The Origins of the New Testament

What is the New Testament?

The New Testament is a collection of early Christian literature, which together with the Old Testament forms the Holy Scriptures of the Christian churches.

The origin of the New Testament was a multi-stage process.

In its present form the NT comprises 27 books, the main part of which is comprised by the four Gospels, which tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, and a number of letters and epistolary writings. In addition, the NT includes a book called The Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the first Christians, and the apocalyptic work The Revelation of John.

The books of the NT were written in Greek, and they date from c.50-150 A.D.

New Testament Greek

The New Testament is written in so-called 'koiné' Greek, the quality of which varies from writer to writer. The language of some New Testament books has been influenced by the fact that the mother tongue of Jesus and his first disciples was not Greek but Aramaic.

The Manuscripts of the New Testament

As in the case of all literature of Antiquity, the books of the New Testament were preserved until the invention of
printing as handwritten copies.

Compared with other contemporary writings an exceptionally large number of manuscript copies of the books of the New Testament have survived. While only a few late copies have survived of even the most important works of Antiquity, more than 5,000 manuscripts or manuscript copies of New Testament books are known.

The oldest manuscripts containing the whole New Testament are from the 4th century. The oldest known fragment of the New Testament is from the first half of the 2nd century, a copy of a passage from John's Gospel.

New Testament manuscripts can be roughly dated on the basis of (1) the writing material and (2) the style of writing.

The material of most manuscripts is parchment stretched and smoothed from leather. The oldest parchment manuscripts are written on large-size in majuscule or uncial letters. Later smaller and more delicate cursive script was used, minuscule letters.

The most important manuscripts of the whole New Testament are parchments written in majuscules. From a still earlier phase come a number of papyrus manuscripts. This writing material was prepared from the reed plant of the same name, and its most important producing country was Egypt.

The branch of study which attempts to ascertain the most original textual form of the biblical writings by comparing different manuscripts, is called textual criticism.

For further information about this subject see

  • Interpreting Ancient Manuscripts Web (,
  • Duke Papyrus Archive (

  • The Origins of the New Testament

    The holy book of the first Christians was the collection of Jewish writings that Christians call the Old Testament. In particular the Greek translation of the Old Testament - the Septuagint - achieved a strong position among Christians.

    Besides the Old Testament writings the early Christians valued oral tradition, which was of several types:

    1. Jesus traditions were tradition as to what Jesus said and did while he was alive.
    2. The content of the apostolic preaching was the message of the resurrection of Jesus. An apostle was a person whom the risen Jesus had authorized by revelation to be a bearer of the message. The resurrection was regarded as a sign of the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God.
    3. While the apostles preached the message about Jesus, others of Jesus' disciples continued preaching the message of Jesus. Scholars call these followers of Jesus the Palestinian or Syrian Jesus movement. In the preaching of this movement, too, the coming of the Kingdom of God and the associated exhortation to repentance occupied a central place. Apparently, however, the resurrection faith was not of as great significance to the Jesus movement.
    4. Early Christian prophets received revelations in which the risen Jesus communicated to them knowledge of the will of God. Some of the words of Jesus in the New Testament go back to the teaching of the historical Jesus, while others derive from the preaching of the early Christian prophets. Both sources of knowledge were at that time regarded as possessing equal authority.
    Research which is concerned with the types, form and development of early Christian tradition is called form criticism.

    Later there appeared alongside oral tradition writings and collections of writings:

    At the end of the second century it began to be evident which of these writings would be accepted as part of the New Testament and which would remain outside it. There was still some controversy in the West over the status of the Letter to the Hebrews and in the East over the status of the Revelation of John. In addition, the fate of the so-called catholic epistles, that is, the letters of Peter, John, James and Jude, was thoroughly considered in the 3rd and 4th centuries. It was finally decided to include them.

    Outside the New Testament remained a number of writings which had attained an authoritative position among some Christians. These writings were not actually rejected, but they were not deemed to represent teaching derived directly from the apostles. In the 17th century a collection of these writings was edited and designated as the writings of the 'Apostolic Fathers'.

    On the other hand, in Christian circles and on the fringes of the church there were interpretations of Christianity which the mainline church completely rejected. It also rejected the literature that promoted such ideas. One such tendency was Gnosticism.

    In the study of early Christian literature outside the New Testament the term 'New Testament Apocrypha' is used. This means a mixed group of writings which have survived in a variety of ways and which only modern scholarship has attempted to include under a common heading.

    Some of the New Testament Apocrypha were read until the Middle Ages and published during the Renaissance. Some of them we know from references and quotations in the Church Fathers. The majority, however, consist of manuscript finds made during the course of the past century. Often it is a question of texts originally written in Greek which have survived in translation - in Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian or Arabic. It is usually very difficult to ascertain the age and origin of these texts. Some of them may, however, derive from the end of the first century and a great number from the second century.

    Early Christianity was a diverse phenomenon. This diversity also appears within the New Testament. Not all the New Testament writers would necessarily have been able to eat around the same table - and this can be taken quite literally. One of the first great controversies of the early Church was the so-called 'Antioch conflict' concerning Jews and non-Jews eating together. Because the Apostle Peter did not wish to offend Jewish Christians who were strict about the purity code he refrained from eating meals with non-Jewish Christians at the same table. In doing so he succeeded in offending the Apostle Paul, who was the host at table. Paul tells what happened in the second chapter of Galatians.

    In controversies such as the Antioch conflict it was a question of seeking one's identity. Christianity was born within Judaism. When it separated from Judaism, division began: different Christians understood what it meant to be a Christian in different ways. Different customs, ideas and symbols were adopted, and old customs, ideas and symbols were interpreted in new, different ways. As a result the New Testament writers, too, are different, and sometimes separatistic as well.

