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The New Testament



The following are major themes of the New Testament.


    Central to the New Testament is the theme that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. For centuries, Jews had looked forward to the coming of the Messiah. Under the rule of Greeks and Romans, most Jews expected that the Messiah would be a king sent by God to free them from foreign domination and reestablish an independent Jewish state. Other Jews interpreted the idea of the Messiah in more supernatural terms, and saw his coming as an event that would overthrow the evil in the world and establish the reign of goodness.

    A few modern historians have suggested that Jesus may in fact have had political ambitions. In the New Testament, however, the Christ is depicted as a purely religious figure. He announces the Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God, a condition of perfect peace and supernatural joy. Sometimes this is spoken of as coming in the future, sometimes as already present. Jesus' parables, especially, suggest that the life of the Kingdom has begun, but is developing gradually, and is not yet fully realized.


    When the New Testament was written, Christians were wrestling with many problems about the nature of the Christ. Was Jesus a man to whom God gave the unique role of the Christ when God raised Jesus from the dead? Did Jesus become the Christ at the time of his baptism? Was he the Christ from the time of his conception and birth? Was he a divine being- the Word of God- who existed before the creation of the world, and who was born as a man in order to lead the human race into a new relationship with God? You'll find support for each of these positions in the New Testament.


    The New Testament writers saw the human race, before the coming of Jesus, as trapped in a miserable cycle of sin and death. The Epistles of Paul, and other parts of the New Testament, develop the theme that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, saved his followers from sin and opened the door to everlasting life. His death is described as a sacrifice that wiped out human guilt. This is known as the Redemption. As a consequence of the sacrificial death by which he redeems the human race, Jesus becomes the Lord, or ruler, of the world.


    Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as a moral teacher. He preaches purity of heart, sincerity, humility, and detachment from worldly cares. Sometimes he teaches that his followers should give up all their possessions, and offer no resistance to evildoers. For centuries, Christians have debated whether this advice is to be taken literally. Above all he stresses the importance of love for God and love for one's neighbor. After the time of Jesus, the leaders of the early Christian community give detailed advice on many moral questions in their Epistles.


    By the time the New Testament was written, Christian churches existed in Palestine and in many other parts of the Roman Empire. The Acts of the Apostles and many of the Epistles describe aspects of the early history of Christianity. As the product of the faith of Christian communities, the Gospels emphasize those things in the life and sayings of Jesus that Christians found relevant to the worship, conduct, and organization of their churches.


    Sometimes the New Testament authors stress the belief that Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism. Although it may seem strange today, they thought that all Jews, to be faithful to their tradition, should become Christians. Sometimes they stress the opposition between the Law, the Jewish law contained in the Old Testament, and the Gospel, the new dispensation begun by the Christ. And sometimes their writings describe or reflect controversies between Jesus, or his followers, and various Jewish groups such as the Pharisees.


    The first Christians believed that Jesus would soon return and that the world as they knew it would come to an end. This theme, known as eschatology, is important in many parts of the New Testament. It appears in several of Paul's Epistles, and in the Gospels. The Book of Revelation, written a couple of generations after the time of Jesus, reaffirms the belief that the world will come to an end. Eschatological beliefs include the belief in the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the Day of Judgment.

    Keep these main themes in mind as you read. You'll notice that New Testament authors handle these themes in somewhat different ways. Each treats his materials from his own viewpoint. These differences have given rise to controversies among New Testament interpreters. The authors of Matthew and Luke, for example, consider the miraculous birth of Jesus- his mother's virginity, appearances of angels, and so forth- as a significant part of his role as the Christ, while the authors of Mark and John give no details about his birth. Again, the synoptic Gospels set Jesus' preaching career in northern Palestine, and seem to confine it to a single year, while the author of John reports several journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem, and seems to assign three years to Jesus' ministry. Again, the author of John tells the story of the Last Supper at more length than the synoptic authors, but he doesn't mention the Eucharist there, though it is important in all three of the synoptic accounts. Again, according to Matthew the risen Jesus appears to his apostles in Galilee, according to Luke in Jerusalem, and according to John in both places. Again, the question of whether the Jewish law was binding on Christians was highly controversial in the first century. Paul emphatically denies it, while the author of Matthew occasionally depicts Jesus as commanding obedience to the law. Again, Paul's whole discussion of salvation is based on the idea that Christians are saved by faith, not works, while the author of James insists that faith without works is of no value. Finally, Paul and the author of 1 Peter say the power of the Roman Empire comes from God, and advise Christians to uphold it, while the author of Revelation considers the government diabolical and prays for its speedy downfall.

