Friday, December 02, 2011

“Testaments” in the Bible?



I recently had a neat question about the Christian term “testament.” The question concerned the validity of a position taken by Martin Luther in “Babylonian Captivity,” where Luther says that the word “testament” implies a coming death, that is, that the one making the testament is about to die. He says the OT covenants foreshadow the death of Christ because of this connotation. What would a biblical scholar say about this argument?

My response was along the following lines. This argument of Luther relies on the common meaning of “testament” (in English and Latin) as having to do with a legal-will or last-testament. However, the use of the word “testament” to translate the Hebrew word bĕrīth (which means treaty; agreement sworn by oath) in Christian Latin is rather misleading. The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a misuse of the word, arising from the fact that Greek διαθήκη, ‘disposition, arrangement,’ was applied both to a covenant (pactum, fœdus) between parties, and to a testament or will (testamentum). The Septuagint consistently rendered the Hebrew bĕrīth with the Greek term διαθήκη allowing for the confusion to arise. The Christian Latin preference for the term “testament” was probably fueled by the use of διαθήκη (in the sense of ‘covenant’) in the account of the Last Supper immediately before Christ’s death, and its consequent association with the notion of a last will or testament. The Bible actually has rather few if any “testaments” in the common sense of the word that Luther is picking up on. More common is a patriarch’s final “blessing” of his progeny when death is imminent (see Deut 33; Gen 27:27-29; 48:15-16; 49:1-28).


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