Introduction to the New Testament
The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books that are considered by the Christian church to be inspired by God and therefore authoritative for life and practice. They form the second part of the Bible along with the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. The term “testament” comes from the Latin testamentum, which is translated from the Greek term diathēkē (“covenant”). The concept of covenant lies at the heart of God’s relationship with humanity. God freely enters into covenant with his people and promises to bless them, but God also requires his people to live according to his commands.
The Bible references two main covenants: the old covenant made with Israel (Jer 31:31–32; 2Cor 3:14) and the new covenant made with Christ and the church (Heb 8:8–9; 2Cor. 3:6). The old covenant is also known as the Mosaic Covenant since Moses was the covenant mediator who led the people out of Egypt when the covenant was ratified. Jesus is the New Covenant mediator who instituted the covenant during the Last Supper (Luke 22:20) which looked forward to his death on the cross. This covenant is superior to the Old Covenant because it provides the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’s death and subsequent resurrection. But the New Covenant is not completely new, since God continues his one plan of redemption from the Old Testament (primarily with the people of Israel) to the New Testament (with those who are united to Christ into the people of God).
The Canon of the New Testament
The word “canon” comes from the Greek word kanon which initially meant a “reed” or “measuring rod.” Consequently, the canon refers to the standard by which everything else is measured. In relation to the Bible, the canon refers to those books that are considered inspired by God and are therefore the standard for life and godliness (2Pet 1:3). The New Testament canon thus refers to the collection of authoritative writings that the church considers sacred Scripture.
Before the New Testament documents were written, the early church was not without a canon since they viewed the Old Testament documents as canonical Scripture (1Tim 5:18; 2Tim 3:15–16; 2Pet 1:20–21). There were several factors that led the church to recognize a New Testament canon. (1) The church’s need for authoritative Scripture: Congregations needed to decide which books were to be read and preached in worship services. (2) Heretical challenges: With individuals like Marcion who created his own abbreviated list of authoritative books and Montanutus who claimed to receive direct revelation from God, the church needed authoritative documents to protect itself from heresy. (3) Missionary outreach: As the church spread around the world, the need for the Bible to be translated into other languages became necessary. This forced the church to decide which books would be included in the laborious and time-consuming translation work. (4) Persecution: In the early 4th century, the emperor Diocletian put forth an edict demanding that Christians hand over their Scriptures to be destroyed. This forced Christians to choose which manuscripts for which they were willing to suffer persecution and even death. (5) The change from scroll to codex: Whereas a scroll could only contain a relatively small amount of writing (e.g., the Gospel of Luke), a codex or book could contain much more (e.g., all the Gospels). As various books were collected into a single volume, it forced the church to decide which books were worthy to be included.
Thus, God inspired the authors of the New Testament documents to record what they had heard, seen, and carefully researched (John 21:24; Luke 1:1–4; 1Jn 1:1–4). Because these documents were written over a period of about fifty years, the canon could not be collected, as such, until after the last document was written. Additionally, the decision of which books to recognize took much time and debate since this was a matter of critical importance. In making the decision, the church carefully considered three issues. (1) Orthodoxy: Was the content of the document in unity with the rest of the Bible and the apostolic faith? (2) Apostolicity: Was the document written by an apostle or someone closely associated with an apostle? (3) Catholicity: Was the document widely used by the early church, especially in their worship services?
Finally, it is important to understand the role of the church in the formation of the canon. Because the documents were inspired by God and thus authoritative for life and practice, the church’s role was merely to recognize the documents as having canonical status. That is, they did not confer canonical status upon them. Thus, the New Testament canon is not an authoritative collection of books but rather a collection of authoritative books.
