How We Got The New Testament — Dewayne Bryant, Ph.D.

Many Christians have little idea about how the New Testament came to exist. Although it would be unfair to claim that believers “assume that the Bible fell from heaven,” many do not understand the process of how the biblical documents came to be assembled into what we call the New Testament. Peter indicates that God inspired his authors (2 Peter 1:21), but what other details should Christians know about the Bible?  

Rather than appearing overnight, the New Testament took some time to become established. It took several decades for the books to be written and circulated. Later, these texts were recognized as inspired and collected into the body of official texts for the church. It is important to note that the early church did not assemble the Bible but instead recognized the texts that bore the marks of inspiration.

The Gospels and Acts

The four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have told the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for nearly two millennia. Although it covered only about three years, Jesus’ ministry was powerful. Because he taught with unparalleled authority (Mark 1:22), the earliest followers of Christ treasured his words. Evidence suggests that scribes may have recorded Jesus’ teaching during his lifetime (Matthew 23:34; cf. 13:52). As eyewitnesses began to die off, the Gospel writers put their testimony in writing. Luke does not appear to have been an eyewitness but consulted those who were (Luke 1:1-4). Tradition indicates that the apostle Peter served as Mark’s primary source because the latter was not an eyewitness (although many speculate that he was the unnamed man in Mark 14:51-52). Matthew and John experienced the ministry of Christ and wrote as firsthand observers.

The book of Acts tells the story of the early church, covering the time from Pentecost in Jerusalem to Paul’s arrival in Rome. Written by Luke, the first half focuses on Peter while the latter half covers the ministry of Paul. Like the Gospels, Acts provides a sober account of the church’s early history. Some speculate that Luke may have intended the book of Acts to serve as the second in a three-volume history of the early church, given that the book ends abruptly and provides no satisfactory conclusion to the stories of its main characters. Whether Luke intended to compose a trilogy will probably never be known with certainty.

The New Testament Epistles

Between AD 50–67, The apostle Paul composed a dozen epistles (or letters) that encouraged, informed, and rebuked his fellow Christians in churches scattered across the Roman Empire. These letters do not comprise a systematic formulation of Christian doctrine but instead arose on account of specific occasions (such as what to do with the runaway slave Onesimus in the letter to Philemon) or questions posed by the congregations (as can be seen in the latter half of 1 Corinthians). As such, they are often called “occasional letters.”

Many modern scholars deny the Pauline authorship of six letters: 2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Ephesians 1-2 Timothy, and Titus. They do so based on differences in style and vocabulary, although there are significant problems with their objections. Such changes can be explained if we factor in the level of maturity of their audiences, the differences in the topics discussed, and even Paul’s circumstances and mood while writing. Further, analysis of an author’s vocabulary typically requires a larger sample size than what Paul’s letters provide. Put simply, Christians will hear scholars deny the Pauline authorship of many letters attributed to him, but significant challenges can be mounted for any of these objections.

The general epistles, also called the catholic (or “universal”) epistles, are the seven letters attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude. Unlike Paul’s letters, which are named for their addressees, the general epistles are named for their authors. While Paul names the churches and individuals to whom he writes, the general epistles are less specific. They often discuss doctrine, which was a major sticking point for the biblical authors.

John’s Apocalypse

The frequently misunderstood book of Revelation is an example of an ancient apocalypse. This genre of literature enjoyed a great deal of popularity from c. 250 BC–AD 250, although there were earlier examples in the Old Testament (Daniel 7-12; see also Ezekiel 1-3; Zechariah 1-6; Matthew 24-25). These works often featured distinct characteristics such as visions, symbolism, an increased interest in supernatural beings, and a human narrator who frequently had an otherworldly guide. John intended his message to prepare and strengthen the early church—especially the Christians in Asia Minor—using language veiled with symbolism. The goal was to help prepare them to withstand impending persecution.

Did The Biblical Writers See Their Work As “Scripture”?

One question in the debates over the New Testament canon is whether the authors viewed their work as Scripture.  Did they see their writings as equal in authority to the Old Testament?

The apostle Paul viewed his work as having divine authority.  He tells his readers, “…the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37) and calls his writings “the word of God” (1 Thess. 2:13).  He claims to have received revelation by the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:10) and asserts that Christ speaks through him (2 Cor. 13:3).  Significantly, he points to the inspiration of Luke’s Gospel when he quotes from both it and Deuteronomy, labeling them as “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18; cf. Lk. 10:7; Deut. 25:4).

The apostle Peter provides another witness to the divine inspiration of the New Testament writings when he states that Paul received wisdom from God.  He adds that Paul’s work was sometimes difficult to understand, “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).  Here Peter uses the word graphe, a term often applied to the body of Old Testament literature.  In using this word, Peter places Paul’s writings on par with the Hebrew Bible.

We can say with certainty that at least some New Testament authors recognized one another as the authors of Scripture.  By the time Paul wrote to Timothy in the second half of the first century, some portions of the New Testament were already considered as having equal authority as the Old Testament.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s