Monday, March 30, 2009

Testament or Covenant?

Purton, J. S. “Testament or Covenant?: A Note on Hebrews ix. 15-22.” Expositor. First Series, 7 (1878): 73-77.

Purton deals with the thorny problem of the translation of διαθηκη in Hebrews 9:15-22, which many interpreters take to mean “testament” rather than “covenant” within the context (and is so rendered in the KJV). The mention of an inheritance in verse 15 supports this interpretation. Purton, however, argues that the association of a testament with an inheritance was not so familiar to the Hebrew mind. The term διαθηκη would most likely retain the meaning of “covenant” as it does throughout the LXX, as the Greek translation for the Hebrew word berith. In addition, it was natural for the Jews to associate the inheritance of the land with the covenant. Thus, Purton contends that διαθηκη should be translated consistently as “covenant” in Heb 9:15-22.

The prevailing idea of chapters 8-10 is the analogy and contrast between the old and new covenants. Purton remarks that “the turning point, both of this analogy and this contrast, is the fact that both the covenants were inaugurated and ratified by death . . . , not ordinary natural death, but a sacrificial, expiatory, violent death, accompanied with bloodshedding as its essential feature” (75). Thus, when the author of Hebrews says that death and bloodshed were necessary to validate a covenant, he was referring to the law of sacrifice.

As attractive as Purton’s solution is, I find his translation rather forced. He renders verses 16-17 as follows:

“For where there is a covenant, the covenanter’s death must (according to the Law) be borne (i.e., by the victim which dies for him vicariously); for a covenant is ratified over dead bodies (of sacrificed animals), since it never is valid when the covenanter lives (i.e., so long as his life is not forfeited, or acknowledged to be forfeited, for sin by the vicarious death of the victim offered for him).”

The most natural way to take the Greek of this passage is that covenanter (διαθεμενος) himself, not some vicarious victim, must die before the covenant is enacted. The fact that Purton must supplement his translation with long parenthetical explications detracts from his argument. I wonder: if the author was writing to Hellenistic Jews (or even Gentiles) would the notion of διαθηκη meaning “testament” been so unfamiliar to them? And couldn’t the author have played upon the ambiguity of the term διαθηκη to make his argument—a strategy that he seems to employ elsewhere in his book? (For example, the author seems to play off the ambiguity of the term “rest” [καταπαυσις] as referring to the promised land and to God’s eschatological Sabbath rest in chapters 3 and 4).

No comments:

Post a Comment