Made up of 27 unique books and various writing styles, the New Testament of the Bible is a foundational source of guidance and wisdom for those within the Christian faith. Outlining the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and documenting the earliest days of the Church, the New Testament invites us to live our lives out of an appreciation and understanding of the love God has shown to all the world. We are encouraged to embrace a mindset for life centered around loving our neighbors, in which justice, mercy, and grace are our guiding principles.
When was the New Testament written? Who were the people behind these rich texts and how did this major section of scripture come into the form we know it in today? We’ll explore these questions and consider some of the history surrounding the New Testament of the Bible.
How is the New Testament Organized?
As we consider the history surrounding the texts of the New Testament, let us first take a look at what those texts actually are and how they are arranged. (For more information, check out “Books of the New Testament: The Complete List”.)
The New Testament is made up of 27 different books organized into five major sections: the Gospels, Acts, the Pauline Epistles or Letters, the General (or catholic) Epistles, and the book of Revelation. The Gospels tell the story of Jesus Christ in the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. This section of the Bible relays Jesus’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection as well as his teachings which are central to the Christian faith. Next is the book of Acts, sometimes also referred to as the Acts of the Apostles, which documents the first days of the church following Jesus’s return to Heaven.
The third and most extensive section of the New Testament is made up of the Pauline Epistles. These are the epistles, or letters, 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 books such as Romans, Ephesians, and Philippians. Next are the General Epistles. These are letters written by early believers other than Paul. The designation of “general” refers to the fact that many of these letters are addressed “To all Christians”, as opposed to many of Paul's epistles, which are addressed to specific churches. 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.
Dating the New Testament
Broadly speaking, the New Testament is believed to have been written during the First Century, between 50-100 CE. Following the ascension of Jesus and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit during the events of Pentecost, the early community of believers was discovering what it meant to live as the Body of Christ. Most scholars believe that the earliest of the New Testament books are the Pauline Epistles, with 1 Thessalonians believed to be the first--written in 52 CE.
On the whole, the letters found in the New Testament were written early on. The apostles wrote to fellow believers and missionaries with advice and reflections, as well as to new and emerging churches looking for guidance as they sought to spread the Good News and follow Jesus. Although many of the letters were addressed to specific people or communities, they were circulated widely, as many Christians were anxious for insight and encouragement from the apostles.
The Gospel accounts were each written at different times within the 50-100 CE window. Scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest, most likely written between 66 and 70 CE. Both Luke and Matthew seem to pull from Mark’s Gospel, and Biblical scholars tend to place their dates of composition between 85 and 90 CE. The book of Acts, which Luke wrote as well, is also dated to the end of the First Century. John’s Gospel is widely accepted to have been written the latest, between 90 and 110 CE, and does not borrow from the other Gospel accounts the way that they borrow from each other.
The book of Revelation is commonly dated to approximately 95 CE and is a work of apocalyptic literature. This genre designation comes from the Koine Greek word, apokalypsis, meaning "unveiling" or "revelation" and refers to the way the book seeks to describe the visions and insights given to the apostle John.
Impact of the New Testament Texts
Taking a look at the history of the New Testament’s composition illuminates the impact these texts have had upon believers throughout time. While they were written to speak directly to the First Century churches and believers, their impact extended even further. In the influential writings of the Early Church Mothers and Fathers of the Second Century, we see references and quotations from New Testament texts; these letters and accounts were continuing to inspire and influence the next generation of Christians. Likewise, these texts are still of extreme importance to believers today.
The history of the New Testament demonstrates the interconnectedness of Christians throughout time. We turn to scripture for insight and encouragement, the same way that those in the faith who came before us did. It is an inspiring reminder of the unity of all of creation under the Lord Jesus Christ. We are all children of God.
To learn more about the New Testament, consider reading Gospels and Epistles available as part of Alabaster’s Complete Collection.