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How should you look for ‘covenantal’ ideas in Paul?

How do you look for ‘covenantal’ ideas in Paul when he only rarely uses the word ‘covenant’?

(This post is part of a series. See here for an introduction to the series.)

Of course, we must admit that “covenantal” concepts may be present in a Pauline passage without the word διαθήκη appearing. Porter, for example, suggests that a serious investigation of the “covenant” concept in Paul is needed. Such an investigation would go beyond naïve word studies and take account of the concept of “semantic domain”. A proper lexical study of “covenant” in Paul must take into account patterns of usage, synonyms, antonyms, syntactical patterns, literary types, situation and culture, etc.[1] Porter adopts a particular definition of covenant: “the salvific relationship between God and his people”.[2] On this basis, he suggests that we exclude instances where διαθήκη means “last will and testament” in the Hellenistic sense (Gal 3:15, possibly Gal 3:17; cf. Heb 9:15–17),[3] and then examine other words that may be related to the concept of covenant, such as “mediator” (μεσίτης, Gal 3:19, 20),[4] “promise” (ἐπαγγελ-, Gal 3, Rom 4:13, 16, 20, Rom 9:8, Eph 2:12),[5] and “ministry” or “service” (διακον-, 2 Cor 3).[6] Porter claims that the “righteousness” (δικ-) concept, too, overlaps significantly with the “covenant” concept by virtue of a shared concern with the relationship between God and people.[7]

Porter is correct in warning that theological concepts cannot be restricted to the use of an individual lexical item. However, there is some stability in the sense of words, especially technical words, and so any overlap between word and concept must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. In this case, as we shall see, there is a strong connection between the Old Testament term בְּרִית. (almost exclusively translated διαθήκη in the LXX)[8] and the biblical concept of the covenant, with which Paul would have been familiar.[9] We shall also see that every instance of διαθήκη in the New Testament (including Gal 3:15) corresponds very closely with the ot word term בְּרִית / διαθήκη rather than the Hellenistic “last will and testament”. Hence an investigation of the uses of διαθήκη in Paul, although incomplete in itself, is the most logical starting point for a broader investigation of the covenant concept in his thought.

Furthermore, semantic domain analysis needs strict controls, because it can easily become too dependent upon the subjective judgments of those who perform the semantic mappings. Porter’s article itself is subject to this criticism. He adopts an apriori definition of “covenant” (“the salvific relationship between God and his people”)[10] but shows no inclination to modify his definition in the light of his discoveries. Porter relies upon the Louw-Nida semantic domain lexicon, which groups the “covenantal” uses of διατίθεμαι (34.43) and διαθήκη (34.44) together with “justify” (δικαιόω 34.46), righteous (δίκαιος 34.47) and other words under the general topic “establish or confirm a relation” (34.42–34.49).[11] Louw-Nida also explicitly denies a forensic element in the δικαι-* word-group, regarding relational (covenantal) and legal categories as mutually exclusive (34.46).[12] But there are many questionable assumptions in these classifications. There are many different types of relationship. Just because covenants are “relational”, and righteousness is “relational”, it does not necessarily follow that righteousness is covenantal. Neither are forensic categories necessarily inimical to relationships. In fact, Seifrid’s careful analysis of the terminology suggests that “righteousness” is much more connected to “creational” categories of relationship than “covenantal”; that is, “righteousness” refers to a relationship with God as creator and judge, which implies both normative and forensic categories.[13] While the semantic fields of “righteousness” and “covenant” may overlap at times in the Old Testament, New Testament and intertestamental literature, “righteousness” is a concept fundamentally distinct from “covenant”.[14]. Hence Porter’s analysis collapses under the weight of his unexamined assumptions.

Dunn’s view of the covenant in Paul is even more subjective. He argues that every reference to the actual word διαθήκη in the Pauline corpus is incidental, even rhetorical. But because of Dunn’s prior convictions about the covenantal continuity between Christian believers and historical Israel, he insists that Paul’s whole discourse has an implicit underlying “covenant theology”.[15] He explains this discrepancy by positing that the covenantal relationship between God and his people was a basic uncontroversial assumption shared by Paul and his opponents, so Paul usually had no need to mention the word “covenant”.[16] This is not very helpful for those who do not share Dunn’s presuppositions.


[1] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 273.

[2] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 275.

[3] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 275–79.

[4] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 280–81; cf. J. Gurht, O. Becker, “Covenant, Guarantee, Mediator”, NIDNTT 1:365–76

[5] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 283–84.

[6] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 284.

[7] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 281–83.

[8] In Gen 14:13 בַּעַל בְּרִית (“covenant-partner’) is translated with συνωμότης (“confederate’). This is the only exception not due to textual variations (cf. Deut 9:15; 1 Sam 4:3-5; 1 Kgs 11:11, 19:10; 2 Kgs 17:15; Job 5:23; Jer 11:8; Ezek 20:37; 2 Chr 23:1).

[9] Moisés Silva, “Old Testament in Paul”, DPL 630–42.

[10] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 275.

[11] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene P. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains (2 vols.; New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1:451–53.

[12] Porter, “Covenant in Paul”, 281–84.

[13] Mark A. Seifrid, “Righteousness Language in the Hebrew Scriptures and Early Judaism”, in Justification and Variegated Nomism Volume 1: The Complexities of Second Temple Judaism (ed. D. A. Carson, Peter T. O’Brien and Mark A. Seifrid; Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2001), 415–42; Seifrid, “Paul’s Use of Righteousness Language”. Porter “Covenant in Paul”, 282, quotes Seifrid, but confesses ignorance of Seifrid’s understanding of the connection (or lack thereof) between righteousness and covenant.

[14] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New on Paul: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 286–96.

[15] James D. G. Dunn, “Did Paul Have a Covenant Theology?: Reflections on Romans 9.4 and 11.27”, in The Concept of the Covenant in the Second Temple Period (ed. Stanley E. Porter and Jacqueline C. R. de Roo; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 71; Leiden: Brill, 2003), 287–307.

[16] See also E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of the Patterns of Religion (London: SCM, 1977), 420–21.

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