A Guide to the New Testament | New Testament Studies

The writings of the Christian Bible are divided between the writings of the Old Testament—the Jewish scriptures—and the writings of the New Testament. In this series of videos, we will explore the writings of the New Testament: What kinds of writings are they? Who wrote them? When and where were they written?

We will begin with some terminology. When we talk about a “testament”, what are we talking about? The word “testament” refers to a legal expression of a party’s will regarding the distribution of their goods. Today some people speak of leaving a “last will and testament” after their death, instructing people in how to distribute their possessions. In the case of the two sections of the Bible, we could say that referring to these writings as “testaments” speaks about how they express God’s will for humanity.

But in a more specific, religious sense, “testament” refers to a set of promises God made with humanity. In the Jewish scriptures, we have accounts of promises God made to the Jewish people, also called covenants. In these covenants—like the one that God made with Abraham, or with Moses and the Israelites—God promises blessings to his people, and God asks his people to remain faithful to the covenant. For Abraham, this involved faithfulness to believe God’s promise to provide a son for him, to settle him in a promised land, and to bless him and his descendants. For Moses and the Israelites, God made a covenant to dwell among them, to be their God, and for them to be his people, provided they obeyed his laws.

Yet, in some of the later prophetic writings in the Jewish scriptures, God promises a new covenant, a new way of dealing with his people. This is what a prophet named Jeremiah wrote, 625 years before the time of Jesus,

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah… This is the covenant that I will make… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:31, 33–34).

God promises a new covenant, a new promise between God and his people—a new testament—one that involves knowing God, being his people, having God’s law written on their hearts, and above all, forgiving their sins.

More than six hundred years later, in one of the Gospels—the Biblical writings about the life of Jesus—on the night before Jesus died, he gathered with his closest followers, his disciples, for a meal. During the meal, the broke bread and gave it to them, and then he gave them a cup of wine. This is what one account in the New Testament says Jesus told them: “This cup is the new covenant (or testament) in my blood which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20 author’s translation). Another Gospel includes an additional detail, that this blood, “is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28 NRSV). 

Along with Jeremiah’s foretelling God’s new covenant to forgive sins, Jesus refers to this cup as his blood—and specifically as the blood of a new covenant, or testament, that brings forgiveness of sins. This is where Christians get the terminology to describe the writings of the scriptures as the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament, the Jewish sacred writings, is the record of the promises God made to the Jewish people before Christ. The New Testament—the writings of some of the first Christians—is the record of the covenant that God made with humanity to forgive their sins through the death of Jesus, his blood. These writings were written in Greek by numerous authors, sent to numerous audiences, and were compiled in the early days of Christianity to tell how Christianity came about and what it means to live in this new covenant of God’s forgiveness in Jesus.

These writings include letters written from some of the earliest church leaders to early gatherings of Christians and other Christian leaders, stories about the life of Jesus and the earliest Christians, and even some prophetic visions about God’s judgment of evil and vindication of his people. They include four collections of stories about the life of Jesus: who he was, what he taught and did, and how he died and rose from the dead; these are called the four Gospels. After the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John comes a story of the spread of Christianity through the leadership of Jesus’s chosen followers, called Apostles. This story begins from Jerusalem right after the time of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and continues through Christianity’s expansion throughout Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome, and it is commonly known as the Acts of the Apostles, or Acts.

After this comes a series of letters written by one of the earliest people to convert to Christianity, a man named Paul, who became an apostle, a follower of Jesus tasked with spreading the news about Jesus around the Mediterranean. These letters, sometimes called the Pauline Epistles, were written by Paul to churches he established or wanted to share his message with. After this comes letters from other early Christian leaders such as the Apostles James, Peter, John, and Jude, as well as an anonymous letter known as the Epistle to the Hebrews. These were written to encourage Christians and instruct them in faithfulness to God. Finally, in a book written by a disciple of Jesus named John, commonly known as the Apocalypse of John or Revelation, he describes God’s ultimate triumph over evil in a series of visions representing Jesus’s power over all unrighteousness and his deliverance of God’s faithful people into a New Creation God promises to his people. These are the writings that Christians call the New Testament.

In the next videos we will look more closely into these writings: their authors, their audiences, their styles, the language they were written in, their subject matter, how they were collected, and what they say about who Jesus is.