A common doctrine held by those that believe all Christians are still under the Mosaic covenant (i.e. Torah and its precepts) is that rather than there being an "old" and a "new" covenant—two distinct covenants for different times—there is instead a single covenant, and that this covenant was renewed, albeit with some adjustments.
What I would like to do is summarize the reasoning presented by those of the "renewed" camp, and then thoroughly elaborate my opposing (that is, the more typical old/new covenant) position. Although I hope that the evidence I present in this post would be so clear, concise, and overwhelming as to persuade you to change your position, at the very least I hope to present a well enough case to understand why a Christian would choose to reject the "renewed covenant" idea, even if you find that erroneous.
The reality though, is that any persuasion to the truth can only happen with the right heart and guidance by the Holy Spirit. I ask that He guide all the words you will hopefully read here and that He reveal to us the truths of His Scripture.
The Renewed Covenant Position
Believing in a renewed covenant, to my understanding, seems like a core pillar to the belief that the modern day believer must follow the Torah. That being said, there is a web of arguments for this position, but I am going to do my best to focus on a single, specific portion of Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31. In Jeremiah we read:
This is the first and only (to my knowledge) mention of a "new covenant" in the Old Testament. This is clearly a key verse in a discussion about whether the covenant is new or renewed and is the verse that will be the core to this post as well.
The important detail central to this verse is that, if we as believers are not under a (brand) new covenant, but rather a renewed covenant, this renewed covenant maintains the same law as the original. Since Torah is the law of the original covenant, believers in the renewed covenant would logically have to continue following it (and therefore keep the feasts, Sabbath, abstain from unclean meats, etc), which is precisely the issue that Torah observers find issue in the traditional, "Torah-free" Christian understanding of Scripture.
With that out of the way, the arguments for the "renewed" interpretation seem to be composed of the following:
- The word for
newin this verse is
חָדָשׁ), which is an adjective that is identical to its root word, also
חָדַשׁ), which is a verb that means
renew. You will note if you look very carefully, that the vowel points are different in the Hebrew text. However, vowel points were a later addition to the language, so in the original scrolls these words would appear exactly the same.
- The reason to prefer the
renewedreading, which would be rendered the same in Hebrew, is because of the root word.
- Additionally we have verses to support the
renewedreading such as Psalm 51:10 and 2 Chronicles 24:4
- The word
new moon, which has the same root from earlier, adds weight to the "renewed" interpretation, seeing as how the moon is not brand new every month.
- There is a distinction to be made between new in quality and new in time, you can primarily see this in the Greek words
neos, respectively. The latter is your "brand new" adjective, however it is the former (which is new in quality, i.e. renewed) that is used in Hebrews 9:15 which also speaks of the new covenant.
Lastly, although not specifically within the contexts of Jeremiah or Hebrews (which is the NT parallel to the topic), one last reason that was given to me in an actual discussion was Matthew 5:18. I'll make the exception for this tangent of a support verse and present a counterpoint in regard to how supportive it really is to the discussion.
I have to start off my counter arguments with a very simple clarification: I am not a Hebrew scholar. Neither are most Torah-observant Christians, although they do seem to generally have a higher familiarity with the Hebrew language than their traditional brothers. However, it's my opinion that these useful studies easily and frequently end up creating a problem where one considers themself to be more knowledgable about the matter than they actually are (i.e. the Dunning-Kruger effect). I don't say that to be offensive but rather make note of the issue as to be aware of a very real cognitive bias that can cloud anyone in their biblical studies. With that in mind, I will try to point to actual scholars and knowledged authorities when making my claims, where possible.
The most glaring issue I find with the
renewed reading, is that I can't find a single translation that renders the text in this way. I would have to imagine that of the 25+ translations listed in Biblehub, each one with its own Hebrew scholar translating the book of Jeremiah, if the
renewed reading was remotely a valid translation, that at least one version would render it as such. That is not the case.
