What is the difference between “Testament” and “Covenant”? In the Western world, many people are familiar with a “final will and testament” — a legal document read when someone passes away. The document expresses the deceased’s wishes, often in connection with estate and inheritance. As a unilateral declaration of one’s will, a “testament,” in this sense, is not the same as a “contract” or “pact,” which necessitates an agreement between two or more parties. The author of Hebrews makes an appeal to this Greek term to show that a “testament” (διαθήκη; diatheke) is initiated only after death (Heb 9:16-17).

The English theological term “New Testament” comes from the Latin Novum Testamentum – The Latin for “New Testament” translates the Greek phrase καινὴ διαθήκη (kaine diatheke) that appears in the Septuagint (Jer 31:31 LXX; cf. Lk 22:20). Yet, upon closer examination, the original Hebrew term for “covenant” (בְּרִית; berit) does not line up exactly with the idea of “testament” (διαθήκη; diatheke). So why would this Greek word be used in Luke, Hebrews and 1 Corinthians (Lk 22:20, Heb 8:8; 9:11–15, Cor 11:25)? Hard to say, but perhaps they merely followed in the footsteps of the translators of the Jewish Bible into Greek who felt that this was the best word to translate the Hebrew “covenant” (בְּרִית; berit). But translations are the work of human authors.

Indeed, a “testament” is quite different from the English term “covenant” — a word that comes from the Latin convenire, meaning “to come together,”  “meet,” or “agree.” In Hebrew, the concept of a “covenant” (בְּרִית; berit) denotes making an agreement or treaty through interaction, most often by “dining together” (בָּרָה; barah; cf. Gen 26:28-29; 31:51-54). Except for a few biblical instances, covenants usually include specific terms, conditions, and obligations for each participant. The theological concept of a “New Testament” comes from Jeremiah 31:31-34, originally expressed in Hebrew and only later translated into Greek. Ultimately, all uses of the Greek term in the apostolic writings originate with Jeremiah’s “new covenant” (בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה; berit hadashah) even though the first-century authors drew from the Greek Bible translation (LXX).

So, should English readers be referring to a New Testament or New Covenant? Since one cannot enter into a mutual agreement that is unilateral, “New Testament” would be something of a misnomer. On the other hand, covenants in the Bible are made “with” and “between” parties (e.g., Gen 6:18, 9:17, 17:10; Deut 29:12; 1 Kgs 8:21, 15:19; 2 Sam 23:5). Thus the term “covenant” is a much more accurate choice to express this biblical idea.

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45 COMMENTS

  1. I WOULD LIKE TO SAY THANK YOU MUCH FOR THIS DEFINITIONS. I LOVE THE HEBREW BIBLE. I WOULD LIKE TO RECEIVE MANY COPIES FROM YOU. YOU HAVE A WONDERFUL PROGRAM.

  2. It is important that we understand that God has not called us to the table to negotiate the terms of His covenant/testament with us. He has called us to inform us and to offer His plan to be accepted by faith. That in itself is pure grace!

  3. Where do I began….How can you not include the ‘heretic’ but also ‘Father of the New Testament’ Marcion (95-165 CE) in this discussion (unless you’re trying to keep the discussion short)? I was also wondering why you didn’t mention that the disciples/apostles didn’t separate/come up with this OT/NT dichotomy.

    • There are many things I do not mention… as you guessed because I always write short pieces that anyone can digest in just a few minutes. That is deliberate. These articles are meant to inspire people to study, they are not comprehensive study materials.

  4. ‘even though the first-century authors drew from the Greek Bible translation (LXX)’

    There are numerous ‘NT’ & ‘OT’ scholars who believe differently. These same scholars also believe that the ‘NT’ was originally written in Hebrew (some believe the ‘NT’ was originally written in Aramaic). Haven’t you heard the old Hebrew……

    • We have no ancient manuscripts of NT in Hebrew and Aramaic. What Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts we do have are all later translations, not originals. Many authors who push these ‘sensational’ issues do not tell you the whole story and are not following the scientific conventions of the academy when it comes to evaluating primary and secondary sources. LXX is closer to NT then Peshitah and certainly more Jewish, Hellenistic, but thoroughly Jewish. I do not share the disdain for the Greek language some ancient rabbis had. Their reasons are political, social, cultural, not linguistic.

