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Before answering the question of what is meant by the terms Old and New Testaments, it is probably best to define just what is meant by the word “Testament” itself, and then move to what are essentially theologically derived expressions of how God has chosen to deal with humanity throughout the course of history.
The word “testament” is an English translation of the Latin word testamentum which essentially means “to bear witness,” “to give evidence,” “to testify,” “to will,” or “to covenant.” The Latin expression came into usage toward the close of the second century. It is the last expression, “to covenant,” which has a direct bearing and relationship upon why the Bible is comprised of both Old and New Testaments, even though those labels may not necessarily be as exact as they need to be when discussing their content. In fact, apart from the King James Version, the word “testament” is rarely used among the more modern versions of the Bible. 1 Moreover, the expression “Old Testament” is seen only once in the KJV (2 Cor. 3:14), with “New Testament” used only six times (Matt. 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6; Heb. 9:15). Instead, the word “covenant” has replaced “testament” in most modern English translations of the Hebrew word berith (tyrIB.) and the Greek word diathēkē (diaqh,kh).
The idea of “testament,” or better yet covenant, in the Old Testament does not imply cooperative agreement between two parties as is often contended. As Weinfeld points out, “berith implies first and foremost the notion of ‘imposition,’ ‘liability,’ or ‘obligation…Thus we find that the berith is commanded (tsivvah beritho, “he has commanded his covenant,” Ps. 111:9; Jgs. 2:20), which certainly cannot be said about a mutual agreement.” 2 Furthermore, in the OT there are several covenants which were entered into by God that He has chosen to fulfill expressly on His own, each containing a promise from God to man. These covenants, however, do not exempt humans from participating in the obligations connected with them, even though their cooperation to fulfill their obligations will not enhance, nor detract, from God accomplishing His stated promises of blessing, and/or subsequent judgment. Lastly, it is somewhat of a misnomer to be labeling God’s covenants as either “old” or “new,” given that the covenants are still in effect. That is not to say that in our current age of grace that salvation can be attained through keeping of the Mosaic Law, for no one could ever be redeemed via the Law in the first place by keeping it. What is meant is that even though humanity is currently living under the “new” covenant of grace that things like the 10 Commandments are still as much in effect by way of application as when God first gave them.
When we turn to the New Testament, “The covenant question in the NT cannot be answered solely from passages where the word is used. It involves a whole complex of theological ideas including covenant terminology. There are 3 groups of problems: (1) the question of the Lord’s Supper; (2) the Pauline question about the relationship of the Christian church to Israel as the people of God; (3) the covenant theology in Heb.” 3 It is the last of these three problems that will be discussed here that perhaps has the most bearing upon the title “New Testament.” Early indications of a new covenant being established between God and His people are actually found in the writings of Jeremiah, in the Old Testament (cf. Jer. 31:31-34). Yet, it is not until we reach the gospels that we begin to see the change from the Old Covenant to the New. In Matthew 11:13 we read Jesus stating, “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” John, of course, being John the Baptist, who was Jesus’ forerunner that was to prepare for the coming of Jehovah, which was fulfilled in the person of Jesus (Matt. 3:3 cf. Isa. 40:3). Luke makes a similar statement when he wrote, “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since then the gospel of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it” (Lk. 16:16). Perhaps the most explicit statement, though, of the change from Old to New is found in Hebrews 7:22 which reads “so much the more also Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant.” The word “better” is the Greek word kreitton (krei,ttwn), which carries with it the ideas of superiority, preferable, higher rank, or more prominent. 4 The word “covenant” is the English translation of the Greek word diathēkē, which can be translated “testament.” Jesus, in other words, is the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and by his shed blood—rather than that of the blood of bulls and goats as outlined in the by Old Testament Law—he has established a Superior (New) Testament, or Covenant, with mankind, whereby those who accept his sacrifice would not only be forgiven of their sins, but would also stand legally justified before God. While the Old Covenant Law could have justified a person before God, due to the fallen nature of humankind, there was no possible way whereby anyone could accomplish such a feat, since such an effort required absolute perfection. Therefore, Jesus, when he came and offered himself as the perfect sacrifice, having lived a perfect life in complete compliance with Old Covenant Law, appeased not only the perfect righteousness and holiness of God, but provided a way for humans to be counted as equally perfect by placing their faith in Jesus to atone for them. In God’s estimation, those who were “in Christ” were considered no longer Old Covenant lawbreakers and sinners, regardless of whether or not they were Jews or Gentiles, but were now considered to be as equally righteous and holy as Jesus is.
Therefore, what is often meant by the Old and New Testaments really amounts to understanding the covenantal relationship that God has carried on with humanity throughout history. The Old Testament, or Covenant, is not really “Old,” and the New Testament, or Covenant, is not really “New,” per se, but “better.” The overriding principle in both is the redemption of humanity and what God has chosen to graciously do Himself for mankind, which could not save itself. The principle of covenant is not a cooperative effort between God and man, but God setting the parameters and man either abiding by, or rejecting them. Of course, it is when one approaches the study of Soteriology, or the Doctrine of Salvation that one begins to see even more clearly just what was intended by the principle of covenant and how God manages to fulfill both covenants apart from man’s input. Yet, for the sake of what is meant by Old and New Testaments in this writing, covenantal relationship dealing with Law contrasted with grace, and how they result in the salvation of humans are the primary ideas to remember, which John the Beloved expressed succinctly, “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17).
1 The New King James Version (1982) uses “testament” at 2 Cor. 3:14; Heb. 9:16-17, and the New Jerusalem Bible at 2 Cor. 3:14 and Heb. 9:16.
2 G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 15 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ), 2: 255.
3 Colin Brown, ed., New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 1:369.
4 Walter Bauer, Frederick W. Danker, William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 449.