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Jeremiah’s New Covenant and the New Testament

Jesus’ words over the cup at the Last Supper, according to the Synoptic Gospels, refers to a “new covenant,” a direct reference to Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Marc Chagall
Marc Chagall

Despite their prominence in Christian theology and practice, references to Jer 31:31-34 and the phrase “new covenant” are not very common in the New Covenant, also known as the New Testament. There is, however, an echo of Jeremiah’s “new covenant” language in the accounts of Jesus’ words over the cup at the Last Supper. Writing in the mid-50s of the first century C.E., Paul quotes words found also in Luke 22:20 as part of the tradition he received and handed on to the Corinthians: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1Cor 11:25). In the parallel accounts in Mark 14:24 and Matt 26:28, all the ancient manuscripts have the word “covenant,” though not all include “new.” These occurrences in the context of the Last Supper/Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) are important because, in the case of a very early text like 1Cor 1:1-31, the appearance of the expression “new covenant” reflects the liturgical language of the early church and indicates the phrase was already in common usage.

In 2Cor 3:6-18, Paul, writing to Gentile Christians in the mid-50s C.E., compares the “old covenant”—in this case the Sinai covenant with Moses—and the new covenant that has come with Jesus. The old covenant, Paul says, consisted of letters written on stone tablets. It brought death and condemnation. Its glory was fading and had the effect of putting a veil over the Scriptures. By contrast, the new covenant was guided by the Holy Spirit. Paul’s view was that it brought life, righteousness, and freedom. And it offered a permanent kind of splendor, removed the veil, and allowed the Scriptures to be properly interpreted as referring to what God had done in Christ. Paul alludes to several Old Testament texts here, especially Jer 31:31-34 (though Paul does not use the phrase “new covenant”).

The longest quotation of any Hebrew Bible passage in the New Testament comes in Heb 8:8-12, where the unknown author cites Jer 31:31-34 in full. It is part of the author’s argument that Jesus is “the mediator of a better covenant” and that there was something wrong with the old covenant. He claims, “If that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one” (Heb 8:7). In the central section of Heb 4:14-10:18, the author tries to show that the sacrifices and the priesthood of the old covenant were powerless to bring about the forgiveness of sins. A new sacrifice and a new priesthood were needed, he contends, and he found them in Christ’s atoning death on the cross. He concludes that, in light of the new covenant, the old covenant is “obsolete and growing old” and “will soon disappear” (Heb 8:13). As the climax of his main argument, the author again quotes parts of Jer 31:31-34 in Heb 10:16-17 to suggest that Jesus’ sacrifice of himself as the great high priest constituted the one truly effective sacrifice for sins, and that the new covenant has no need of material sacrifices or Levitical priests. This passage was key to the development of supersessionist ideas that still persist within the church—namely, the notion that Christianity has superseded Judaism, and that Christians compose the only true Israel.

  • Daniel J. Harrington

    Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., (1940-2014) was professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry and editor of New Testament Abstracts. He authored What Are They Saying about the Letter to the Hebrews (Paulist, 2005) and The Letter to the Hebrews (Liturgical, 2006).