The New Testament is among history’s most important and influential collections of writings. However, many people are unfamiliar with it, having never learned about its message, purpose, setting, themes, genres, and authors. So what’s “new” about it? And what is a “testament”? These are just a few questions people want to know about it.
The New Testament is a collection of 27 books from the first century in which the closest followers of Jesus of Nazareth wrote about his life, ministry, and the community he established. It consists of four Gospels, 20 letters, one history book, one sermon, and one book of apocalyptic literature.
Why are there only 27 books in the New Testament? Who decided which ones to include? What is a Gospel? Are the “letters” in the New Testament actually letters? What significant events are on a timeline of the New Testament? How many years does it cover? What is “new” about it? What is a “testament?” Keep reading to learn the answers to these questions and others.
What Are the 27 Books of the New Testament?
Why are the 27 books below included in the New Testament and others from the time aren’t? Authorship was the main reason the early church accepted or rejected a book. The specific issue was whether or not an apostle, one of the men Jesus called to a unique ministerial role during his time on earth, wrote it.
In a few cases, the church accepted a book that a close companion of an apostle wrote. For example, the testimony of several early church fathers reveals that Mark served Peter’s biographer. Since Peter is the primary source of Mark’s Gospel, the early church accepted the book as authoritative and inspired.
Who decided which books to include? Given the explanation above, no one in the early church decided what books to include. Instead, the process was discovering what each New Testament book revealed about itself. The early church recognized what the books themselves indicated.
The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and Acts
The first four books of the New Testament are known as the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Though they are like biographies, their purpose isn’t just to inform readers of historical facts about Jesus Christ’s life but to persuade them to believe that he is Messiah, Lord, and Savior and that they should put their trust in him for salvation and follow him in their life (John 20:30-31).
The book of Acts is the fifth book of the New Testament and tells about the early church. The genre or writing style of the book is historical. However, this fact doesn’t mean other books aren’t historically accurate.
Instead, Acts has characteristics that first-century historical records exhibit. The stories in it record what happened to Jesus’ followers after he died, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
The Letters of the Apostle Paul
Paul of Tarsus wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament. Paul converted to Christianity after a life-changing encounter with Jesus (Acts 9:1-19) and became a missionary. Nine of his 13 letters are addressed to churches with whom he had a missionary or pastoral relationship. He also wrote three letters to individuals: Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
|1 Corinthians||Paul||Early 50s|
|2 Corinthians||Paul||Early 50s|
Paul’s letters are arranged according to their size. For example, Romans and 1 Corinthians have 16 chapters. 2 Corinthians has 13. The remaining letters have less than ten. Philemon is listed last, with one chapter.
|1 Thessalonians||Paul||Late 40s|
|2 Thessalonians||Paul||Late 40s|
|1 Timothy||Paul||Early 60s|
|2 Timothy||Paul||Mid 60s|
The General Letters
The five books that follow Paul’s letters in the New Testament are called the General Letters. This traditional name distinguishes them from Paul and John’s letters. Hebrews is unique among New Testament books for two reasons: (1) no one knows who wrote it, though many make guesses, and (2) its writing style is distinctive. Most scholars believe it was initially a sermon that someone wrote down.
|1 Peter||Peter||Mid 60s|
|2 Peter||Peter||Mid 60s|
The Letters of John and the Book of Revelation
Scholars credit John with writing five New Testament books: his Gospel and the four books listed below. 1-3 John are letters. Revelation, which concludes the New Testament, is unique like Hebrews but for different reasons. Its foremost distinction is that John wrote it in the apocalyptic genre, which consists of numerous symbols in the form of animals, colors, and numbers.
|1 John||John||Early 90s|
|2 John||John||Early 90s|
|3 John||John||Early 90s|
A Timeline of the New Testament
While the Old Testament takes place over thousands of years, the New Testament unfolds in about a century. Additionally, readers learn about God’s people in the Old Testament as they lived under different dynasties and empires in different locations, like Egypt and Persia. Yet, the New Testament takes place entirely under the rulership of the Roman Empire.
The Life and Ministry of Jesus
According to scholars, Jesus was born about 6-4 B.C. and died and rose again in 30 or 33 A.D. Not much is known about his early life. Matthew and Luke record stories about his birth. Matthew includes a story that occurs when Jesus is two, and Luke records another in which Jesus is 12.
Thus, 95% of the Gospels concern the last three years of his life when he was engaged in public ministry. This time in his life started when John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, baptized him (Matt. 3:13-17).
|John the Baptist is born||6-7 B.C.|
|Jesus is born in Bethlehem||6-4 B.C.|
|Jesus teaches in the temple||7 A.D.|
|John baptizes Jesus||26 A.D.|
|Jesus starts his public ministry||26 A.D.|
|Jesus is crucified||30 A.D.|
|Jesus rises from the dead||30 A.D.|
The Life and Ministry of Paul
Most scholars estimate that Paul converted to Christianity in the middle to late 30s and died as a martyr in the middle to late 60s under the Roman Emperor, Nero. In the 30 years he was a Christian, Paul led three missionary journeys to spread the gospel around the Mediterranean world and wrote over a dozen letters to churches and individuals to teach, encourage, and correct followers of Jesus.
|Paul converts to Christianity||37 A.D.|
|Paul’s first missionary journey||47-49 A.D.|
|Council of Jerusalem||49 A.D.|
|Paul’s second missionary journey||49-51 A.D.|
|Paul’s third missionary journey||52-57 A.D.|
|Paul martyred in Rome||64-68 A.D.|
The New Testament only includes a little information from when Paul dies to when John starts writing again in the 90s. However, historians teach that Christianity continued to grow from a small sect to one of the fastest-growing belief systems in the Roman Empire. Rome felt so threatened that emperors like Nero, Vespasian, Domitian, and Titus persecuted Christians to suppress the rise of the Church.
|Roman soldiers destroy the temple||70 A.D.|
|Jews and Christians scatter||After 70 A.D.|
|Roman authorities exile John||Mid 80s|
|John writes 1-3 John||Early 90s|
|John writes Revelation||Mid 90s|
What is the New Covenant?
The New Testament completes the story that the Old Testament started (Matt. 5:17). The Old Testament tells the story of God’s chosen people, Israel, and how a Messiah of the whole world would one day come from their people (Luke 24:27).
The New Testament proclaims that Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, who in Greek is called “Christ” (Matt. 16:13-20).
What is “testament”?
In relation to the Bible, the word “testament” refers to a covenant. God’s “old” covenant with Israel consisted of his promise to commit to them in a relationship, giving them land, growing them into a nation, and blessing them (Gen. 12:1-3). Israel’s relationship with God involved living according to his wisdom and laws, represented in the “Law,” especially the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20).
What is “new” about the New Testament?
Jesus fulfilled the Old Covenant (Matt. 5:17). Through his death and resurrection, he established a way for people of all nations (Matt. 28:19; Rev. 5:9) to know God through repenting sin and placing their trust in him for salvation (Mark 1:15).
Jesus promised believers the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives (John 15:26). While Christians are no longer under the Law, good works are evidence of their salvation (Eph. 2:10).
 Encountering the New Testament by Walter Elwell
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