Of particular note is the "JPS Tanakh 1917" translations, which was created by the Jewish Publication Society of America. Moreso, the specific translator of the book of Jeremiah for that translation was a man by the name of Sabato Morais. Just look at the credentials noted in Wikipedia:
Sabato Morais (Hebrew: שבתאי מוראיס; April 13, 1823 – November 11, 1897) was an Italian-American rabbi, leader of Mikveh Israel Synagogue in Philadelphia, pioneer of Italian Jewish Studies in America, and founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary, which initially acted as a center of education for Orthodox Rabbis.
A rabbi, who founded a seminary to educate other rabbis would have to be someone that outweighs the word studies produced by even the most astute Christian Torah-keepers.
I suppose if you truly wanted to argue the point, you could say that because of the vowel points in the Masoretic text, every English translation fell into the same rendering of
new. However, I would question such accusations, as again, these are mostly non-scholars challenging the knowledge of hundreds of scholars throughout all of history. You might as well be challenging the whole Masoretic Text, the basis of basically all modern OT translations, at this point. In which case, you'd have to start wondering why God did such a poor job in preserving his own words, if this "renewed covenant" was such an important doctrine.
Perhaps one reason every translation's scholar decided to use
renew, despite its "root word verb" meaning is because to make such a translation would literally be the wrong thing to do.
In a book called "Exegetical Fallacies", the author states:
One of the most enduring fallacies, the root fallacy presupposes that every word actually has a meaning bound up with its shape or its components. In this view, meaning is determined by etymology; that is by the roots of a word.
He goes on to say:
All of this is linguistic nonsense. We might have guessed as much if we were more acquainted with the etymology of English words. Anthony C. Thistleton offers by way of example our word ‘nice’, which comes from the Latin nescius, meaning “ignorant.” Our “good-by” is a contraction for Anglo-Saxon “God be with you.” It is certainly easy to imagine how “God be with you” came to be “good-by.” But I know of no one today who in saying that such and such a person is “nice” believes that he or she has in some measure labeled that person ignorant because the “root meaning” or “hidden meaning” or “literal meaning” of “nice” is ‘ignorant’.”
This book also quotes another, "The Semantics of Biblical Language", of which we have another relevant snippet:
One of the types of argument which I shall criticize in this study is that which places excessive emphasis on the meaning of the 'root' of Hebrew words. It seems to be commonly believed that in Hebrew there is a 'root meaning' which is effective throughout all the variations given to the root by affixes and formative elements, and that therefore the 'root meaning' can confidently be taken to be part of the actual semantic value of any word or form which can be assigned to an identifiable root; and likewise that any word may be taken to give some kind of suggestion of other words formed from the same root. This belief I shall for the sake of brevity call 'the root fallacy'.
I don't think any of this is to say that a derivative and its root are always, 100% separated (I think it's pretty clear why
renew would be so similar) but the point I want to counter is that we should default to a
renewed rendering based solely on what seems to be a commonly abused idea.
I will add that the example of the "new moon" being "renewed" is a common but similarly fallacious comparison. In Hebrew, "new moon" is actually a single, unique word,
chodesh. Trying to use the "new" adjective, as it is used in the English, comparing it to "renewed", and then pointing back to the Hebrew root is a false equivalence. It has zero bearing on
chadash's adjective form of
new and therefore is of no relevance to the discussion.
Adjectives and Nouns
Additional evidence to the contrary of the
renewed adjective form is that it does not appear once in the entire Old Testament. Every form of
renew is in the verb form. Hebrew, like Spanish (and counter to English), is a language where the adjective follows the noun. However, all usages of the root
chadash fail to follow this structure.
We must remember that Jeremiah was under divine influence when he wrote his books. God, through Jeremiah, could have easily decided to write the verse as "Surely, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will renew my covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah," and avoided any confusion for generations to follow. We will consider some additional portions within this very context of Jeremiah itself further down as well to show that a
new covenant was very much God's exact intent.
You would in effect be arguing, that Jeremiah 31:31 just so happens to be the only instance where the
renewed adjective form was used. This is even more obvious to not be the case when we look at the Greek rendering of the same passage in Hebrews, which we'll visit in the next post. For now though, let's stick to the Hebrew and look at a few more examples.
