What Is the New Testament?

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.

Also, see How Many Books Are in the New Testament? to learn more.

New Testament
Why are there only 27 books in the New Testament? See below

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.

MatthewMatthewMid 60s
MarkMarkLate 50s
LukeLukeEarly 60s
JohnJohnLate 80s
ActsLukeMid 60s

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.

RomansPaulMid 50s
1 CorinthiansPaulEarly 50s
2 CorinthiansPaulEarly 50s
GalatiansPaulLate 40s
EphesiansPaulEarly 60s
PhilippiansPaulEarly 60s
ColossiansPaulEarly 60s

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 ThessaloniansPaulLate 40s
2 ThessaloniansPaulLate 40s
1 TimothyPaulEarly 60s
2 TimothyPaulMid 60s
TitusPaulEarly 60s
PhilemonPaulEarly 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.

HebrewsUnknownMid 60s
JamesJamesLate 40s
1 PeterPeterMid 60s
2 PeterPeterMid 60s
JudeJudeMid 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 JohnJohnEarly 90s
2 JohnJohnEarly 90s
3 JohnJohnEarly 90s
RevelationJohnMid 90s

Also, see Who Wrote the New Testament? to learn more.

Jesus Christ
How long is the timeline of the New Testament? See below

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 born6-7 B.C.
Jesus is born in Bethlehem6-4 B.C.
Jesus teaches in the temple7 A.D.
John baptizes Jesus26 A.D.
Jesus starts his public ministry26 A.D.
Jesus is crucified30 A.D.
Jesus rises from the dead30 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 Christianity37 A.D.
Paul’s first missionary journey47-49 A.D.
Council of Jerusalem49 A.D.
Paul’s second missionary journey49-51 A.D.
Paul’s third missionary journey52-57 A.D.
Paul martyred in Rome64-68 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 temple70 A.D.
Jews and Christians scatterAfter 70 A.D.
Roman authorities exile JohnMid 80s
John writes 1-3 JohnEarly 90s
John writes RevelationMid 90s

Also, see How Many Chapters are in the New Testament? to learn more.

New Testament Bible
What is a “testament”? See below

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).

Also, see What Is the Last Book of the Old Testament? to learn more.

[1] Encountering the New Testament by Walter Elwell
[2] Chronological Life Application Study Bible

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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