Skip to content

The word ‘covenant’ in Galatians 3:15

What does the word διαθήκη (“covenant”) mean in Galatians 3:15?

(This post is part of a series)

Some interpreters understand the word to mean “last will and testament”.[1] In this understanding, when Paul speaks in “human terms” (κατὰ ἄνθρωπον) about a “human” covenant (ἀνθρώπον [. . .] διαθήκην) he refers to the secular Graeco-Roman practice of will-making. According to this understanding, Paul then proceeds, by way of comparison, to show that just as a human will cannot be rejected (cf. ἀθετεῖ) or reordered (cf. ἐπιδιατάσσεται), so it is with God’s covenant.

Hughes, however, marshalling an impressive array of internal and external evidence, shows that διαθήκη in Gal 3:15 cannot possibly be used in the Hellenistic sense of “will”.[2] Throughout the ancient world, a will could, and frequently was, nullified and changed by the testator.[3] If Paul was using a will as his “human” example, the basic premise of his comparison would have been nonsense to his original readers. On the other hand, if Paul meant “covenant” according to our inductive definition (“elected relationship of obligation under oath”), the argument makes perfect sense. Sworn covenants between human beings in the Old Testament were inviolable (e.g. Josh 9:19–20, cf. 2 Sam 21:1–14).[4] So, it seems, was the birds” covenant with Peisetaerus. Hence Paul is arguing from the general inviolability of covenants between human beings (3:15) to the inviolability of the particular covenant with Abraham (3:17).[5] He is not introducing the idea of a “will” into his argument.


[1] E.g. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word Biblical Commentary 41; Dallas: Word, 1990); N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (London: T & T Clark, 1991) , 166; see also the Bible versions NJB, RSV, NRSV.

[2] John J. Hughes, “Hebrews IX 15ff. and Galatians III 15ff: A Study in Covenant Practice and Procedure”, Novum Testamentum 21 (1979): 27–96 (here 66–96).

[3] Of course, a “last will and testament” couldn’t be changed by anyone other than the testator, nor for this reason could it be changed after the testator’s death; but this is irrelevant, for Paul is claiming that God himself would not change his own previously ratified διαθήκη.

[4] Scott W. Hahn, “Covenant, Oath, and the Aqedah: Διαθήκη in Galatians 3:15–18”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67 (2005): 79–100 (esp. 83–86).

[5] Hahn, “Covenant, Oath, and the Aqedah”, 95.

Published inCovenantGalatians

2 Comments

  1. Tony Wright

    Is marriage a covenant? Is divorce a breaking of a human-human covenant?

  2. Hi Tony – I think marriage is a covenant. The best detailed defence of the covenantal nature of marriage that I’ve found is Hugenberger, whom I refer to here. Divorce could be the breaking of a human-human covenant, although it could also be seen as one possible end result of a prior breaking of the terms of a human-human covenant (e.g. through adultery or desertion).

Comments are closed.

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • The Named Jew and the Name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29

All posts

Recent blog posts

  • Yes no“Paul within Judaism” and Romans 2:17–29
    My article on Romans 2:17–29 supports one key feature of the "Paul within Judaism" perspective, but undermines another common feature.
  • Photo by Engin Akyurt on UnsplashThe goals of Bible teaching (1 Timothy 1:1–11)
    In gospel ministry and Bible teaching, if you’re not committed to the right goal, or if you have the wrong goal, it’s not just a matter of being ineffective: you’ll be downright dangerous. So what is that goal? What are you seeking to achieve in your gospel ministry and Bible teaching - now and in the future? And how would you know if you’d done it right? This passage in 1 Timothy 1:1–11 speaks to this issue of the goals of ministry and teaching. It challenges us to think about our own aims in teaching, and to see how important it is to get it right. A sermon preached at Moore College Men's Chapel on 14 July, 2021.
  • Slow-burn crazy-making behaviours. Photo by Vadim Sadovski on UnsplashSlow-burn crazy-making behaviours: recognising and responding
    Do you know someone who seems to have drama and problems constantly appear around them? Whenever you relate to this person, perhaps you find yourself feeling vaguely guilty, or uncomfortable, or put down, or obligated to affirm them? Do you often feel like you’re questioning yourself and your actions because of what they say and do? You don’t feel the same way around other people; it’s just this individual who seems to attract these dramas and give rise to these feelings in you. If that’s the case, the chances are it’s not you who is the problem. It’s quite possible that the person you’re thinking of is exhibiting a pattern of behaviours that can be significantly detrimental to you and to others. This pattern of behaviours is hard to pin down; it doesn’t seem too serious in the short term, and indeed it might appear quite normal to a casual acquaintance. However, over the long term, it can cause serious problems for you and others. That’s especially true in close-knit communities, like families, churches and other Christian ministries.
  • Romans Crash CourseRomans Crash Course (video)
    A 75 minute video course in the Apostle Paul's letter to the Romans designed for church members and leaders.
  • The Mistranslation "Call Yourself a Jew" in Romans 2:17: A Mythbusting StoryThe mistranslation “call yourself a Jew”: A myth-busting story (Romans 2:17)
    This is a story about a scholarly myth and how I had the chance to bust it. I’m talking here about a small but significant 20th century biblical translation: “call yourself” instead of “are called” in Romans 2:17.
  • Breaking news: Religious Scandal in RomeThe named Jew and the name of God: A new reading of Romans 2:17–29
    I've just had an article published in the journal Novum Testamentum. In it, I provide a detailed defense of my new reading of Romans 2:17–29. This passage is not primarily about Jewish salvation - rather it's primarily about Jewish teaching and God's glory.
  • Photo by Joseph d'Mello on UnsplashPreaching the Pastoral Epistles
    A one-hour audio seminar with principles and ideas for preaching the biblical books 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus ("Pastoral Epistles")
  • A Crash Course in Romans: Livestream
    Here's a <90 minute "Crash Course in Romans" I'm running on Monday evening 1 Feb 2021. It's aimed at leaders and any interested members of my church St Augustine's Neutral Bay and Church by the Bridge Kirribilli. Anyone is welcome to watch the livestream.
  • Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on UnsplashWhat’s wrong with the world? Is there hope? (Ephesians)
    Guilt, weakness, spiritual slavery, prejudice, arrogance, tribalism, conflict, war, victimhood, persecution, pain, suffering, futility, ignorance, lying, deceit, anger, theft, greed, pornography, sexual sin, darkness, fear, drunkenness, substance abuse, domestic abuse, workplace abuse, spiritual powers... In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says many things about the problems we face in this world. He also gives us wonderful reasons to find life, hope and healing in Jesus Christ. Along the way, he provides practical teachings about how to respond and live together.
  • What does Ephesians say about reconciliation?
    We humans are not very good at living up close with others. This is especially true when we have a history of conflict with those others. Reconciliation isn't easy. No matter how much you might want healing, it’s hardly ever a matter of just everybody getting on and pretending the hurts didn’t happen. In Paul's letter to the Ephesians, he says some very important, fundamental things about peace and reconciliation, and gives many other very practical teachings about how to live together in light of these truths.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor