The New Testament, sometimes called the Greek Testament or Greek Scriptures is the name given to the part of the Christian Bible that was written after the birth of Jesus. The term is a translation of the Latin Novum Testamentum, which translates the Greek Η Καινη Διαθηκη, Hê Kainê Diathêkê, meaning "The New Covenant" or Testament. It was originally used by early Christians to describe their relationship with God (see 2 Corinthians 3:6-15; Hebrews 9:15-20) and later to designate a particular collection of 27 books.
Books of the New Testament
The 27 books of the New Testament were written by various authors at various times and places. Unlike the Old Testament, the New Testament was written in a narrow span of time, over the course of around a century, possibly more. The following is a list of the New Testament books, followed by the author traditionally associated with that book.
The Gospels focus on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
The history of the early Christian church after the death of Christ is related here.
The epistles contain various letters written either to individuals or to early Christian congregations. Many of these epistles expound important theological points and give insight into the developing Christian church.
The Pauline Epistles (or Corpus Paulinum) constitute those epistles traditionally attributed to Paul (for modern views, see below under Authorship). Their names are based on the Christian groups or individuals to whom they are addressed.
The General or Catholic Epistles are those written to the church at large. They are named after their traditional author. In medieval times, they were often collected not with the Pauline epistles but with Acts to form the Praxapostolos.
The common language spoken in the time of Jesus was Aramaic. However, the original text of the New Testament was most likely written in Koine Greek, the vernacular dialect in first-century Roman provinces, and has since been widely translated into other languages, most notably Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. However, many of the church fathers claimed that Matthew was originally written in Hebrew, and some fathers contended that Paul wrote the Hebrews in Hebrew, which was translated into Greek by Luke. Neither view holds much support among modern scholars, who argue that the literary quality of Matthew and Hebrews suggests that they were composed directly in Greek, rather than being translated.
It is notable that many books of the New Testament, especially the gospels of Mark and John, are written in relatively poor Greek. They are far from the refined Attic or Classical Greek one finds composed by the higher classes, ruling elites, and trained philosophers of the time.
A minority of scholars consider the Aramaic version of the New Testament to be the original and believe the Greek is a translation. This view is known as Aramaic primacy.
The New Testament was written by many different people. The traditional belief is that all the books were written by the apostles or their followers (e.g. Mark and Luke). Modern scholars now largely discount this assumption aside from seven of Paul's letters. Except for Hebrews, no serious question about the authorship of any of the books as listed above was raised in the church before the 18th century, when critical inquiry into the New Testament began.
Seven of the epistles of Paul are now generally accepted by most modern scholars as authentic; these "undisputed" Paulines include Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Scholars are divided over the Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, and Ephesians (listed in decreasing order of support). As a general matter, only evangelical scholars continue to accept Pauline authorship of the Pastorals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). Almost no current mainstream scholar, however, evangelical or liberal, holds that Paul wrote Hebrews. In fact, controversy about the authorship of Hebrews, the only anonymous epistle, goes back to the early Church fathers. Tertullian suggested that the author was Barnabas, but Clement of Alexandria proposed was that it was written by Paul and translated by Luke or Clement of Rome. Origen in the midst of this controversy conceded that "God only knows" who the author really was.
The exact authorship of most other books has not been agreed upon by any measure. The issue of authorship is somewhat different for the gospels, because they are all technically anonymous so the question becomes whether the traditional attributions (to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are correct. The Johannine writings, particularly the Gospel and the first epistle, have been accepted as coming from circles around John the Evangelist, and the main authorship question there is whether Revelation is ascribed to the same John or to another John.
Of key concern is the role of presuppositions in Biblical scholarship, especially gospel and historical Jesus studies. It is now widely recognized that every individual comes to historical study with their own experiences, religious beliefs, and philosophical assumptions, and that these factors can play a defining role in the final product that any particular scholar produces. In the case of the gospels, modern research has been approached from a number of persepctives: Jewish, feminist, Protestant, Roman Catholic, agnostic, materialist, historical, and social-scientific, to name just a few. A prime example of this diversity of opinion is represented in the numerous, often contradictory, "historical Jesus" books published in the past 25 years (compare, for example, the work of the Jesus Seminar, B. Mack, J. Dominic Crossan with that of John P. Meier, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright). This has often had the effect of creating reconstructions of Jesus in the images of the particular authors, as opposed to narrating who Jesus really was, what he did, and what he taught. Nevertheless, most scholars are of the opinion that this process of often heated debate has produced viable results.
