Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Diatheke in Hebrews 9:16-17

Gardiner, Frederic. On διαθηκη in Heb. ix. 16, 17." Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis 5 (1885): 8-19.

Frederic Gardiner (1822-1889) was an American Episcopal clergyman. He became professor of the literature and interpretation of scripture at Gambier (Ohio) Theological Seminary in 1865, professor of OT language and literature in Berkeley Divinity School (Middletown, Conn.) in 1867, and professor of NT interpretation and literature in 1883, also at Berkeley. In 1880 he founded the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis and was the first editor of its journal, 1880-1883, and served as its president, 1887-1889.

The term διαθηκη in Hebrews 9:16-17 has been alternatively rendered as testament or covenant in various English translations. Commentators are equally divided over the meaning of the term in this passage. Gardiner attempts to resolve this difficult problem, arguing that διαθηκη is best rendered as covenant.

Gardiner first looks at the surrounding verses of the passage. He believes that διαθηκη in verse 15 is best rendered as covenant. He gives several reasons for this conclusion: 1) διαθηκης καινης is the ordinary scriptural designation for the Christian dispensation, 2) the term μεσιτης requires the sense of covenant, 3) πρωτη διαθηκη is never used of will, but of covenant, 4) “inheritance” is always used in respect of humanity, never of God, 5) the idea of a will as the disposition of property after one’s death was a foreign idea to ancient Israelites, 6) the author of Hebrews obviously has the new covenant of Jeremiah 31 in mind, and 7) the sanction of the old covenant by blood in Exodus 24:5-8 is especially in view in 9:18-20.

In Classical Greek the term διαθηκη usually referred to a testament or will—the disposition of property by the owner after his death—although on occasion it could mean covenant. In Koine Greek the term usually meant covenant (e.g., Philo). The LXX uses διαθηκη as the translation of ברת and always was used in the sense of covenant. In the majority of the passages in the NT the meaning is clearly covenant.

Proceeding to verses 18-20, Gardiner points out that this these verses refer to Exodus 24 in which the covenant is sanctioned with blood. Here the meaning of διαθηκη can only mean covenant.

In verse 16 the phrase οπου γαρ διαθηκη clearly indicates that διαθηκη must have the same sense as the previous verse. Likewise, in verse 18 the connective οθεν clearly points back to the previous verses. Therefore, in order for the passage to make sense, διαθηκη must be consistently construed as covenant.

There are some terms in these two verses that some say require the meaning of testament. There is the mention of the death of the διαθεμενοι, and the διαθηκη is in force επι νεκροις. These are the two crucial expressions that must be explored. The verb διατιθημι is frequently used in conjunction with διαθηκη in the LXX and it always is in the context of making a covenant. The LXX overwhelmingly translates the Hebrew term כרת as διαθηκη. It always means covenant; it never refers to a will. The term νεκροις must essentially refer to the same thing as the διαθεμονος. The plural noun νεκροις poses problems for those favoring the rendering testament, for there can only be one testator for one testament. This problem is lessened, according to Gardiner, if the sense were covenant.

Gardiner concludes that the term διαθεμονος must refer to the victim who “makes” (i.e., ratifies or confirms) the covenant. Although he acknowledges that this usage is unusual, it poses less problems than the translation testament, and it makes perfectly good sense within the larger context. In verse 15 Christ is spoken of as the mediator and the sin-offering of the new covenant. These ideas are reiterated towards the end of the same chapter. Thus, this double idea must apply to verses 16-17 as well. Christ is both the mediator of the covenant and the sacrificial victim whose death ratifies the covenant.

I think that Gardiner makes a very persuasive case that we must construe διαθηκη as covenant consistently throughout the whole of chapter 9 in Hebrews.


  1. Why do we call the sections of the Bible the New and Old Testament?

    What do we do with the ideas in v16 behind death required for ratification? It sounds like a play on the double meaning to me. Now that God has died, the new covenant is effective. Is there a connection between the old and the new thought that is not being seen because of language differences?

    A couple of random thoughts on reading your note - you are digging deep into recent history with all these posts on the 19th century.

  2. In an earlier post ( this same passage I suggested the same thing; the author was just playing off the ambiguity of diatheke. But if Gardiner is correct that the ancient Jews did not have the conception of a will or testament as a transfer of property after death, then perhaps the solution he proposes is better. I think Gardiner's solution is better than the one proposed by Purton. Of course it is under debate whether the author's audience consisted of only Jews. It may of consisted of Gentiles as well. In which case, an argument based on word play is perfectly plausible. On the other hand, Gardiner also says that diatheke never meant "testament" in the LXX, the translation that the author of Hebrews heavily relied upon. So the preponderance of evidence, as Gardiner presents it, seems to suggest that "covenant" is the best translation. Obviously, I am still trying to work all of this out.

    I am working through older articles and books and working my way forward to more recent stuff. That way I have some sense of the history of the discussion, and when a later work refers to an older work, then hopefully I will have already read it.

  3. Brian - I am glad to be following your research - it keeps me in touch with a wider tradition. I myself am 1/4 through a draft translation of Job - I don't know when I will return to NT study - but it is always there in the background waiting for me to see with new eyes their readings. Hebrews led me to the psalms and they in turn have led me to wider and more unpopular poetry (from the point of view of the NT writers who seldom reference Job).

  4. This is a little out of context, but it fits in with Hebrews 9. Have you come across anything about why the author places the incense altar in the Most Holy Place? I have read a lot, but I have yet to find a satisfactory answer.

  5. Hi Tom:
    Certainly I have come across explanations for this passage, but I don't recall all of them. Some of course have suggested that the author of Hebrews was simply mistaken in his description. I will certainly pay attention to this question as I read through the literature; perhaps a better explanation will be forthcoming.


  7. Thanks. This article has been added to the electronic articles.