Some important features of Paul’s use of the word ‘covenant’

We’ve seen a couple of approaches to the task of detecting ‘covenant’ ideas in Paul. These approaches are, in the end, hopelessly subjective, because they start with an assumed definition of ‘covenant’ which is then read into Paul’s texts. A much better approach is to begin with Paul’s actual use of the word ‘covenant’ and see what he makes of it.

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

Here are some important features of Paul’s use of the word διαθήκη (Gal 3:15, 3:17, 4:24; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6, 14; Rom 9:4, 11:27; Eph 2:12).

Firstly, plurality is a significant feature in at least seven of the nine instances of διαθήκη in Paul. The plural form is used twice (Rom 9:4, Eph 2:12). In five of the instances, one covenant is compared or contrasted with another: a covenant ratified by God (Gal 3:15) has the same binding force as a human covenant (Gal 3:17); Sarah and Hagar are metaphorically two different covenants (Gal 4:24); Paul and Timothy are ministers of a new covenant (2 Cor 3:6), whereas there is a veil over the public reading of the old covenant (2 Cor 3:14). Furthermore, the word καινή (“new”) in reference to the covenant in Jesus’ blood (1 Cor 11:25) probably implies a previous covenant or covenants. Hence we should expect Paul’s concept of “covenant” to have some pluriformity.

Secondly, every instance of διαθήκη occurs in a context in which the Old Testament is unmistakeably on view. The Abraham narrative (Genesis 12–22) features prominently in ot citations in Galatians 3–4 (Gal 3:6 // Gen 15:6; Gal 3:8 // Gen 12:3, 18:18, 22:18, cf. 26:4; Gal 3:16 // Gen 13:15, 17:8; Gal 4:22 // Gen 16:15, 21:2; Gal 4:30 // Gen 21:10). Other relevant ot background includes the “covenant” of law given at Sinai (cf. Gal 4:24 with Exod 19:5), the stipulations and curses of this law (Gal 3:10 // Deut 27:26; Gal 3:12 // Lev 18:5; Gal 3:13 // Deut 21:23), the role of Moses as glorious mediator of the law (2 Cor 3:6–7, 14 // Exod 34:29–35), the covenant of priestly ministry (cf. 2 Cor 3:6 with Isa 61:5–9, Jer 33:20–22, Mal 2:4–9, Neh 13:29), the covenants of peace and redemption with the eschatological Israel / Jerusalem (Gal 4:26–27 // Isa 54:1, 10; Rom 11:27 // Isa 27:9, 59:21; cf. Isa 65–66), and the “new covenant” through which the law is written on the heart (2 Cor 3:6 // Jer 31:31–33, cf. 2 Cor 3:2–3). Also on view may be passages which describe a “covenant” in terms of blood or suffering (cf. 1 Cor 11:25 with Isa 49:7–8, Zech 9:11). More generally, the covenants are associated strongly with national Israel. The covenants belong to Israel “according to the flesh” (Rom 9:4) and are connected with “the commonwealth of Israel” (Eph 2:12).

Thirdly, Paul is particularly interested in the outcome of the covenants, especially insofar as they fulfil a promise or promises. There are covenants “of [the] promise” (Eph 2:12). An annulled covenant would invalidate the promise of inheritance (Gal 3:17–18). Two covenants are metaphorically mothers who “bear” children, either “into slavery” (Gal 4:24) or “of promise” (Gal 4:28). The ministry of the new covenant (2 Cor 3:6) results in life (verse 7) and righteousness (verse 9). Israel, who possesses the covenants (among other things) is the one from whom, according to the flesh, comes Christ who is God over all (Rom 9:4–5). The covenant with Israel results in salvation and the removal of sins (Rom 11:27). Negatively, being aliens with respect to the covenants of the promise means hopeless godlessness (Eph 2:12).

Fourthly, two of the instances associate covenants with Christ’s blood (i.e. his crucifixion). Jesus says that the cup is the new covenant “in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25, cf. Matt 26:28, Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20). Those who were “aliens of the covenants of the promise” (Eph 2:12) are “brought near” by “Christ’s blood” (Eph 2:13) and are subsequently no longer “aliens” (Eph 2:19). This points to a connection between covenant and sacrifice.

Furthermore, contrary to the popular assumption that “covenant” is a corporate or ecclesiological word, Paul never uses διαθήκη as a designation for the people of God.[1] He prefers terms such as “assembly” (e.g. 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Gal 1:2, Eph 1:22, 1 Thess 1:1, 2 Thess 1:1), “brothers” (Rom 1:13, 1 Cor 1:10, 2 Cor 1:8, Gal 1:11, Phil 1:12, Col 1:2, 1 Thess 1:4, 2 Thess 1:3, 1 Tim 4:6) and “saints” (Rom 1:7, 1 Cor 1:2, 2 Cor 1:1, Eph 1:1, Phil 1:1, Col 1:2, 1 Tim 5:10).

[1] Ellen J. Christiansen, The Covenant in Judaism & Paul: A Study of Ritual Boundaries as Identity Markers (Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums 27; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 270.

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