Biblical Research & Education Resources
Richard Blaine Robison, M.A., M.R.E.
A Name for the Apostolic Writings
Published 5 January 2012; Revised 10 May 2022
Sources: Bibliographic data for works cited may be found at the end of the article. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions. Unless otherwise indicated references to the Talmud are from the Soncino Babylonian Talmud (1948); available online at Halakhah.com. Click here for Talmud Abbreviations.
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), and Messiah (Christ).
ABSTRACT. This article explains my rationale for substituting the acronym Besekh for the name "New Testament." The issue of the name is a matter of some debate between Christians and Messianic Jews. In that context it's important to understand the background of terminology and the reasons for different naming conventions.
Although not widely used the expression "apostolic writings" has the advantage of emphasizing that all the literary works in the New Testament were written by apostles appointed by Yeshua. Liberal scholarship has tended to regard many of these writings as products of the Church written either anonymously or under pseudonyms as late as the second century A.D. Yeshua granted his apostles the authority to "bind" (impose requirements) and "loose" (lighten requirements) (Matt 16:19). Paul illustrated this authority by saying that the Body of Messiah has been "built on the foundation of the apostles" (Eph 2:20). By virtue of apostolic authorship the New Testament inerrantly speaks the will of Yeshua and inherently imposes the obligation of obedience (cf. Matt 28:20).
The Hebrew word, which means covenant, is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe two very different relationships. The first major usage is of a pact, treaty, or alliance between men (e.g., Gen 14:13; 21:22; 31:44), as well as between a monarch and subjects (2Sam 3:12; 5:3). The second major usage of b'rit is of the covenants initiated by God with named individuals and their descendants, specifically Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron and David, and the nation of Israel. Each of these covenants include both divine promises and expectations of the recipients. The covenant God made with Israel functioned like a constitution (BDB 136). For more information on this topic see my web article The Everlasting Covenants.
The Greek word diathēkē means a formal arrangement or agreement for disposing of something in a manner assuring continuity. It refers to a covenant that either has a testamentary aspect, e.g., last will and testament (Gal 3:15; Heb 9:16f) or a perspective of God's unilaterally assumed obligation to confer a special blessing (e.g., Matt 26:28; Acts 7:8; Rom 9:4; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 7:22) (Danker). In the LXX diathēkē typically renders b'rit (270 times; DNTT 1:365).
An acronym that reflects the three divisions of the Hebrew Bible: Torah (also called Chumash, "five;" known among Christians as the Pentateuch), Neviim (Prophets) and K'tuvim (Writings). The Neviim portion includes the histories of Joshua through 2 Kings, the three major prophets and the twelve minor prophets. The K'tuvim contains the remainder of the books.
The abbreviation for the Septuagint, the Jewish Greek translation of the Tanakh, completed in the 2nd century B.C. All the quotations of the Tanakh found in the apostolic writings are taken from the LXX. The LXX also included the Apocrypha, a group of 15 Jewish writings completed before the first century A.D.
Background of Terminology
The terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" have been normative in Christianity for centuries to describe the two major divisions of the Bible. The first Christian use of the term Old Testament to describe the entire Hebrew Bible can be traced back to the Greek palaia ["old"] diathēkē ["covenant"] mentioned by Melito, Bishop of Sardis (died c. AD 180) and recorded in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, IV, §26.14. The expression does occur in 2 Corinthians 3:14 but Paul only uses it to refer to the Torah read on the Sabbath. Tertullian (c. 160-220 AD) translated the Greek term into Latin (Vetus Testamentum) in his polemic Against Marcion (IV, §1).
The first use of the term "New Testament" to describe a collection of apostolic writings regarded as Scripture can be traced back to the Latin Novum Testamentum first coined by Tertullian, Against Marcion (IV, §1). The Latin term translates the Greek phrase kainē diathēkē, which is found in the text of the apostolic writings (Luke 22:20, 1Cor 11:25, 2Cor 3:6, Heb 8:8, 9:15). The one exception is Hebrews 12:24 which has neos diathēkē. The words kainē diathēkē appears in the LXX of Jeremiah 31:31 to translate the Heb. B'rit Chadashah.