    A classical example is the difference of opinion between Paul and the writer of the Letter of James over what makes a person acceptable to God: faith or works. Although Paul and the writer of the Letter of James had completely different views on the subject, they both appealed to Abraham to support their opinions. In the Old Testament (and later in the Quran) Abraham is presented as a model of a functioning relationship with God. (See Rom. 4:1, 13; 3:28; James 2:14, 20-24.)

    There is tension within the New Testament. Therefore the question, which books of the New Testament are more authoritative than others, pops up in Christian circles again and again.

    Early Christian Letters and Epistles

    The oldest early Christian literary documents are Paul's letters dating from the 50s A.D. By writing letters the apostle directed the life of the churches he had founded. They were read in the churches when the apostle himself was not present giving teaching.

    Paul's letters were gathered into a single collection. Later his disciples adopted the epistolary form as an instrument of teaching. In this way there came about the so-called 'Deutero-Pauline' letters, which were written in the style of Paul and in Paul's name.

    The fact that disciples attached their teacher's name to their writings was a custom of the time.

    Many other early Christian writers wrote letters, either under their own names or in the name of an apostle. In addition they wrote dissertations in letter form, known as epistles. Epistles were not addressed to anyone in particular. The epistolary form acted merely as the literary framework.

    Gospel Literature

    In Greek the word euangelion originally meant the fee paid to the bearer of good news, later also the good news itself.

    In the New Testament the word 'gospel' always means the oral preaching of the Christian message of salvation (never its literary presentation). What is the content of this gospel is expressed sometimes more clearly and sometimes less clearly; see e.g. 1 Cor. 15:1-5 and Mark 1:14-15.

    The Gospel writers themselves did not call their books 'gospels'. The designation arose only later, probably at some time in the first half of the second century.

    The Gospels are collections of tradition concerning Jesus. They are of two main types:
    spoken material was gathered into collections of words of Jesus. One model for these collections was evidently Jewish aphoristic and Wisdom literature. The best-known collections of words of Jesus are the so-called 'Q' or Logia source and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

    Narrative Gospels are thematic descriptions of the life and work of Jesus. They come to a climax in the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. They are not impartial historical writings but expressions of the faith of the early Christians. Each Gospel writer adapted the content and message of the story of Jesus to the situation and way of thinking of his community. The narrative-type Gospel is represented by all four New Testament Gospels and by many later apocryphal gospels.

    The Q Collection of Words of Jesus

    Q comes from the German word Quelle meaning 'source'. Q is a scholarly reconstruction of the collection of sayings of Jesus which the evangelists Matthew and Luke used as their source. The assumption that Q existed is based on the so-called 'two source theory'.

    The Two Source Theory of the Gospels

    Of the four New Testament Gospels three - Matthew, Mark and Luke - contain a lot of the same material, often in the same order. Therefore they are called 'synoptic' ('looking together') Gospels. The so-called 'two source theory' is the explanation offered by most scholars for this similarity (which scholars call the 'Synoptic Problem'). According to the two source theory,

    (For further information about this subject see  Synoptic Gospels Primer at

    The Gospel of Thomas

    The Gospel of Thomas is an early Christian collection of sayings of Jesus - one of the so-called apocryphal gospels which were excluded from the New Testament.

    The writings of the Church Fathers tell us that the mainline church rejected the Gospel of Thomas because it was considered heretical. Later the Gospel of Thomas disappeared into the obscurity of history, until at the end of the last century a significant find of manuscripts was made in Egypt. Among the manuscripts discovered were Greek fragments of the Gospel of Thomas.

    In 1945 was found, again in Egypt, a large quantity of Gnostic literature. The collection was called after its place of discovery - the Nag Hammadi library. Among the manuscripts was a complete Coptic translation of the Gospel of Thomas. Since 1992 a Finnish translation of the Gospel of Thomas has been available.

    In the Gospel of Thomas Jesus appears as a teacher of wisdom and as a bringer of saving knowledge. According to the Gospel of Thomas, salvation is present here and now in the words and teaching of Jesus. It cannot be bound to any concrete place or church institution, but it is ultimately an all-penetrating, invisible reality:

    Jesus said, "Your leaders may say to you, 'The kingdom is in heaven,' but then the birds of heaven will get there before you. They might also say, 'It is in the sea,' but then the fish would get there before you. In fact the kingdom is both within you and outside you." (Log. 3a)
    His disciples asked him, "When will the kingdom come?" [Jesus answered,] "It will not come so that its coming can be observed. One cannot say, 'It is here' or 'It is there.' The Father's kingdom has spread all over the world but people cannot see it." (Log. 113.)

    The Acts of the Apostles and Other Early Christian Acts

    Early Christian literature was influenced to some extent by contemporary historiography and popular literature. This is observable in the Acts of the Apostles, which tells the story of the first Christians, and in the later apocryphal acts which imitate it. The Acts of the Apostles written by the evangelist Luke is closer to the ideals of historiography in Antiquity than to romantic popular prose. In the case of the apocryphal acts the situation is quite the opposite.

    Apocalyptic Literature

    Apocalyptic literature appears in both early Judaism and early Christianity. It was one manifestation of the typical eschatological trends of the time and the expectation of a crisis in world history.

    Apocalyptic literature depicts heavenly visions in which the seer receives hidden divine knowledge. Usually this knowledge concerns the imminent crisis in world history and the preceding struggle between good and evil, and often it was presented veiled in the form of various metaphors and symbols. The best-known early Christian apocalypse is the Revelation of John.

    Many apocalypses were written in the name of and from the perspective of a major religious figure of the past: Moses, Elijah, Enoch or some other figure "foresees" in the fictitious time of composition the events of the real time of writing.

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