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Chapter Summary

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 thirty-nine books (twenty-four 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 twenty-seven books, written in Greek, by fifteen or sixteen different authors between 50 CE and 120 CE. The writings are of four types: Gospels, acts of the apostles, epistles, and apocalypse. The New Testament contains four 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 the apostles (Mark and Luke) sometime in the second century. Acts of the Apostles, written by the author of the third Gospel (“Luke”), begins after Jesus’ death and describes the spread of the Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, primarily through the missionary activity of the apostle Paul. Following Acts are twenty-one epistles or letters. Most of these New Testament books are records of correspondence between a church leader and a Christian community; these epistles address issues of Christian belief, practice, and ethics. Thirteen of the epistles claim to be written by Paul (though, as we will see, most 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 twenty-seven 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 includes a series of writings, collectively called the Apostolic Fathers. These books, written by Christians in the early second century CE, 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, including epistles, apocalypses, and Gospels, was discovered near Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. This find included fifty-two Coptic writings, some originating as early as the second century.

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 correct teachings. Through the second, third, and fourth centuries, Christians continued debating the acceptability of Christian writings. These discussions focused on three main issues: whether the book was (i) ancient, (ii) written by an apostle, and (ii) widely accepted among Christians. It was not until 367 CE that a Christian named Athanasius listed the current twenty-seven books as authoritative Christian Scripture.

Implications for Our Study

Not originally composed as part of a collection, 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. For a historical study of the New Testament literature, it will help to read each book independently and understand its message on its own terms.

The New Testament: One Other Set of Problems

Not only did early Christian communities have different books, but 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. The copies we do have demonstrate that the books changed as they were transmitted. 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. The vast majority of these differences are minor—such as spelling differences—but a few are significant.

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 historical 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 or 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 likely happened at Jesus’ crucifixion, but he or she cannot, as a historian, determine whether Jesus died for the sins of the world. Such a judgment stems from one’s theology and not from the public record. History and faith are not mutually exclusive; they simply do not share the same constraints.

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