The Covenant Concept as an Organizing Principle in Luke-Acts

by Frank Z. Kovacs (Author)
©2022 Monographs XIV, 236 Pages
Series: Studies in Biblical Literature, Volume 179


In this study the methods of social concept criticism, poststructuralism, and social memory theory are innovatively and rewardingly combined with a revalued component of Greimas’ system, the morpho-syntactic and actantial model. Analysis clearly reveals that the Lukan author reconceptualized social memory of the covenant and employed it as a literary device by following a sequence of the Exodus motifs culminating in the altered Exodus goal of covenant service/worship. The Lukan author also employed the reconceptualized covenant as a theological device that provided thematic links in the logical flow of the story, organizing the collective memory of Israel, through which perceived social needs are addressed and a call is issued for a mimetic response to the salvific activity of servant Jesus. The actantial model accurately illustrates the organizing capacity of the covenant, mapping the covenant’s strategic placement and function to structure the plot-episode story and interrelate themes which articulate the servant identity of the Christian community. Researchers and academics alike will engage with this study that demonstrates the organizational capacity of the covenant concept in Lukan compositional design.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Tables
  • Series Editor Preface
  • Author Preface
  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Organizing Principles in Lukan Studies
  • 3 Principles of Organization in Early Judaic and Ancient Greek Literature
  • 4 Principles of Organization Under the Terms and Conditions of the Old Covenant
  • 5 The Covenant Concept’s Structuring and Interrelating Function in Luke-Acts
  • 6 Summary and Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

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Series Editor Preface

More than ever the horizons in biblical literature are being expanded beyond that which is immediately imagined; important new methodological, theological, and hermeneutical directions are being explored, often resulting in significant contributions to the world of biblical scholarship. It is an exciting time for the academy as engagement in biblical studies continues to be heightened.

This series seeks to make available to scholars and institutions, scholarship of a high order, and which will make a significant contribution to the ongoing biblical discourse. This series includes established and innovative directions, covering general and particular areas in biblical study. For every volume considered for this series, we explore the question as to whether the study will push the horizons of biblical scholarship. The answer must be yes for inclusion.

In this volume, a revision of Frank Kovacs’ Ph.D. dissertation, the author provides a systematic exploration of the Lukan composition and presentation of salvation. Kovacs argues that the covenant concept is a fundamental principle in the composition of Luke’s design. Following an extensive review of recent scholarship of the organization concepts in Luke-Acts in the opening chapter, Kovacs explores three principal objectives in the respective chapters. (1) Principles of Judaic and Hellenistic literature; (2) Principles of organization with regard to the Old Covenant; (3) Mapping the covenant concept role in Luke-Acts and therefore ←xi | xii→the influence on Lukan theology. In his exploration of the central themes of the study, Kovacs employs Poststructuralism and Social Memory theory, both of which generate important exegetical insights.

This volume will assuredly add a very important perspective to the already well established current scholarly corpus on the centrality of the role of covenant in both Church and Academy. This study is certain to generate ongoing discourse, particularly given the evidence of the manner in which covenant is understood and attended to in communities of faith.

The horizon has been expanded.

Hemchand Gossai

Series Editor

←xii | xiii→

Author Preface

How did salvation become such an undoubtedly major Lukan theme?1 Lukan salvation is distinguished from the other synoptics by the notion that God has intervened in human history and is the originator of the work of salvation. God has accomplished this salvation in the life of Jesus who he has made its mediator. This intervention of salvation in Jesus is a present multidimensional reality both in the Gospel and in Acts. Luke’s use of σῴζειν and σωτηρία demonstrates this and connects the two volumes establishing a continuous narrative of the salvific activity of Jesus.2 Since God has intervened in human history with salvific purpose, this theme of Lukan salvation is further defined by the theme of God’s plan, covenant, and promise fulfillment. The God of Luke saves according to a plan remembered by him. His salvation creates through Jesus a universally accessible collective identity enabling his blessings to extend to all humanity, which is increasingly the subject of Acts. It was the weight of these observations, this Lukan innovation that some time ago set me on a path to investigate the Lukan design responsible for the reconceptualization of salvation, the complex redactive ←xiii | xiv→activity that accounts for his distinctive understanding of salvation. This study is a reflection of that journey’s progress.

