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The New Testament


Much of the following will be familiar to you if you have already read the "How to use Barron's Book Notes" section on this disk. We have included this information individually here because there are many unique things you should be aware of when using Barron's Book Notes for the New Testament.

The New Testament is read by millions of Christians in churches and homes every day in the belief that it contains the word of God. Moreover, it is studied by historians seeking to understand the society and ideas of the ancient world. But the New Testament is also a book filled with fascinating characters, dramatic incidents, and speeches and letters of great beauty and intensity- in other words, it is a great work of literature.

You have to know how to approach literature in order to get the most out of it. This Barron's Book Notes volume is designed to help you read and understand the New Testament.

Begin with this guide's section on the New Testament and Its Times. As you read, try to form a clear picture of the religious ideas that lie behind the New Testament and the society that produced it. This background should make it easier for you to understand the life and teaching of Jesus, and the beliefs of the early Christians about what Jesus meant for them.

Then go over the rest of the introductory materials- such as sections on personalities, themes, and literary forms. Underline, or write down in your notebook, particular things to look for, such as crucial personalities and events, important religious teachings and moral ideas, and repeated literary devices.

Now you're ready to start reading the New Testament itself. You may want to put this Barron's Book Notes volume aside until you've completed the assigned reading. Or you may want to alternate, consulting the Book Notes analysis of each section as soon as you've finished reading the corresponding part of the original. As you read the New Testament, it's wise to underline passages of special importance, and to write key words in the margin. (Of course, you should only mark up an inexpensive copy of the New Testament that you own, not a family heirloom, and certainly not a Bible that belongs to a library or another person.) Reread crucial passages you don't understand. Don't just take this guide's analysis for granted- read the text carefully and think it through.

Once you've finished the assigned sections, you may want to review them right away, so you can clarify your ideas about what the text means. You may want to leaf through the assigned readings concentrating on the passages you underlined. This is also a good time to reread the Book Notes introductory material.

When it's time to prepare for a test or to write a paper, you'll already have formed ideas about the New Testament. You'll be able to go back through it, refreshing your memory as to the words and events described, so that you can support your opinions with evidence drawn from the text itself. Patterns will emerge, and ideas will fall into place. Give yourself a dry run with one of the sample tests in the guide. These tests present both multiple-choice and essay questions. An accompanying section gives answers to the multiple-choice questions as well as suggestions for writing the essays. If you have to choose a term- paper topic, you may select one from the list of suggestions in the book. This guide also provides you with a reading list, to help you when you start doing research for a term paper, and a selection of stimulating or provocative passages from commentators, to spark your thinking before you write.

The Bible has been translated into English many times and in many different styles. At the suggestion of the editors of this Barron's Book Notes series, the King James Version is used in this volume. It's the most widely circulated English translation, and its phrases have entered our language more than those of any other. In many editions of the King James Version, you'll find some words printed in italics. These are words that lack an exact equivalent in the original, but are supplied by the translators because of differences between Greek and English grammar and idioms. You can read more about the different versions of the New Testament in the section on Translations.



Thousands of years ago, great centers of population, political power, art, and technology were located in the river valleys of the Middle East- the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and the valley of the Nile in Egypt. Between these centers lay the less thickly settled, less prosperous land of Palestine, which from perhaps the thirteenth century B.C. was the home of the people of Israel. Around 1000 B.C. Israel was a strong kingdom under Saul, David, and Solomon. After Solomon the nation was weakened by division into a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah.

Non-Israelite peoples of the ancient Middle East worshiped many gods, who represented powers of nature like the sun, the storm, and the fertility of the soil or aspects of human existence like motherhood, wisdom, and sexual love. The Israelites worshiped one God, whom they conceived as creator of all things. They believed that God had made a covenant (a solemn agreement) with Abraham, promising to give Palestine to Abraham's descendants. They believed that the twelve Israelite tribes, descended from Abraham, had later become slaves in Egypt and that God had freed them under the leadership of Moses and had given them possession of Palestine under the leadership of Joshua.

The Israelites believed that God had made a covenant with their ancestors in the days of Moses, saying "I... will be your God, and ye shall be my people" (Leviticus 26:12). They believed He had given them a law that required them to worship Him with sacrifices of animals and foods, such as wheat, and that regulated many aspects of their behavior. This law included the Ten Commandments. It also required the Israelites to circumcise their male children and to refrain from eating certain foods. From the tenth century B.C. the sacrifices were carried out chiefly in a Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.