[The New Testament Contents]


The following are personalities of the New Testament.


    Jesus is one of the most familiar persons in the history of the Western world. Traditional Christian churches confess him as "God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God." Millions accept him as Lord, as Christ, as Savior. In most Western lands it's hard to spend a day without hearing Jesus quoted, or seeing a picture or statue of him. He died nearly two thousand years ago, and yet today there are hundreds of thousands of people- lonely, hungry, sick, despised, imprisoned, dying- who believe that he is their only friend.

    Most of what is known or believed about Jesus comes from the New Testament. The four Gospels are filled with his words: he speaks of God as his Father, calls on people to love one another, announces the coming of the Kingdom of God. The Gospels also contain many vivid incidents, in which we see Jesus eating with friends, answering the questions of strangers, confronted by enemies. His personality, as presented in the Gospels, encompasses many opposites. He is strong and gentle, forthright and compassionate, traditional and revolutionary. Many persons who do not accord Jesus religious veneration nevertheless give him their deepest admiration.

    Although he is so familiar, there's a lot we don't know about Jesus. The Gospels depict his preaching career, which lasted just a few years, and his death. Two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke, begin with stories of his birth and childhood, but scholars doubt the historical reliability of these "infancy narratives." Of his formative years, we know practically nothing. What, then, do we know about him?

    Jesus was probably born about 6 B.C. He grew up in the town of Nazareth in Galilee, in northern Palestine, and spent most of his life in otherwise obscure villages. He was a carpenter by trade. His everyday language was almost certainly Aramaic. Probably he knew Hebrew as well, for his literary education consisted of the study of the Hebrew Scriptures, which he quoted frequently.

    When he was about thirty years old, he was baptized. He became a preacher and healer, and followers gathered around him. People called him Rabbi or Rabboni (John 3:2, 20:16), meaning teacher. Crowds called him "Jesus the prophet of Nazareth" (Matthew 21:11). And one of his closest followers called him "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). About A.D. 30, he was crucified at Jerusalem, and soon afterward his followers announced that he had risen from the dead.



    The virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned several times in the Gospels. She's especially prominent in the story of Jesus' birth in Luke. In John it is at her request that Jesus performs his first miracle, at the marriage at Cana. She appears at the Crucifixion, and she is with the apostles afterward. Readers of the New Testament are often surprised to find relatively little about her there, in view of her importance in later Christian devotion.

    Certainly the veneration of Mary as the Mother of God has played a distinctive part in the history of Western thought and feeling. In medieval times the figure of Mary introduced a special maternal tenderness into the religious conceptions of Catholic and Orthodox Christians. In Western art, the figure of Mary is almost as familiar as that of Jesus himself.

    Joseph, a carpenter, was the husband of Mary and the father or foster father of Jesus. He plays an important part in the birth story of Jesus in Matthew. The Gospel writers give him no role in Jesus' adult life and presumably thought he had died by then.


    John the Baptist is depicted in the Gospels as a Jewish prophet, who lived a life of self-denial in the deserts of Judea, preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, urged people to turn away from their sins, and baptized them in the Jordan River to signify such a turning away (repentance). John's mother Elisabeth is described as a cousin of Mary (Luke 1:36). Jesus' ministry begins with his baptism by John, and his first preaching echoes John's preaching of the Kingdom.


    According to Mark 6:3, Jesus had at least four brothers: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon, as well as sisters whose number and names are unspecified. At one point during Jesus' ministry, his brothers didn't believe in him (John 7:5). Nevertheless, at least one of the brothers played an important part in early Christianity, for Paul describes James, the leader of the Jerusalem church, as "the Lord's brother" (Galatians 1:19). Some readers think the brothers and sisters of Jesus were children of Mary and Joseph. Others, especially Catholics committed to the belief that Mary remained a virgin all her life, have denied this. They've suggested that the brothers and sisters were children of Joseph by an earlier marriage, or that they were Jesus' cousins.


Jesus chose twelve men as the inner circle among his followers, and they're called the twelve apostles, from the Greek apostolos, meaning one who is sent, a messenger. The twelve are listed in Matthew 10:2- 4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16, and Acts 1:13. The four lists are very similar, although they're not in exactly the same order, and a few of the names differ.

