Hebrews 8 and the Old and New Covenants

© by Larry G. Overton, March 18, 2020

About a month or so ago (as of this writing) I received an email query from a guy named Steve. He had a question about how the Greek text of the book of Hebrews read in certain verses. Steve had read an article or paper written by someone who was apparently claiming the old Mosaic covenant was not abolished or replaced. Here in part is how Steve worded his question.

“The author of the article claims that the Greek word διαθήκης…does not appear in any other original source texts or in the Vulgate in verses 8:7, 8:13, or 12:2. I looked at the GNT on blue letter and it is there. He claims it is inserted later.”

I haven’t read the article, so I can’t speak to every facet of the argument put forth by that article’s author. But I can answer Steve’s basic question. The Greek word normally translated “covenant,” that is, διαθήκη (a transliteration of that Greek word spelled with the characters of the English alphabet would be diathēkē) does not appear in the Greek text of Hebrews 8:7, 13; 12:2. (The same thing can be said of Hebrews 9:1, but Steve didn’t specifically ask about that verse.)

Though Steve made reference to it, I didn’t bother looking into the Latin Vulgate’s rendering of these verses because that was a translation made several centuries after the inspired books of the Greek New Testament were penned. The Greek text is what will be definitive and authoritative here. And any published Greek text you consult will not have the word diathēkē in those verses.[1]

To quote Steve again, “I looked at the GNT on blue letter and it is there. He claims it is inserted later.” I assumed that his reference to “the GNT” meant the Greek New Testament. As for the “blue letter,” I think he meant a website called Blue Letter Bible. I don’t use that myself, since I have a Bible software program, and scores of books in my library pertaining to the Greek New Testament, the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), the text of the Hebrew Scriptures, grammars, commentaries, etc.

So, I’m not sure what Steve saw on the Blue Letter Bible, but he either misunderstood the search results he found, or that website was wrong. The Greek word for “covenant,” diathēkē, is not found in the verses he mentioned. Most English translations have the English word “covenant” supplied in the verse to clarify the sense, but the inserted word is not based on a corresponding word in the Greek text.

Part of the problem is most Bible translations for the last 70 years have failed to cast the words they add to the text in italics. Translators down through the centuries have typically added the English word “covenant” in Hebrews 8:7, 13, but they did so by casting the added word in italics. This is true of the King James Version, Revised Version (1881), American Standard Version, New American Standard Bible, New King James Version, and a few others. So those two verses in Hebrews 8, if rendered into English with this convention of italicizing supplied words, as I have done here,[2] would appear like this:

“For if that first covenant had been faultless, no place would have been sought for a second.”

“In saying ‘New,’ He has made obsolete the first covenant. Now what is becoming obsolete and is growing old is near to disappearing.”

But the trend in Bible versions throughout the second half of the 20th century and continuing today is to not indicate added words in italics. That, in my opinion, is a disservice to the English reader, and should be corrected. In my own translation work, I routinely cast in italics those words I choose to supply to complete the sense of verse.

That then was my answer to Steve’s basic question on how those verses read in the Greek New Testament. Now, bear with me while I elaborate. While the author of the article Steve read is technically correct about the lack of the word diathēkē in those verses, his conclusions about those verses are wrong.

Hebrews chapter 8 is a key passage in considering the question of the dissolution of the Mosaic covenant. The two hand-picked verses in this chapter that do not contain the word for “covenant” (diathēkē) are used by some professing to be Messianic Jews, claiming that the overall context of Hebrews 6:13 through chapter 9 has to do with the change of priesthood, not the dissolution of the Mosaic covenant.

But in cherry picking those two verses, the author of the article ignored the more immediate context of chapter 8, where you actually do find the noun diathēkē five times, and once in the form of a verb. (More on that in a moment.) In Hebrews 8, the first five verses do indeed discuss the high priesthood of Jesus. But beginning with verse 6, there is a transition of thought, signaled by the way the verse begins in Greek: Νυνὶ δὲ (Nuni de), “But now…” This Greek construction marks a contrast to what was said in the previous verses.

And in verse six, it states that “He [Jesus] is a mediator of a better covenant…” (Emphasis mine.) And there is the word diathēkē in this context, just one verse before the statement “For if that first covenant had been faultless…” The word diathēkē may not be in verse 7, but it is clearly there in the verse before it, which marked the transition of thought, signaling that “covenant” is indeed the topic of discussion. And in verse 6, it states that the covenant Jesus is the mediator of is “a better covenant.”