The religion of the ancient Israelites was threatened when they worshiped other gods or broke the law in other ways. From time to time, people known as prophets felt moved by God to deliver messages calling the Israelites to return to the purity of their faith. Over a period of centuries, books were written containing the law, the historical traditions of Israel, the messages of the prophets, and also the poetry and wisdom of the Israelites. These books form the Jewish Scriptures, or Old Testament. You can find out more about them in the volume on the Old Testament in this Book Notes series.


Before the Old Testament books had reached their final form, disaster struck the Israelites. In 722 B.C. the northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian Empire. In 586 B.C. the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonian Empire, and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. Many Israelites were carried into captivity in Mesopotamia. The people from Judah kept their identity and their religion in exile. In 539 B.C. the Babylonian Empire was conquered by the Persian Empire, and the Persians allowed the people of Judah to return to Palestine, The modern name for the people- the Jews- is derived from the name Judah.

The return didn't take place all at once, and it was never complete, but those who returned eventually rebuilt the Temple, and their religious practices were restored under the leadership of Ezra. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, was now used mostly for Scripture study and for other religious purposes. The daily language of the Jews was generally Aramaic, which was widely spoken in the Middle East. Although the Jews worshiped God with animal sacrifices in the second Temple in Jerusalem, they also had special meetinghouses (now called synagogues), where they studied the law and prayed.

In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great, the young King of Macedonia (now in northern Greece), conquered Palestine. He went on to conquer the whole Persian Empire. Though Alexander soon died, the Middle East remained in the hands of Greek-speaking rulers. They built new cities and settled many Greeks in the area. Greek art and literature, the Greek love of athletics, and the worship of the Greek gods were also brought into the Middle East. In Palestine, the spread of Greek culture was opposed by many religious Jews, who weren't prepared to give up their own culture and religion. The Jews revolted, and reestablished an independent state in the second century B.C., but it didn't last long. In 65 B.C. the Romans conquered Palestine.


The Jews of the Roman Empire were in a complex social, religious, and political situation. Many lived in Palestine, but many others lived in towns all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean lands. Although Aramaic remained the principal language of Palestinian Jews, many Jews- especially outside Palestine- spoke Greek, the common language of the Middle East under Roman rule. Translations of the Old Testament into Aramaic and Greek circulated among those who knew little Hebrew.

The Jewish religion had also changed since the days of the Israelite monarchy. Parties had arisen, which differed on important points of belief and practice. Members of the Pharisee party stressed the study and observance of the law, both the written law of the Scriptures and a body of traditional law that was handed down orally. They believed in the existence of angels and spirits and in the doctrine of resurrection- the belief God would eventually reunite the souls of the dead with their bodies. The Sadducee party, led by the priests who presided over the sacrifices in the Temple, accepted only the written Scriptures and denied resurrection and the existence of angels and spirits. The Sadducees apparently were fewer, wealthier, and more inclined to accept Roman rule than the Pharisees. A third party, the Essenes, is thought to have produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered starting in 1947. The scrolls were the library of a Jewish community that lived at Qumran in the desert east of Jerusalem and practiced strict religious observance and self-denial. The members of the community believed that the Temple worship and the practices of other Jews had become corrupted, and they expected a great war through which God would restore the religious practices they believed proper. Lastly there were Jews who adopted Greek language and culture while trying to remain faithful to their own religious tradition.

Most Jews didn't belong to any of these groups. They revered the Temple, attended meeting-houses, and observed the law as best they could. By and large, they seem to have distrusted the aristocratic Sadducees and to have admired the strict religious observance of the Pharisees. The vast majority were very poor, and had to spend most of their time working for a living. A small upper class controlled most of the wealth. Ordinary farmers and craftsmen were able to put food on the table and clothes on their backs by working hard, but a crop failure or a political disturbance could wipe them out. Medicine was primitive, and painful and disabling illnesses were common. Opportunities for education, recreation, or a secure old age scarcely existed.

Palestine was also the home of many Gentiles (non-Jews). There were Roman soldiers, Greek settlers, and indigenous Middle Eastern people, some of whom had adopted Greek ways. There were also Samaritans, a group centered in Samaria, a district north of Jerusalem. The Samaritans had the same law as the Jews, but they sacrificed on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. Apparently descended from the people of the old northern Kingdom, the Samaritans claimed to be the real heirs of ancient Israel. The Jews believed that relations with members of these groups might make them unclean in the eyes of God (disqualified from participating in worship), and there was much tension between groups.