In its present form this work is a revision of my Ph.D. dissertation and addresses what can be considered that part of Lukan narrative composition responsible for the presentation of Lukan salvation. It argues that the Lukan author employed the covenant concept as a literary device which generated a structured plot-episode story that articulated the servant identity of the Christian community, and as a theological device through which he addressed perceived social needs by organizing the collective memory of Israel and issuing a call for a mimetic response to the salvific activity of Jesus. This study concludes that the covenant concept is a principle of organization in Luke’s compositional design.

I would like to thank North-West University (SA), my supervisors Dr. Gosling and Dr. Viljoen for their academic generosity and guidance during my time of research and writing. Importantly, I would like to express deep gratitude for the assistance of my parents, the heartening support of my daughter Krisztina, and especially the continual encouragement of my wife Ildikó, all of which buoyed me in the work of this study.

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The term “covenant” occurs explicitly at five places in the Lukan corpus (διαθήκης Luke 1:72; Acts 3:25; διαθήκη Luke 22:20; διαθήκην Acts 7:8; συνέθεντο1 Luke 22:5). Comparing this frequency with the singular occurrences in each of the other two Synoptics indicates some level of significance within the Lukan theological scheme. In the Lukan writings the term covenant does not refer to the Sinai covenant though Moses is presented as a mediator of God’s law, instead “Luke2 notes explicitly” that covenant refers to God’s covenant with Abraham.3 Despite this being common knowledge, it is here revealed that only the edge of the conversation has been heard.4 Most likely this is due to the kind of the ←1 | 2→research questions posed and the methodology used to address those questions. This work supplies a means to hear the timbre of the Lukan voice on covenant by assessing fundamental theological issues/questions relevant to it as stated below and employing the corresponding methodologies of Poststructuralism and Social Memory theory that yield further exegetical insights. When applied this approach finds that the function of the covenant concept in Luke-Acts includes an important organizational capacity that governs structure and themes.

Covenant as a Sociological Concept

In order to identify an appropriate research question it is best to begin with the essentials. Common knowledge maintains that covenant meets the criteria of a concept. According to Gerring,

Conventionally, a concept refers to an alignment among three intertwined components: the term (a linguistic label comprised of one or a few words), the phenomena to be defined (the referents, extensions, or denotation or a concept), and the properties or attributes that define those phenomena (the definition, intension, connotation of a concept).5

A good concept consists of these components but specifically it mediates eight criteria: coherence, operationalization, validity, field utility, resonance, contextual range, parsimony, and analytic/empirical utility.6 Generally, covenant meets the componential requirements of a concept in that “covenant” is a term that refers to the phenomena of varied binding agreements between two available parties arranged for some specific shared interest advancing purpose where the attributes that define those phenomena depend on the variation. In particular, covenant mediates the eight criteria specifying a concept. Covenant, has a coherent definition that identifies its essential meaning, is semantically reduced (parsimony) yet is resonant by incorporating many variations in meaning such as that of kinship, treaty-type or grant-type covenant and thus has a contextual range, an extension of resonance, since it “travels”, its meaningfulness reaches other linguistic, cross-cultural and cross-generational contexts. Yet the concept does not completely define its actual operations. Covenant is operationalization only to a degree. Its ←2 | 3→definition does not allow for complete differentiation at the phenomenal level, that is, the ordering of its referents (things/events/objects/entities) or how it operates may differ between cases. Nonetheless the concept produces validity that has a field and analytic utility.

Significant to this study are the subsequent questions. Why does the covenant concept have a good contextual range but a lower degree of operationalization? What accounts for the differences at the phenomenal level? It is not unusual for a core concept to have various possible operationalizations so long as its referents are identifiable. Yet what distinguishes the Lukan understanding of the covenant concept from other cases? It is this relation between the operations and the definition that needs to be explained.

The relative high degree of the covenant concept’s contextual range is due to its characteristic structuring of stories/narratives, which governs the meanings incorporated into the definition of the concept. Rendtorff provides a comparative example between the Primeval History in Genesis 1–11 and Sinai Story in Exodus 19–24 and shows how the use of covenant allows the structure of the stories to parallel and to endow a common meaning to the sequence of events.7 Ipso facto, the covenant concept’s definition identifies certain referents or narrative elements that are sequenced in a characteristic way, which formalize it. This may explain why the covenant concept is found interconnected in a range of books in both testaments of Christian scripture. The covenant concept as defined above incorporates the meanings of narratives that are structured similarly in different linguistic, cultural and generational contexts. In this sense the covenant concept seems to display a derived historical character. Yet as stated above the operationalization of the covenant concept varies with differences at the phenomenal level. Each occurrence of the concept is subjected to differing socio-cultural and religious influences yielding many different interpretations or theological emphases yet lend themselves to incorporation into the definition of the core concept. Based on this reasoning it would seem that the issue reflected by the disparity between the concept’s clear resonance and variegated operationalizations is essentially the relation of “history” and “theology”. How is this possible since history and theology, the historical and theological methods, do not mix as is argued chiefly by Troeltsch and Räisänen?8 How is the covenant concept able to relate history and theology ←3 | 4→so that it retains its integrity as a concept? This problematic is indeed an essential and relevant question that stills the air and readies listeners to hear the Lukan voice on covenant. The covenant concept’s ability to relate “history” and “theology” is best explained by the combined analyzes of Poststructuralism as conveyed by the seminal framework of Barthes (1972), later re-articulated,9 and of Social Memory Theory represented by the seminal work of Assmann (2011).

