Saturday, May 21, 2011

Brian Small Comments on Hebrews 9:14-17

Brian Small

In a recent post, "Hebrews 9:14-17 on Covenant and Testament," I commented on the word diathēkē (διαθήκη), translated as "testament" in the old King James Version:
The word for "testament" in the original Greek is diathēkē (διαθήκη), which has a double meaning that might be significant, i.e., "testament" in the legal sense of a will and "covenant" in the legal sense of a contract, if I might be allowed to distinguish the two meanings in this way.

I note this because verse 16 states that "where a testament [is], there must also of necessity be the death of the testator." The author of Hebrews applies this to Christ, whose 'last will and testament' (διαθήκη) is effected by his death.

The old diathēkē (διαθήκη), however, is put into effect by God, who assuredly does not die. The term here therefore cannot mean 'last will and testament,' but "covenant" in the sense of "compact" or "contract."
I received a comment from Brian Small on this post:
Actually, this is a highly controverted passage. Many scholars interpret διαθηκη as "covenant" as you do, but many others take it to mean "testament" or "will" in this context. Personally, I think that the author is using a word-play on διαθηκη, as does Attridge. God does not die, but Jesus as the mediator of the new covenant/testament dies instead.
My first thought was that I had been misunderstood:
Actually, I'm also using it as a wordplay -- as "covenant" for the old arrangement and as "testament" for the new.

At least, I am putting forth this suggestion.
But after more reflection, I wonder if Mr. Small meant that the wordplay "covenant/testament" applies to both the old diathēkē (διαθήκη) and the new diathēkē (διαθήκη). I had applied the wordplay differently, "covenant" to the old and "testament" to the new. Perhaps Mr. Small means that Jesus was considered 'retroactively' to have died for the old covenant as well, but in doing so gathered in to the "testament" that is new all of those covered by the old covenant, such that it can be thought of as a "testament" as well.

I'm not quite sure that this logic works, but I'm also not sure that I've understood Mr. Small's point, so I'll perhaps need to inquire.

He has an interesting and useful website on Hebrews, by the way, titled "Polumeros kai Polutropos: A Resource Blog on the Book of Hebrews," which might be helpful to my investigations into this epistle.

Mr. Small also happens to be a doctoral student at my old alma matar, Baylor University, a good school that is getting even better.

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At 9:01 AM, Blogger Brian Small said...

What I meant was that διαθηκη means "covenant" in Hebrews, except in 9:16-17 where it means "testament." The author is playing off the ambiguity of the word διαθηκη which could mean either one.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I suppose, then, that this means that the author of Hebrews considered the first διαθηκη to be a "covenant" only, not a "testament."

If so, then our interpretations don't seem at odds. Were we talking past each other?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:23 PM, Blogger dhr said...

As far as I remember from my Theology classes, "syntheke" was the original word for "covenant" (where "syn" = together, God and men). While "diatheke" was chosen because it implied a unilateral decision (by God).

At 2:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, do you mean that the earlier Greek translation of the Hebrew "bĕriyth" [ברית] was "syntheke"?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:44 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Unfortunately I cannot recall it exactly, it was so many years ago... but I sort of think so. "Diatheke" did not so much mean a "testament", strictly, as rather a kind of "convenant" where the two parties were not equal at all. It aimed at stressing God's primacy.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Brian Small said...

DHR: Yes, scholars have argued that the LXX translators chose to use διαθηκη instead of συνθηκη, for the very reason you cited. Συνθηκη was the normal word for "covenant."

Actually, διαθηκη meant "testament, will" in Greek literature, but the LXX translators imported the meaning of "covenant" into the word when they used it to translate the Hebrew word ברית. This has created confusion when reading the NT because sometimes the word means "covenant" and sometimes "testament." The context needs to be determinative here.

At 3:48 PM, Blogger Brian Small said...

Jeffery, I should respond to your inquiry. In the third paragraph you quote above, you say,

The term here therefore cannot mean 'last will and testament,' but "covenant" in the sense of "compact" or "contract."

I construe that paragraph to say that you don't believe "testament" is the proper translation of διαθηκη in 9:16-17, but "covenant." Am I misreading you?

At 4:19 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brian, what I was attempting to say (but perhaps didn't express clearly) was that while διαθηκη has both meanings -- covenant and testament -- when it refers to the first διαθηκη, it means "covenant," and when it refers to the second διαθηκη, it means "testament" (in Hebrews 9:14-17).

That was my attempt to distinguish the two meanings, for the Father does not die, whereas the Son does.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:27 PM, Blogger dhr said...

Many thanks, Dr Small.

At 8:47 AM, Blogger Brian Small said...

Well, that is a very interesting interpretation. I don't think I have encountered that one yet. I would say, though, that the author speaks about a "better" διαθηκη and a "new" διαθηκη, which implies a comparison of two things that are alike yet different.

DHR: I am not a doctor yet, but working on it.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Brian, perhaps the "better," "new" διαθηκη is its new, better understanding as "testament"?

By the way, has anyone noted this before?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:00 AM, Blogger Brian Small said...

If you are talking about the delayed use of Jesus' name - yes, that has been noticed before.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What reasons have been given for this delay, and could you direct me to a bibliography?

Only if you have time, of course . . . or if your fine site aleady has a list.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:18 AM, Blogger Brian Small said...

Offhand, I wouldn't be able to give you a list of scholars who note this. I would start with the leading scholarly commentaries to see what they say on this passage and if they reference any other sources. Lane provides a bibliography at the beginning of each passage in Hebrews, but his work is now 20 years out of date and will need to be supplemented with more recent works.

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. I'll check again in Attridge first, since I have that commentary at hand, then try Lane and others if I can locate them online.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:17 PM, Blogger Brian Small said...

I have links to many books, both complete and partial on my blog.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, I'd noticed that and intend to make use of your links.

Jeffery Hodges

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