Two Covenants

Are the two major divisions of the Bible really “testaments” or “covenants”?

In what way are the major divisions of the Bible “testaments” or “covenants”? Are “Old Testament” and “New Testament” just arbitrary titles, or are we really to understand them as somehow actually being covenants?

The other day I wrote about the biblical warrant for calling our two major divisions of Scripture the Old and New Testaments. I explained that 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 is a solid basis for calling them what we do, either formally or at least informally. Today I want to peel back the onion one more layer. I want to get deeper into why we can and should call them covenants, beyond simply that the Bible itself calls them that.

Michael Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”
Michael Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”
For this I have to lean on a book I recently read, Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. In a chapter on the apostolic origins of the New Testament canon, Kruger tackles exactly this question, concluding that canon is itself derived from redemption and covenant.

If you think about it, what are the most important sections of our two testaments? For the Old Testament, the important section is the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses, which tell of God establishing the old covenant with his people Israel through Moses as mediator. The important section of the New Testament is the four Gospels, which tell of a new covenant God has established with his people through Christ as mediator.

What about the rest of Scripture? Everything else in the Old Testament took place and was written in the context of the old covenant, and everything else in the New Testament was written in the context of the new covenant. Kruger explains, taking a cue from other scholars such as Meredith Kline, that the prophetic books of the Old Testament and the epistles of the New Testament function as “covenant lawsuits”, bringing charges against God’s covenant people for various offenses against the covenant. So these secondary documents even function as an important part of the written form of each covenant.

So our two collections of Scripture are certainly about covenants, but in what sense can we call them covenants or testaments in and of themselves? Here, Kruger helpfully explains that every covenant in the ancient near east included certain elements. One important element was the depositing of a written copy of the covenant to be kept by both parties in a safe place. A notable example of this custom is the ten commandments, written by God himself on stone tablets, being deposited in the Ark of the Covenant and kept in the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. Kruger argues, and I agree, what we have in our Old and New Testaments is nothing less than the written deposit of God’s covenants with man.

Given this function of these written texts, it is right not only to say they are about covenants, but to call them covenants in and of themselves. And isn’t this what we saw in my previous article? Paul considered the written text of the Old Testament synonymous with the old covenant when he said in 2 Corinthians 3:14: “when they read the old covenant”. 

Two Testaments

Where do we find biblical warrant for the terms “New Testament” and “Old Testament”?

Bible by Adam Dimmick
Photo credit: Bible by Adam Dimmick
Where do the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” come from? What do they mean? Is it right for us to name the two divisions of our Bible this way?

Melito of Sardis is widely regarded as the person who coined the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament”. His is the earliest known canon (list of books) of the Old Testament (circa 180 CE). But I discovered recently that the New Testament itself spoke of the Old and New Testaments a century before Melito.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul refers to the “old covenant” as a written document (“when they read the old covenant”). It’s important to explain here that the word for “covenant” in this passage is the Greek διαθήκη (diathēkē), which variously means “testament” or “covenant”. Look at this same passage in the King James and you’ll find the word “testament” there in place of “covenant”. When Melito of Sardis coined the terms, he was writing in Greek and used exactly this word διαθήκη.

What’s remarkable is that just 8 verses back, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul states that God has made him and the other apostles “ministers of a new covenant” (same word διαθήκη, and if you look at the KJV you’ll find “new testament” here). It’s hard to escape the implication that Paul knew he was contributing to a new collection of Scripture which he would at least informally have referred to as the “new covenant” just as he referred to the Jewish Scriptures as the “old covenant”.

It’s impossible to know for certain if this is where Melito got his terms for the Old and New Testaments, but I think it’s a remarkable coincidence if not. I think perhaps it would be better for us to call them the Old and New Covenants, but Testament is a valid translation of διαθήκη and it’s rather late to change our conventional English wording now. Whether we call them Covenants or Testaments, though, I see 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 as a solid biblical basis for naming our two collections of Scripture as we do.