Poststructuralism, Barthes and Luke-Acts

Poststructuralism encompasses a wide spectrum of approaches and is therefore best understood in its seminal form. This strategy sets the tone for this study by clarifying the understanding of history and casting light on the constructivist character of historic texts, specifically on the difference between the signifier and the signified.10 Barthes advances Saussure’s initial postulate by developing a semiological system that is agreeable with historical criticism and “does not in any way contradict the necessary principles of totality and History.”11 Barthes is interested in the function of mythology, which he defines as “a system of communication, that it is a message […] a mode of signification” whether verbal, visual or written. He states that myth “converts history into nature” it naturalizes “particular convictions and values.”12 The text therefore, “is an effect of the meanings and values in circulation at its own historical moment.”13

Barthes in Mythologies investigates why and how knowledge becomes natural. He explains that it is the acceptance of a myth, informed by primarily by bourgeois thinking, which leads to the naturalization of knowledge. A myth according to Barthes is constructed from a previously existing semiological chain called a linguistic system.14 A sign in this initial chain is the result of the associative total of a signifier and signified. Myth takes the modes of representation of language in ←4 | 5→the linguistic system (a global sign or a sum of signs) and builds a second mythical system, a second-order system, by changing the linguistic system’s sign into its own signifier. The final term of the linguistic system, the sign, which becomes the first term of the mythical system, a signifier, is apprehended already containing meaning and its own signification, “a sufficient rationality […] a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, decisions.”15 Yet when the myth takes the linguistic sign it also empties and impoverishes it of history regressing it “from meaning to form”.16 Hence, this mythical signifier, according to Barthes “is at the same time meaning and form, full on the one side and empty on the other.”17 Yet, as form the mythical signifier does not eradicate meaning altogether but only diminishes its value, distances it without completely severing ties to it, since it still requires reference to it. However it is not the form of the mythical signifier that accesses this meaning but it is through the myth’s signified, called concept. As Barthes states, “this history which drains out of the form will be wholly absorbed by the concept”,18 which is open to “the whole of History” and is “a certain knowledge of reality” since it can draw on the abundance of several signifiers.19 Yet the knowledge contained in the concept “is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations […] not at all abstract, purified essence; it is a formless, unstable, nebulous condensation, whose unity and coherence are above all due to its function.”20 What brings coherence? It is by the signification of the myth. The correlation of the mythical form and the mythical concept results in signification, which is the myth itself. According to Barthes, the signification of the myth occurs by the relational process of deformation, in which the mythical concept alternates between the mythical signifier and its form thus distorting the meaning. This process is halted and delineated by reality – which process will re-engage, as the mythical concept is not fixed.21 What this means is that present historical reality and intentionality stop the deformation process. The concept then is determined “at once historical and intentional”.22 As history it supplies the form with partial analogies and at the same time as the intentionality of history ←5 | 6→it defines myth’s speech.23 In this manner the mythical signification is motivated and uttered.24 This yields myth as naturalized, a socially usable communication.


XIV, 236
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (October)
Covenant Service Poststructuralism Social Memory Theory Greimasian Actantial Model Morpho-syntactic Organizational principle Luke-Acts Thematic interrelation The Covenant Concept as an Organizing Principle in Luke-Acts Frank Z. Kovacs Studies in Biblical Literature Hemchand Gossai
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2022. XIV, 236 pp., 11 tables.

Biographical notes

Frank Z. Kovacs (Author)

Frank Z. Kovacs earned his PhD from North-West University and teaches New Testament and Greek at the University of Toronto, Knox College, and Tyndale University’s Seminary. He is also a Research Associate with the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto.


Title: The Covenant Concept as an Organizing Principle in Luke-Acts