Both as a student and professor in seminary, I had been curious for some time about the usage of the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” to described the two sections of the Bible. That’s because the word “Old” makes it sound like nothing from Genesis to Malachi is of any use to us as Christians. Since this was and is today, what is called the Jewish Bible, Christians had no need for it except it made for excellent reading as far as the stories of Creation, Adam and Eve, Abraham, Jacob, and others were concerned. I’ve even heard it said that the New Testament is all we need as believers. Well, shock-time! What we call the Old Testament was the only Bible that Jesus and His disciples taught from and preached from, and is quoted some 855 times in the New Testament.
The first recorded incident of the Jewish portion of the Bible and the Christian portion being designated as the Old Testament and New Testament occurred in the late second century by Melítōn, the Bishop of Sardis who died in 180 AD.1 Melítōn (also known as Melito) was Jewish by birth but converted to Christianity at a young age. In his listing of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the first such list among the extant Christian writings, he called the group of documents the “Old Covenant.” The Greek word for covenant diatheke was translated by St. Jerome in the fifth century into the Latin Vulgate as “Testamentum.” Since the Latin Vulgate was widely used throughout the Middle Ages, it greatly influenced later translations into vernacular languages.
One of the first English translations of the Bible, made by John Wycliffe in the fourteenth century (1382), also translated diatheke as “testament,” following the Latin. Then William Tyndale’s sixteenth-century English translation followed suit (1524), along with the Geneva Bible (1557), as did the translators of the 1611 King James Bible. Thus, today the two divisions of the English Bible are known as the Old and New Testaments. However, in the English text of the New Testament, diatheke is translated as “covenant” twenty times.2 Everywhere else this same word used thirteen times as “testament,” especially at the Last Supper.3 Why the translators made the decision to substitute on that occasion must have been because they saw these two words as synonyms.
Now a question about these designations. I have actually heard preachers say that he never preached out of the Old Testament because it is not relevant to the Christian Church. So it appears that by calling the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures the “Old Testament” it can corrupt some minds into thinking it is out-of-date and no longer useful. To think this way removes every prophecy of about the Messiah and the end of the age and world-to-come. At this stage it is almost impossible to change people’s minds, however whenever I can I refer to them as the First Covenant and Last Covenant. Just something to ponder the next time you open your Bible. – Dr. Robert R Seyda.
1 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14
2 Luke 1:72; Acts of the Apostles 3:25; Romans 9:4
3 Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24