The Roman government was an oppressive military dictatorship and taxed its subjects heavily. The Romans didn't always rule directly. From 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Herod the Great reigned as king of the Jews under Roman overlordship. Descended from an Edomite family recently converted to Judaism, the talented and cruel Herod rebuilt the Temple. But he was an admirer of Greek civilization, too, and a faithful ally of Rome. In A.D. 6, Rome took direct control of Judea, the area around Jerusalem, although it continued to rule other parts of Palestine- such as Galilee, in the north- through members of Herod's family. The political situation changed rapidly, but one thing was certain: the Romans, who held the power, had little respect for the Jewish religion and tolerated it only grudgingly.

The Jews believed that God had freed them from foreign domination before- from slavery in Egypt and from exile in Mesopotamia. Many Jews believed that God would liberate them again. This hope centered around a figure called the Messiah (meaning anointed- Israelite kings and priests had been anointed with oil as a sign of their sacred functions). Now Jews believed that God would send a Messiah to free them from the oppression and insecurity in which they lived. Some thought the Messiah would be a supernatural being who would re-create society and establish justice. Others expected a military leader who would defeat the Romans with God's help. Like the Pharisee belief in the resurrection of the dead and the Essene belief in a final struggle between good and evil, the belief in the coming of the Messiah was based on the idea that the existing order of things would come to a sudden end. Beliefs of this kind concerning an end of the world are called eschatology (from the Greek eschatos, meaning last).

In fact, the Jews did revolt against Roman rule. In A.D. 66 a group called the Zealots began a national uprising. They resisted Rome successfully for a time, but in 70 a Roman army captured Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, Pharisaism became the dominant force within Judaism, and the synagogue became the chief Jewish religious institution. Meanwhile, however, other events had taken place among the Jews of Palestine- events that were to change the world.


Jesus was born in Palestine about 6 B.C. (placing his birth at A.D. 1 is based on an inaccurate 6th- century reckoning). He spent his youth in Nazareth in Galilee. When he was grown, he began to preach and teach about what he called the Kingdom of God. Sometimes his teaching about the Kingdom had an eschatological side- the Kingdom would come soon- and sometimes it stressed the Kingdom as already here. Like the prophets of earlier times, he called for a renewal of faith in God, and he criticized the beliefs and practices of many religious leaders, including the Pharisees and Sadducees. His deep confidence in God made a powerful impression on his listeners, and a small group of followers gathered around him. About A.D. 30 he and his followers visited Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover. When he entered the city, his followers and other Jews hailed him as the Messiah. The Temple authorities and the Roman officials took alarm. Jesus was arrested and quickly put to death.

You might have expected Jesus' followers to go back to Galilee and never be heard from again. Instead, they had an electrifying experience. They believed that Jesus had risen from the dead, that he had sent his Spirit into them to increase their faith and understanding, and that he wanted them to carry his message to the ends of the earth. Under the leadership of Peter and James, they preached that Jesus was the Messiah- that the Messiah was not a political or military leader, but a suffering servant of God. From the Greek Christos (which, like Messiah, means anointed), the new faith came to be called Christianity. Jesus had spoken of God as his Father; the Christians preached that Jesus was the Son of God, and that his followers could join with him as children of God. They expected the glorious, eschatological return of Jesus at an early date, to put an end to sin and sorrow.

Some Jews accepted Christianity, but many did not. It wasn't long before Paul, a Jew who became a Christian about A.D. 35, carried the message of Jesus to large numbers of Gentiles in different parts of the Roman Empire. For a time, there was controversy between those who thought Christianity was only for Jews (and Gentiles who became Jews) and those like Paul who thought it was equally for Gentiles. Paul's views prevailed. During the century after the death of Jesus, the success of Christian preaching among Gentiles, together with the disasters that befell the Jewish people as a result of their unsuccessful revolt against Rome, led to a clear separation between Christianity and Judaism. At the same time, Paul and other Christians writing in Greek, produced a number of texts expressing their answers to questions about who Jesus was and how Christians were related to him. Those texts Christians came to see as particularly valuable- the ones they thought written under the guidance of the Spirit- were later gathered to form the New Testament.


Several kinds of books make up the New Testament. The following brief outline will help you find your way:

  1. The Gospels. Gospel means good news. The Gospels are accounts of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
    1. Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Synoptic means taking a common view; these three Gospels have much material in common and are organized similarly. (See the following table.)
    2. John. This Gospel is organized differently than the Synoptics and contains material not found in them.
  2. Acts of the Apostles. This book is an account of the early Christian church.