The difference between kainos and neos is one of nuance, the former meaning "of recent origin" and the latter meaning "in existence for a relatively short time" (Danker). Kainos also has the meaning of something not previously present (BAG). To identify the New Covenant with kainos has two levels of meaning. For Jeremiah the New Covenant was "new," not because it canceled the obligation to obey Torah commandments, but because it promised the power to keep those commandments (Jer 31:33; 32:40; Ezek 11:19-20; 36:26-27). For the apostles the New Covenant was "new" because while prophesied by Jeremiah it was not enacted until Yeshua's atoning sacrifice (Luke 22:20) and empowered by the Holy Spirit on Shavuot (Pentecost) (Acts 1:8; 15:9; 2Cor 3:6).
Tertullian's Latin term Testamentum eventually found its place in Jerome's Latin Vulgate and from there the influence was felt in the English Bible versions from the 14th to 17th centuries. The Wycliffe (1395), Coverdale (1535) and Bishop's (1568) Bibles even used "testament" to translate "testimony" and "covenant" in the Tanakh. In the apostolic writings of the KJV the word "testament" occurs in 13 verses; in the NKJV, 3 times (2Cor 3:14; Heb 9:16, 17) and the ERV, 2 times (Heb 9:16, 17). "Testament" is not used in other modern versions.
Within Messianic Judaism the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" are viewed by many as obscuring both the Jewish nature of the Scriptures and the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. In addition, for some Christians the term "Old Testament" with the emphasis on "old" (as in "obsolete") conveys a sense that the Hebrew Scriptures are not relevant to Christian life. Messianic Jews, as in traditional Judaism, prefer the term "Tanakh" over "Old Testament."
Messianic Jews now have a choice of Bibles that reflect their point of view and attempt to emphasize the Jewishness of the Scriptures: (1) the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB) translated by David Stern; (2) the Hebrew Names Version (HNV), a Messianic edition of the World English Bible, edited by Wayne Mitchell and Michael Paul Johnson; (3) the Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version produced by the Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society; (4) Messianic Jewish Literal Translation of the New Covenant Scriptures (MJLT), created by Kevin Geoffrey; (5) The Messianic Writings (MW), translated by Daniel Gruber; and (6) the Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB), translated by Phillip Goble. The CJB, HNV, OJB and TLV are available on the Internet. Of these choices the CJB is by far the most widely used among Messianic Jews for family reading and public worship.
As for the apostolic writings, Messianic Jews use such terms as "B'rit Hadashah," "New Covenant" or "Messianic Writings." This preference is based on a certain understanding of the word "testament." In the modern legal lexicon a testament is a last will, a declaration that gives direction for the disposition of property upon the death of the one making the will, the "testator." Such a declaration may be written or oral, as in a death bed declaration. Yeshua issued such a declaration from the cross directing the guardianship of Miriam, his mother, to John the apostle. Under law the testament has no power until the testator dies.
All of the covenants mentioned in the Tanakh were based on irrevocable decisions and had legal power. The Jewish translators of the LXX might have chosen to use sunthēkē, which only means an agreement, to translate b'rit, but instead they chose uniformly to use diathēkē, which by its definition as a "will" requires the death of the author to make it effective. The LXX translation, made long before Yeshua came, may seem strange given that in the case of the divine-human covenants God obviously cannot die. Perhaps they considered that at the heart of the divine-human covenant God was making a sacrifice of himself, by offering grace instead of wrath, mediated by the sacrificial and substitutionary offering of animals to expiate sin.
Nevertheless, Daniel Gruber argues at length in his book, The Separation of Church and Faith, that Scripture never speaks of a testament, but only of a covenant (38-51). His basic argument is that (1) a testament is a solitary declaration and cannot be "with," as the expression "covenant with" occurs over 70 times in the Tanakh; (2) a covenant may have a mediator (Heb 9:15), but a testament does not; and (3) a testament does not involve sacrifices, whereas a divine covenant does. Stern in his commentary concurs with Gruber's basic premise and adds that b'rit can never be translated as "will" and that a will is one-sided, but a covenant is two-sided (696).
However, a covenant can be thought of as a testament. Consider these counterpoints to the aforementioned arguments:
· Like a testament God made His covenants unilaterally and God alone set the terms. There was no negotiation to reach a mutually agreeable result. In this sense the divine covenants are one-sided.
· Like a testament God's covenant with Israel is the expression of His will concerning His property (His people). After all, the concept of being "holy to ADONAI" (Ex 19:6) means to be His property.
· Like a testament God's covenant provides an inheritance for His people and instructions for distribution of that inheritance.
