The New Testament
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 in the latter
part of the first century CE and the beginning of the se cond century by leaders in the church. 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
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 matter, 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
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
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.
The church affirms 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 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 the Septuagint,
the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, as scripture, and that the gospels
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. I also endorse and recommend to you the Rules
for Biblical Interpretation in the Reformed Tradition compiled from the Reformed
Confessions by Shirley Guthrie, Professor Emeritus at Columbia Theological
Seminary in the U.S.A.
* "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.