On Not Conflating the Old and New “Testaments” with the Old and New “Covenants”

This is an older post acting as a stop-gap until I can get my laptop fixed.

Everybody knows it.  The Bible is composed of two parts: what we have come to call the Old Testament and the New Testament.  Too, most people understand that by the Old Testament we mean the 39 books of the Protestant Bible.  These are the same books which in a different arrangement and enumeration make up the 22 books of the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible.  In similar fashion the New Testament is the name given by Christians to the 27 “Apostolic” books written before the close of the First Century A.D.

What fewer people know is that these designations for the two parts of the Bible are not themselves found in the Bible.  Nowhere in the 66 books is there a reference to the number of books or the specific contents of the Bible.  As if anyone needed to be told, the Table of Contents at the front of our Bibles is not itself a part of the Bible.

We cannot go into it much here, but the tradition of referring to the two parts of the Bible as the two “Testaments” comes from a time after they were all written.  As Bernhard Anderson observed,

The covenant motif is employed significantly in both the letters of Paul and in the Epistles to the Hebrews.  Eventually the custom arose of referring to the apostolic writings of Christianity as the New Covenant (Testament) and the canonical writings of Israel as the Old Covenant. –  “The New Covenant and the Old,” in The Old Testament and Christian Faith, ed. Bernhard W. Anderson, 225-226.

The first known occurrence of this designation is found in ca. 170-180 in the work of the second century writer Irenaeus in his Against Heresies 4.28. 1-2.  But it is seems probable that the Greek designation diatheke (“covenant” or “Testament”) for old and new collections of biblical books was at that time quite new and not widely accepted.  The same cannot be said of the covenants (berith) of the Tanakh, our “Old Testament.”  These covenants were crucial parts of “the Law and the Prophets” long before the Apostles started writing.

These facts need to be well digested by all students of the Scriptures.  To repeat, when we speak of the books of the Bible as “the Old and New Testaments” we are simply using a tried and trusted term which arose after the Canon was completed.  It is not the way the Bible refers to itself.  When the Bible employs this term (diatheke) it is referring, not to the Canon, but to specific historical agreements between God and men.

A corollary to this is to say: when the books we call the “Old and New Testaments” refer to the “Old Covenant” and the “New Covenant” they are not referring to the 39 books and 27 books in the Biblical Canon, they are speaking of certain actual biblical covenants which are revealed and expounded within the books of the Bible.

I’m sorry to hammer away at this but there’s a very good reason for it.  Unfortunately, in certain Christian circles theology has overwhelmed history.  Sometimes theologies confuse the matter further.  For example, some time ago I responded to a web article with the title, “The Continuity of Theological Concepts: A New Covenant Reading of Old Covenant Concepts.”  The main thesis of the piece is summed up in this statement:

“Old Testament saints had a “two-age” view of history—the age in which they lived and the age to come. The age to come anticipated the advent of the Messiah and the Day of the Lord in which God’s people would be delivered and His enemies would be judged. The age to come was depicted in terms that related to the age in which they lived though the seed of old covenant concepts blossoms into the unforeseen beauty of new covenant realities.”

In reading this article it quickly became apparent that the writer was equating the “New Covenant” with the New Testament and the “Old Covenant” with the Old Testament.  Thus, by “new covenant realities” he meant “the ‘realities’ revealed in a newly envisaged way by the New Testament.”  When this move is made, it is inevitable that the New Testament will be viewed as synonymous with the “New Covenant,” and that the Old Testament will be viewed as equating to the “Old,” that is to say, “Mosaic Covenant.”

This confuses things which ought to be kept separate, and for these reasons:

1. The Old Covenant referred to in 2 Cor. 3:14 and the “First Covenant” referred to in the Book of Hebrews is clearly the Mosaic Covenant (the Law) and not the entire OT Canon.  The Old Covenant that is referred to as “tablets of stone” in 2 Cor. 3:3, which is the Sinaiitic Covenant received by Moses (3:7-15), has been replaced with the New Covenant (3:6).

2. The “New Covenant” mentioned in the chapter cannot be a reference to the books which comprise our New Testament for the simple reason that when Paul penned 2 Corinthians in about A.D. 57 at least half of the books of the New Testament were yet to be written!