The twelve apostles are Simon, known as Peter or Cephas; Andrew, his brother; James, son of Zebedee; John, his brother; Philip; Bartholomew (or Nathanael); Matthew (or Levi); Thomas; James, son of Alpheus; Simon the Zealot (or the Canaanite); Jude (or Lebbeus, or Thaddeus), brother of James; and Judas Iscariot. The fact that two of the apostles are named Simon, two James, and two Jude or Judas, isn't really surprising, in view of the great popularity of these names among Jews at the time (James is an English form of the name Jacob).

Peter appears in the Gospels as the leader of the twelve, and he also plays a big part in the Acts of the Apostles. He's really the only one of the twelve who emerges as a full-fledged personality in the New Testament. Peter, James, and John seem to make up an inner circle within the inner circle. If, as many scholars believe, John is the beloved disciple spoken of in the Gospel of John, he enjoyed the particular friendship of Jesus.

The apostles seem to have exercised a collective leadership over the church for a time after the Crucifixion, but in the New Testament they are (with the exception of Peter) quickly overshadowed by the personality of Paul.

  • PAUL

    Paul was the most dynamic figure in the history of Christianity during the generation after the Crucifixion. He was born, perhaps about A.D. 10, into a Jewish family at Tarsus, in what is now southeastern Turkey. His original name was Saul. Since he inherited the privileged status of Roman citizenship, his family evidently didn't belong to the lowest classes of society. On the other hand, Paul wasn't wealthy. He earned his living as a tent-maker (Acts 18:3).

    During his early life, Paul was a devout Jew. He belonged to the Pharisee party, which observed the Jewish law strictly. Not long after the Crucifixion of Jesus, Paul was in Jerusalem, pursuing his religious studies. His first contacts with Christianity were hostile. He joined with the crowd that killed Stephen, and he became an active persecutor of Christians. While he was on the way to Damascus, sent to arrest Christians there, he was suddenly converted to Christianity- an event that was seen as a miracle.

    Paul became a zealous preacher of the new faith, working among Jews and Gentiles in the Greek- speaking cities of his own home region of Asia Minor and on the mainland of Greece. Because of his particular success among Gentiles, he became known as the Apostle of the Gentiles. Paul believed that Christians didn't have to observe the Jewish law, and he defended this position in controversy with Jewish Christians. Over the long run, Paul more than anyone else was responsible for making Christianity a universal religion.

    In the New Testament, Paul's life is depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, although that account breaks off before his death. According to tradition he died as a martyr in Rome in the 60s. His letters to various churches, notably Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, make up an important part of the New Testament. In them, he discusses many crucial religious concepts, and also reveals his own personality- his lively mind, his personal sensitivity, and his burning religious zeal.



    Apart from the apostles, the Gospels speak of a number of important friends of Jesus. Mary Magdalene has unique importance, as the principal witness to the Resurrection. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, two sisters and a brother who lived at Bethany near Jerusalem, were also close friends of Jesus.


    Many first-century Christians are mentioned in the New Testament. The twelve apostles were assisted by seven deacons, of whom Stephen and Philip were the most prominent. Stephen is remembered as the first Christian martyr. Paul's important associates included Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, Titus, John Mark, and Luke. The last two are traditionally considered the authors of the second and third Gospels. Paul knew a married couple named Priscilla and Aquila well. Another important early Christian preacher was Apollos, about whom we'd like to know more.


    The author of the Book of Revelation, a Christian called John who reports that he had a series of visions on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea off what is now the west coast of Turkey, is one of the most unusual personalities of the New Testament. He probably wrote toward the end of the first century. We know virtually nothing of his external life, but he tells us a great deal about his internal experiences.

[The New Testament Contents]



The New Testament contains three different kinds of books.


    The four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are accounts of events. The word gospel comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning good news. It translates the Greek evangelion. Originally, in the 30s and 40s and 50s of the first century, the good news proclaimed by the Christian church wasn't conveyed in written form. It was the oral preaching of the salvation that Christians believed God offered to humanity through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The accounts of Jesus written in the second half of the first century came to be called Gospels, because the main purpose of the authors in telling the story was again to spread this good news. The authors of the Gospels gathered the traditions that circulated in the Christian community a generation or two after Jesus' time. They wrote from hindsight- from the perspective of their belief that Jesus was the Christ, the Savior, the risen Lord. There's every reason to think that, if they made mistakes in setting down the historical record, it was despite their best efforts to understand and transmit the truth.

