaration of a person's wishes regarding the disposal of his or her property or estate after death; especially: a written instrument legally executed by which a person makes disposition of his or her estate to take effect after death.”52 When comparing with ANE covenant concepts one finds a major difference. In Greek culture, a διαθήκη could be changed at any time by the will writer (testator) while the testator was still alive. For instance, the testator could write his will and then get irritated at an heir and write them out of his will. However, as Sproul noted, “When God makes a covenant with His people, He can punish them for covenant breaking, but He never cancels the covenant promises He has made.”

What a Last Will and Testament entail? 
Much like the multiple elements of the ANE covenant and the Greek oath, the last will and testament also entailed five elements. “(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.”54 Furthermore, like the ANE covenants and Greek oaths, the last will and testament also required steps of ritual. Wills had to be written and usually witnessed55, sealed56 and a copy deposited with a designated public official.

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