Baugh: Words and Things (Part 2)

Baugh: Words and Things (Part 2)

Written by S. M. Baugh |
Friday, July 15, 2022

Christ’s death was not a death like ours. It was a sacrifice. His body was symbolized in the animals which Abraham cut in two, so that through Christ’s substitutionary death as an “eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12) through the “eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) we might enter into an “eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15). All this is sealed to us with an imperishable promise because the new covenant has been inaugurated now and into all eternity by his “blood of the eternal covenant” (Heb. 13:20).

I corresponded with John Hughes recently and complimented him on a detailed scholarly article he wrote some years ago where he gave a most helpful treatment of Heb. 9:15-22. He mentioned in return that it was disappointing that his work seems to have made no impression on English translations that have appeared subsequently. Let’s look the passage over (going only to v. 18 for time’s sake). I will rehearse the heart of Hughes’s interpretation of Heb. 9:15-18 and zero in on one phrase in particular that I find especially illuminating for accepting his conclusions.

Here is Heb. 9:15-18 in the English Standard Version (ESV), an excellent newer translation, but it does not adopt Hughes’s interpretation. The issue revolves around the translation of one Greek word, diatheke, that occurs several times in these four verses and is translated as either “covenant” or “will” (and are highlighted here):

Heb. 9:15-18: “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. [16] For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. [17] For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. [18] Therefore not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood.”

It seems rather odd that the author of Hebrews should speak of Christ as “mediator of a new covenant” (v. 15) and then switch to discussion of a seemingly unrelated “will” in vv. 16-17. More odd is that the author draws out from his discussion of a “will” in vv. 16-17 a conclusion about covenant inauguration practice in v. 18. Why discuss a last will to make a point about a covenant?

The answer to this last question receives some interesting explanations in the literature, though even the best of them are not convincing. It is true that the Greek word diatheke may legitimately refer to either an OT type of “covenant” or to a “last will and testament.” These are two established meanings of this word.

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