  3. The Epistles. These are letters of early Christians.
    1. Pauline Epistles (attributed to Paul). Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Hebrews. (Authorship of Hebrews, Ephesians, and some of the other Epistles is uncertain.)

    2. Catholic Epistles (Catholic means universal; these letters are traditionally considered to be addressed to Christians in general.) James; 1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; and Jude.
  4. Revelation. This apocalypse, or book of visions, presents in symbolic form the future of Christianity and the world.

These 27 books weren't written in the order in which they now appear in the New Testament. One of the goals of New Testament scholars has been to ascertain when each book was actually written.


The locations of parallel passages in the synoptic Gospels are shown here. You'll note that some incidents appear in one or two Gospels, but not in all three.

                                  MATTHEW     MARK        LUKE              
  Genealogy of Jesus              1:1-17                  3:23-38           
  Annunciation to Mary                                    1:26-38           
  Joseph's Dream                  1:18-21                                   
  Birth of Jesus                  2:1                     2:1-7             
  John the Baptist's Preaching    3:1-12      1:2-8       3:1-18            
  Baptism of Jesus                3:13-17     1:9-11      3:21-22           
  Temptation of Jesus             4:1-11      1:12-13     4:1-13            
  Sermon on the Mount             5:1-7:29                                  
  Sermon on the Plain                                     6:17-49           
  Call of the 12 Apostles         10:1-4      3:13-19     6:12-16           
  The Sower *                     13:1-23     4:2-20      8:4-15            
  John the Baptist Beheaded       14:1-12     6:14-29     9:7-9             
  Peter's Confession              16:13-20    8:27-30     9:18-21           
  Transfiguration of Jesus        17:1-8      9:2-8       9:28-36           
  The Good Samaritan *                                    10:29-37          
  The Lost Sheep *                18:10-14                15:1-7            
  The Prodigal Son *                                      15:11-32          
  The Rich Man and Lazarus *                              16:19-31          
  The Laborers in the Vineyard *  20:1-16                                   
  Entry into Jerusalem            21:1-11     11:1-11     19:28-40          
  Cleansing of the Temple         21:12-17    11:15-19    19:45-48          
  The Wicked Husbandmen *         21:33-46    12:1-9      20:9-19           
  The Greatest Commandment        22:35-40    12:28-34    10:25-28          
  Little Apocalypse               24:1-44     13:1-37     21:5-36           
  Last Supper                     26:17-29    14:12-25    22:7-23           
  Agony in the Garden             26:36-46    14:32-42    22:39-46          
  Jesus before the High Priest    26:57-68    14:53-65    22:54,66-71       
  Peter's Denial                  26:69-75    14:66-72    22:55-62          
  Jesus before Pilate             27:1-2,     15:1-5      23:1-5            
  Jesus before Herod                                      23:6-12           
  Crucifixion of Jesus            27:32-56    15:21-41    23:26-49          
  Resurrection of Jesus           28:1-10     16:1-9      24:1-12           
  * parable                                                                 


The first New Testament books written were the authentic Epistles (see Authenticity, Canonicity, and Inspiration, below) of Paul, probably starting with 1 Thessalonians at the beginning of the 50s. In the mid-50s Paul wrote his great Epistles- Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans- and then or a little later Philippians and Philemon. If Paul wrote it, Colossians also originated around the mid-50s.

If the Epistle of James is authentic, it may have been written as early as the 50s, but many scholars think it was written late in the first century (perhaps incorporating older material). If 1 Peter is authentic, it must have been written by the early 60s, but some scholars think it was written at the end of the first century.

Some time shortly before or after 70, the Gospel of Mark was written, possibly by John Mark. It's likely that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written in the 80s, using Mark as a source. Matthew may include traditions that came from the apostle Matthew, but few scholars think that, in its present form, it was actually written by him. On the other hand, Luke could have written the Gospel that bears his name. In any case, the author of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles.

Another book many scholars think may have been written in the 80s is Hebrews (though a case can be made for the 60s). Its author is unknown. Many scholars think Ephesians was written late in the first century, perhaps as an introduction to a collection of Paul's Epistles. Probably 2 Thessalonians was also written late in the century, by an imitator of Paul.

The Book of Revelation was probably written in the early 90s, though it may include some older material.

The Johannine literature- the Gospel of John and the Epistles 1, 2, and 3 John- was probably written about the turn of the century. The Gospel may well be based on traditions that originated with the apostle John, and all four books may have been produced in a community he founded. Many scholars think the Epistle of Jude was also written about the turn of the century.

