Introduction to the New Testament |

What is the New Testament and how it came to be.



  • No original autographs exist (i.e. the original document written by the original author).
  • We possess approximately 5000 Greek manuscripts of all or part of the New Testament of various.
  • The most famous manuscript is the Codex Sinaiticus (in the British museum in London).

Manuscript Types:

  • New Testament papyri
  • parchment unicals (capital letters)
  • parchment miniscules (cursive)
  • Lectionaries: arrangements of New Testament passages in accordance with the church’s calendar
  • Versions: early translations from Greek to other languages (e.g. Latin, Syriac and Coptic)

Stephen Neill: “We have a far better and more reliable text of the New Testament than of any other ancient work whatever.”

Formation of the New Testament

  • The formation of the New Testament was a gradual process, not a distinct event.
  • The Old Testament was already accepted. Jesus and His words became the new norm.
  • Oral Stage: words of Jesus and stories about Jesus were told and retold.
  • Written Stage: Most of the New Testament documents were written between 50-100 AD.
  • The New Testament documents were circulated and collected.
  • Heresies begin to arise (see Early Church heresies).

Consensus grows of what ought to be considered authoritative (180-300 AD).

  • Melito of Sardis refers to the “books of old covenant” and to the “books of new covenant” (c. 180 AD), marking the idea of a two-part canon or what we call the Old and New Testaments.
  • Justin Martyr refers to “memoirs of apostles” and to multiple “gospels” being used by Christians during worship on Sundays (c. 180 AD).
  • Tertuillian speaks of “the law and the prophets” (OT) and “the Gospels and the apostolic writings” (NT) and calls the gospels “Scripture.”
  • Irenaeus (the most well-traveled early figure, acquainted with church practices over an enormous geographical area) quotes all the NT books except five shorter ones (and he may have recognized those five, too, but he didn’t quote them). Importance: There is nearly universal acceptance and use of the four gospels by around 180 AD.
  • Origen of Alexandria (died 254 AD) distinguishes three classes of Scripture: acknowledged (or uncontested), disputed (or doubtful) and false. He also says: “The church has four gospels; the heretics have many more.”
  • Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in Egypt (367 AD) – A letter from Athanasius lists all 27 books of the New Testament for the first time, calling them “canonical” (first use of “canon” in our sense) and rejecting other books he called “apocryphal”. He writes: “these are fountains of salvation, that he who thirsts may be satisfied with the living words they contain. In these alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. Let no one add to these, let nothing be taken away from them…”
  • The Synod of Carthage (397 AD) ratifies the list of Athanasius. Their decree: nothing should be read in the church under the name of the divine Scriptures except the canonical writings.
  • Gradual conformity with the NT canon and very little dispute until modern times.
  • The Greek word “kanon” means “rule or measure” (i.e. a measuring rod or standard of evaluation). It came to refer to a list of books that are accepted by the churches as the measuring rod of Christian faith.
  • Content of the canon: 27 books (agreed upon by Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox).

Criteria for canonicity

  1. Apostolic pedigree (i.e. written by an apostle or for an apostle; e.g. Mark wrote from Peter’s teachings; Luke wrote Acts from Paul’s teachings).
  2. Orthodox doctrine (i.e. content conforms to the “rule of faith”).
  3. Church consensus.
  4. Inspiration is not a criterion, but a basic assumption. Inspiration was not seen as a unique feature of canonical writings (e.g. Augustine thought Jerome was inspired).
  5. The New Testament books was recognized as authoritative on their own. No authority figure put them on the list.
  6. Bruce Metzger: Certain books were accepted as canonical because they “are the extant literary deposit of the direct and indirect apostolic witness on which the later witness of the church depends.”
  7. The New Testament canon is not an authoritative list of books, but a list of authoritative books.

Records of Jesus outside the New Testament

Flavius Josephus (37-100 AD) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem to a father of priestly descent and a mother who claimed royal ancestry. Josephus recorded Jewish history, with special emphasis on the first century CE and the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70 CE), including the Siege of Masada.

Antiquities (XX.ix.1) includes an uncontroversial reference to Jesus: refers to the martyrdom of James (62 AD), a leader of the Christians, after a trial before the Sandhedrin, as “the brother of Jesus, the so-called Messiah.”

Antiquities XVIII.iii.3 includes a controversial reference to Jesus (parts in italic are debated as to whether they were added by a later scribe): “About this time arose Jesus, a wise man, if indeed it be right to call him a man. For he was a doer of marvelous deeds, and a teacher of men who gladly receive the truth. He drew to himself many persons, both of the Jews and also of the Gentiles. He was the Christ. And when Pilate, upon the indictment of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at first did not cease to do so, for he appeared to them alive on the third day — the godly prophets having foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him. Even to this day the race of Christians, who are named for him, has not died out.”

Pliny the Younger (c. 62-113 AD) reports that “many of all ages and every rank and also of both sexes” were Christians. He likened Christianity to a spreading disease which affected “not the cities only, but also the villages and the country.” Speaking of Christians he wrote: “They maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft or robbery or adultery, not to break their word and not to deny a deposit when demanded. After this was done, their custom was to depart, and to meet again to take food, but ordinary harmless food (Epistles 10.96).”

Tactitus (c 55-117 AD) describes the persecution of Christians in Rome under Nero and blames them for the great fire that destroyed half of the city in 64 AD. “Their name comes from Christus, who in the reign of Tiberius as emperor was condemned to death by the procurator Pontius Pilate. The pernicious superstition was halted for a moment, only to break out once again, not only in Judea, where this evil originated, but even in Rome itself, where all the world’s horrible and shameful things collect and find a keen following (Annals xv 44).”

Series: Bible Study 101

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