Then, in beginning with verse 8, the author of Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34. In this Old Testament quote, the prophetic promise pertained to a “new” covenant. And in verse 8, the Greek word for “new” here is καινóς (kainos), which can have the meaning (as it does here) of “new in contrast to something old that has become obsolete, and should be replaced by what is new. In such a case the new is, as a rule, superior in kind to the old.”[3]

In verse 9, the word diathēkē is found two more times, referencing the old Mosaic covenant and saying that the new covenant would not be according to the old covenant because the Jewish people did not remain in God’s covenant.

Then, in verse 10, the author of Hebrews says “For this is the covenant that I will make…” The word “covenant” here in Greek is, once again, the noun diathēkē. And the phrase “I will make” is translated from one word in Greek: διαθήσομαι (diathēsomai), the first person singular future middle form of διατίθημι (diatithēmi). This is the verb form I alluded to earlier. Here it would more literally be translated as “I will covenant.” So the prophetic reference here is God saying “For this is the covenant that I myself will covenant…”

And so, as we come to the last verse in Hebrews chapter 8, though the word for “covenant” (diathēkē) does not explicitly occur here in verse 13, the subject of the verse is described as “first,” and is further referred to as something “He has made obsolete.” And in the immediate context of those five instances of the word “covenant” (diathēkē) in verses 6-10, as well as the very specific prophecy of a new covenant in the quote from Jeremiah 31:31-34, it is clear that the old covenant versus the new covenant is the topic being discussed, not simply the priesthood.

As I mentioned earlier, Hebrews 9:1 is a verse that Steve didn’t ask about, but it fits the pattern of verses in Hebrews where English translators have added the word “covenant” in their translation, even though the Greek word diathēkē does not appear in the Greek text of that verse. Here is my translation of Hebrews 9:1.

“Indeed, then, even the first covenant had regulations of service, and the earthly holy place.”

There are a couple of reasons why I have supplied the word “covenant” in my rendering of this verse in English, even though the Greek text doesn’t contain the word diathēkē. Well, actually, just one reason, but with two facts pointing to that reason. That reason: contextually Hebrews 9:1 fits perfectly into the discussion of old versus new covenants in Hebrew 8:6-13.

And that brings us to fact one: the writer of Hebrews did not originally divide his book into chapters and verses. In the Greek manuscripts, the text wasn’t divided into chapters until the early 13th century. And verse division in the New Testament didn’t occur until the era of printed texts in the mid-16th century. So for more than a millennium, what we know as Hebrews 9:1 was just the next sentence in the Greek text. In many manuscripts, what we know as Hebrews 9:1 started on the same line Hebrews 8:13 ended.

As for fact two, the very wording of Hebrews 9:1 points to a continuation of the old vs. new covenants discussion of Hebrews 8:6-13. The sentence/verse begins in Greek with μὲν οὖν καὶ (men oun kai), three particles/conjunctions in Greek that taken together here are consecutive or continuative in nature.[4] They mark in the new sentence/verse the resumption of the theme of the old covenant after the lengthy quote of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

I have to confess that I’m not sure what to make of Steve’s citing Hebrews 12:2 as one of the verses he looked up. The Greek word diathēkē does not occur in this verse, but the subject under consideration in 12:2 has does not have the English word “covenant,” and does not deal with that topic. I don’t know if there was some aspect of the article Steve read that referenced this verse, or if Steve meant to cite some other reference. So I can say no more about this verse in the context of the discussion of covenants.

Well, there you have it. No one besides Steve was asking for this information. But after doing the work of researching the matter and sending a reply to Steve, I thought it would make a good article of my own. I hope Steve and someone else finds it helpful.

[1] I routinely use The New Testament in the original Greek: Byzantine Textform, edited by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont. But I also regularly consult: The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text, edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad; The Greek New Testament (United Bible Societies), 4th edition; and the Novum Testamentum Graece, or Nestle-Aland, 27th edition. The last two have shared the same text since 1979, but both have a critical apparatus on each page, and the content and design of the two apparatuses are not the same.

[2] Quotations of Scripture throughout this article, unless otherwise noted, are my own translation. In the New Testament, my translation is based on The New Testament in the original Greek: Byzantine Textform, compiled and arranged by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont. Southborough, MA: Chilton Book Publishing, 2005. I definitely use the formatting convention of casting in italics any words I supply in translation that are not based on a corresponding Greek term in the text. For more information on my translation work as it applies to the book of Hebrews, see http://larryoverton.com/translation-work/the-book-of-hebrews-translation-project/

[3] Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Second Edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979. p. 394.

[4] F. Blass, A. Debrunner, Robert W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1961. §§450(4), §§451. pgs. 234f.