The Epistles 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus were written, in the judgment of many scholars, by an imitator of Paul early in the second century. 2 Peter was probably written in the first half of the second century.


By the time the last New Testament books had been written- or very soon afterward- other works had also been written by Christians. These include the letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians (1 Clement), the manual of church teaching known as the Didache, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and the Gospel of Thomas. The early Christians used the Hebrew Scriptures (in Greek translation) as their Bible. But they believed that the Spirit of God was active in the church, and that many pronouncements made orally or in writing by Christians contained messages inspired by the Spirit. No consensus existed, early in the second century, as to which Christian writings enjoyed that authority.

In 139 or 140 a Christian from Asia Minor came to Rome. His name was Marcion. He was serious and devout, and particularly devoted to the teachings of Paul. The conclusions that Marcion drew from his studies, however, brought him into conflict with the church authorities. Marcion believed that the Jewish God, the Creator and Lawgiver, was totally different from the forgiving and saving God revealed by Jesus. Marcion taught that Christians shouldn't use the Hebrew Scriptures. In their place, he gathered together a new body of sacred books: the Gospel of Luke and ten Pauline Epistles (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians [which he called Laodiceans], Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon). He revised these books, removing as later interpolations the passages that suggested continuity with the Old Testament. Marcion was expelled from the Roman church in 144, but he gained many followers and his movement flourished for centuries.

Probably in response to Marcion, Christian church leaders began to put the New Testament together. It's likely that they would have done something like this sooner or later, for virtually every religion has its sacred books. But the decision to recognize all four Gospels, and to add the other Epistles, may have been directed against Marcion and his followers. And the decision to recognize this body of Christian writings as the "New" Testament and to join it with the "Old" Testament may well have been a response to Marcion's rejection of the Hebrew Scriptures. The oldest non-Marcionist Christian list of Scriptural works we possess is the so-called Muratorian Canon, apparently written in Rome in the 170s. (Canon means rule or standard, and can refer to the body of writings accepted as authoritative by a religious group.)

During the second and third centuries, there were disagreements about the acceptance of Hebrews (because of doubts that it was written by Paul), James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. The Book of Revelation was also controversial. But the canon gradually became fixed.


Before the invention of printing, books had to be copied by hand. Copyists introduced differences, either by making errors or by trying to correct what they thought to be errors in the manuscripts from which they were working. As a result, any two copies of the same work are likely to differ slightly and scholars must compare manuscripts to try to recover the original text. Many sources help modern scholars determine what the original New Testament authors wrote. These include:

  1. Papyri, which were written on papyrus (an ancient writing material made from a marsh plant). More than 70 papyri containing parts of the Greek New Testament, written between the second century and the eighth, are known.

  2. Uncial manuscripts, which were written, usually on vellum (made from animal skins) in large, unconnected letters. About 300 uncial manuscripts of all or part of the Greek New Testament, written between the fourth and tenth centuries, are known. Some are famous, such as the fourth century Codex Vaticanus, the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, and the fifth century Codex Alexandrinus (a codex is a group of ancient manuscript pages sewn in book form rather than put in scroll form).

  3. Minuscule manuscripts, which were written in a smaller, more free-flowing script than uncial manuscripts. Nearly 3000 minuscule manuscripts of all or part of the Greek New Testament, written between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, are known.

  4. Lectionaries, which are books of readings from the New Testament for use in public worship. More than 1800 medieval manuscripts of Greek lectionaries are known.

  5. Versions, which are early translations of the Greek New Testament into other languages, notably Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Gothic, Armenian, and Ethiopic. Versions can be used to reconstruct the Greek text used by the translators in ancient times.

  6. Quotations in ancient writers. Early Christian writers often quoted the New Testament, and their quotations reveal the kind of texts they used.


Ancient and medieval Christian scholars looked to the New Testament for answers to questions about belief, worship, and church organization. Many of these writers were very learned, and they studied the New Testament closely. Often they seem to have been more interested in moral edification or current controversy than in understanding what the New Testament authors had meant in their own time and cultural context. They also lacked the wealth of manuscript material available to modern scholars. They used what manuscripts they had, and when they found two manuscripts that differed they reconciled them as best they could.

The invention of printing in the fifteenth century created the possibility of wider circulation of the New Testament, but also the need for editing the text. The first printed Greek New Testament to appear was edited by the humanist scholar Erasmus (1466?-1536) and published at Basel, Switzerland, in 1516. Another Greek edition had been printed in 1514 in Spain, but it wasn't released until 1520. The text of Erasmus went through many editions, and corrections were made as new manuscripts came to light. In the seventeenth century, an edition of Erasmus' text was dubbed the textus receptus- the text received by all- and the name is used for this whole series of New Testament editions.


