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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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TESTAMENT . The word is not found in the OT. In the text of the RV [Note: Revised Version.] of the NT it occurs only twice ( Hebrews 9:16 f.) and is used to translate the Gr. word diathçkç , elsewhere rendered ‘covenant’ (with ‘testament’ in the margin). In Hebrews 9:15-20 diathçkç is three times translated ‘covenant,’ and twice ‘testament.’ An indication of the difficulty involved in its interpretation is given in the marginal note: ‘The Greek word here used signifies both covenant and testament .’

In classical Greek diathçkç means ‘a testamentary disposition,’ and synthçkç ‘a covenant.’ The latter word connotes an agreement between two persons regarded as being on an equal footing ( syn- ); hence it is unsuitable as a designation of God’s gracious covenants with men. The LXX [Note: Septuagint.] therefore use diathçkç as the equivalent of the Heb. word for ‘covenant’ ( bÄ•rîth ), its most frequent application being to the Divine covenants, which are not matters of mutual arrangement between God and His people, but are rather ‘analogous to the disposition of property by testament.’ In the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] diathçkç was extended to covenants between man and man, but Westcott says: ‘There is not the least trace of the meaning “testament” in the Greek Old Test. Scriptures, and the idea of a “testament” was indeed foreign to the Jews till the time of the Herods’ ( Com. on Hebrews , Additional Note on Hebrews 9:15 ).

In the NT ‘covenant’ is unquestionably the correct translation of diathçkç when it occurs ‘in strictly Biblical and Hebraic surroundings’ [see Covenant]. But, as Ramsay has pointed out, there was a development in the meaning of the word after the publication of the LXX [Note: Septuagint.] . This development was ‘partly in the line of natural growth in Greek will-making, … partly in the way of assimilation of Roman ideas on wills ’ ( Hist. Com. on Galatians , p. 360). Therefore the question which the interpreter must ask is, ‘What ideas did the word convey to the first readers of the NT writings?’

The Revisers’ preference for ‘testament’ in Hebrews 9:16 f. is strongly confirmed by the fact that ‘the Roman will … appeared in the East as a document which had no standing and no meaning until after the testator’s death, and was revocable by him at pleasure.’ But whilst the Epistle to the Hebrews was written to those who knew only the Roman will, the Epistle to the Galatians was written at a time when in Hellenized Asia Minor ‘irrevocability was a characteristic feature’ of Greek will-making. The Galatian will had to do primarily with the appointment of an heir; no second will could invalidate it or ‘add essentially novel conditions.’ Such a will furnished St. Paul ( Galatians 3:15 ) with an analogy; like God’s word, it was ‘irrevocable.’ It might be supplemented in details, but ‘in essence the second will must confirm the original will’ (Ramsay, op. cit . p. 349 ff.).

In the NT, testamentum is the uniform Lat. tr. [Note: translate or translation.] of diathçkç . Frequently, therefore, it means ‘covenant’ ( Luke 1:72 , Acts 7:3 , Romans 11:27 etc.). This use of the Latin word is the explanation of the fact that, as early as the second cent of our era, the books of the Old and New Covenants were spoken of as the Old and New Testaments.

J. G. Tasker.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Testament'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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