New Testament

New Testament, the distinctively Christian portion of the Bible, consisting of 27 books of varying lengths dating from the earliest Christian period. The seven epistles whose authorship by St. Paul is undisputed were written c.a.d. 50–a.d. 60; most of the remaining books were written in the era a.d. 70–100, often incorporating earlier traditions. All were written in the koinē idiom of the Greek language.

The works are, in the conventional order: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles, a history of apostolic missionary activity; 21 letters written in apostolic times, called epistles, named for their addressee (or, in the case of the last seven, for their putative author)—Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, First and Second Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, First and Second Timothy, Titus (these 13 comprising the Pauline corpus, although Paul's authorship of the last six is disputed), Hebrews, James, First and Second Peter, First, Second, and Third John, and Jude; and finally Revelation, or the Apocalypse. Most present problems of date, composition, or authorship. All reflect the needs of the community addressed, as well as their religious convictions and cultural heritage. Consequently, they reflect a diversity of viewpoints while agreeing that Jesus' death and resurrection marks the decisive intervention of God in human affairs.

The 27 books of the New Testament represent only a portion of early Christian literature (see patristic literature). There are other gospels, epistles, narratives, and apocalypses among the Pseudepigrapha and in the Nag Hammadi corpus. The selection of books considered canonical, i.e., authoritative, evolved over the first four centuries of the Christian era. The first canon was compiled by the heretic Marcion in the mid-2d cent. Marcion accepted only the letters of Paul (though not Titus or First and Second Timothy) and a truncated version of the Gospel of St. Luke. The earliest extant orthodox list is the Muratorian canon (c.190 or possibly later), which contains most of the books finally accepted as canonical. There was, however, dispute for some time over seven books (Hebrews, James, Second Peter, Second and Third John, Jude, and Revelation) eventually included in the canon, and over others (including the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, First Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas (see Barnabas, Saint, and the Didache). The present New Testament canon appears for the first time in the Festal Letter of St. Athanasius (367). The criterion was that works written by an apostle or by a colleague of one could be trusted to preserve the authentic apostolic witness to Jesus. The traditional view has been that a canonical work must also be divinely inspired. All major Christian traditions use the same New Testament.

See studies by H. Koester (1982); L. T. Johnston (1986); D. E. Aune (1987); E. J. Epp and G. W. MacRae (1989); R. A. Spivey and D. M. Smith (1989); J. D. G. Dunn (1990); R. Price (1996); R. E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (1997).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: New Testament