· Like a testament which requires a judicial act to enforce its terms, God acts as judge to enforce the terms of His covenants.
The covenant was "with" Israel only in the sense of their being chosen out of all the nations on the earth. Their participation was to accept or reject it and then upon acceptance to obey it. Thus, in my view "testament" and "covenant" are two sides of the same coin.
Naming the Apostolic Writings
The acronym "Tanakh" is much more descriptive of the content of the Hebrew Scriptures than "Old Testament." Remember that "testament" as a comparable term to "covenant" refers to the specific covenant God made with Israel as defined in the Torah and is not really equivalent to the 39 books of the Tanakh. The apostolic writings refer to the Tanakh by its major divisions, as in "Torah and the Prophets" (e.g., Matt 5:17; 7:21), but much more frequently by the one-word description of "Scripture" (occurring over 50 times).
In a similar way, I believe that a shorthand name for the "New Testament" would be desirable to better reflect the apostolic writings as a Jewish body of literature. The Hebrew title B'rit Hadashah (as used in the CJB) or its translation "New Covenant" (as used in the TLV) does not strike me as the best name for the apostolic canon. These titles don't seem to be comparable to Tanakh because no one ever refers to the Hebrew Scriptures as the "Old Covenant." Moreover, in Scripture the New Covenant is a covenant with Israel, not a canon of approved apostolic literature.
Messianic Jews also use the expression "Messianic Writings" for the apostolic writings to emphasize that the authors were Messianic Jews proclaiming the good news of the Messiah. However, "Messianic" could be regarded as merely a Jewish form of "Christian" (as suggested by TLV 1211) and does not necessarily reflect the authors as being apostles. Also, "Messianic" as an adjective in the context of Scripture would not be limited to the writings of the apostles, since many portions of the Tanakh and the Apocrypha could be described as Messianic. Finally, since Yeshua is the Messiah, then "Messianic Writings" might imply that Yeshua produced this literature himself.
Christians have long used abbreviations for the Old Testament, "OT," and New Testament, "NT," but these short forms seem to deprive the Scripture of dignity, considering their divine origin. In 2005 Daniel Gruber published the acronym "BaMaShIaKh, formed from Besorot (accounts of the good news), Maasei haShalihim (acts of those sent), Yediot l'talmidim (instructions for followers), and Khazon (vision)" (51). Gruber's complicated formula never caught on in Messianic Judaism.
Keeping the concept of "Tanakh" in mind, I endeavored to find a comparable name for the apostolic writings with the simplicity of three words. Thus, I came up with the acronym Besech (בּסח, Bet-Samekh-Chet, pronounced "Beh-sek"). Like the name Tanakh used for the Hebrew Scriptures, Besech summarizes the content of the apostolic writings using three Hebrew words: Besorot (pl. of Besorah, בּשׂוֹרה, lit. "good news") for Matthew—Acts; Sepharim (ספרים, lit. "letters"), for Romans—Judah; and Chezyōnōt (חזינוֹת, lit. "visions" as in Job 4:13; Joel 2:28), for the book of Revelation. I hope Besech will find acceptance.
(NOTE FOR NON-HEBREW SPEAKERS: The Hebrew letter chet (ח, "ch") which begins the word Chezyōnōt and ends the acronym is pronounced like the "ch" in "Bach." Unfortunately, most English words ending in "ch" are pronounced as the "ch" in "beseech." Messianic Jews resolve this pronunciation dilemma by using the phonetic "kh" in place of the "ch" and I have chosen to follow this same spelling convention for the use of Besekh on my website.
BAG: Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. trans. W.F. Arndt & F.W. Gingrich. The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
BDB: The New Brown, Driver, Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Oxford University Press, 1907. Reprinted by Associated Publishers and Authors, Inc., 1981.
CJB: Complete Jewish Bible. Trans. David Stern. Jewish New Testament Publications, 1998. Online.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
DNTT: Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 Vols. ed. Colin Brown. Zondervan Pub. House, 1975.
Gruber: Daniel Gruber, The Separation of Church and Faith, Volume 1: Copernicus and the Jews. Elijah Publishing, 2005.
MW: The Messianic Writings. Trans. Daniel Gruber. ElijahNet.com, 2011.
SECB: James Strong (1822-1894), Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 1890. Online.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
TLV: Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version. Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society, 2014. Online.
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