Most Bible readers know that the New Testament is a collection of gospels, letters, and teachings that date from the time of the earliest Jewish Jesus-followers. The English term comes from the Latin, Novum Testamentum, which is usually attributed to the early Christian writer Tertullian (2nd century CE). Yet, modern readers may find it ironic to discover that when the Bible itself mentions “New Testament/Covenant” (καινὴ διαθήκη; kaine diatheke) it does not mean this collection of apostolic writings. (read the previous article, “New Covenant or New Testament?”)
In the Gospels, Jesus used the term “New Covenant” when he spoke of his self-sacrifice (Lk 22:20). Shaul (Paul) repeated the Messiah’s words about a New Covenant to his own group of believers in Corinth (1 Cor 11:25). The writer of Hebrews used the term (in Heb 8:8; 9:11–15) with reference to the promise through Jeremiah of a “new covenant” for Israel and Judah (Jer 31:31-34). Hebrews’ goal was to show that Yeshua is the Messiah who has ushered in a new and better priesthood. Paul also used the term “new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6, 14) — referring to himself and his co-laborers as “ministers of the new covenant.” No doubt, Paul also leaned on Jeremiah’s new covenant promise for inspiration. God declares through Jeremiah,
31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer 31:31-34 ESV) This New Covenant/Testament (בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה; berit hadashah) is not a book, but rather a covenant — or theological contract — that speaks of walking with God in a newer, deeper relationship than ever before.
In fact, the “New Covenant/Testament” is not even an exclusively Christian theological paradigm. Jewish writings found at the Dead Sea and in the Cairo Geniza develop an identical theological idea based on Jeremiah’s words — long before Jesus and the apostles. The Qumran Jews called themselves “the community of the new covenant” and spoke of “entering into the new covenant” (Zadokite Fragments or CD vi 19; viii 21; xix 34; 1QpHab ii 3-4). Indeed the “New Testament” is a title. In later Christian tradition, the New Testament became a description of the collection of apostolic writings but, biblically-speaking, the New Covenant is not a book.