Where did the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” come from?
The first recorded time this kind of designation was used was by Melito of Sardis in the late second century (recorded in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.26.14; available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.ix.xxvi.html [accessed on 5/29/09]). In his listing of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the first such list among the extant Christian writings, he called the group of writings the “Old Covenant” (Greek: palaia diatheke). The Greek word for “covenant” (diatheke) was translated by 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. Thus, for example, one of the first English translations of the Bible, made by John Wyclif in the fourteenth century (1382), translated diatheke as “testament,” following the Latin testamentum. 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, although in the English text diatheke is usually translated as “covenant.” The two words are therefore regarded as basically synonymous.
Now a question about these designations . . . Recently I had a conversation with a theologically-minded friend who objected to calling the Hebrew Scriptures the “Old Testament.” His concern seemed to be that using that appellation implicitly conveys a sense that the Hebrew Scriptures were not relevant to the Christian Church. Issues of nomenclature are by no means irrelevant, but instead communicate our most basic assumptions about a given reality. Thus, calling the 39 books of the Hebrew Scriptures the “Old Testament” has vast theological import. What do you think? Should we not call that body of writings the “Old Testament”? If not, then what is a better description?