The New Testament is the second half of the Christian Bible. Christians consider the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible/Jewish Scriptures) and the New Testament to be the sacred canon of Scripture. The Old Testament contains 39 books (24 in Hebrew) that were more or less a fixed collection about a century after Jesus lived. The New Testament is important for students to study because it has stood at the center of Western civilization and, thus, it has affected all of us-whether or not we consider ourselves Christians.
The New Testament: Some Basic Information
The New Testament contains 27 books written in Greek by 15 or 16 different authors between 50 C.E and 120 C.E. It can be divided into 4 groups: Gospels, Acts of the Apostles, Epistles, and Apocalypse. The New Testament contains 4 Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books tell the stories about Jesus' life, ministry, and death. The Gospels were written anonymously and came to be ascribed to disciples (Matthew and John) and associates of apostles (Mark and Luke) sometime in the second century. Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the third Gospel ("Luke"), describes the spread of the Christian church from Jesus' death to the death of the apostle Paul. Following Acts are 21 epistles or letters. Most of these New Testament books are records of correspondence between a church leader and a Christian community; the New Testament epistles address issues of Christian belief, practice, and ethics. Thirteen of these books claim to be written by Paul (though, as we will see, New Testament scholars doubt the reliability of some of these claims). The last book in the New Testament is Revelation, a Christian apocalypse. The author of this book, John, describes the events leading up to the destruction of this world and the appearance of the world to come.
Other Early Christian Writings
The 27 books of the New Testament are not the only writings of the early Christians. There are many other Gospels, epistles, and apocalypses that are not included in the Christian canon. One important collection of noncanonical early Christian writings are called the Apostolic Fathers. These books, written by Christians in the early 2nd century C.E., were considered authoritative in some Christian communities. Some of these writings, in fact, were believed to be as authoritative as the Gospels or Paul's letters. Another important collection of early Christian writings was found near Nag Hammadi Egypt. These second-century books were written in Coptic.
The Development of the Christian Canon
Christians were not the only-or even the first-people to develop a set of authoritative books. Although the Jewish canon was not firmly set until after Jesus' death, portions of the canon were deemed authoritative much earlier. By the end of the first century, some Christians considered Jesus' words "Scripture" (1 Tim 5:18). Some Christians also granted Paul's writings authoritative status (2 Pet 3:16). The Christian canon emerged out of debates among different Christian groups regarding right teachings. Through the second, third, and fourth centuries Christians continued debating the acceptability of Christian writings. These discussions focused on three main issues: 1) was the book ancient? 2) was the book written by an apostle? 3) was the book widely accepted among Christians? It was not until 367 C.E. that a Christian named the current 27 books as authoritative Christian Scripture.
Implications For Our Study
The books of the New Testament embody different points of view. The discussion of the development of the canon showed that there were diverse views among early Christians and, thus, we should not be surprised to find some of this diversity within the New Testament itself.
The New Testament: One Other Set of Problems
Not only did early Christian communities have different books, they also had different versions of the same books. In antiquity books were copied by hand, one letter at a time. This allowed a number of opportunities for scribal errors-intentional or unintentional-to enter into the text. We do not have the originals of any books of the New Testament; our copies were made much later. We know that changes were made as books were transmitted because of the copies that we do have. Scholars have collected over 5,000 Greek copies of the New Testament and no two are exactly alike. In fact, there are more differences in the manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
Excursus: Some Additional Reflections: The Historian and the Believer
This textbook utilizes a historical-not a confessional-approach to the New Testament and other early Christian writings. It is important to understand the difference between these approaches because the New Testament is more than a Christian book. It is a cultural artifact, a collection of writings that has influenced Western civilization. Reading these books as history makes sense because they were written within particular historical circumstances and continue to be read within particular historical circumstances.
Historians deal with past events that are matters of the public record. They try to reconstruct what probably happened based on data that can be examined and evaluated by any interested observer regardless of his/her religious beliefs. Historians can describe similarities and differences between points of view, but they cannot judge the validity of the points of view because the judgment is not a part of the public record. Thus a historian can describe what the term "Son of God" means, but he/she cannot, as a historian, judge whether or not Jesus is the Son of God. Such a judgment stems from one's theology and not from the public record. History and faith are not mutually exclusive; but they do not have the same constraints.