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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Will (Testament)

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Here, accepting the conclusion (see art. Covenant) that in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 we find the thought of a human ‘will’ or ‘testament,’ we proceed to ask whether the idea can be more closely defined.

1. In his Historical Commentary on the Galatians (p. 349 ff.), Ramsay argues that there are clear indications that St. Paul is alluding to the customs of Greek law. He maintains that a Greek will was (a) public and (b) irrevocable. It was ‘confirmed’ (3:15) when it had passed through the Record Office of the city; when duly executed it could not be revoked, even by a subsequent act of the testator. Hence, whilst St. Paul could not apply to God an analogy drawn from such wills as we are familiar with, his illustration is seen to be a perfect one as soon as we recognize the nature of a Greek will. Yet on closer examination these positions appear untenable. Norton states that only two instances are to be found where a will was deposited in official custody; and he adds: ‘There is no evidence or trace of registration of Greek wills in the classic period, nor of official inspection of their contents’ (A Lexicographical and Historical Study of ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ, pp. 61-62), As to the question of irrevocability, he quotes an interesting case from Isaeus, which turned on the question whether undue influence had not been exerted to prevent a dying man from exercising his undoubted right of amending his will (ib., pp. 63-64). Ramsay’s only proof appears to be that wills found in Egypt often contained the provision that the testator is free to alter or invalidate (op. cit. p. 366). But, whatever may be the explanation of this, it cannot mean that by inserting a clause to this effect the testator could alter an established law. It reminds us rather of our modern legal phrase ‘without prejudice,’ which claims acknowledged rights without creating new ones. (For a fuller examination of this question see Schmiedel’s searching discussion in EBi ii. 1608-11.)

2. Halmel, in his pamphlet Über römisches Recht im Galaterbrief, urges, on the other hand, that St. Paul uses the technical terminology of Roman law with scientific exactness. According to Roman law a man could make a will, and afterwards either invalidate it or add codicils at his pleasure. St. Paul’s argument is that the Mosaic Law is not a will at all, but a codicil which does not revoke the will but merely suspends its operation. In general this seems the best exposition. Halmel’s attempt to illustrate St. Paul’s use of the singular ‘seed’ (σπέρμα) as opposed to the plural ‘seeds’ (σπέρματα) from the Roman provision that the legatee must be exactly defined (persona certa), and that a number of persons loosely designated (personae incertae) could not inherit, seems too fantastic. St. Paul’s argument savours more of the Rabbinic school than of the Roman law-court. (For a full discussion of Halmel see Dawson Walker, The Gift of Tongues, ‘The Legal Terminology in the Epistle to the Galatians,’ p. 101 ff.)

3. Both passages (Gal. and Heb.) are explained when we remember that in NT times the general principles of Roman law were well established and were known throughout the Empire. The mixed population of the Galatian churches, whether we adopt the N. or the S. Galatian theory, forbids us to think that when St. Paul speaks ‘after the manner of men’ he would appeal to specialized knowledge familiar only to certain sections of his readers. But all St. Paul’s readers, as well as the readers of the Epistle to the Hebrews, whether these were Palestinian or Italian, knew the general customs with regard to will-making-customs which have lasted to our own day.

Literature.-The works cited under Covenant, esp. F. O. Norton, A Lexicographical and Historical Study of ΔΙΑΘΗΚΗ, Chicago, 1908; W. M. Ramsay, Historical Commentary on the Galatians, London, 1899; T. Zahn, Der Brief des Paulus an die Galater, Leipzig, 1905; Dawson Walker, The Gift of Tongues, Edinburgh, 1906, pp. 83-175; A. Halmel, Über römisches Recht im Galaterbrief, Essen, 1895; P. W. Schmiedel, art. ‘Galatia,’ in EBi ii. 1608 ff.

Wilfrid J. Moulton.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Will (Testament)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/w/will-testament.html. 1906-1918.

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