Thursday, November 1, 2007

What's so new about the 'New Covenant'?

I suggested earlier that the command to "hear" Jesus in Luke 9:35 is covenant language. The setting of the transfiguration recalls Sinai, where the covenant promise--"you will be to me a chosen people"--is matched to the demand--"hear my voice and keep my covenant" (Exod 19:5 LXX). The people of the covenant are now Jesus' family--those who hear and obey what he says (Luke 8:19-21; 11:28).

The word "covenant" never appears in the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), however. And when Luke uses the term he normally refers to the covenant with Abraham:
  • "Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve [or: worship] him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days." (Luke 1:72-75 NRSV)
  • "You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'" (Acts 3:25 NRSV)
  • "Then God gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision." (Acts 7:8)
There are also several allusions in Luke-Acts to the covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, and scholars have noted how Luke "collapse[s] the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants together into one. The Davidic covenant becomes a specific way the Abrahamic covenant comes to fulfillment" (Brawley 1995).

While the covenants to Abraham and David may be combined, most people seem to assume that Luke would not have had anything positive to say about the Sinai covenant. After all, so the assumption goes, "Luke connects the Sinai Covenant with the law which he rejects as a means of salvation with a vigor...which almost matches that of Paul" (O'Toole 1983). If Luke does refer to the Sinai covenant, then, it must be to demonstrate Jesus' superiority to it.

But Luke does portray the Sinai covenant positively:
  • Pious people in Luke 1-2 such as Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, are careful to obey the law.
  • If the point of the Abrahamic covenant was to "serve/worship" God (Luke 1:74), Acts 7 explains that the point of the exodus and the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (7:17) was to "serve/worship" God at Sinai (7:7).
  • At the last supper, Jesus identifies the cup with the "new covenant in my blood." The reference to blood echoes the ratification of the Sinai covenant in Exod 24:8.
Of course, "new covenant" also echoes Jeremiah's promise of a new covenant:
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jer 31:31-34 NRSV; Deut 30:1-6; Ezek 11:17-20; 36:24-28)
My unexamined assumption about the "new covenant" was that it renders the old obselete. This is certainly the view of the author of Hebrews (8:13), but I am not so sure anymore that Luke or his readers would have automatically read Jeremiah 31 in this way.
  • For one thing, as the NET Bible note on Jer 31:33 explains, "The new covenant does not entail a new law; it is the same law that Jeremiah has repeatedly accused them of rejecting or ignoring....What does change is their inner commitment to keep it." (N.B. What is new about the 'new' covenant is debated: Zimmerli does think Jer 31 sets aside the Mosaic covenant; Lundbom in the ABD article on "New Covenant" thinks what is new is forgiveness.)
  • For my purposes, what Post-Exilic Torah-observing Jews believed about Jeremiah is more important than what Jeremiah meant. Jubilees, for example, echoes new covenant passages (1:22-24), but insists that the Sinai covenant was really an extension of the covenant with Abraham. There is, for Jubilees, only one real covenant that lasts forever. The Dead Sea Scrolls also combine interest in the "new covenant" with earnest fidelity to the law of Moses. Without looking around too much in the literature, my sense is that this is common.
What of the New Testament? Is it true that "NT writers were uncomfortable with the term, using it only to point out that in Christ the covenant was not law but faith or life in the Spirit"? (Lundbom ABD 4.1090 citing G.E. Wright approvingly)

Luke certainly believed that Moses and the prophets pointed forward to Jesus, and that salvation comes to those who respond to Jesus, but I see no reason why he should avoid using the Sinai covenant as a positive model for Jesus and for the response that is required from his followers. In fact, I think Luke does precisely this at the transfiguration: Jesus does not bring a new law, but as the Son he is the mediator between the Father and humanity. The requirement--"listen!"--is analogous, and the consequences are the same.

Comments are welcome, if you made it this far!


John Hobbins said...

What a nice blog you have! I'm adding you to my map of Bible bloggers.

On the subject matter at hand, how’s your German? The book you want to read is by Adrian Schenker, Das Neue am neuen Bund und das Alte am alten: Jer 31 in der hebräischen und griechischen Bibel, von der Textgeschichte zu Theologie, Synagoge und Kirche (Forschungen zur Religion und Literatur des Alten und Neuen Testaments 212; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006).

He's a nuanced thinker like you are. You will find his approach and conclusions of interest.

John Hobbins

nicholas meyer said...

"I see no reason why he should avoid using the Sinai covenant as a positive model for Jesus and for the response that is required from his followers."

Can this be said of all followers, including non-Jews, in the light of Acts 15?

d. miller said...

Thanks for the com(pli)ment and for the reference to Schenker. It certainly looks like he addresses my question!

randomly organized said...

"My unexamined assumption about the "new covenant" was that it renders the old obselete. This is certainly the view of the author of Hebrews (8:13), but I am not so sure anymore that Luke or his readers would have automatically read Jeremiah 31 in this way."

However, if Hebrew was written prior (just prior) to the destruction of the Temple then rendering it "old" or "in the act of passing" the writer of Hebrew is declaring literally that the Temple and all of its implements (since the focus tends toward the sacrificial system rather than the covenant—generally speaking) are about to vanish.

d. miller said...

Hi randomly organized,
Thanks for the comment. What makes you think the temple is primarily in view in Heb 8:13? The main subject from 8:6 on (but perhaps suggested already by the oath in 7:28) seems to be the covenant.

d. miller said...


I tried to side-step Luke's attitude toward the Law in my post, but as you point out, Luke clearly thought the Mosaic law was no longer binding on Gentiles (15:5) and that even Jews were unable to bear it (15:10).

The Sinai covenant could still function as a model for Jesus' followers, however. I think what I am grasping at is the kind of covenant Jesus inaugurates and the amount of continuity between the old and the new. The new covenant comes with covenant stipulations (or a covenant stipulation) like the Mosaic covenant, and in contrast to the unconditional covenants with Noah and David and Abraham (in Gen 15).

randomly organized said...

I agree that the "covenant" is the primary "verbage" that is used in Ch 8.6-13.

However, the argument is sandwiched in between Temple (and all that entails) focus. To me this raises the question of whether or not we should read this as covenant general or covenant of priesthood.

As you noted the Jer 31 verse doesn't appear to create a new Law rather it is dealing with "heart" observance of the Old.

Throughout Hebrews the Levitical system seems to be the purview of the Letter. The constant reference to the Temple, Priests, and sacrifices make this clear.

If this system is the main focus prior to 8.6 and then returns after 8.13 then it would seem that 6-13 are dealing with the same focus.

randomly organized said...

"Luke clearly thought the Mosaic law was no longer binding on Gentiles (15:5) and that even Jews were unable to bear it (15:10)."

To jump in:
However, shortly after this he seems to want to show that the Mosaic law was still binding on Jews—(Acts 16.3).

nicholas meyer said...

Hey d.

Okay, that's different (I'll have to think about it). I thought by your discussion of the new not replacing the law, the examples from Qumran and Jubilees, as well as the statement "Jesus does not a bring a new law" that you were suggesting that the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant were still binding, but under the conditions provided by the New Covenant.

d. miller said...

Nick: My concluding statement was ambiguous, wasn't it!

Nick and Randomly Organized: Thanks for your comments. I'll be happy to hear what you have to say about Luke's understanding of the law with respect to Jews and Gentiles. Meanwhile I will carry on gingerly stepping around the question.

randomly organized said...

Two more things:
One. I tend to agree with Richard Anderson and others who suggest that Luke was writing to the High Priest Theophilus. To me he seems to be siding with Law more times than not. He tends to protray Law in a favorable light and clearly tries to show that the Jesus community is Law abiding (as regards Jews). He does at times seem to downplay oral tradition and therefore can be understood as playing to the Sadducean mindset.

Two. Regarding Hebrews I wanted to provide a basis for the covenantal swap. In Malachi 2 Levi is said to have been given a covenant. Malachi is speaking with the priests and speaks of the covenant with Levi. I am suggesting that this is the covenant that the author of Hebrews is saying has been changed. the Levitical covenant and not the Torah Covenant. Also, I am suggesting that it was not a replacement forever. I believe that the author is preparing the Jewish-Jesus community to face a time without a Temple. They were used to meeting in the Temple daily. This was about to change. The author is doing something similar to what the Rabbis did at Yavneh. Innovation for the sake of preservation.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, randomly organized. You said: "He tends to protray Law in a favorable light and clearly tries to show that the Jesus community is Law abiding (as regards Jews)."

What do you do with Acts 13:38 and 15:10-11? These seem to significantly reshape Luke's initially positive portrait of the law (e.g., Luke 10:25-28; 16:29-31). For what it's worth, after posting a follow-up post here:, I eventually concluded that the transfiguration functions to demonstrate Jesus’ superiority to Moses and Elijah, but the replacement of Moses by Jesus is not yet in view; the point is rather the necessity of “hearing” the Son.

randomly organized said...

My poor editing aside :). Yes, that those two verse are problematic within the arguments. However, taking them one at a time I will explain how I understand them.

First, "What do you do with Acts 13:38": I read it similar to the Rabbis view that in Messiah's time the sacrifices will be done away with (except some). Paul makes it clear that he is speaking of sacrificial system based on his focus on propitiation of sins. Luke shows us a Paul who is Torah observant albeit filled with the idea that Messiah has come and that somethings are in Law are done but others (most of the Law) is continued, who fulfills sacrifices Acts 21.26, and who circumcises Jews through their mother Acts 16.3.

Second, "What do you do with Acts... and 15:10-11?" I view this statement in light of Oral Torah—the yoke of the Pharisees. Why? Salvation (salvation meaning entrance into the covenant community) based on circumcision isn't a Torah command, however, it is a Pharisaic innovation. It was the Pharisees that were pushing the circumcision issue. Luke uses Peter to recall the words of Jesus in Matt 23.4. Peter is suggesting that this yoke (Pharisaic) is too much because the Non-Jews have already been accepted by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

randomly organized said...

I meant to reference Leviticus Rabbah 9.7, regarding Acts 13:38.