    The Acts of the Apostles, though it deals with events after Jesus' lifetime, has the same character as the Gospels. In a real sense, Acts is an attempt to tell the story of the life of the risen Jesus in his church.

    Within these historical accounts, you'll find two main kinds of material: narrative material and sayings material. Narrative material, such as miracle stories and the story of Jesus' Passion (his arrest, trial, and crucifixion), tells about actions. Sayings material is of several types. It includes teaching sermons of Jesus, notably the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It includes parables, which are brief stories that Jesus told in the course of teaching. In a parable, to help listeners understand a concept, it is presented by being likened to something seen in everyday life. Thus, for example, in the parable of the seed that grows by itself (Mark 4:26-29) Jesus says the Kingdom of God is "as if" a man planted seed, and then left it alone. The plant grows by itself, "he knoweth not how," but when the time comes he harvests it. The story illustrates the mysterious way Jesus saw the growth of the Kingdom of God in the world- not by people's deliberate efforts, but seemingly of its own accord. Another kind of sayings material is the "I am" speeches in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says "I am the light of the world" (John 8:12), "I am the good shepherd" (John 10:11), "I am the true vine" (John 15:1). These sayings are metaphors intended to reveal various aspects of Jesus' role. (A metaphor speaks of something as if it were a second thing to suggest shared qualities, as when we say "my mother is an angel" or "John is a pig".)

    Acts has many speeches, too, most of which are proclamation speeches, representing the form the preaching of the good news took before the writing of the Gospels.


    Epistle means letter, and most New Testament Epistles are written in letter form. This form usually includes several parts:

    1. The address, for example "Paul... Unto the churches of Galatia... Grace be to you, and peace, from God the Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1:1-3). The address includes the names of the sender and the recipients, and a greeting.
    2. The thanksgiving, for example "I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 1:4).
    3. The letter body, which often begins with a discussion of religious doctrine and ends with practical advice.
    4. Concluding greetings, which can be as long as Romans 16:3-16, 21-23, which includes greetings to two dozen named individuals, and from eight named individuals, or as short as 2 Corinthians 13:13, which says "All the saints salute you."
    5. Final blessing, for example "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen" (Philippians 4:23).


    The third kind of book in the New Testament is vision literature, writing that purports to be an account of supernatural visions the author says he has had. The only example is the Book of Revelation.


No other book has been translated as often as the New Testament. By 1980 it had been translated into some 745 languages. Bible translation has played an important part in the cultural history of the world. Some languages had never been written until missionaries devised linguistic systems so the Bible could be translated. Many languages have had their vocabulary enriched through Bible translation.

Some Bible translations have been literary monuments in their own right. The Latin Vulgate translation, produced at the end of the fourth century by Jerome, became the standard Bible of Western Europe in the Middle Ages. The Vulgate translation was used for the first printed Bible (the Gutenberg Bible of 1456), and it was the official Roman Catholic version until modern times. The German translation by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), of which the New Testament appeared in 1522, has had a tremendous influence on the German language.

The translation of parts of the Bible into English began already in Anglo-Saxon times (before 1066), and followers of the religious reformer John Wycliffe (1324-1384) produced a complete English Bible in the fourteenth century. These medieval translations were made from Jerome's Vulgate. The Protestant Reformation gave new urgency to translation projects. William Tyndale (about 1494-1536), an English supporter of the Reformation, printed the first New Testament translated into English from the original Greek in 1526. A series of versions, often revisions of Tyndale, appeared in the sixteenth century. In 1604, James 1 of England ordered a new translation of the Bible, to be used in the public worship of the Church of England. The translation, based largely on Tyndale, was published in 1611. It is often called the Authorized Version, but in the United States it's commonly known as the King James Version. It soon became the most widely used English Bible among Protestants. Meanwhile, English-speaking Roman Catholics used the translation of the Vulgate New Testament by Gregory Martin (about 1540-82), published in Rheims, France, in 1582. These two versions held the field, in English-speaking lands, for centuries.

Since World War II, many distinguished new translations have appeared. The Revised Standard Version of the New Testament was published in 1946. It's a thorough revision of the King James Version. The Jerusalem Bible, with excellent textual notes, appeared under Roman Catholic auspices in Great Britain in 1966. Also in 1966, the New Testament in Today's English Version (Good News Bible), a very readable version, was published by American Protestants. British Protestant scholars produced the New English Bible in 1970, and American Catholic scholars published the New American Bible the same year. The New Testament in the New International Version, translated by conservative Protestant scholars from many English-speaking countries, appeared in 1973.

