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What Is the New Testament? A Broad Overview

With some very sage outside advice, I have decided to add a new feature to the blog.   Once or twice a week (at least that’s the *plan*) I will create a kind of “general introduction” post, dealing with some broad and basic matter connected with the New Testament, the Historical Jesus, the apostle Paul, the role of women in the church, persecution and martyrdom, heresy and orthodoxy, the development of theology, the Christianization of the empire, etc. etc.   Broad overviews, of the BIG matters, at the introductory level.

The idea is to make, say, three or four related posts on each issue, and then, when they’re completed, edit them all together into one massive post (say 4000-5000) words, and have that post well indexed with lots of links to other posts on the blog.  That way, we can maximize its wide availability throughout the internet.  When someone googles “What Is The New Testament,” they will find this particular post; the post will link to other posts on the blog.  People go to these other posts.  They decide to join the blog.  The blog grows.  It makes billions of dollars.  And it all goes to charity.   How good can it get?

So, today I start, at the beginning.  This is the first post of a projected three (but we’ll see what happens) on What Is The New Testament?    For some of you this will be helpful (new) information; for many of the rest of you, it will put in concise summary form much of what you already know, but hopefully would like to see in a succinct presentation.

MOST IMPORTANT:  If you have suggestions about how to improve any of these posts — whether you’re a novice, a dilletante, or a professed expert —  do let me know.  I want to make them as good as I can.  And as well as I can….

 

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What Is The New Testament?

In the simplest terms, the New Testament is the Christian Scripture, the foundation of the Christian religion, revered by Christians as the Word of God for nearly two thousand years, throughout the world today accepted as the authoritative account of who Jesus is, how he brought salvation, what people should believe, and how they should live.

Even those who are not Christian can recognize that the New Testament is immensely important socially, culturally, and historically.   Given its impact on world affairs, from the fourth century through the Middle Ages, into the Reformation and early modernity, and on till today is the most important book in the history of Western civilization, without a close rival.

In this article we will explore the various books that make up the New Testament:  what they are, how they are organized, who wrote them and when, how they came to be gathered together into a “canon” of Scripture, how they were copied over the years until the invention of printing, what each of the books is about, what their major teachings are, and the issues they have raised for modern scholars.

 

The Make-Up of the New Testament: A Broad Overview

The New Testament is …

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The New Testament is made up of twenty-seven different books written by over a dozen Christian authors.   All of them are written in ancient Greek.  As a whole, they are our earliest surviving Christian writings.

In terms of broad chronology, Jesus was crucified sometime around the year 30 CE (CE stands for the “Common Era,” the term widely used now for “A.D.”).  The first books of the New Testament were by the apostle Paul, dating roughly to 50-64 CE.   The Gospels and the book of Acs were written later, probably from around 70-95 CE.  The other books are notoriously difficult to date, but they are usually placed near the end of the first century.  Normally 2 Peter is understood to be the final book of the New Testament to be written, around 120 CE.

The New Testament is therefore not arranged chronologically, but in sections corresponding to what kind of writings they are:  Gospels, Acts, Epistles (or Letters), and Apocalypse.

 

The Organization of the New Testament

In modern translations the New Testament comes to us in four sections:

Gospels

There are four Gospels in the New Testament:  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Each of them is an account of Jesus’ life.  Two of them begin with stories of his birth and infancy (Matthew and Luke); one begins with his baptism by John the Baptist when he was an adult (Mark); the other begins with a poem describing his pre-existence with God before he came into the world (John).

All of the accounts describe Jesus’ life, ministry, miracles, teachings, death, and resurrection.  The first three — Matthew, Mark, and Luke – are particularly similar to one another, telling many of the same stories, usually in the same sequence, and often in the very same words.  They can therefore be placed next to each other and read side by side; for that reason they are called the “Synoptic” Gospels, from a Greek term that means “seen together” (syn – optic).  John tells a number of different stories, with a different style.

As a whole, the Gospels then tell the story of the beginnings of Christianity in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

 

Acts

The second section of the New Testament consists of a single book, the Acts of the Apostles, written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.   Acts picks up the narrative after Jesus’ resurrection, and describes how his disciples began a mission to spread the “good news” (the technical meaning of the word “gospel”) throughout the world, by doing miracles and preaching about his death and resurrection.

The main character in Acts is the apostle Paul, who converts from being an enemy and persecutor of the church to becoming its greatest missionary a third of the way into the book.  Most of the rest of the account narrates Paul’s missionary activities, emphasizing his importance in preaching that faith in Jesus was not for Jews only, but for gentiles as well, who could be saved without having to keep the Jewish law.

This section of the New Testament, then, tells the story of the spread of Christianity.

 

Epistles

The third section of the New Testament contains twenty-one epistles written by various Christian leaders to other Christian communities.   Most of these are actual pieces of correspondence, letters sent through the ancient equivalent of the Postal Service.  In them the authors discuss important issues that had arisen in the Christian communities, dealing with problems these Christias were encountering, particularly about what to believe and how to live.

