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I notice that many English translations render διαθήκη in Hebrews 9:16 as either "will" or "testament":

http://biblehub.com/hebrews/9-16.htm

Is that correct or should it just be rendered "covenant" in all places where it appears in the NT?

Notes

I understand why it is often rendered "will" or "testament" in English translations but I believe this is an error and διαθήκη should be translated "covenant" (or "agreement" if that is what the OT has) in all places where it appears in the NT.

For reference I supply the entry from BDAG:

διαθήκη, ης, ἡ (Democr., Aristoph.+; ins, pap, LXX, En, TestSol, TestAbr, Test12Patr; ParJer 6:21; ApcEsdr, ApcMos; AssMos Fgm. a; Philo, Joseph., Just.; Mel., HE 4, 26, 14) apart from the simplex θήκη ‘case, chest’, for the mng. of this word one must begin with the mid. form of the verb διατίθεμαι, which is freq. used in legal and commercial discourse of disposition of things (s. L-S-J-M s.v. διατιθημι B), w. implication of promissory obligation. Disposition of one’s personal effects would naturally come under testamentary law, hence
① last will and testament (so exclusively in Hellenistic times, Eger [s. 3 below] 99 note; exx. e.g. in Riggenbach 292ff; Behm 10, 1; 2; Philo, Joseph., Test12Patr; loanw. in rabb.) Hb 9:16f; δ. κεκυρωμένη a will that has been ratified Gal 3:15; cp. 17, where δ. shades into mng. 2 (s. κυρόω 1, προκυρόω); s. also EBammel, below, and JSwetnam, CBQ 27, ’65, 373–90. On Jewish perspective s. RKatzoff, An Interpretation of PYadin 19—A Jewish Gift after Death: ProcXXCongPap 562–65.
② As a transl. of בְּרִית in LXX δ. retains the component of legal disposition of personal goods while omitting that of the anticipated death of a testator. A Hellenistic reader would experience no confusion, for it was a foregone conclusion that gods were immortal. Hence a δ. decreed by God cannot require the death of the testator to make it operative. Nevertheless, another essential characteristic of a testament is retained, namely that it is the declaration of one person’s initiative, not the result of an agreement betw. two parties, like a compact or a contract. This is beyond doubt one of the main reasons why the LXX rendered בְּרִית by δ. In the ‘covenants’ of God, it was God alone who set the conditions; hence covenant (s. OED s.v. ‘covenant’ sb. 7) can be used to trans. δ. only when this is kept in mind. So δ. acquires a mng. in LXX which cannot be paralleled w. certainty in extra-Biblical sources, namely ‘decree’, ‘declaration of purpose’, ‘set of regulations’, etc. Our lit., which is very strongly influenced by LXX in this area, seems as a rule to have understood the word in these senses (JHughes, NovT 21, ’79, 27–96 [also Hb 9:16–20; Gal 3:15–17]). God has issued a declaration of his purpose Ro 11:27 (Is 59:21); 1 Cl 15:4 (Ps 77:37); 35:7 (Ps 49:16), which God bears in mind (cp. Ps 104:8f; 105:45 al.) Lk 1:72; it goes back to ancestral days Ac 3:25 (PsSol 9:10; ParJer 6:21). God also issued an ordinance (of circumcision) 7:8 (cp. Gen 17:10ff). Since God’s holy will was set forth on more than one occasion (Gen 6:18; 9:9ff; 15:18; 17:2ff; Ex 19:5 and oft.), one may speak of διαθῆκαι decrees, assurances (cp. διαθῆκαι πατέρων Wsd 18:22; 2 Macc 8:15.—But the pl. is also used for a single testament: Diog. L. 4, 44; 5, 16. In quoting or referring to Theophr. sometimes the sing. [Diog. L. 5, 52; 56] is used, sometimes the pl. [5, 51; 57]) Ro 9:4; Eph 2:12. Much emphasis is laid on the δ. καινή, mentioned as early as Jer 38:31, which God planned for future disposition (Hb 8:8–10; 10:16). God’s decree or covenant directed toward the Christians is a καινὴ δ. (δ. δευτέρα Orig., C. Cels. 2, 75) Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Hb 8:8; 9:15a; PtK 2 p. 15, 5, or δ. νέα Hb 12:24; PtK 2 p. 15, 6 which, as a δ. αἰώνιος (cp. Jer 39:40; En 99:2) Hb 13:20, far excels 7:22; 8:6 the παλαιὰ δ. 2 Cor 3:14, or πρώτη δ. Hb 9:15b, with which it is contrasted. Both are mentioned (Did., Gen. 46, 4; 235, 26) Gal 4:24; B 4:6ff (Ex 34:28; 31:18; Just., D. 67, 9). Blood was shed when the old covenant was proclaimed at Sinai Hb 9:20 (Ex 24:8); the same is true of the new covenant Hb 10:29. τὸ αἷμά μου τ. διαθήκης Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24 (ELohse, Märtyrer u. Gottesknecht2, ’63, 122–29) is prob. to be understood in connection w. this blood (s. WWrede, ZNW 1, 1900, 69–74; TRobinson, My Blood of the Covenant: KMarti Festschr. 1925, 232–37; for a critique of this view s. GWalther, Jesus, D. Passalamm des Neuen Bundes, ’50, 22–27 and JJeremias TLZ, ’51, 547. For Syriac background JEmerton, JTS 13, ’62, 111–17; s. also ÉDelebrecque, Études grecques sur l’vangile de Luc ’76, 109–21).—The v.l. Lk 22:29 may be derived from Jer 39:40 or Is 55:3 LXX (for the cognate acc. s. Aristoph., Aves 440).—δ. may also be transl. decree in the Ep. of Barnabas (4:6ff; 6:19; 9:6; 13:1, 6; 14:1ff δ. δοῦναί τινι); but the freq. occurrence of the idea of inheritance (6:19; 13:1, 6; 14:4f), makes it likely that the ‘decree’ is to be thought of as part of a will.
③ The mng. compact, contract seems firmly established for Gr-Rom. times (FNorton, A Lexicographical and Historical Study of Διαθήκη, Chicago 1908, 31ff; EBruck, D. Schenkung auf d. Todesfall im griech. u. röm. Recht I 1909, 115ff; JWackernagel, D. Kultur d. Gegenw. I 82 1907, 309). It remains doubtful whether this mng. has influenced our lit. here and there (exc. quite prob. Lk 22:29 v.l. with its administrative tenor; the phrase διατίθεμαι δ. as Aristoph., Av. 440 of a treaty agreement), but the usage of the term δ. in such sense would again serve as a bridge to LXX usage.—The expr. ἡ κιβωτὸς τ. διαθήκης covenant chest i.e. the sacred box (Eng. ‘ark’ as loanw. from Lat. arca) that symbolized God’s pledge of presence w. Israel (Ex 31:7; 39:14 al.) Hb 9:4; Rv 11:19 or αἱ πλάκες τ. διαθ. (Ex 34:28; Dt 9:9, 11) Hb 9:4 would have required some acquaintance with Israelite tradition on the part of ancient readers.—ERiggenbach, D. Begriff d. Διαθήκη im Hb: Theol. Stud. f. TZahn 1908, 289ff, Hb2 1922, 205ff al.; ACarr, Covenant or Testament?: Exp. 7th ser., 7, 1909, 347ff; JBehm, D. Begriff D. im NT 1912; ELohmeyer, Diatheke 1913; WFerguson, Legal Terms Common to the Macedonian Inscr. and the NT, 1913, 42–46 (testamentary exhibits); HKennedy, Exp. 8th ser., 10, 1915, 385ff; GVos, Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke: PTR 13, 1915, 587–632; 14, 1916, 1–61; OEger, ZNW 18, 1918, 84–108; EBurton, ICC Gal 1921, 496–505; LdaFonseca, Διαθήκη foedus an testamentum?: Biblica 8, 1927; 9, 1928; EBammel, Gottes διαθήκη (Gal 3:15–17) u. d. jüd. Rechtsdenken, NTS 6, ’60, 313–19; NDow, A Select Bibliography on the Concept of Covenant, Austin Seminary Bulletin 78, 6, ’63; CRoetzel, Biblica 51, ’70, 377–90 (Ro 9:4);   p 229  DMcCarthy, Berit and Covenant (Deut.), ’72, 65–85; EChristiansen, The Covenant in Judaism and Paul ’95.—DELG s.v. θήκη. M-M. TW. Sv.


Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., pp. 228–229). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

I should also point out that διαθήκη is used throughout the LXX to render "brit" or "covenant" from the Hebrew.

  • The word diatheke should always be translated 'testament' since the writer to the Hebrews defines the word as such. Tyndale used 'testament' in every place except one. The Wycliffe does so, always. The Testament was pre-figured in a covenant with Israel. The agreement (the 'covenant') was an agreement as to how the Testament should be set forth in figure, ritual and artefact, prophetically, before the Testator came to offer himself up, in death. After which, the Testament came into force. – Nigel J May 14 '18 at 11:50
  • God made an agreement with the natural children of Abraham to set forth on earth a depiction of the future Testament. That depiction consisted of ark/tabernacle/cherubim etc and the regular slaughter of oxen/lambs/pigeons etc. That agreement ended with the death of Christ (the rending of the vail witnesses to that) when Christ, by death, became the Testator of the New Testament and the Testament came into force. The depiction was no longer needed as the reality had arrived. Thus ended the first 'covenant'. Thus began the New Testament. – Nigel J May 14 '18 at 13:12
  • Hebrews 9:16 defines the diatheke. A theke is a box. An apotheke is a barn (pull down barns and build bigger). Jesus said 'put up thy sword into its 'theke'. It's a secure containment. Or a coffin. – Nigel J May 14 '18 at 13:15
  • Suit yourself, sir. – Nigel J May 14 '18 at 13:21
  • διαθήκη comes from the verb διατίθημι, which is a compound of διά ("by means of") and τίθημι (to set/put/lay down). In the KJV διαθήκη is given as either "covenant" or "testament", which I see in a generic sense as "a statement of contract". There is no need to constrain its meaning to a single word. It seems pretty clear to me the intent of the writer of Hebrews here is to draw on a legal analogy, so there really is no issue with the notion of "last will and testament". – enegue May 26 '18 at 0:57
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The BDAG states there are three meanings described (in part) as:

