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Is the translation “the many” in verses such as the following an accurate translation of the Greek word πολλῶν?

28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. ESV (emphasis mine)

ΚΗʹ τοῦτο γάρ ἐστιν τὸ αἷμά μου τῆς διαθήκης τὸ περὶ πολλῶν ἐκχυννόμενον εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. NA28 (emphasis mine)

This and other similar verses are often cited by Calvinists in defense of the theological principle of Limited Atonement noting the usage of the words “the many” as opposed to the word “all.” Is the original language of these verses conducive to this particular connotation?

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Whether διαθήκης should be translated "covenant" or "testament" can probably be deferred to another discussion presuming we have no disagreement that what is in view is elsewhere referred to as "the new covenant". This is a covenant that God said that he would make with the houses of Israel and Judah:

Jer_31:31 Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah:

Heb_8:8 For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:

Since this covenant is specifically only with Jews and not with all men then "the masses" is inappropriate. "The many", then refers to the Jews or some subset of the Jews. In my view this is the 144,000 aka God's holy "remnant" who "first fruits to God":

Rom 9:27 Esaias also crieth concerning Israel, Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant shall be saved:

Rev_7:4 And I heard the number of them which were sealed: and there were sealed an hundred and forty and four thousand of all the tribes of the children of Israel.

The author of the appropriately named midrash "To the Hebrews" explains the relationship between the death of Jesus and the redemption of the "remnant" of the Jews like this:

Heb 9:15 Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.

Here I repeat the verse but with explanatory information in brackets:

Heb 9:15 Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator [administrator?] of a new covenant [testament], so that those who are called [the remnant/faithful Jews] may receive the promised eternal inheritance [eschatological rest in the middle east], since a [ratifying] death has occurred [referred to in Matthew 26:28] that redeems them [the faithful remnant of Jews] from the transgressions committed under the first covenant [the law of Moses].

We can clarify this further with some formatting:

Heb 9:15

Therefore he [Jesus]

is the mediator [administrator?]

of a new covenant [testament],

so that those who are called [the remnant/faithful Jews]

may receive the promised eternal inheritance [eschatological rest in the middle east],

since a [ratifying] death has occurred [referred to in Matthew 26:28]

that redeems them [the faithful remnant of Jews]

from the transgressions committed under the first covenant [the law of Moses].

The death of Jesus has a universal scope as a propitiation:

1Jn_2:2 And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.

But as the "death brought in" to ratify the new testament it only has application to "many" and these "many" are the faithful remnant of the Jews who's transgressions committed under the law of Moses are released thereby.

That the author of "To the Hebrews" understood διαθήκη as a "testament" or "will" (which is what the Greek word would normally signify) as opposed to a "covenant" is in evidence in the subsequent passage:

Heb 9:16 For where a will (διαθήκη) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. Heb 9:17 For a will (διαθήκη) takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Heb 9:18 Therefore not even the first covenant (διαθήκη) was inaugurated without blood. Heb 9:19 For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, Heb 9:20 saying, "This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you." Heb 9:21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Heb 9:22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Heb 9:23 Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these.

So to answer the question, "the masses" does not fit the context of Matthew 26:28 and should be considered inaccurate in that context.

Might the word "masses" fit another context? Perhaps.

| improve this answer | |
  • Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your answer. You'll have to forgive me, I'm new to this sort of thing. I'm referring to the phrase "περὶ πολλῶν" It's my understanding that you're saying based on the meaning of διαθήκης we can infer then that περὶ πολλῶν refers to "the remnant." Did I catch that right? – Zach May 18 '16 at 4:00
  • @Diver I expanded my answer. Let me know if you still need further clarification. – user10231 May 18 '16 at 7:05

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