The epistles are divided into two subsections: the thirteen Pauline epistles and the General (or “Catholic,” a word that means “universal”) epistles.  Paul’s letters are not arranged chronologically but according to length, the longest, Romans, coming first and the shortest, Philemon, last.   Four of the letters are addressed to important church leaders (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon); the others are addressed to church communities (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians).   Scholars debate whether all of these letters were actually written by Paul.

The eight “General” epistles are sometimes said to address broad, universal problems of the church, rather than those of specific communities.   One of them, Hebrews, is anonymous (though later church fathers concluded it was written by Paul); the others have names of apostles attached to them:  James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; Jude.   Again, scholars debate who the actual authors were.

If the Gospels discuss the beginnings of Christianity, and Acts its spread, the General epistles discuss its ethics and beliefs.

 

Apocalypse

The final section of the New Testament is again a single book, the Revelation of John (note: it is not called “Revelations”), sometimes called the Apocalypse of John (the Greek equivalent of the Latin “Revelation”).   By far the most mysterious and puzzling book of the New Testament, Revelation describes a set of visions the prophet John experiences about the heavenly realm and the future course of history, leading up to the destruction of the current heavens and earth and all the evil forces and wicked people who inhabit it.

The book describes numerous divinely caused disasters on earth, the coming of Christ in judgment, and the new world God will create for his followers.  The book ends by inspiring its readers with the hope that all this is coming “soon.”

As an appropriate conclusion to the New Testament, the book of Revelation, then discusses the culmination of Christianity.

 

Summary

And so the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are arranged as follows:

Gospels

      • Matthew
      • Mark
      • Luke
      • John

Acts of the Apostles

Epistles

    • Pauline
      • Romans
      • 1 Corinthians
      • 2 Corinthians
      • Galatians
      • Ephesians
      • Philippians
      • Colossians
      • 1 Thessalonians
      • 2 Thessalonians
      • 1 Timothy
      • 2 Timothy
      • Titus
      • Philemon
    • General (= “Catholic”)
              • Hebrews
              • James
              • 1 Peter
              • 2 Peter
              • 1 John
              • 2 John
              • 3 John
              • Jude
  • The Revelation of John

One C. S. Lewis Writing I Relate To
Sex and Gender in the Ancient World

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    lobe  November 5, 2019

    This is a great idea. It’s this kind of info that attracted me to your books in the first place. It’ll be great to have it all in one location.

  2. Avatar
    bellar1  November 5, 2019

    This is a great idea. A short-course on the New Testament!

  3. epicurus
    epicurus  November 5, 2019

    Don’t forget to mention that it’s inerrant! Just kidding, heheh.

  4. Avatar
    Judith  November 5, 2019

    This is SO GOOD!!!

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 5, 2019

    Wow! What a terrific idea!

  6. Avatar
    AstaKask  November 5, 2019

    So if you were to remove the forgeries, what books would have to go?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Acts (or so I argue in my books), Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, (1 John maybe), and Jude.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  November 9, 2019

        Interesting. I may be missing something – so you don’t think Acts was written by the same author that wrote Luke’s gospel?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 10, 2019

          Yes. Just about everyone agrees with that. Check out the first few verses of each book, e.g.; the writing styles, vocabulary, theological views, etc. etc. are very closely related to each other. Almost certainly the same author.

      • Avatar
        AstaKask  November 10, 2019

        So you don’t think Acts was written by the same person that wrote Luke? Why?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 10, 2019

          Absolute I think it was. But unlike Luke, the book of Acts makes an implicit authorial claim, where the author indicates he was one of Paul’s traveling companions. But I absolutely don’t think he was. So it’s a false authorial claim — i.e., a forgery. (Again: no such claim in the Gospel of Luke, so that book does *not* make a false authorial claim, unless you think of the two books as just one long book; they appear not to have circulated that way, though)

  7. Avatar
    fishician  November 5, 2019

    Interesting that Paul’s personal letter to Philemon is preserved in the NT, since he certainly wrote other more substantial letters to churches that have since been lost. Do you think this is just a matter of chance, or do you think it was intentional, say, by church leaders who wanted slaves to stay in their positions and not expect freedom just because they converted?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Maybe a bit of both, but mainly chance I should think.

  8. Avatar
    gbsinkers  November 5, 2019

    Love the idea. Would you please add to your list of topics the church fathers? You have posted many times about their writings but how they came to be the church fathers is what interests me. Also how they got along, were organized, differing doctrines, etc. Thanks.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  November 5, 2019

    I’d say in essence the New Testament is an attempt to explain how a crucified Galilean man could possibly be the longed for Jewish messiah, and as such is the best evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

    • Telling
      Telling  November 7, 2019

      But that makes no sense because most Jews everywhere rejected Paul from the beginning, and so he brought his unique message of the Jewish Messiah to the Pagan non-Jews and they embraced it. It is distinctly Paul’s salvation message. The narrative is illogical but perhaps meshes will with stories of Zeus and Hermes. It’s about a God who is greater than all the Pagan gods but who cares more for the struggling humans than those gods — an enticing story I suppose.