2 supposed verses in support of the
renewed reading are Psalm 51:10 and 2 Chronicles 24:4. Let's look at each:
Both of these verses, as may be apparent, are translating
chadash as a verb form. This would make sense, because neither verse, nor the 8 other instances of this form in other verses attempts to use a "renewed adjective." It makes me wonder if the original Hebrew language even had "renewed" as an adjective. It would certainly make sense why the Masoretes ended up dotting all of these
chadash usages differently to the rest!
To really drive home the idea, let's use the Torah observer's logic across the Bible. Since "new" and "renewed" would show up exactly the same as adjectives, and the emphasis lies on the latter because of the root word, then does that mean all of the following verses should be translated as
renewed as well?
The answer is no, a
renewed reading wouldn't make any sense in any of these verses, all of which have the exact same noun-adjective structure as Jeremiah 31:31. One has to unfortunately conclude that attempting to take such a reading has to be eisegetical in nature, i.e. it is being forced into the text from preconceived notions, not something that can be properly extracted from the text. Moreso because of the context of Jeremiah itself!
Jeremiah 31 Context
When we zoom out of verse 31 we will notice a few more key points that point to a
new reading. Starting with verse 22:
Many other translations have it as "...created a new thing in the earth", while the NLT uses "cause something new to happen." My point here is that we have a usage of
chadash a few verses prior to 31, and although its structure isn't exactly the same, it is at least clear that we are talking about a "brand new" thing, which the NET in particular highlights in its reading.
So, if Jeremiah wanted to avoid confusing the readers, who just came across "new" as you'd normally understand it, why wouldn't he be extra sure to render a "renewed covenant" differently; as to avoid that same reading of "new" from a few verses earlier being "incorrectly" applied into verse 31?
As an example, if I were chatting with someone about my new green shirt, thereby establish my usage of "green" in our conversation in reference to the color, it would behoove me to refer to my electric car as my "green" car a few messages later, because it is almost assuredly going to be read again in the context of color.
I have to assume Jeremiah did not care about this being an issue because there is no confusion to be had in the first place, they both indeed refer to a new (not renewed) version of something. This is again enforced immediately after in verse 32:
The Hebrew seems to be
lo kabrit where
lo ka- is, to my understanding, effectively saying
not like the
brit (covenant) which Jeremiah clearly links to the one of the fathers that came out of Egypt.
Something that is "renewed" is specifically like whatever it was before. It is perhaps back in its original, new-like state, but it is still "like" the thing it was. A renewed contract, is the same contract, at a later date. A renewed library book, is the same book, with a new due date. Yet, Jeremiah is supposedly claiming that the "renewed covenant" is not like the very covenant it once was? It's one thing for a "renewed" thing to have some adjustments, but I don't think you'd ever describe a renewed thing to not be like whatever it was before. This is an oxymoron brought upon by the forced
renewed reading, and is once again easily solved, and continues the chain of coherency if one simply reads it as it is rendered:
Again, I emphasize the fact that Jeremiah has committed 3 errors in attempting to establish a
renewed covenant reading:
- He threw readers off by using
newin verse 22, which could influence our reading of verse 31 later on.
- He opted to use the only instance of
renewedin adjective form in all of the OT, instead of the usual verb form.
- He is seemingly contradicting himself by saying this
renewedcovenant is unlike the old covenant that is supposedly being renewed.
All of these errors would be plausible, if you dismissed the idea that Jeremiah was under guidance by the Holy Spirit as he wrote this letter. However, it would seem that should you believe in divine inspiration of these Scriptures, that the most logical and coherent reading of this portion, is the simplest one: Jeremiah is talking about a brand new covenant.
We covered all the Hebraic aspects of this portion of Scripture in this post. In part 2, we will cover the other half, where the author of Hebrews quotes this exact portion of Jeremiah. This brings us forward some 550 years, still well before the Masoretes and their vowel points, to see what someone with Hebraic understanding and the power of the Holy Spirit can do to clarify (or in my opinion, further confirm) our understanding of Jeremiah 31.