Covenants in Second Temple Judaism

We have seen, in our series so far, the way that the word “covenant” is used in the Old Testament. A covenant is not a catch-all term for “relationship”, but it refers to a specific kind of relationship: “an elected relationship of obligation under oath”. Furthermore, although some of the covenants are made between God and a national entity (Israel, or Abraham’s seed), the word “covenant” itself is not a sociological term, and is not associated with sociological categories like “community”, “entry” or “boundary markers”. Hence the New Perspective’s emphasis on “covenant” as a “sociological” term is not supported by the Old Testament. Indeed, many of the important covenants are made with individuals rather than nations (e.g. Phineas and David). Can we detect a shift away from the Scriptural use of the word “covenant” towards a more sociological usage amongst Jews in the centuries around the writing of the New Testament? The answer is no, except for one rather striking example.

In this post we will look at the usages of the word “covenant” amongst second-temple Jews that conform closely to the Old Testament’s usage. In the next post we will look at the exception.

Many of the writings use διαθήκη in more or less the same way we find in the Old Testament, albeit with differing emphases. The close association between covenant and oath continues (e.g. Wis 18:22). The Psalms of Solomon refer to the covenant as a firm, binding promise made by God to the nation (Pss. Sol. 9:8–11, 10:4, 17:15). The books of the Maccabees concentrate on “the covenant of the fathers” (1 Macc 2:20, 2 Macc 8:15), which is associated particularly with circumcision (1 Macc 1:15) and the law (1 Macc 1:57, 63; 2:27, 50). Human loyalty to the covenant will be rewarded by divine loyalty in crushing Israel’s enemies (1 Macc 4:10). The “covenant of everlasting priesthood” with Phinehas is also mentioned (1 Macc 2:54), as a reward for Phineas’ ‘zeal’ (a key word in Maccabees). There are also references to non-divine covenants (e.g. Sir 11:20; Sir 14:12, 17; 1 Macc 1:11, 11:9).

The Wisdom of Ben Sira contains an extended treatise which mentions many of the covenants between God and glorious national heroes. Earlier in Sirach, διαθήκη refers mainly to the Mosaic law or commandments (Sir 24:23, 28:7, 39:8, 41:19, 42:2). But in chapters 44–45 there is a list of various “famous men” that are praised because “The Lord apportioned to them great glory” (Sir 44:1). The covenants with Noah (Sir 44:18), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Sir 44:19–23), Aaron (Sir 45:6–22), Phinehas (Sir 45:23–24) and David (Sir 45:25–26) all get a notable mention. The covenantal ministries of Moses and Aaron, in particular, are depicted as ministries of fabulous God-given glory (Sir 45:2, 3, 7, 20) as they teach the law and offer sacrifices.

Jubilees (late 2nd Century BC) sees the covenant in similar terms to Genesis—a commitment or obligations by or between God and men under oath.[1] However, Jubilees stresses the human commitments more than does Genesis.[2] Jubilees 6:1–38 transforms the unilateral covenant that God makes with Noah into a bilateral covenant where human obligations are given prominence, explicitly linking it to the Mosaic covenant.[3] The same trend can be seen with Jubilees’ interpretation of the patriarchal covenants. “The ultimate goal of Jubilees is to show that there is only a single covenant” in which human obligation is emphasised—in effect, Jubilees universalises the Sinai covenant.[4]

Philo uses covenantal concepts sparingly. “He has no choice but to deal with it because it is a part of the Septuagint text”.[5] He generally interprets the word according to its legal usage, “will”, using it as an allegorical symbol to describe the gracious bequest by God of certain graces: wisdom, law, word, justice, even himself (Sacrifices 57; Worse 67–68; Names 51–53, 58; Dreams 2.223–24, 2.237).[6] Nevertheless, Philo does share some of the concerns of the ot that we noted above. He discusses the question of the identity of the seed of Abraham, concluding that it is the wise man (Heir 313). He understands that the covenant with Abraham brings blessing to the nations, not by the nations joining the covenant, but by the nations learning from Israel’s wisdom (Names 263, cf. Deut 4:4–8).

Every reference to διαθήκη in Josephus is to a human will (Ant. 17.p, 17.53, 17.78, 17.146, 17.188, 17.195, 17.202, 17.224, 17.226, 17.228, 17.238, 17.244, 17.246, 17.249, 17.321, 17.322, 18.156; J.W. 1.451, 1.573, 1.588, 1.600, 1.625, 1.646, 1.664, 1.668, 1.669, 2.3, 2.20, 2.21, 2.31, 2.35, 2.38, 2.98, 2.99.). Mason observes that Josephus “systematically removed the stronger covenantal statements from his paraphrase of the Bible (Ant. 1.183–185, 191–193) in his attempt to avoid angering his Roman opponents (who, in fact, possessed the land along with their ‘gods’)”.[7] Hence “[t]he only advantage the Jews have is their association with Moses, who in his extreme sagacity discovered the truth about God and formulated laws in keeping with God’s will”.[8]

We have seen that none of these texts import sociological categories (such as “boundary markers” or “badges of membership” or “entry into a community”) into their use of the word “covenant”. This fact makes it less likely that we will find Paul himself using sociological categories when he used the word. However, there is one community in the second temple period which does use sociological categories in speaking of the “covenant”: the Qumran sectarians. We will look at the Qumran use of the word “covenant” in the next post.


[1] Jacques Van Ruiten, “The Covenant of Noah in Jubilees 6.1–38”, 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), 167–90.

