Testament (in the Bible)

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In classical Latin the word testamentum denotes only the attested will by which a man designates what dispositions are to be made of his property after his death, and the English word "testament," which is derived from it, should also etymologically be used only in this sense, as in the phrase, "last will and testament." The corresponding term in classical Greek is διαθήκη. However, the Septuagint (LXX) translators used this Greek term consistently to render the Hebrew word b erît, which never means "last will." The meaning of b erît is "covenant, pact, agreement," for which the corresponding word in classical Greek is συνθήκη, the term used in Wis 12.21, as well as by Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion to translate b erît. Perhaps the LXX translators felt that the connotation of a bilateral contract contained in the term συνθήκη was not in keeping with the fact that in the covenant made by Yahweh with Israel, Yahweh alone set the conditions. In any case, because the LXX translators gave this new meaning to διαθήκη, the corresponding Latin and English terms, testamentum and testament, also took on the meaning of "covenant" in Biblical language. For the significance of this term in the expressions Old Testament, New Testament, see covenant (in the bible).

Although the New Testament, following the LXX usage, regularly employs the word διαθήκη in the sense of "covenant" (Lk 1.72; Acts 3.25; Rom 9.4; etc.) and even the phrase ταλαι διαθήκη, "the Old Testament," in reference to the books written under the Old Covenant, there are two passages in the New Testament where the thought passes from this meaning of the term to the meaning that it has in classical Greek. In Gal3.1517 God's covenant with Abraham is compared to a man's last will and testament, with the emphasis on the definitive value of a will properly drawn up. This is clear from the verbs used by St. Paulratify, annul, alterand from his introductory expression, "I speak after the manner of men." In Heb 9.1617 the point of comparison is the testator's death: just as a man's last will and testament becomes effective only when he dies, so Christ acts as mediator of the New Covenant between God and men only through His death whereby He expiates men's sins, because "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness," i.e., legal pardon (v. 22). The effect of this redeeming efficacy of Christ's death is to allow "those who are called" to claim the promised inheritance.

Bibliography: l. g. da fonseca, "Διαθήκηfoedus an testamentum?" Biblica 8 (1927) 3150, 161181, 290319, 418441; 9 (1928) 2640, 143160. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 241415.

[a. yonick]