An Introduction to the New Testament

 The Holy Bible is the principle text for all Christians, but few people understand much of its structure, beyond the fact that there is an Old Testament and a New Testament. Teenagers, especially, as they set out on developing their faith may not be clear on how the Bible is structured or how and why it is put together the way it is. Developing this understanding will help teenagers--and all Christians, for that matter--have a clearer understanding of their faith.

Developing an understanding of the New Testament's structure, in particular, is crucial for all Christians, since it is the New Testament that is the basis for doctrine in the Christian Church. While the Old Testament is based on the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament is devoted to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Particularly troublesome for some people is reconciling the important belief that the Bible is the Word of God with the fact that, historically, the books of the Bible were selected by human beings after much debate over what should be included and what excluded. It comes as a surprise to many people to learn, for example, that there is a substantial body of religious literature, including some gospels, that were excluded from the Bible after considerable, and often bitter, debate by church fathers. The Bible, scholars soon come to understand, may be regarded as the word of God, but it can also be seen as a document assembled through extensive debate.

Let's start with some basic facts about the New Testament. 

 

  • Number of Books in the New Testament:: 27
  • Types of Books in the New Testament: There are three types of books in the New Testament. They are the Historical Books, the Pauline Epistles, and the General Epistles.

The Historical Books

The Historical Books of the New Testament are the four Gospels--The Gospel According to Mathew, The Gospel According to Mark, The Gospel According to Luke, The Gospel According to John-- and the Book of Acts.

These chapters together tell the story of Jesus and His Church. They offer the framework by which you can understand the rest of the New Testament, because these books provide the foundation of Jesus’ ministry.

The Pauline Epistles

The word epistles means letters, and a good portion of the New Testament consists of 13 important letters written by the Apostle Paul, thought to have been written in the years 30 to 50 CE. Some of these letters were written to various early Christian church groups, while others were written to individuals, and together they form the historical basis of Christian principles upon with the entire Christian religion is founded. The Pauline Epistles to Churches include: 

  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • 2 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 2 Thessalonians

The Pauline Epistles to individuals​ include: 

  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • Titus
  • Philemon

The General Epistles

These epistles were letters written to a variety of people and churches by several different authors. They are like the Pauline Epistles in that they provided instruction to those people, and they continue to offer instruction to Christians today. These are the books in the category of General Epistles:

  • Hebrews
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 2 Peter
  • 1 John
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
  • Jude
  • Revelation

How Was the New Testament Assembled?

As viewed by scholars, the New Testament is a collection of religious works written originally in Greek by early members of the Christian Church--but not necessarily by the authors to whom they are attributed. The general consensus is that most of the 27 books of the New Testament were written in the first century CE, although some were likely written as late as 150 CE. It is thought that the Gospels, for example, were not written by the actual disciples but by individuals who were transcribing the accounts of the original witnesses passed along through word of mouth. Scholars believe that the Gospels were written at least 35 to 65 years after Jesus' death, which makes it unlikely that the disciples themselves wrote the Gospels.

Instead, they were likely written by dedicated anonymous members of the early Church. 

The New Testament evolved into its current form over time, as various collections of writings were added to the official canon by group consensus during the first four centuries of the Christian Church--though not always unanimous consensus. The four Gospels we now find in the New Testament are only four among many such gospels that exist, some of which were deliberately excluded.  Most famous among the gospels not included in the New Testament is the Gospel of Thomas, which offers a different view of Jesus, and one that conflicts with the other gospels. The Gospel of Thomas has received much attention in recent years. 

Even the Epistles of Paul were disputed, with some letters omitted by early church founders, and considerable debate over their authenticity.  Even today, there are disputes over whether Paul was actually the author of some of the letters included in today's New Testament. Finally, the Book of Revelation was hotly disputed for many years. It was not until around 400 CE that the Church reached a consensus on a New Testament that contains the same 27 books we now accept as official.