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The Seekers' Guide to the Bible

What is in the New Testament

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A short answer to what is in the NT would be four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, 21 letters and Revelation. These elements are not really presented in an order that makes a lot of sense. Luke and Acts are by the same author but have John squeezed between them. Mark is widely held to have been the first Gospel written but it is placed behind Matthew. The letter of Jude is placed between 3 John and Revelation even though the later claims to be by John as well. Not only that, it quickly becomes obvious that Paul's letters are not presented in chronological order. In fact, its seems that Romans is first because that is the longest.

Let us examine the texts without any input from scholarship or other sources. My aim here is not to expound on the theology or philosophies of the evangelists and apostles but rather point out some of the interesting or unique features of each book. I will examine the various books in the order that seems most logical rather than that which we find in the NT itself.

Mark

Mark is the shortest Gospel at only fourteen thousand words or so. It is full of different episodes that do not always seem to follow on from one another in a strictly logical way. Although there are plenty of miracles and teaching from Jesus, there are only about four parables. However, Mark mentions that Jesus told many more and also says Jesus explained the meaning of these stories to the disciples afterwards (4:34). Either Mark is not very interested in the parables, does not feel his work is the place for them or does not know many.

Mark is clearly writing for gentiles as he translates Aramaic words and explains Jewish customs for his readers. He includes the story of a Greek woman (7:24-30) which is one of the few times that Jesus comes across a gentile in his ministry.

For the first nine chapters, Jesus preaches in and around Galilee before travelling to Jerusalem in chapter 10. The last six chapters all take place in Jerusalem in the final week leading up to Passover. Mark has Jesus arrive triumphantly on the Sunday (Palm Sunday), clear Temple on Monday, preach on Tuesday, eat the last supper on Thursday and crucified on Friday. Passover begins on Thursday as well. Apart from this Mark does not give us very many dates or days except for telling us when Jesus had done something on the Sabbath (that is, on a Saturday). We learn nothing of Jesus' birth but we are told he has brothers and sisters as well as a mother named Mary. Joseph does not get a mention.

One of the most striking points about Mark's Gospel is how badly the disciples come out of it. James and John ask for the top seats in heaven at 10:37. Peter's denial of Jesus after the arrest is among the most familiar stories in the whole Bible. The disciples are constantly being berated for their lack of faith. Even Jesus' own family think he is crazy and come to take him away (3:21).

The text of the Gospel has some rather strange discontinuities in it. The most obvious is the end. The earliest manuscripts all end at 16:8 with the empty tomb. There is no mention of the resurrected Lord. In fact, the ending seems very unfortunate because it leaves the women trembling, bewildered and afraid. Also, at 10:46 it looks like another chunk could be missing as Jesus arrives and then immediately leaves Jericho. We will return to what may have originally been here later in this guide. A final oddity worth mentioning is the youth who runs off at 14:51. This is found in no other Gospel.

Matthew

After his list of the names of Jesus' ancestors, Matthew launches into the famous Christmas story. Here, we find that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great and was visited by some wise men from the east. Jesus' family appear to be from Bethlehem and only move to Nazareth after they return from Egypt.

Matthew is an altogether more polished product than Mark. Most of Mark is included but there is much else besides. A good deal of the extra material is sayings and parables by Jesus. In fact, the whole of the Sermon on the Mount (5:1 - 7:29) is not found in Mark at all. Matthew also does not mention things he does not like. We do not have Jesus' family saying he is insane and it is James and John's mother who makes the request for heaven's top seats for them. All in all, the disciples get a rather better press here than in Mark.

One change may be especially revealing. In Mark and Luke, the tax collector called by Jesus is called Levi (although Matthew the apostle is mentioned later on) while in this Gospel he is called Matthew (9:9).

Like in Mark's Gospel, Jesus only arrives in Jerusalem for the last week of his life. Matthew does not give us days of the week but does suggest that his time frame is similar to Mark's. However, Matthew allows Jesus to do far more teaching in Jerusalem during that week. The Last Supper is again on Thursday evening which is the first day of Passover.

Matthew is the only place to find quite a few little snippets. Only he reports the dream of Pilate's wife ( 27:19), that Judas hanged himself (27:5), the guards at the tomb (27:62) and the massacre of the innocents (2:16).

