The Bible is composed of two major sections, the Old Testament and the New Testament. Christianity shares many of the texts of the Old Testament with the Hebrew scriptures of the Jewish faith, but the New Testament with its 27 books is unique to the Christian Bible. Outlining the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and documenting the earliest days of the Church, the New Testament serves as a source of guidance, wisdom, and encouragement for believers.
We’ll explore the books that make up the New Testament, considering the way in which this second major division of scripture is organized.
Brief History of Canonization
Before we look closer at the books of the New Testament, let’s briefly consider how the list of 27 books as we know it came to be. The decision over which books ought to be included in the New Testament was one of some debate. When a book or text is recognized as authoritative, it is said to be “canonized”, that is, officially considered to be part of the Bible. Today, the Bible is considered by Christians to be a closed canon, meaning that it cannot be opened to include new texts down the line.
In the days of the Early Church, many of the letters and books now considered a part of scripture were still being written. Other letters and books were also being written at the same time. Texts like the Didache or the letters of 1 and 2 Clement were considered valuable sources of teaching with regards to the Christian faith. At certain points in time, many of the Early Church fathers would have considered them to be canon. Today though, all of these additional texts are considered to be Biblical Apocrypha and are not included among the New Testament books.
In contrast, some books that we do include in the New Testament canon today were once considered by some Christian traditions not to be canonical. Books like 2 John and 3 John and 2 Peter are among these.
The canon of the Catholic Bible was finalized at the Council of Trent in 1546. For many Protestants, the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 serves as a touchstone for the accepted list of official Biblical books.
New Testament Organization
The books making up the New Testament are organized into five major sections. These sections are the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the General (or catholic) Epistles, and the book of Revelation. We’ll take a closer look at each of these sections.
The Gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This section of the Bible relays Jesus’ birth, ministry, death, and resurrection as well as his teachings that are central to the Christian faith. Each of the four Gospels emphasizes or highlights different parts of Jesus’ life and mission in order to convey the significance of the message they’re sharing.
The book of Matthew displays Jesus’ conception as a miracle and gives us an account of Jesus’s life and purpose. In this book, Matthew references the Old Testament as a way of showing that Jesus’s teachings are a part of God’s law and a fulfillment of the words of the prophets. Tradition holds that the first Gospel account in the New Testament was written by the disciple/apostle, Matthew. The book of Mark is structured like a passion narrative and shows Jesus’ importance and power, offering testimony of Jesus’ miracles and works. Scholars believe the traditional author of Mark to be John Mark, though many assert that he was writing with the guidance of the apostle Peter.
Luke shows us how through Jesus, humanity is able to come together united. The presumed author, the evangelist Luke, is considered to be one of the church’s earliest historians. The book of John emphasizes that Jesus is the Son of God, and those who believe in him are meant to have eternal life. The Gospel of John was believed to have been written by the apostle John, the Beloved Disciple (for more information on who wrote the Gospel of John, check out this article!).
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels because they provide a synopsis or narrative account of Jesus’ life and earthly ministry. The Gospel of John is set apart. John has a broader theological focus and is less concerned with providing a straightforward narrative of events.
The next section of the New Testament consists of just one book, the book of Acts. Sometimes also referred to as the Acts of the Apostles, this book documents the first days of the church following Jesus’ return to Heaven. Interestingly, the book of Acts is actually the second part of a single work by Luke the evangelist which also included the Gospel of Luke; the two referred to and considered as a whole by most scholars-- known as “Luke-Acts”. Because the Early Church fathers sought to keep the Synoptic Gospel accounts together in their organization, Luke and Acts have been separated into two books.
The Pauline Epistles
The third and most extensive section of the New Testament is referred to as the Pauline Epistles. These are the epistles, or letters, that were traditionally believed to have been authored by the apostle Paul. Although modern scholars do not believe that Paul did in fact write all of the letters in this section, these books remain organized together. The Pauline Epistles include Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.
Lastly, it is here that we find the letter to the Hebrews. Hebrews is anonymous and there remains no scholarly consensus regarding the author’s identity. For this reason, some people, when considering the books of the New Testament, list Hebrews among the Paul's letters, some identify it as the first of the General Epistles, and some believe it deserves a category of its own.
The General Epistles
Next are the General Epistles, also known as the catholic Epistles. The term “catholic Epistles” was not intended to refer to the Catholic church or denomination. At the time of canonization, the word “catholic” meant general or whole. Since many of these letters are addressed “To all Christians”, as opposed to many of the Pauline letters, which are addressed to specific churches, the designation of General Epistles seems fitting. As time has gone on, however, a second association has come about. Historically, Protestants have given less attention to these letters, going so far as to term them the “Lesser Epistles” in some traditions. Contrarily, these letters have historically held prominence within the Catholic church. The General Epistles include the books of James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude.
Finally, the New Testament ends with the book of Revelation which contains different letters to the churches and also interprets the meaning of life from the beginning to the end of the world. The vibrant and extravagant language and imagery of the text have led to a wide variety of Christian interpretations throughout the Church’s history. Broadly speaking, Revelation is an unveiling of hope that encourages all of God's people to remain faithful amidst suffering and tribulations.
The various books of the New Testament come together to present a message of hope and restoration to all people. Comprised of the works of many human authors and an array of literary genres and styles, the New Testament is intended to point us to God and to reveal to us the truth of the Gospel as Jesus proclaimed it.
If you want to learn more about the New Testament and scripture as a whole, take a look at Alabaster’s beautifully designed collection of Bibles and other supplemental material to help you along your journey.