Paul argues that "a new covenant," not of the letter of the law "but of spirit," has replaced "the old covenant" of Israel. (2 Cor. 3:4-15) This is probably why the two sections of the Christian Bible are called the Old and New Testaments. The word "testament" indicates that the Christian Bible is evidence, or testimony, on behalf of the church's proclamation of the good news in Jesus Christ.
Materials in the New Testament were composed by church leaders in the latter part of the first century CE and the beginning of the second century. The letters of Paul were written during his ministry in the late 40s and the 50s. An introduction to the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible states: "Paul's letters are the oldest Christian documents we have. The first of them was written within 25 years of Jesus' death, and the last may have been written before any of the gospels."*
It is generally agreed for the following reasons that the gospel of Mark was used as a source by the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke:
1) Apart from details Mark contains very little that is not in Matthew or in Luke.
2) When Mark and Matthew differ as to sequence of material, Luke agrees with Mark, and when Mark and Luke differ as to sequence, Matthew agrees with Mark.
3) Matthew and Luke never agree as to sequence against Mark.**
Because these gospels have so much in common they are called the Synoptic gospels (from the Greek word synoptikos, which means viewing together).
The gospels were written in the koine or common Greek of the first century. The gospels contain words and phrases in Aramaic, which was the spoken language of Jesus and his disciples, and also words and phrases in Hebrew, which was the language of the Jewish scriptures read in the temple in the first century. In addition, quotes and allusions in the New Testament are taken from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures used by Greek-speaking Jews in the Roman Empire and read by Paul and the Greek-speaking authors of the other New Testament materials.
The original manuscripts of the New Testament disappeared long ago. Translators rely on Greek manuscripts, early translations into other languages (especially Syriac, Latin, and Coptic), and quotations from the New Testament materials in early church writings. There are almost five thousand Greek manuscripts with all or part of the New Testament, and about half of these contain only the four gospels. Fifty-nine manuscripts contain all twenty-seven books of the New Testament, and more than three hundred date from the second to the eight century.
The church began in the first century reading as its scripture the Jewish Bible in Hebrew and in Greek. "During the course of the second century most churches came to acknowledge a canon that included the present four Gospels, the Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 Peter, and 1 John. Seven books still lacked general recognition: Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. On the other hand, certain writings, such as the Letter of Barnabas or the Shepherd of Hermas, were accepted as Scripture by several ecclesiastical writers, though rejected by the majority."** In the fourth century church councils established the present canon of the New Testament.
The word "gospel" comes from the Anglo-Saxon "god-spell" meaning "good tidings." The letters of Paul proclaim the gospel by arguing for salvation through faith in the risen Christ. The four gospels in the New Testament proclaim the gospel of Christ by narrating an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Churches affirm that the gospel is good news because it proclaims that God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, calls every person in every time and every place to eternal life in Christ.
Paul's letters reveal the conflicts between Jewish and Gentile Christians in the early churches. The gospels and the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament were written after the death of Paul to promote Christian faith and resolve these conflicts. When you read the letters of Paul remember that they were written for churches that read as scripture the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and that the gospels had not yet been written. When you read the gospels keep in mind the conflict between Paul and the apostles of the church in Jerusalem. The word of God is to be discerned amidst the human struggles depicted in these New Testament writings.
Before you begin, you may wish to consider the Rules I suggest for reading Christian scripture.
* "Study Helps to the Holy Bible" in the New Revised Standard Version published by Cokesbury in 1990.
** The New Oxford Annotated Bible published in 1991 using the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.