The English word testament derives from a Greek term meaning “covenant.” In Hebrew, it means “agreement,” “covenant,” or “contract.” Biblical scholars have applied testament in four distinct but overlapping contexts in Scripture:
When the word testament is used in the Bible, it most often speaks of a covenant, as in the covenant God made with Israel at Mount Sinai when He established them as His people and gave them His laws (Exodus 19:3–6; 20:1–17; 24). It is in this context that the terms Old Testament and New Testament are explained.
The Bible is divided into two parts, called testaments. The Old Testament contains all the writings associated with the covenant agreement God made with Israel in Moses’ day (Exodus 24:8). About 1,000 years after Moses, the prophet Jeremiah announced God’s promise to enter into a new covenant with His people (Jeremiah 31:31–34). That new covenant unfurls in the writings of the New Testament, which concerns the agreement God has made with humankind through Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:28; 1 Corinthians 11:23–25; Hebrews 8:6–8).
Scripture teaches that the new covenant has a perfect priest, Jesus Christ (Hebrews 7:24–25, 27); and a perfect sacrifice, the body and blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:11–14; 10:12), making the new covenant far superior to the old. The old covenant is obsolete (Hebrews 8:13), but the new covenant is complete and eternal (Hebrews 9:15; 13:20).
In Galatians 3:15–17, the word testament refers to a will or an agreement for disposing of a person’s property upon death, as in a Last Will and Testament. Paul compares the covenant God made with Abraham to a legally binding will in which a person sets down promises to an heir.
Another framework in Scripture for the word testament is a blessing offered by a father for his children, particularly the blessing of a firstborn son. Like a will, this blessing is usually given when the father is old and nearing death, as in the blessing of Isaac upon Jacob (Genesis 27:1–46) and Jacob’s blessing of his twelve sons and two of his grandsons (Genesis 48—49).
A Literary Genre
The word testament, when used in the sense of a blessing or moral exhortation given as the last words of a famous person or exemplar figure, developed into its own literary genre familiar to Jewish literature. Initially, the genre revolved around the parental blessings of the patriarchs and champions of Israel, as in the final blessing of Moses upon the people (Deuteronomy 33:1–29).
From there, the testament genre developed into stylistic presentations that allowed historical heroes from Israel’s past to offer teachings, wisdom, and commentary on current events. Several extrabiblical writings contain collections of these testaments, including the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Testament of Levi, the Testament of Abraham, and the Testament of Moses.