      • Absent of evidence doesn’t mean evidence is absent. Instead of displaying your Greek Primacist bias (by saying ‘sensational issues’, & not ‘following scientific conventions of academy’), why not read & study some of the Hebraic and/or Aramaic Primacist perspective?

        • I agree with you on the absence of evidence. But I cannot make claims out of thin air either when we do have very ancient manuscripts in Greek. I have looked at some of the Hebraic/Aramaic primacist writings a while ago and remain skeptical. I and my colleagues would be thrilled if we had ancient manuscripts of NT in Hebrew or Aramaic. We would be all over that. And who knows maybe one day… But as it stands now we do not have that. We study the best texts we do have. I do not mind talking about this, but I feel like this is turning into a private conversation no intended for Q&A section… 🙂

  5. I think the writer of Hebrews knew exactly what he was doing. There is an “old covenant” and a “new testament.” The work of Jesus is an unearned, free gift, bequeathed to us. We do not sit down and agree to follow some laws (again). That was the old way.

    • I am not sure you appreciate my points exactly, but that is OK. There is nothing about earning anything in my article. All covenants we have with God are “gifts” unearned and actually undeserved. But a covenant has to be accepted, agreed to and entered into with intention, otherwise, it does not work. There are no autopilate relationships with God!

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 and Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  6. ‘Here is what Isidore of Pelasium, a 5th century Christian writer had to say about the Greek scriptures. “The Greeks…despise the divine scripture as barbarous language, and composed of foreign sounding words, abandoning necessary conjunctions, and confusing the mind with the addition of extraordinary words.”’

  7. ‘So at least in the 5th century CE, even the vernacular Greek speakers didn’t think much of the NT Greek. They found it “confusing”.’

    • Yes because NT Greek is not the language of philosophers, it is Jewish Greek, street Greek, simple and mixed with Hebraism. Many would not have considered “proper” Greek. Just as the British laugh when Americans say they speak “English” 🙂

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 or . You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

    • As a side note, Isidore of Pelusium was quite fond of John Chrysostom, who famously wrote and said some very venomous words about Jewish people and Jewish faith.

  8. Thank you, Professor. This a much needed distinction. Marriage relationships are covenantal. I think,too, that using the word “testament” instead of “covenant” has paved a way to divorce Israel from the New Covenant. It is precisely with the House of Israel and the House of Judah the covenant was made.

  9. I like the word covenant best, especially after reading this article. Covenant seems more inclusive and interactive . There would have been no need for a new covenant if the old one was sufficient. Testaments usually or not changed in regards to a person’s last will or giving testimony in a court of law.

  10. I think a covenant can be one-sided or two-sided. A one sided covenant is called a promise or promise covenant. Paul speaks of such I think.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 or . You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  11. Thank you for this clarification.
    As you said, Testament, happens after death; therefore, would this make the gospels ‘old Testament ‘ and not ‘New’?

  12. Very interesting article Prof. Shir thank you for your insight into scripture which I greatly appreciate.

  13. The overall Biblical Truth on understanding Covenant is that Covenant is solely and purely God’s Gift of Grace. When God creates God gives and makes Covenant.When God recreates God renews Covenant. The New Testament can be rightly called a New Covenant or Second Covenant in the sense of Renewed Covenant.

  14. Wherever the context is speaking of Jesus’ death, then testament is very appropriate as his death seals the promises and makes the agreement active and binding. Testament is the correct translation at Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20 and Hebrews 7:22; 9:15 twice, 16, 17, 20.