The Ordering of the New Testament
The order of the New Testament books is not based primarily on chronological considerations. Instead, the books generally follow a logical progression. The Gospels are placed first because they record the life of Jesus from different perspectives. Matthew is placed first since it provides a seamless transition with the Old Testament by beginning with a genealogy that links Jesus to both Abraham and David (Matt 1:1). Because Mark and Luke are similar to Matthew, they are placed next. These three Gospels are often called the “Synoptic Gospels” since their content overlaps significantly (“synoptic” means “to see together”). John offers many stories and sayings of Jesus not found in the other Gospels and is therefore last.
Acts is placed after the Gospels and provides the only historical account of the spread of Christianity in the early church (besides what can be gleaned from the New Testament letters). Acts is also the second volume of Luke’s writing, complementing and continuing his Gospel account.
The apostle Paul is the author of thirteen New Testament letters. Again, these letters are not arranged chronologically but are ordered from longest to shortest. Additionally, they are divided by letters to churches (Romans–2 Thessalonians) and then letters to individuals (1 Timothy–Philemon).
The General Epistles (Hebrews–Jude) are letters that are not addressed to specific congregations and thus are “general” in content. The authors of these books include: James, Peter, John, Jude, and the author of Hebrews.
Finally, the New Testament ends with the Apocalypse of John, also known as the book of Revelation. This is a fitting conclusion to the New Testament and the entire Bible as it describes God’s final defeat of Satan through Jesus and the eternal dwelling of God with his people in the new heavens and the new earth.
- Gospels (the life of Christ)
- Acts (the life of the early church)
- Paul’s epistles (13 books: longest to shortest)
- Letters to Churches
- 1–2 Corinthians
- 1–2 Thessalonians
- Letters to Individuals
- 1–2 Timothy
- Letters to Churches
- General Epistles (not addressed to specific churches)
- 1–2 Peter
- 1–3 John
- Revelation (the end of this age)
The Dating of the New Testament
All the New Testament documents were written during the second half of the first century. Some of the documents can be accurately dated to a specific year, but many can only be given a general range. Below is the helpful guideline that contains round numbers for the sake of simplicity.
50 1–2 Thessalonians
55 Galatians (or 48), 1–2 Corinthians, Romans
60 Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians
64 1 Timothy, Titus, 2 Timothy
Late 50s–70s Mark
Late 60s–80s Matthew and Luke
Late 60s–90s John
Rest of the NT
to 95 Rest of NT
The Books of the New Testament
The word “gospel” simply means “good news.” Why do the first four books of the New Testament carry the title of good news? It is because they chronicle the life and ministry of Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah who came to deliver his people from bondage. Mark begins his biography of Jesus as follows: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Thus, the four Gospels declare the good news of Jesus the Messiah from four unique perspectives.
These are not pure biographies but are carefully crafted treatments of Jesus’s life and ministry that engage the original readers. In other words, the authors are not merely passively recording information they receive but, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, are actively forming an account with a particular audience in mind. Consequently, each of the Gospels highlights different aspects of Jesus’s ministry.
And yet, the Gospels tell the same story: Jesus ministers primarily around Galilee, gathering twelve disciples. He teaches large crowds and performs various miracles demonstrating his power over sickness and disease, nature, and even demons. His popularity leads to jealousy from the religious establishment who conspire to kill him. He is eventually betrayed, arrested, beaten, and then crucified as a common criminal with the aid of the Romans in Jerusalem. On the third day, he is resurrected from the dead, appearing to many of his disciples before he ascends to heaven.
Also known as the “Acts of the Apostles,” this book chronicles the expansion of the early church from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). This is Luke’s second volume which continues the story set forth in his Gospel account (Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1). The account begins with 120 disciples waiting in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit according to Jesus’s command (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). Because of the central role of the Spirit, the book can rightly be titled the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”
The book can be organized in at least three ways. (1) Key apostles: Peter (Acts 1–12) and Paul (Acts 13–28). (2) Key locations: Jerusalem (Acts 1–5), Judea and Samaria (Acts 6:1–11:18), and the ends of the earth (Acts 11:19–28:31). (3) Key statements: each section beginning with a reference to the Spirit and ending with a comment about the spread of the gospel (Acts 2:1–6:7; 6:8–9:31; 9:32–13:1; 13:2–16:5; 16:6–19:20; 19:21–28:30–31).