[2] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”, 170.

[3] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”.

[4] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”, 190.

[5] Lester L. Grabbe, “Did All Jews Think Alike? ‘Covenant’ in Philo and Josephus in the Context of Second Temple Judaic Religion”, 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), 251–66 (256).

[6] Grabbe, “Philo and Josephus”, 257.

[7] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992), 70.

[8] Paul Spilsbury, “Josephus”, 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), 241–60 (258).

Full bibliography

While Paul is explicitly dependent upon the ot and the Christian gospel for his theological argument, he is clearly writing about questions and issues that arose in his time. While we may wish to postpone judgment on the nature of the connection between Paul’s theology and that of his contemporaries, a consideration of the concerns and questions of various intertestamental writings may shed light on the issues Paul faced. We will look at a number of the intertestamental writings to see what they have to say about the covenants.

Many of the writings use diaqh,kh in more or less the same way we find in the ot, albeit with differing emphases. The close association between covenant and oath continues (e.g. Wis 18:22). The Psalms of Solomon refer to the covenant as a firm, binding promise made by God to the nation (Pss. Sol. 9:8–11, 10:4, 17:15). The books of the Maccabees concentrate on “the covenant of the fathers” (1 Macc 2:20, 2 Macc 8:15), which is associated particularly with circumcision (1 Macc 1:15) and the law (1 Macc 1:57, 63; 2:27, 50). Human loyalty to the covenant will be rewarded by divine loyalty in crushing Israel’s enemies (1 Macc 4:10). The “covenant of everlasting priesthood” with Phinehas is also mentioned (1 Macc 2:54) [as a reward for Phineas’ ‘zeal’ (a key word in Maccabees)]. There are also references to non-divine covenants (e.g. Sir 11:20; Sir 14:12, 17; 1 Macc 1:11, 11:9).

Sirach contains an extended treatise on the various covenants between God and glorious national heroes. Earlier in Sirach, diaqh,kh refers mainly to the Mosaic law or commandments (Sir 24:23, 28:7, 39:8, 41:19, 42:2). But in chapters 44–45 there is a list of various “famous men” that are praised because “The Lord apportioned to them great glory” (Sir 44:1). The covenants with Noah (Sir 44:18), Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Sir 44:19–23), Aaron (Sir 45:6–22), Phinehas (Sir 45:23–24) and David (Sir 45:25–26) all get a notable mention. The covenantal ministries of Moses and Aaron, in particular, are depicted as ministries of fabulous God-given glory (Sir 45:2, 3, 7, 20) as they teach the law and offer sacrifices.

Jubilees (late 2nd Century BC) sees the covenant in similar terms to Genesis—a commitment or obligations by or between God and men under oath.[1] However, Jubilees stresses the human commitments more than does Genesis.[2] Jubilees 6:1–38 transforms the unilateral covenant that God makes with Noah into a bilateral covenant where human obligations are given prominence, explicitly linking it to the Mosaic covenant.[3] The same trend can be seen with Jubilees’ interpretation of the patriarchal covenants. “The ultimate goal of Jubilees is to show that there is only a single covenant” in which human obligation is emphasised—in effect, Jubilees universalises the Sinai covenant.[4]

Philo uses covenantal concepts sparingly. “He has no choice but to deal with it because it is a part of the Septuagint text”.[5] He generally interprets the word according to its legal usage, “will”, using it as an allegorical symbol to describe the gracious bequest by God of certain graces: wisdom, law, word, justice, even himself (Sacrifices 57; Worse 67–68; Names 51–53, 58; Dreams 2.223–24, 2.237).[6] Nevertheless, Philo does share some of the concerns of the ot that we noted above. He discusses the question of the identity of the seed of Abraham, concluding that it is the wise man (Heir 313). He understands that the covenant with Abraham brings blessing to the nations, not by the nations joining the covenant, but by the nations learning from Israel’s wisdom (Names 263, cf. Deut 4:4–8).

Every reference to diaqh,kh in Josephus is to a human will (Ant. 17.p, 17.53, 17.78, 17.146, 17.188, 17.195, 17.202, 17.224, 17.226, 17.228, 17.238, 17.244, 17.246, 17.249, 17.321, 17.322, 18.156; J.W. 1.451, 1.573, 1.588, 1.600, 1.625, 1.646, 1.664, 1.668, 1.669, 2.3, 2.20, 2.21, 2.31, 2.35, 2.38, 2.98, 2.99.). Mason observes that Josephus “systematically removed the stronger covenantal statements from his paraphrase of the Bible (Ant. 1.183–185, 191–193) in his attempt to avoid angering his Roman opponents (who, in fact, possessed the land along with their ‘gods’)”.[7] Hence “[t]he only advantage the Jews have is their association with Moses, who in his extreme sagacity discovered the truth about God and formulated laws in keeping with God’s will”.[8]


[1] Jacques Van Ruiten, “The Covenant of Noah in Jubilees 6.1–38”, 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), 167–90.

[2] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”, 170.

[3] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”.

[4] Van Ruiten, “Covenant of Noah”, 190.

[5] Lester L. Grabbe, “Did All Jews Think Alike? ‘Covenant’ in Philo and Josephus in the Context of Second Temple Judaic Religion”, 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), 251–66 (256).

[6] Grabbe, “Philo and Josephus”, 257.

[7] Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992), 70.

[8] Paul Spilsbury, “Josephus”, 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), 241–60 (258).

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