3. When one reads about the contrasts between the “first covenant” and the “new covenant” in Hebrews it is clear that the former is equated with Moses’ Law (Cf. Heb. 7-10), which is inferior to the “better covenant” (7:22) and is “growing old and is ready to vanish away” (8:13).  This type of language cannot be used of the relation of the Old Testament books to the new Testament books.

4. Likewise, the “New Covenant” in either Testament is the universal and unilateral means whereby the other Biblical Covenants are realized and fulfilled.  It is not the same as the New Testament Canon.  To cite one example, Christ’s words at the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Lk. 22:20) would have been incomprehensible to the disciples if such were the case, because it was a real blood covenant, not the group of books which recorded it.

Despite this, the error has been included in the NKJV’s translation of 2 Corinthians 3:14:

But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.

This interpretative translation appears to have been given credence because it provides a “proof-text” of sorts for a Canon-making process in the first century.  Handy as this might be for evangelicals it is not what the Apostle himself had in mind!


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11 comments

  1. There are many covenants. Your opening statements are taking us down exciting paths. I will wait gladly for
    more of your thoughts. Egar to find out your ideas concerning what is & when is thrNew Covenant.
    God bless,
    John Gregory

      1. really what I’m asking for is what is, in your opinion, the best resource to grasp the “Jewishness”, if you will, of the New Testament? The above two works are simply ones I found with many reviews on amazon. Sorry for all the comments.

  2. The canon of the New Testament wasn’t actually closed in the 1st century. In fact, the Church didn’t really feel compelled to establish a firm canon until Marcion of Sinope formulated his own canon – the first canon actually defined by anyone calling himself a Christian – in the 2nd century.

    Marcion’s canon included only a portion of Luke’s Gospel and ten of Paul’s Epistles, and essentially rejected the entire Old Testament as referring to an altogether different god than the God of the Christians. He was excommunicated, but his heretical canon was a catalyst for the Church Fathers to agree on a defined canon for the Church.

    The earliest appearance of a definitive list of the books we have today seems to have been in the mid- to late 4th century (e.g. Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Council of Carthage), although all of the books certainly circulated before then and some, although still accepted as valuable and were viewed as authoritative in the 2nd century, were dropped from the canon (one example is the Shepherd of Hermas, which was accepted as canonical by the same Irenaeus that you cite above, but was not ultimately placed by the Church in the canon).

    1. Guero,

      I have to disagree with some of your statements here.
      1. If you mean “wasn’t closed by some official council” then you would be correct about the NT. But as the NT is inspired I think it follows that it was closed as far as God was concerned – and that really is all that matters. Warfield wrote that the NT Canon was “imposed” and I think he’s right.

      2. Re. Marcion; that is an old and controversial thesis which is not followed much today. All indicators from frequency of use and citation in the late first to the third centuries point to an organized understanding and passing on of the inspired books. Men like Trobisch, Hurtado and Kruger are convinced that the apostolic writings were immediately treasured as “canonical” from the very beginning. There is little evidence that Marcion had any real influence on the process.

      3. The Church Fathers do not seem to have had the sort of influence to agree on a canon as your comment assumes.

      4. The Shepherd of Hermas is cited by second century writers, as are other writings. But they are certainly not ranked with the apostolic writings and are quoted very infrequently. The quotation from Irenaeus about the Shepherd (Against Heresies 4.20) is disputed as to its meaning. But even if he did think it was Scripture (dubious because of his prowess as a theologian) it would make no difference for the reasons given above.

  3. Dear Paul,

    Thank you for considering my comments.

    I understand (or maybe should have understood better) that the subject of how the canon of Scripture arose is a point of severe contention between different confessions and brings out conflicting beliefs in how Scripture and Church are related. I suspect that this is why there would be disagreement between how Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian scholars would view Marcion, for example.

    (This particular essay has a pretty clear explanation of how Scripture relates to the Church from an Orthodox Christian perspective, which is different from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant views: http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/33327.htm. The author was later arrested by the Bolsheviks and died while imprisoned, so he never was able to elaborate much more on this particular essay).

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