① last will and testament (so exclusively in Hellenistic times, Eger [s. 3 below] 99 note; exx. e.g. in Riggenbach 292ff; Behm 10, 1; 2; Philo, Joseph., Test12Patr; loanw. in rabb.) Hb 9:16f; δ. κεκυρωμένη a will that has been ratified Gal 3:15; cp. 17, where δ. shades into mng. 2 (s. κυρόω 1, προκυρόω); s. also EBammel, below, and JSwetnam, CBQ 27, ’65, 373–90. On Jewish perspective s. RKatzoff, An Interpretation of PYadin 19—A Jewish Gift after Death: ProcXXCongPap 562–65.

② As a transl. of בְּרִית in LXX δ. retains the component of legal disposition of personal goods while omitting that of the anticipated death of a testator. A Hellenistic reader would experience no confusion, for it was a foregone conclusion that gods were immortal. Hence a δ. decreed by God cannot require the death of the testator to make it operative. Nevertheless, another essential characteristic of a testament is retained, namely that it is the declaration of one person’s initiative, not the result of an agreement betw. two parties, like a compact or a contract. This is beyond doubt one of the main reasons why the LXX rendered בְּרִית by δ. In the ‘covenants’ of God, it was God alone who set the conditions; hence covenant (s. OED s.v. ‘covenant’ sb. 7) can be used to trans. δ. only when this is kept in mind. So δ. acquires a mng. in LXX which cannot be paralleled w. certainty in extra-Biblical sources, namely ‘decree’, ‘declaration of purpose’, ‘set of regulations’, etc.

③ The mng. compact, contract seems firmly established for Gr-Rom. times (FNorton, A Lexicographical and Historical Study of Διαθήκη, Chicago 1908, 31ff; EBruck, D. Schenkung auf d. Todesfall im griech. u. röm. Recht I 1909, 115ff; JWackernagel, D. Kultur d. Gegenw. I 82 1907, 309). It remains doubtful whether this mng. has influenced our lit. here and there (exc. quite prob. Lk 22:29 v.l. with its administrative tenor; the phrase διατίθεμαι δ. as Aristoph., Av. 440 of a treaty agreement), but the usage of the term δ. in such sense would again serve as a bridge to LXX usage.—The expr. ἡ κιβωτὸς τ. διαθήκης covenant chest i.e. the sacred box (Eng. ‘ark’ as loanw. from Lat. arca) that symbolized God’s pledge of presence w. Israel (Ex 31:7; 39:14 al.) Hb 9:4; Rv 11:19 or αἱ πλάκες τ. διαθ. (Ex 34:28; Dt 9:9, 11) Hb 9:4 would have required some acquaintance with Israelite tradition on the part of ancient readers.

At 9:16, the meaning of "will" or "testament" would follow the first BDAG meaning:

For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. (ESV)

The English "will" or "testament" is correct (in English) but misleading as it infers either a different document or different legal standing than covenant. To prevent this, I believe it would be better to consistently translate the word as covenant and use footnotes to explain that it must be the "last" covenant due to the death which caused it to be initiated nad the resurrection which established the mediator (8:6).

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  • @Ruminator The one who died. – Revelation Lad Jun 1 '18 at 18:37
  • @Ruminator Jesus made the covenant; His death initiated it; His resurrection made Him the mediator. Regarding the Ark. The Ark carried the tablets of stone but in the Hebrew it was called by various names. In the example given, Ex 31:7 it was the Ark of the testimony in Hebrew but the Ark of the covenant in Greek. This is not a translation. It is an interpretation. The LXX translators always call the Ark the Ark of the Covenant regardless of the actual Hebrew text. The writer of Hebrews choice to continue that tradition implies the equivalency of the Ark and/with the covenant. – Revelation Lad Jun 3 '18 at 14:14
  • @Ruminator It is always covenant. It is the last (despite the word being absent) because of His death. – Revelation Lad Jun 3 '18 at 14:53
  • @Ruminator I believe it is best to stay consistent with an approach to study. If the actual text is significant (covenant not will) than the actual text should remain significant: it is the death "of" not "supplied by" in this verse. It seems in one way you want to deny the implied meaning (ie will) but in another you want to accept what is implied (supplied by). I think the point here is that the one who made the covenant supplied his own death. Thus deaths in all previous ones foreshadow the last one, where it is done by His own death (which He also supplies). – Revelation Lad Jun 3 '18 at 15:23
  • @Ruminator "What was the purpose of the animal blood in relation to the Abrahamic or Sinai covenants if it was only the death of God that would ratify them?" Same as everything associated with the earthly tabernacle which were type and shadow of the real. If the animal blood sacrificed for sin was ineffectual, why would you think animal blood for the covenant would be otherwise? Just as the blood of Jesus for sin was better so to His blood for a covenant. Both were once but both were foreshadowed by the use of animal blood. – Revelation Lad Jun 3 '18 at 20:11

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