Words And Things (Part 2)

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. But the problems with rendering diatheke as “will” in vv. 16-17 remain, because it doesn’t make sense of the author’s logic in drawing out a conclusion regarding Christ’s death as covenant mediator.

Hughes makes the case that the author of Hebrews is not using a last will in vv. 16-17 to illustrate covenant practice in vv. 15 and 18, but is discussing covenant practice throughout the passage. Hughes wants us to render the one word diatheke with English “covenant” throughout vv. 15-18. His main interpretation is particularly strong and deserves to be highlighted. The rendering of this word as “will” or “last will” in vv. 16-17 makes it seem as if the author of Hebrews is concerned about when the inheritance is turned over to the heirs. The answer would be ‘at the death of the one who made the last will.’ But this would seem to suggest then that since Christ has died, we therefore have entered into our inheritance.

The truth is, however, that we have not entered into the consummation of our inheritance yet: a new creation in resurrection bodies (as stated explicitly and implicitly in Heb. 11:39-40 and 12:28). What Hughes says is that conveyance of the inheritance is not the question being discussed in Heb. 9:15-18, but rather Hebrews is showing how the death of Christ inaugurates the new covenant. This is exactly where the author of Hebrews takes us in vv. 18-22 when he shows that “not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood” (i.e., therefore the second or new covenant was inaugurated with Christ’s blood). This now makes sense. Hebrews is developing and proving an argument about covenant inauguration in 9:16-18 not about the time of entering into an inheritance.

Another reason for accepting Hughes’ interpretation comes from a simple study of a phrase in v. 17 rendered in the ESV above as “at death” in the statement: “For a will takes effect only at death.” The problem with this translation is that the highlighted phrase cannot mean “at death.” The word rendered “death” here in Heb. 9:17 is not the singular noun, “death,” (Greek, thanatos; cf. Heb. 2:9, 14-15; 5:7; 7:23; 9:15-16; 11:5) but is an adjective occurring in the plural (nekra) and refers to “corpses” or to “dead (people)” as in Christ was raised “from the dead” (ek nekron; Heb. 13:20).

Here is how the beginning of Heb. 9:17 should actually be rendered: “For a covenant takes effect only over corpses” (i.e., of dead animals). Now the most obvious background of this reference is the covenant inauguration ceremony between God and Abraham with sacrificial animals cut in two (Gen. 15:9-21; cf. Jer. 34:18-19). A nearly identical expression appears in Psalm 50:5: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!” In the old Greek translation of this verse, it reads: “. . . who made a covenant with me over sacrifices” i.e., animal corpses as in Heb. 9:17.

What makes all this work, of course, is that 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).

© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved. Reprinted on the Heidelblog by permission.

This article was first published on the WSC Blog in 2011.

You can find the whole series here.


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    Post authored by:

  • S. M. Baugh
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    The Rev. Dr. S. M. Baugh is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California, where he taught Greek and New Testament from 1983–2021. He is author of two grammars of New Testament Greek, a contributor to the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, the commentary on Ephesians in the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary series, The Majesty of High (on the Kingdom of God), and numerous articles. He is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

    More by S. M. Baugh ›

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  1. Amen! I appreciate very much this insight. It confirms the conviction that has been coming home to me lately, that we need to constantly be consulting the original languages. Luther was right, when he said, “If we lose the original languages, we must ultimately lose the gospel!”

  2. I went on to read Part Two when the Heidelblog posted part 1 several weeks ago. I was astounded at and appreciative of this research. He lays out a very convincing argument, for me, and the passage makes so much more sense given this translation and context. I am more curious now to know why such good men, some who are still alive today, did NOT translate the word diatheke as covenant in these 2-3 verses. It makes little sense now. It would be interesting to know why they translated this Greek term as testimony–following some Greek assumptions–rather than following the Hebrew line of thought, reasoning, and language use that falls in line with the rest of that passage.
    Thank you for making this available.

  3. Can we get the John Hughes article linked in the post or, if not possible, the title of it inserted in brackets?

    Can anyone find part 1 and can it be linked as well? I’ve search Heidelblog and WSC blog it was originally published on and can’t find it.

    • Hi Mark,

      Part 1 of Dr Baugh’s series is on the HB. You can find all of his HB articles by clicking on the link in his bio. You can also find them all by using the HB Contributors page under the welcome menu. Part 1 = “There’s A Right Way…”.

      The Hughes article is:

      John J. Hughes, “Hebrews IX 15ff. And Galatians III 15ff. A Study in Covenant Practice and Procedure” Novum Testamentum XXI, fasc. I. (1979). I don’t have the page numbers but here’s a direct link to the issue. You might not be able to access it but any librarian with access to inter-library loan services should be able to order the article for you.

  4. Thank you all for the comments! I gave Dr. Clark permission to re-print these blogs without looking at them for many years, and I have to say that I’m undoubtedly a very poor blogger leaving more questions than answering. But here are a couple of things to add.

    1) Translating the Greek word as “covenant” in Heb. 9:16-17 was proposed by B. F. Westcott in his Hebrews commentary in the 1800s I believe, and it was defended more recently in the Hebrews commentary by William Lane in the Word Biblical Commentary series. There may be others too, but I can’t imagine that English version translators and editors are unaware of the position. They just may not accept it.

    2) As regards the ESV, one thing to know is that it started as a minor correction and revision of the RSV, not as an all-new English version. It could be that the committee or persons in charge of Hebrews were not persuaded of the rendering “covenant” in Heb. 9:16-17 or it just didn’t come up to change it in their charge to make a revision of the RSV.

    3) This is just my guess–but one that I have had on more than one occasion: English versions tend to be conservative in the sense of preserving the majority opinion for translation of a passage in order not to appear eccentric. In the end, a translation (version) is an incredibly huge investment by the publisher and this plays a role in such decisions I suspect. They really need to sell a lot of Bibles to recoup their investment. But this is what I suspect, not what I know for a fact, so take it with a grain of salt.

    4) There are other relevant words and historical issues that contribute to the “covenant” understanding of Heb. 9:16-17 that I didn’t get into in the blog above, but someday I hope to present some things more fully in a different venue. Stay tuned!
    Thanks again.

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