The Development of the New Testament

May 31, 2022
May 31, 2022 Fiona

The Development of the New Testament

I ended last month’s article on the Old Testament by noting that Christianity rearranged the order of the Hebrew books adopted from Judaism so that the Old Testament ends with the prophets. The New Testament, which contains Greek Christian texts written between the 50s and 120s CE, begins with the Gospels, showing how these prophesies have been fulfilled. The first three are the Synoptics, so called because they have a common perspective in recording Jesus’ life and ministry. We know now that Mark was written first and used as a source by Matthew and Luke, but originally Matthew was thought to be the earliest, and so it comes first. It (like Luke, but unlike Mark) starts with the nativity, which is told in such a way that it emphasises, often by direct reference and quotation, how Jesus’ birth and the events surrounding it fulfil the Old Testament prophesies. Following these three synoptic narratives of events and teaching, we then have the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels to be written and distinctive in giving Jesus longer discourses, including many about his own status as the Son of God. With the Gospels (literally the Good News) thus set out at the head of the New Testament, we then have the Acts of the Apostles, describing how the Good News spread beyond the Jews to Gentiles across the eastern Mediterranean. In this Paul, converted after Jesus’s ascension, was the leading figure; and so, after Acts, we have a collection of Paul’s letters to the scattered communities of converts, advising and explaining, admonishing and encouraging. Not all of those once attributed to Paul were actually by him, but many are. After them come several other letters ascribed, not necessarily accurately, to a variety of authors. Finally, picking up the theme of the Second Coming, which is present in all of these texts, we have Revelation or the Apocalypse of John the Divine (once – but no longer — thought to be the apostle John).

The letters written by Paul are the earliest of all of  these texts: he began writing them in the 50s. Over the next six or seven decades the other texts were produced, with the Gospels obviously drawing upon oral tradition that must have circulated before anything was written down. So none of our New Testament texts is earlier than the second generation of Christianity, and several are products of the third and fourth generation.

There is good evidence that the Gospels, Epistles and Acts were already accepted as an essential core of Christian texts by the second century, although it was not by any means a closed collection at this stage. Other texts were hovering on the fringes, Revelation among them: it was the last to be generally accepted, probably as late as the fourth century. Two other texts commonly keeping company with the core were the Apocalypse of Peter, and The Shepherd of Hermes, although they were not the only ones. In the end these others were not included, although interestingly The Shepherd is present in the mid-fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, which gives us our earliest surviving complete New Testament. It is in the fourth century that we see increasing agreement on a fixed content for the New Testament, often arranged in our familiar order, although that differs from the order in the Codex Sinaiticus. The Old and New Testaments as we know them were formally fixed in Rome in 382, confirming a tradition that was already widespread.

Joyce Hill

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