Covenant in the New Testament:
The Use of the Greek Word "Diatheke" for the Hebrew Concept of "Breit"

In sacred Scripture God's relationship with Israel is identified and maintained by the unique relationship of "covenant."  The Hebrew word breit is the expression of the covenantal relationship that extends back in salvation history long before the formation of Israel as a people of God to the covenants with Adam, Noah and Abraham.  In the first translation of the ancient Hebrew text, known as the Greek Septuagint [dating to circa 250BC], the Hebrew concept of covenant is reflected in the Greek word diatheke. As often became the case with translating the Hebrew sacred text into a foreign, pagan tongue, the foreign language failed to supply a word which adequately conveyed Hebrew concepts.  In these cases a word in the foreign tongue was adopted and transformed to the meaning of the Hebrew word.  The Hebrew words "covenant" and "Messiah" are two such examples.  The Hebrew word breit became diatheke in the Greek while the Greek word for "one smeared with oil", Christos, was transformed to indicate "God's anointed," Mashiyach in Hebrew.  The New Testament writers adopted this same formula for Greek words that did not adequately translate from the Hebrew or adequately convey Christian concepts. An example is the Greek word for spiritual love,  agape, which in the Greek of the New Testament came to mean the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ and the way in which He commanded Christians to love others [John 13:24-25].

The Greek word "diatheke" is the only word translation for "breit" in the Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation in covenant formation passages such as:

And also appears in such major covenant events as the covenant with

And most importantly, the Greek word diatheke appears in the Septuagint

The inspired writer of the New Testament book of the Letter to the Hebrews, like other New Testament inspired writers, uses the Greek word diatheke to indicate the Hebrew concept of covenant formation.  The Greek word, however, unlike the Hebrew, had a double meaning.  Diatheke could mean a "pact" [in this sense related somewhat to the concept of "covenant" but in the koine Greek not in the full Hebrew sense, of course], and it could also mean "testament" as in one's last will and testament.  We can be confident that the inspired writer of Hebrews is using the word diatheke in the Hebrew sense of covenant because the Book of Hebrews presents the priesthood of Jesus Christ and the meaning of His sacrifice more clearly than any other book in the Bible, it is the Hebrew concept of covenant formation in blood sacrifice and worship.  The word diatheke is continually used in the Book of Hebrews in the context of Hebrew covenant relationship and reaches its climax in the use of the word diatheke for covenant in the quotation from the prophet Jeremiah [taken from the Septuagint, translation] in Hebrews 8:8-10'reflecting the same 5 time use of the word "covenant" that is in both the Hebrew and Greek translation of that Old Testament promise. 

Diatheke is the same Greek word used in the New Testament Gospel account of Jesus' pronouncement "this is my blood of the covenant" in Matthew 26:28 [some MSS have "new covenant"] and "this cup is the new covenant in my blood" at the Last Supper in Luke 22:20 and again by St. Paul in his account in 1 Corinthians 11:25, "this is the cup of the new covenant in my blood"'which in Hebrews 9:16-17 and in Galatians 3:15 include the understanding of the double meaning of diatheke as both a covenant and as a last will and  "testament" as a promise of a gift of the New Covenant to Jesus' heirs. The celebration of the Mass, therefore, maintains a link to the Old Covenant understanding of sacrifice in worship in that the celebration of the Eucharist is both a sacrifice, the element of continual blood sacrifice as a necessary element of covenant maintenance according to the Hebrew understanding of covenant' and a testament and promise of the eternal blessings that Christ, upon His death, burial, and resurrection has offered to His covenant people who are His heirs.  That link between the Old and the New is further maintained in a ministerial priesthood, a royal priesthood of believers, in an altar, in the use of incense as representative of the prayers of the faithful, in holy water for ritual purification that indicates an internal condition of purity and sanctity, and in a sacrifice of self united in the one, perfect, sacrifice of Jesus Christ the Lamb of God who died once and for all for the sins of man but the presentation of whose unbloody sacrifice is on going for the redemption of mankind in the heavenly sanctuary: "Then I saw a Lamb, looking as though it had been slain standing in the center of the throne"  [see Revelation 5:6, NIV]. Every high priest must have "something" to offer [Hebrews 8:1-3] and Jesus, our High Priest of the heavenly Sanctuary continually offers Himself for the sins of mankind-one perfect and final sacrifice.

It is true that the standard use of the Greek word diatheke outside of the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew texts in classical Greek culture was applied to a testament or will.  The use of this Greek in the New Testament to indicate the new covenantal order bridges the world of ancient Old Covenant Israel and the Gentile Greco-Roman world in the use of this word in the New Testament [Hebrews 9:16-17 and Galatians 3:15, 17].  New Testament writers used diatheke in the context of the Hebrew concept of covenant but also made use of the double meaning of "pact" and "testament" to interpret Jesus' work of sacrifice and salvation in terms of a "last will and testament" delivered upon His death to the "heirs" of His promise [Hebrews 6:17] who hoped to inherit eternal salvation [Hebrews 1:14 and 6:12].  What better word to unite and transform what was old and impermanent to what is new and eternal bringing both Jews and Gentiles into one universal New Covenant family!

Michal Hunt, Copyright © 2007 Agape Bible Study. Permissions All Rights Reserved.


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