The oddest thing about this Gospel is that while Matthew is steeped in the Old Testament and quotes it freely (and so could be writing for Jews), he is also conspicuously anti-Jewish. This perceived anti-Semitism has had tragic consequences throughout history as Matthew has always been the church's favourite Gospel. But a closer reading reveals that Matthew is not anti-Jewish par se, but rather against the Jewish establishment. He is even careful to say the crowd before Pilate that bays for the blood of Jesus was infiltrated by the priests (27:20).

Luke and Acts

The first point to note is that both these books seem to be written by the same person. The second volume refers to the first (Acts 1:1) and both are addressed to Theophilus. Luke insists that his account will be orderly and has been well researched. He is clearly using sources because large amounts of his Gospel are also found in Mark and Matthew.  

He begins, uniquely, with the story of John the Baptist's conception and birth before moving on to the annunciation of Mary. Luke wants us to see that John and Jesus were connected from the start (cousins in fact). Also near the start of the Gospel, we find the three most famous hymns of the New Testament - the Magnificat (1:46), the Benedictus (1:67) and the Nunc Dimitis (2:29) - named after their beginnings in Latin. Like Matthew, Luke gives us a genealogy for Jesus but unfortunately it is a different one!

Luke is keen to set his story in secular history. He starts with Herod the Great, gives a long list of rulers at 3:1 and continues mentioning rulers through Acts (11:28, 12:21, 24:27 etc). He also makes it clear he was an eyewitness to some of the events he describes by using the first person plural from time to time (Acts 16, 21 and 28).

Luke has some unique details in his Gospel. Only he mentions the trial before Herod (23:8). It also obvious that Luke wants to completely absolve Pilate of any responsibility for Jesus' death. Only Luke tells us of both 'good' and 'bad' thieves being crucified with Jesus and shown in so many medieval pictures (23:39).

In his second volume, Acts, Luke starts with the Ascension (also described at the end of his Gospel) and follows the Jerusalem church for twelve chapters. Here we find the martyrdom of Stephen (7:54), the conversion of Saul (9:1), Philip and the Ethiopian (8:26) and Peter's vision (10:9). After that the focus shifts decisively to Paul and his travels.

One of the most important events in Acts is the Council of Jerusalem (15:1) that dealt with the question of gentiles not having to convert to Judaism. The letter that the council produced has a fascinating sentence in it at 15:27. It implies that oral transmission was considered more reliable than that in writing. Today that seems odd but helps explain why the Gospels were written so late on.

Paul is eventually put in prison and after a lot of procrastination is shipped off to Rome to face trial. After a shipwreck we leave him under a comfortable house arrest where he taught for at least two years. Clearly the Romans were not all that interested in him and there do not seem to have been many Christians in Rome at this point.

John and his letters

The Gospel of John immediately strikes us as different from the others. It seems to be more theological and philosophical than the other three. It does not contain many of the stories we have already encountered and we do not find passages with exact parallels in the other Gospels that we found in Matthew, Luke and Mark.

The first paragraph is one of the most famous in the whole Bible. The Word is made flesh and so we see John has no doubt about Jesus' divinity at all. It is there from the start. Conversely we have no birth narrative to show us His human origins.

There are some events that appear in all four Gospels. These include the feeding of the five thousand (6:1) the clearing of the temple (2:14), Peter's denials (18:17) and Pilate seeking to free Jesus instead of Barabbas (18:39). But only John tells us about the raising of Lazarus (11:17), Jesus washing the disciples' feet (13:5) and the night time meeting with Nicodemus (3:1). Other events appear in the other Gospels but in different settings. For example John has Jesus anointed in Bethany at 12:3 whereas Luke places the act much earlier in Galilee.

John's Gospel contains a number of long discourses during which Jesus is in conversation with Pharisees, a Samaritan woman and the disciples. The Last Supper is four chapters long and is mainly made up of speeches by Jesus. The bread and the wine do not feature here although Jesus alludes to them at 6:56.

The text has two major problems. The first is the story of the woman caught in adultery (7:53 - 8:11). This story is not in any of the early manuscripts and many scholars have concluded that it was not in the original version of the Gospel. However, others (as eloquently argued here) believe that the controversial subject matter meant that the passage was excised from the earliest versions of the Gospel and only reinserted later.  Graham Stanton also believes it is an authentic tradition about Jesus although it may have begun life in a different context to where we now find it. The second problem is that all of chapter 21 appears to be a postscript after the Gospel's end at 20:31. However, as this chapter is in all the manuscripts, it appears to be an early addition to the text.