The problems with correctly assigning authorship to ancient works like those in the New Testament can be demonstrated by looking at its four gospels.
Because of the many similarities between Matthew, Mark, and Luke, they are often referred to as the "Synoptic Gospels" ("seeing-together"). The Gospel of John, in contrast, contains much unique narrative and dialogue and is considered to be different in its emphasis from the other three gospels. The question of how the similarities between the synoptic gospels arose is known as the synoptic problem. How material from each gospel was introduced to other gospels brings up significant problems in assigning authorship. Was each written by one individual, the four simply relaying in their own words the events of Jesus' life they themselves witnessed? Was there a first author and gospel whose work substantially contributed to the later gospels? Was each gospel written over a relatively short or long period of time? Was each gospel written by only one person?
The dominant view among critical scholars, the Two-Source Hypothesis, is that both Matthew and Luke drew significantly upon the Gospel of Mark and another common source, known as the "Q Source". from Quelle, the German word for "source". The nature and even existence of Q is speculative. Most Q scholars believe that it was a single written document, while a few contest that "Q" was actually a number of documents or oral traditions. No information about its author, if it existed, can be obtained from the resources currently available, and, indeed, little or any direct biographical information about their authors is assumed to be traceable.
Modern scholars are also skeptical about authorship claims for non-canonical books, such as the Nag Hammadi corpus discovered in Egypt in 1945. This corpus of fifty-two Coptic books, dated to about 350-400, includes gospels in the names of Thomas, Philip, James, John, and many others. Like almost all ancient works, they represent copies rather than original texts. None of the original texts has been discovered and scholars argue about the dating of the originals. Suggested dates run from as early as 50 or as late as the late second century. See Gospel of Thomas and New Testament Apocrypha.
Date of composition
According to tradition, the earliest of the books were the letters of Paul, and the last books to be written are those attributed to John, who is traditionally said to have lived to a very old age, perhaps dying as late as 100, although evidence for this tradition is generally not convincing. Irenaeus of Lyons, c. 185, stated that the Gospels of Matthew and Mark were written while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome, which would be in the 60s, and Luke was written some time later. Evangelical and Traditionalist scholars continue to support this dating.
Some other modern critical scholars concur with the dating of the majority of the New Testament, except for the epistles and books that they consider to be pseudepigraphical (i.e. those thought not to be written by their traditional authors). Some do not. For the Gospels, they tend to date Mark no earlier than 65, and Matthew some time between 70-85. Luke is usually placed in the 80-95 time frame. The earliest of the books of the New Testament was 1 Thessalonians, an epistle of Paul, written probably 51, or possibly Galatians in 49 according to one of two theories of its writing. Of the pseudepigraphical epistles, Christian scholars tend to place them somewhere between 70 and 150, with 2 Peter usually being the latest.
However, John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (1976), proposed that all of the New Testament was completed before 70, the year the temple at Jerusalem was destroyed. Robinson argued that because the destruction of the temple was prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24:15-21 and Luke 23:28-31, the authors of these and other New Testament books would not have failed to point out the fulfillment of this prophecy. Robinson's position is popular among some Evangelicals.
In the 1830s, German scholars of the Tübingen school dated the books as late as the third century, but the discovery of some New Testament manuscripts, not including some of the later writings, dating as far back as 125 has called such late dating into question. Additionally, a letter to the church at Corinth in the name of Clement of Rome in 95, quotes from 10 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and a letter to the church at Philippi in the name of Polycarp in 120 quotes from 16 books. Therefore some of the books of the New Testament were at least in a first draft stage, although others were probably not completed until later, while editing, some minor, some major, continued until the present day.