There are twenty-one letters in the New Testament: thirteen Pauline Epistles and eight General Epistles. Paul wrote nine letters to churches and four letters to individuals. It is clear, however, that the letters to individuals are not merely intended for them but also for the congregations to which they associated. When Paul writes to Timothy at the church of Ephesus, he ends both letters with “grace be with you” (1Tim 6:21; 2Tim 4:22). In both cases the “you” is plural. Likewise, Paul closes his letter to Titus who is on the island of Crete with “grace be with you all” (Titus 3:15). Finally, although his last canonical letter is addressed to Philemon, Paul also includes Apphia, Archippus, “and the church in your house” (Phlm 1–2).
The eight General Epistles were written by five different leaders in the early church. Although the author of Hebrews is unknown, the message is clear: because Jesus is superior to the old covenant, it is futile to return to Judaism even amid persecution. James writes to “the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” (Jas 1:1). Peter writes to the elect exiles of the dispersion, including Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia (1Pet 1:1). The apostle John, also known as “the elder” (2Jn 1; 3Jn 1), writes to a church (or churches) probably in Asia Minor. Jude, which is strikingly similar to 2 Peter, writes to those who are called, beloved, and kept (Jude 1), not specifically mentioning any location.
The New Testament letters are meant to encourage and strengthen the readers regarding their faith in Jesus. At times, specific problems are addressed. At other times, the letters are more general in nature. But all of them urge the readers to remain steadfast in their faith by keeping Jesus at the center of their lives.
The full title for the final book of the New Testament canon is “the Revelation to John.” The Greek word for “revelation” (apokalypsis) relates to the English “apocalypse.” It is not the revelation of John but “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1) which was revealed to John through a vision while he was on the island of Patmos. This book focuses on the end of history and the victorious return of Jesus to reward his people and judge unbelievers. But the book contains more than the final battle with Jesus ushering in the new heavens and the new earth, it also provides hope and encouragement for believers who are suffering persecution. It is a reminder that God is sovereign and will win at the end through the work of Jesus Christ. Consequently, believers should persevere knowing that they will receive a great reward.
The Message and Function of the New Testament in the Biblical Canon
The Old Testament is marked by anticipation—anticipation of God’s promised Messiah and the realization of his saving purpose. The New Testament, by contrast, is marked by fulfillment—God’s promises realized in the life and work of Jesus Christ whose arrival (the Gospels) is announced to the world (Acts) and explained in its implications for faith and life (the Epistles) as the church awaits the final culmination of God’s purpose at the climax of history (Revelation).
The Reading of the New Testament
Reading the New Testament takes time, patience, and the proper perspective. Here are four ways we should read it: (1) Read quickly: To grasp the message of any book, it is important to know all the content. We should read large portions of the Bible to better grasp the over-arching message. (2) Read slowly: As God’s inspired Word, the New Testament should also be read carefully, meditating on how the original recipients would have understood the message as well as how it relates to us today. (3) Read Christologically: The Bible is not about us; it is about God’s plan of redemption through Jesus. All Scripture should be related to Jesus: he is its fulfillment; he gives his Spirit to believers so we can understand it; he provides the enablement to obey it; and he embodies all our hope so that we can take comfort in it. (4) Read prayerfully: We must rely on God’s Spirit to help us believe and obey God’s Word. Our goal is not merely to know God’s Word, it is to know him through his Word.
Text of the New Testament
- Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from the Text to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible.
- Arthur G. Patzia, The Making of the New Testament: Origin, Collection, Text and Canon.
- Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Erhman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.
Canon of the New Testament
- Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books.
- Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.
Reliability of the New Testament
- F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?
- Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament: Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Beliefs.
- Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels?
- Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.
Message of the New Testament
- F. Bruce, The Message of the New Testament.
- Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible.
- Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of the Bible.
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