  10. Avatar
    veritas  November 5, 2019

    Thanks for the lesson on the N.T.Interesting to see it broken down like you have done.Whenever I heard the word ,”Gospel” I always thought the entire N.T. book.Just curious Bart.Why was it important,in your view,for the Greek writers to position the book in the kind of writings that they are and not chronologically?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      They thought Matthew was the first to be written; Mark was a condensation of it; Luke was a furtherance of it; and John was the last and most spiritual of them all.

  11. Avatar
    Kmbwhitmore  November 5, 2019

    What is so strange about the New Testament is that non-disciples like Paul, Luke and Mark get to tell the story. There is so little from the actual twelve disciples who spent so much time with Jesus. It is no wonder that Jesus teaching about the Kingdom gets lost in place of Paul’s teaching about the lamb sacrificed reconciling us all back to God. Leaders of the Roman Empire liked this interpretation and as they say – the victors get to write the history. Thank goodness for the those responsible for hiding the true disciples stories in stone jars in the desert so that the truth can eventually emerge.

  12. Avatar
    J--B  November 5, 2019

    What happened to Philippians and 1 and 2 Thessalonians in your list?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yikes. I mention them under the Pauline epistles but didn’t list them. I’ve corrected it now. thanks.

  13. Lee Ring
    Lee Ring  November 5, 2019

    I’m sure somebody is pointed out by now that Philipians indeed is still in the New Testament. Somehow it is missing from your list.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yikes. I mention it under the Pauline epistles but didn’t list it. same with 1 and 2 Thess! I’ve corrected it now. thanks.

  14. Lev
    Lev  November 5, 2019

    I really like the sound of these introductory series.

    Would you consider writing one on the story of Israel up to the end of the second temple period?

    I would be particularly keen to read how you describe how Judaism (or at least parts of it) significantly changed during the inter-testament period, with the differing views over the future messiah, cause of suffering, angelology, the resurrection of the dead, etc.

    It seems a fair chunk of the theological innovations made it into what became Christianity – so it would be great to read how (and why) you think that happened.

  15. Avatar
    hankgillette  November 6, 2019

    I think this is very interesting, and I look forward to reading your future posts. I’ve already learned something; I had no idea that the Pauline letters were ordered by length.

    My only suggestion would be to lose the underlining, since on the web they usually indicate a hyperlink, and my impulse is to click on them to see where it will take me. I know you can format text with italics and bold, and this would be much better than the underlining.

  16. Avatar
    ShonaG  November 6, 2019

    Can I give more advice, whilst it doesn’t matter to me personally whether you spend my money on the homeless or whether you spend it gambling in brothels set a target for what you want to raise and then give excess money to other homeless charities. You could even have a vote if you wanted, homelessness is a global phenomenon not local and if you want a global audience maybe you should recognize that.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yes, the blog donates to two major global charities as well (CARE and Doctors Without Borders). I don’t foresee gambling in brothels as a likely option though!

  17. Robert
    Robert  November 6, 2019

    “The New Testament is made up of twenty-seven different books written by over a Christian dozen authors.”

    What is a Christian dozen? Is it like a baker’s dozen? Or is it simply the lectio difficilior for what a later scribe would correct to “a dozen Christian authors”?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      A Christian dozen refers to Easter Eggs.

      Thanks. I’ll change that.

  18. Avatar
    mathieu  November 6, 2019

    Love the idea.

    What happened to Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians? Aren’t they Epistles too?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yikes. I mention them under the Pauline epistles but didn’t list them. I’ve corrected it now. thanks.

  19. Avatar
    dwcriswell  November 7, 2019

    I went to a Messianic Jewish service and they had Bibles which did not make a distinction between the New and Old Testaments as they believe Jesus fulfilled prophecy and did not form a new religion. Do you have any comments on this?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2019

      Yes, that is making explicit what most Christians actually think: the unity of OT and NT is based on the OT being almost entirely a set of predictions, prophecies, and foreshadowings of the coming of the messiah Jesus. Jews, of course, uh, don’t think so, and historically many have been rightly offended.

  20. Avatar
    Jen  November 7, 2019

    Bart, Thank you for this concise, basic, and informative post. Although I am several decades old, I still recite the title of the books of the bible in order in a sing-song fashion in my head according to a song I learned in church as a child. In the section where you wrote about the book of Acts, you mention that Paul taught that gentiles can be “saved” (because of Jesus christ). From my experiences I was taught that this is the foundation of the Christian faith. I believe that most christians’ main concern (might I say if they were honest is their “only” concern) is that they are “saved” from a literal “hell” (burning forever). If “hell” is what we are to be saved from, none of the authors or “God” made it extremely clear. From what I’ve studied, I don’t think that the Old Testament Jews were concerned about hell, so I have to wonder exactly what was it that the Jews were previously exclusively privileged to that now the gentiles are supposed to also be privileged to.

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