The canonization of the New Testament
Main article: Biblical canon
The process of canonization was complex and lengthy. It was characterized by a compilation of books that early Christians found inspiring in worship and teaching, relevant to the historical situations in which they lived, and consonant with the Hebrew Testament (early Christian communities were primarily Jewish). In this way, the books considered authoritative revelation of the New Covenant were not hammered out in large, bureaucratic Church council meetings, but in the secret worship sessions of lower-class peasant Christians. While an episcopal hierarchy did develop and finally solidify the canon, this was a relatively late development.
In the first three centuries of the Christian Church, there was no New Testament canon that was universally recognized. Nevertheless, by the 2nd century there was a common collection of letters and gospels that a majority of church leaders considered authoritative. These contained the four gospels and many of the letters of Paul. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian (all 2nd century), held these to be on par with the Hebrew Scriptures as being divinely inspired. Other books were held in high esteem, but were gradually relegated to the status of New Testament apocrypha.
One of the earliest attempt at solidifying a canon was made by Marcion, who rejected the entire Old Testament, all but one gospel (Luke), and three of the Pauline letters. His unorthodox canon was rejected by a majority of Christians, as was his gnostic theology. Around 200 the Muratorian fragment was written, listing the accepted works. This list was very similar to the modern canon, but also included the Wisdom of Solomon (now part of the Deuterocanonical books) and the Apocalypse of Peter. The New Testament canon as it is now was first listed by St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, in 367, in a letter written to his churches in Egypt. That canon gained wider and wider recognition until it was accepted by all at the Third Council of Carthage in 397. Even this council did not settle the matter, however. Certain books continued to be questioned, especially James and Revelation. Even as late as the 16th century, theologian and reformer Martin Luther questioned (but in the end did not reject) the Epistle of James, the Epistle of Jude, the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation. Even today, German-language Luther Bibles are printed with these four books at the end of the canon, rather than their traditional order for other Christians.
Views on New Testament authority
All Christian groups respect the New Testament, but they differ in their understanding of the nature, extent, and relevance of its authority. Views of the authorititativeness of the New Testament often depend on the concept of inspiration, which relates to the role of God in the formation of the New Testament. Generally, the greater the role of God in one's doctrine of inspiration, the more one accepts the Bible's infallibility, inerrancy , and authorititativeness. One possible source of confusion is that these terms are difficult to define, because many people use them interchangeably or with very different meanings. This article will use the terms in the following manner:
- Infallibility relates to the absolute correctness of the Bible in matters of doctrine.
- Inerrancy relates to the absolute correctness of the Bible in factual assertions (including historical and scientific assertions).
- Authoritativeness relates to the correctness of the Bible in questions of practice and morality.
All of these concepts depend for their meaning on the supposition that the text of Bible has been properly interpreted, with consideration for the intention of the text, whether literal history, allegory or poetry, etc. Especially the doctrine of inerrancy is variously understood according to the weight given by the interpreter to scientific investigations of the world. A brief outline of these views in different Christian denominations follows.
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy
For the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, there are two strands of revelation, the Bible, and the Apostolic Tradition. Both of them are interpreted by the teachings of the Church. In Catholic terminology, the Teaching Office is called the Magisterium; in Orthodox terminology, the authentic interpretation of scripture and tradition is limited to Ecumenical councils. Both sources of revelation are considered necessary for proper understanding of the tenets of the faith. The Roman Catholic view is expressed clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992):
- § 83: As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.
- § 107: The inspired books teach the truth. Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.
Following the doctrine of sola scriptura, Protestants believe that their traditions of faith, practice and interpretations carry forward what the scriptures teach, and so tradition is not a source of authority in itself. Their traditions supposedly derive authority from the Bible, and are therefore always open to re-evaluation. This openness to doctrinal revision has extended in some Protestant traditions even to the re-evaluation of the doctrine of Scripture upon which the Reformation was founded, and members of these traditions may even question whether the Bible is infallible in doctrine, inerrant in historical and other factual statements, and whether it has uniquely divine authority. However, the adjustments made by modern Protestants to their doctrine of Scripture vary widely.
Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestantism
Among conservatives, fundamentalists and evangelicals believe that the Scriptures are both human and divine in origin: human in their manner of composition, but divine in that their source is God, the Holy Spirit, who governed the writers of Scripture in such a way that they recorded nothing at all contrary to the truth. Fundamentalists accept the enduring authoritativeness and impugnability of a pre-scientific interpretation of the Bible, especially on such issues as the ordination of women, abortion, and homosexuality. However, although they are overwhelmingly opposed to such things, evangelicals are increasingly willing to consider that the views of the Biblical authors may have been intentionally "culturally conditioned", and evangelicals may even argue that there is room for change along with cultural norms and scientific advancements. Fundamentalists may be therefore described as "conservatives", whereas evangelicals might be better characterized as more flexibly "traditional" on these and other issues.
Both fundamentalists and evangelicals profess belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, but the stronger emphasis on literal interpretation by fundamentalists has led to the rejection of many scientific concepts, particularly that of evolution. Evangelicals, on the other hand, tend to avoid interpretations of the Bible that would directly contradict generally accepted scientific assertions of fact. They do not impute error to Biblical authors, but rather entertain various theories of literary intent, which might give credibility to human progress in knowledge of the world while still accepting the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. While separation from the world and its influences may be the primary message of the New Testament for some fundamentalists, evangelicals try to remain part of wider society as a witness to personal salvation through Christ.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) is an influential statement, articulating evangelical views on this issue. Paragraph 4 of its summary states: Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
Critics of such a position point out that there are many statements that Jesus makes in the Gospels or that Paul makes in his epistles, even to the point of making them commands, which are not taken as commands by most advocates of Biblical Inerrancy. Examples of this are Jesus's command to the disciples to sell all they have and give the money to the poor so as to gain the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:21), or Paul's calls to imitate him in celibacy (1 Cor 7:8). Other sections of the Bible, such as the second half of John chapter 6, where Jesus commands that the disciples eat his flesh and drink his blood, are interpreted by most adherents of Biblical Inerrancy as symbolic language rather than literally, as might be expected from the statements of the doctrine. Supporters of Biblical Inerrancy generally argue that these passages are intended to be symbolic, and that their symbolic nature can be seen directly in the text, thus preserving the doctrine.
Mainline and liberal Protestantism
Mainline Protestant denominations, including the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church USA, The Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, do not teach the doctrine of inerrancy as set forth in the Chicago Statement. All of these churches have doctrinal statements asserting the authority of scripture, but officially interpret these statements in such a way as to allow for a very broad range of teaching, from evangelicalism to skepticism. It is not an impediment to ordination in these denominations to teach that the Scriptures contain errors, or that the authors follow a more or less unenlightened ethics that, however appropriate it may have seemed in the authors' time, moderns would be very wrong to follow blindly. For example, ordination of women is universally accepted in the mainline churches, abortion is condemned as a grievous social tragedy but not always a personal sin or a crime against an unborn person, and homosexuality is increasingly regarded as a genetic propensity or morally neutral preference that should be neither encouraged nor condemned. The most contentious of these issues among these churches at the present time is how far the ordination of gay men and lesbians should be accepted.
Officials of the Presbyterian Church USA report that: We acknowledge the role of scriptural authority in the Presbyterian Church, but Presbyterians generally do not believe in biblical inerrancy. Presbyterians do not insist that every detail of chronology or sequence or pre-scientific description in scripture be true in literal form. Our confessions do teach biblical infallibility. Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.
Those who are more liberal view the Bible as a human witness to the glory of God, the work of fallible humans who wrote from a limited experience unusual only for the insight they have gained through their inspired struggle to know God in the midst of a troubled world. Therefore, they tend not to accept such doctrines as inerrancy (which ironically, leads them to read certain passages far more literally than most evangelicals, so that the text is interpreted in a way that necessarily conflicts with a modern, scientific view of the world). These churches also tend to retain the social activism of their Evangelical forebears of the 19th century, placing particular emphasis on those teachings of Scripture that teach compassion for the poor and concern for justice. The message of personal salvation is, generally speaking, of the good that comes to oneself and the world through following the New Testament's Golden Rule and admonition to love others without hypocrisy or prejudice. Toward these ends, the "spirit" of the New Testament, more than the letter, is infallible and authoritative. As such, belief in the errancy of the words of Scripture is in practice as important to Protestant liberalism as inerrancy is to its evangelical and fundamentalist counterparts.
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