John is credited with three of the letters in the NT. Only the first of these is a major book and it repeats many of the themes in the Gospel. The other two letters are so short that it is a surprise anyone bothered include them as scripture at all. John is also named as the author of Revelation but this book does not seem to be by the same person who wrote the Gospel and I will deal with it separately.

The letters of Paul

The NT contains thirteen letters saying they are by Paul. Of these, doubts are most commonly expressed about Colossians and the pastorals (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus).

Romans was written before Paul had been to Rome although he earnestly expresses a desire to go there (1:13). The letter is primarily a theological treatise and by no means easy to read and understand. It ends with a whole host of greetings to and from various individuals, some of whom we can identify from Acts.

1 and 2 Corinthians are more specific in their aims. Paul has already been here and is taking his readers to task and carefully instructing them on the way to behave. He also quotes some hymns including the wonderful 1 Corinthians 13 and the creed of the Resurrection at 15:3. In the second letter sets out his own credentials and forcefully insists that he should be listened to.

Galatians contains some interesting biographical details in chapter 2. The Galatians are converts from Judaism to Christianity and Paul is seriously worried that they might split from the Gentile church he has been building up. This letter is therefore full of the OT and how it points to Jesus.

Ephesians is the densest of Paul's letters. The apostle had spent several years here during his missionary journeys. It is obviously intended for a wide audience and in common with other letters gives instruction in theology.

Philippians is a joyful letter sent from a prison. It includes another fine hymn (2:5), this time on the divinity of Christ.

Colossians is very similar to Ephesians but is specifically aimed at dealing with a heresy that has sprung up. It is hard to tell exactly what it involves but Paul surely does not approve. Note the reference to a lost letter to the Laodiceans at 4:16. A faked version of this was circulating for many years.

1 and 2 Thessalonians are probably Paul's earliest letters. They are not full of theology - just some exhortations and a warning not to expect Jesus' return at once.

The pastoral letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are to individuals rather than to churches. We would expect the different style as well was the lack of hard theology. Instead they are full of advice and instruction. In 2 Timothy Paul is sounding very depressed and claims everyone except Luke has deserted him. He begs Timothy to come to him. Titus is being sent to Crete on a mission and is given instructions relating to this.

Philemon is another letter that seems almost too inconsequential to be in the NT. In it, Paul is trying to save the life of an escaped slave without sounding too demanding to his owner.

Other letters

Hebrews is an apologetic addressed to the Jews and purporting to show how the OT has been preparing the way for Christ. Its writer is a mystery although long assumed to be Paul. This is no longer believed but scholars have all sorts of other ideas. Only the reference to Timothy (13:23) gives much of clue. This letter is hard to understand if you are not familiar with the principals of OT theology.

The Letter of James is addressed to the Jews of the Diaspora (that is those not living in Judea) but that probably means just to Jewish Christians. It is all about the good deeds that are required during a Christian life.

1 and 2 Peter are markedly different letters. The first is an exhortation to those who are being persecuted and the second a stern warning against heresy. Note the odd passage at 1 Peter 3:19 about what Jesus was up to between His death and resurrection. 2 Peter says that it is a second letter (3:1) although it is unclear what the first one was (since it would not appear to be 1 Peter). It mentions Paul's letters and even calls them 'scripture' (3:16).

The Letter of Jude is another stark warning against heresy and false teaching. It is interesting in that it refers to the non-canonical Book of Enoch at 1:14. It claims to be by the brother of James.  Much of the letter has a good deal in common with 2 Peter 2 and they seem to be connected in some way.

James, 1 and 2 Peter and Jude are commonly grouped together and called the catholic letters or epistles.

Revelation

This is an odd book that many have found disturbing. The first three chapters are made up of letters to seven churches around Asia Minor supposedly dictated by the writer John. The rest of the book is a description of the end of the world that has kept scholars and crackpots amused for centuries. Even on Internet discussion boards new interpretations crop up. Here we find the number of the beast (13:18), the seven seals (5:1), the four horsemen of the apocalypse (6) and the battle of Armageddon (16:16).  It is called the Book of the Apocalypse by Catholics as that is what it is mainly about.

With something like 300 allusions to the OT and a code no one understands, Revelation will continue to puzzle us.

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James Hannam 2003.
Last revised: 05 June, 2013 .