- The Eschatological Nature of Early Christianity
- The Role of Covenant in Early Christianity
- The Role of the Apostles in Early Christianity
In this post we are dealing with number 2, the Role of Covenant. There are four points to consider:
- Israel understood their relationship to God as a covenant relationship
- Christianity was born from Judaism and thus saw Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises
- Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures had written treaty covenants
- The NT corpus bears resemblance to ancient treaty-covenants
The first thing to be pointed out is the early church (EC) was Jewish at its inception. The Jews understood their relationship to God in terms of covenant.
They traced their calling back to Abraham who was chosen by God and dealt with through covenant (Gen 12:1-3; 15:18; 17:2). When Israel became a nation God gave them The Law of Moses which was a covenant (Exod 34:28). This led them to view their continued bondage to foreign powers (the Romans) as a covenant crisis.
The Israelites had skirmishes with secular authorities during the period between the Old and New Testament. In one of these skirmishes we read that they prayed God would deliver them from these foreign powers. Thus, their concept of God’s deliverance was God fulfilling the covenant.
“And Judas said to the men that were with him, Fear you not their multitude, neither be you afraid of their onset. Remember how our fathers were saved in the Red sea, when Pharaoh pursued them with an army. And now let’s cry to heaven, if he will have us, and will remember the covenant of our fathers, and destroy this army before our face today: and all the Gentiles shall know that there is one who redeems and saves Israel.” (1st Macc 4:8-11)
Secondly, since the EC had its roots in Judaism they saw Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises (Lk 22:20 (compare Jer 31:31); Lk 1:72; Rom 11:27 (compare Isa 59:21); Heb 7:22). The Patristics also echoed this theme:
“But we do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves. But now… —namely, Christ — has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 11; also see Justin Martyr, Dialogue, 122; Irenaeus, Heresies, 3.11.8)
Thirdly, many Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cultures had written treaty covenants. In fact, it was the custom for ANE to store these covenants in sacred places and read them at regular intervals. God met Israel where they were at historically and culturally. This is why we see the same pattern for the Old Testament (Deut 10:2; 31:10-13). The major difference is that Yahweh claimed, through Moses, that His covenant statues were far superior to all other ANE cultures and this would be shown through the nation (Deut 4:7-8; compare w/ Exod 19:6).
This led to Israel having a tight connection between covenants and written canonical texts (Exod 24:7; 2nd Kings 23:2; Deut 4:13). Hence the curse of changing the text (Deut 4:2).
Finally, the NT corpus bears resemblance to ancient treaty-covenants.
- It has an Inscriptional curse (Rev 22:18-19)
- There are declarations to read it publicly (2nd Cor 10:9; Col 4:16; 1st Thess 5:27)
- Paul understood the covenants to have written documents which should not be altered (Gal 3:15; 2nd Cor 3:14)
Therefore, the very idea of covenant was prevalent in the ANE cultures. They also would have made a connection between covenant and written texts. The OT bears this out wonderfully and the NT resembles the OT format. Because Israel understood their relationship to God as one of covenant and the EC formed as the fulfillment of Judaism we should expect them to have written text in regards to the New Covenant the OT expected to come (Jer 31:31ff).