The textus receptus was based on few manuscripts, and those were not the best. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, scholars examined more and more manuscripts and started to work out the rules of textual criticism- the scientific study of differences between manuscripts to discover which best represents the original author's work.

The nineteenth century saw the greatest progress in textual criticism. Scholars like Constantine von Tischendorf (1815-1874), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901), and F. J. A. Hort (1828-1892) made tremendous strides in gathering and comparing New Testament manuscripts. The work has continued, and new readings of individual passages are proposed from time to time, but the edition of Westcott and Hort, published in 1881, has remained for more than a century the most influential text of the Greek New Testament.


In the eighteenth century, scholars began to go beyond the problems of textual criticism, and to ask questions about the historical accuracy of the Bible. Thinkers of the eighteenth century were less inclined than their predecessors to believe in miracles, or in the supernatural in general. An attempt to reconstruct a so-called historical Jesus- a Jesus without miracles- began with Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768). In the nineteenth century this higher criticism developed rapidly. It was popularized by the Life of Jesus of the French historian Ernest Renan (1823-1892), an attractive presentation of Jesus' life and teachings purged of supernatural elements. Telling criticism of this school of thought came, early in the twentieth century, from Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) in his Quest of the Historical Jesus. Schweitzer argued that the higher critics had been unfaithful to history, that first century people had believed strongly in the supernatural, and that eschatology in particular was central to the beliefs of the first Christians.


Scholars in the first half of the twentieth century, led by Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) and Martin Dibelius (1883-1947), began to take a new look at the circumstances in which the New Testament was written. They broke the text into units (pericopes) classified according to literary form. They then tried to discover the place of the original units in the life of the early church, to discover the processes by which early Christian tradition evolved before the Gospels were written. Distinguishing between sayings of Jesus and the narratives in which the sayings appear, they argued that many of the sayings weren't originally uttered in the circumstances reported in the Gospels. Bultmann, in particular, tried to "demythologize" Jesus- to identify the myths he believed had grown up around the figure of Jesus in the minds of Christians during the decades before the Gospels were written. Although some of the conclusions of form criticism remain controversial, it has made a great contribution to our understanding of the traditions that influenced the writing of the New Testament, and the circumstances in which these traditions took shape in the Christian community.


Since World War II, scholars have tried to build on the achievements of the form critics by looking at the way the texts of the New Testament books took shape. (Redaction means editing.) The form critics stressed the task of distinguishing between units within the text. The redaction critics have examined how these units were put together by New Testament authors, and the changes critics believed the authors made in the materials they were using. They shifted some attention back from community tradition to individual authors, and from sources to the texts we now possess.


The work of modern New Testament scholars has often shocked and offended conservative Christians. It may help you keep the controversies in perspective if you distinguish clearly among three concepts.


A book (or part of a book) of the New Testament is considered authentic by scholars if they judge that the book was written by the author to whom it's attributed. Questions of authenticity are debated on the basis of the vocabulary and style of a text, its ideas, its relationship to other texts, and the state of development of the church it reflects. Most scholars consider Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians authentic letters of Paul, for example, while most scholars deny that Hebrews is an authentic work of Paul.


The twenty-seven books of the New Testament are all canonical- included in Scripture. No differences exist between the New Testament canons of Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox Christians. Thus, for example, Hebrews is a canonical book, whether it is authentic or not. In contrast, there are differences among Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews about the Old Testament canon.


An inspired book is believed to contain divine revelation. The question whether a book represents the Word of God is a matter of religious faith. A person, for example, who denies that there is a God Who reveals Himself to human beings can accept Galatians as an authentic work of Paul, and can recognize that it is in the New Testament canon, but will not believe that it is inspired.

Inspiration is understood by different people in different ways. Some Christians believe that inspiration guarantees that every word in the Bible is literally true and free from any kind of error. Others believe that inspiration guarantees the truth of the religious teachings conveyed in Scripture, without ruling out the possibility that the writers made mistakes or simplifications on other matters, or even that they embodied certain teachings in myths. Finally, there are some who think that people- not books- can be inspired, and that the New Testament records genuine experiences that people had of God, but records them in a way that has no special guarantee of accuracy.


ECC [The New Testament Contents] []
© Copyright 1986 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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