  15. is it that one makes a covenant with Jesus to God, thus being a Christian, New Testament, is the finished work of Jesus

    • You are right, Jane, these are semantics. And they do matter quite a bit when one approaches the actual texts theologically. I deliberately stayed out of concrete texts, but plan to go into some passages in future articles and this explanation lays a little bit of a foundation for me.

      • I’ll look forward to those you plan to discuss & keep this article handy for reference. Blessings & thanks much!

  16. FFT, Gen 15 – our Creator passed between the berit sacrifice halves alone, without Abraham and took on Abraham’s / our side of that old covenant upon Himself. Perfect grace shown in the old testament, just 15 chapters into La Biblia del Oso.
    J.

    • That is one of those exceptions I mentioned in my article… Abram was still a part of it, present, but asleep.

      • I was first introduced to the use of the word “testament” in English translations of scripture in Professor Gruber’s father’s book “Copernicus and the Jew’s”. A worthy investment and deserving a spot in any serious truth seeker’s book collection. Warning to academics though, there is humor in it…
        J.

  17. Professor, in Genesis 4;7, we read: “If you do well…if you do not do well..” This sounds like covenant language to me. And I hear the echoes of it when I read from all four Gospels, “If you forgive the sins of others , your Father will forgive you. If you will not forgive the sins of others, you will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 6-14-15, Mark 11:25-26, Luke 6:36-37, John 20:21-23). Tell me, is this not the new covenant? Is this not the testimony of Jesus about His father’s house rules? And have we not missed the entire picture in popular Christianity?

    • Now in some cases, you may be absolutely correct! True. But not every promise, not every proclamation of intent and juxtaposition of circumstances is a covenant. Covenants “proper” are a bit more formal. So we cant just bundle things because they sound like a covenant. Contexts should guide us.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Stories of Jewish Church I: Acts 1-5 and Biblical Hebrew I: First Steps. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

      • Yes. I am attracted to the way Jesus said it, if he actually did. I like the strict continuity of the thought, that our salvation hinges or depends on human forgiveness. It seems to be his intent. But we have never seen forgiveness as a creative idea. But it must be the biggest and most creative idea that we have not tapped into yet. Ok, thanks again.

  18. Professor, just to add some color…I think when I read Jesus’s forgiveness imperatives, I am also seeing our sole covenant of human salvation. With this neat delivery, we see immediately threat and promise, life and death, blessing and curse. Martin Luther sold Western Civilization on the idea of “saved by faith and faith alone, to equal grace.” I call this idea Luther’s loophole because it’s clear that we Western Christians have made the idea work to our every advantage, to include the Holocaust and American slavery. My idea is that it is time for another reformation of thought. Luther’s loophole is a false proposition for human salvation. We need to take it down and replace it with Jesus’s forgiveness imperatives. Then it would all make more sense, see? With one idea, with this two-edged sword from Jesus’s mouth, we can usher in a new day, and those who resist God will be manifest soon enough. What do you think? Are we ready to crush the serpent’s head?

    • I hear your thoughts, David, and your lament reminds me of what Boenhoffer wrote in “Const of Discipleship” or “Costly Grace”. I wish I had a worthy answer for you. My job is to help people see what they have not seen in the Scriptures until now and the rest is in the Lord’s hands and theirs. When enough people wake up things begin to change.

  19. Great article! One thin I need help with… I am trying to find Jer 38:31 and do not see it in my Bible. Is that a typo or am I missing something? Thanks!

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Stories of Jewish Christ: Among the Rabbis and . Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  20. Thanks for sharing and stirring thoughts on this. Using “covenant” seems to more fully reflect what God presents throughout scripture. Ultimately we find God’s covenant expressed by Jesus himself during the Passover meal where he speaks of his “blood of the covenant,” (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:25). The connection between Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:6-13 celebrates God’s new covenant with us as Jesus is “the mediator of a better covenant.” Using “covenant” rather than “testament” seems to express more fully God’s redemptive story as well as the meaning/intent of the Hebrew word and the old English word “testament,” that actually first meant “covenant.”

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