Does it seem strange to you that new translations should keep appearing? It's a testimony to the intense interest people continue to have in the Bible. There are two reasons why it's good- even necessary- for new translations to appear. The first is the fact that language changes. The King James Version, published in Shakespeare's time, contains many words that have changed their meaning, and many features of its style seem strange to modern readers. Secondly, the Greek text from which translators work is continually being improved. The King James translators used the old textus receptus. Nineteenth and twentieth century scholars have been able to examine hundreds of ancient and medieval manuscripts that weren't available to scholars in 1611, and today's translators have a Greek text of the New Testament that's closer to the words written by the original authors.

Translations of the New Testament often differ drastically in style and tone, and there can be minor variations in content. A good way of seeing the differences is to compare versions of the same passage. Here are seven translations of Jesus' words in Matthew 7:1-2.


Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.


Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.


Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given.


Do not judge others, so that God will not judge you, for God will judge you in the same way you judge others, and he will apply to you the same rules you apply to others.


Pass no judgement, and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt back to you.


If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment. Your verdict on others will be the verdict passed on you. The measure with which you measure will be used to measure you.


Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Notice that some of these versions render the passage in one sentence, some in two, and one in three. Notice, too, the flexibility of the translators in choosing the active or passive voice in their efforts to make the passage as clear as possible. One version even moves the part about not being judged out of the passive, though this requires the introduction of God- who is not named here in the Greek original- and thus changes the point of the passage.


In the fourth century, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire- essentially, the lands that surround the Mediterranean Sea. During the next thousand years the Catholic form of Christianity spread across northern Europe, its Orthodox form to Russia, its Monophysite form to Ethiopia, and its Nestorian form to Central Asia and India. With the age of discovery, starting at the end of the fifteenth century, a new cycle of expansion began. Christians from Europe settled in North and South America, Australia, and New Zealand. Missionaries converted many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Philippines, and Christianity became widespread in many parts of black Africa. By the mid-1980s, more than one billion people were Christians. It's not surprising, then, that the New Testament has become the most widely disseminated book on earth.

The New Testament's greatest influence has, of course, been in the area of religion. Christian churches have tried to structure their organizational forms according to the patterns they found in the New Testament. Organized Christianity's emphasis on baptism, on the celebration of the Eucharist, and on the preaching of the gospel clearly goes back to the New Testament. Above all, the inner experience of faith and the inner confidence in redemption and the forgiveness of sin in Jesus, which have helped hundreds of millions of Christians to face the troubles and disillusionments of life, derive either from their personal reading of the New Testament or from having the New Testament preached to them.

In the arts, the New Testament has also had tremendous influence. If museums, churches, and homes throughout the world were emptied overnight of all pictures and statues of the Crucifixion, of the Madonna and Child, and of hundreds of other New Testament themes, much of the world's artistic heritage would disappear. By the same token, if we didn't have the oratorios, hymns, and liturgical music inspired by the New Testament, our stock of great compositions would shrink considerably. Our literature refers often to the New Testament. When authors speak of the salt of the earth, our daily bread, a thorn in the flesh, the good fight, faith without works, casting pearls before swine, hiding our light under a bushel, a good Samaritan, or a doubting Thomas, they're quoting the New Testament, whether knowingly or not.

In the realm of ethics, the influence of the New Testament has been twofold. On the one hand the noble moral standard recommended by Jesus- love your neighbor as yourself- has been the ideal of millions. If you look around the world, and see people cheating their neighbors and bombing their neighbors, you may be struck by the extent to which the standard has remained only an ideal. A cynic might say that, in this respect, the New Testament has been the least influential book ever written. But there have been many attempts- in modern times, for example, by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the non-Christian Indian political leader Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), the American social reformer Dorothy Day (1897-1980), and the American civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)- to put this ideal into practice.

On the other hand, the moral advice given in the New Testament, especially the Epistles- warnings against anger, drunkenness, insubordination, sexual immorality, and the like- has played a large part in the formation of Western ideas about the vices and the virtues. It has influenced legislation at times, and it has often been invoked in the moral education of the young. Sometimes, ironically, in the minds of some individuals, this moral teaching has even overshadowed the message of salvation and forgiveness that's central to the New Testament itself.



ECC [The New Testament Contents] []

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