How did we get the New Testament? Christians believe the New Testament is part of their sacred scriptures, but where did it come from? Who wrote it? How was it all put together?
Unity in a Diversity of Genres and Authors
The Christian Bible was written by God through human authors. The Holy Spirit used the authors’ own skills and personalities to pen God’s Word. The books that were placed in the New Testament are called the canon, from the Greek word kanon, which means “rod” or “measuring stick.” These canonical books are considered authoritative for Christian belief and practices.
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament contains several different genres (types of literature) in its 27 books, including gospels (theological biographies about Jesus), historical narrative, letters, and apocalypse (Revelation). God used people from different walks of life and ethnicities to write His Word.
- Matthew was a despised tax collector who became a disciple of Jesus and wrote a gospel.
- Luke was a Greek doctor who journeyed with Paul, carefully researching the life of Jesus and the early church.
- John was a fisherman and part of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples. He wrote a gospel, several letters, and many believe the book of Revelation.
- Paul was a Jewish Pharisee who persecuted Christians. After he met Jesus, he became a missionary to the Roman world and is credited with writing 13 New Testament letters to churches spread across the Roman Empire.
Even with such a variety of genres and human authors, the Holy Spirit wrote the message of the Bible with a unity that begins in Genesis and continues through Revelation.
The Apostles: Eyewitnesses to the Life of Jesus and His Teaching
When Christians first met together after Jesus’ resurrection, they continued to read the Jewish Old Testament. The apostles, those who knew Jesus personally, taught about His life and teachings with first-hand testimony. Paul and other church leaders wrote letters to churches explaining the Christian faith and encouraging them to obey Jesus’ teachings. The apostles of Jesus gradually died, so to keep clear accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings, the Gospels were written down by Matthew, Mark (working with Peter), Luke (journeying with Paul), and John. Luke also wrote Acts to show the history and growth of the early church.
As the years progressed, the church began to treasure certain writings over others. By the end of the first century, all the books in our New Testament were written and known across the Christian church. Church leaders began to quote sections of the Gospels or letters in their own writings and sermons, which gave authority and sacredness to the earlier writings.
The Divisions of the New Testament
The New Testament is divided into several sections:
- The Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These books tell the story of Jesus from eyewitnesses.
- Historical Narrative: Acts
- Paul’s Letters: Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
- General Letters: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-2-3 John, and Jude.
- Apocalypse (written in pictural language): Revelation
The Canonization of the New Testament
The canonization of the New Testament happened gradually over several centuries. The early church leaders (also called church fathers) did not meet and select which books should be considered scripture. The early church recognized which books were authoritative to determine doctrine (belief) and Christian practices. The church leaders considered the following four characteristics of a book:
- Was the book connected to an apostle of Christ? This characteristic was the most important. Was the document either written by an apostle or by someone connected to an apostle? Most of the New Testament books were written by apostles. Luke, the author of Luke and Acts, was a close associate of the Apostle Paul.
- Was it orthodox? Orthodox means it did not contradict any previously revealed truth in what was already considered scripture, like the Old Testament. Some books were rejected because they had truth statements mixed with nonorthodox statements.
- Was it written in the era of the apostles? To be closely associated with an apostle, the book needed to have been written during the beginning of the church. Our New Testament books were written c. 50-100 CE.
- Was it accepted as authoritative across the universal church? Was the book already in widespread use across the church, which was spread out geographically across the Roman Empire? Was it applicable to the entire church? Did it encourage and strengthen Christians in their faith?
From the second century on, many “Christian” writings surfaced, including other gospels and letters. However, the universal church did not agree that any of these later writings should be part of sacred scripture. For example, the “gnostic gospels” (like the “gospel of Thomas”) are dated after the time of the apostles. In addition, most of these gnostic texts reflect nonorthodox views of Jesus and His teaching.
The New Testament canon formed in three general stages.
- Paul’s letters were the earliest to be written and the earliest to be collected. By the end of the first century CE, Paul’s letters were circulating as a collection and being quoted as scripture in the writings of the church leaders. Churches across the Roman world began making copies by hand of letters other churches had received from the apostles. False teachers were trying to infiltrate the church, which gave momentum to forming a canon of authoritative books for Christians to trust.
- In the closing years of the second century CE, the Gospels were the next collection to be accepted as scripture. Although other “gospels” had been written by this time, these accounts of Jesus’ life had elements of truth as well as elements contrary to the testimony of the eyewitnesses. The church leaders and scholars, even those spread far apart geographically, considered only our current four Gospels as scripture and inspired by God.
- During the third and fourth centuries CE, the General Letters, along with Acts and Revelation, were the last group to be accepted into the canon. The earliest complete list of our current New Testament books was written by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, who listed our 27-book New Testament canon in his Easter letter of 367 CE. Over the next few years, this list was adopted by across the Roman world as scripture.
What God divinely allowed to be included within the canonical sacred text we can be assured is true and trustworthy. The New Testament books accepted as scripture have a legacy that dates all the way back to the apostles themselves.