Compilation of the New Testament Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The earliest Christian literature was collected as communities and their leaders decided which works should be considered authoritative, laying the foundation for the New Testament of the Christian Bible.

Summary of Event

The New Testament of the Christian Bible is a collection of early Christian writings that eventually supplemented the Hebrew sacred writings in constituting Christian Scripture, or the canon of what came to be accepted as divinely inspired texts. Churches that follow the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 c.e.)—which include the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and all Protestant denominations—accept twenty-seven books, while non-Chalcedonian churches, such as the Syrian Jacobite church, accept fewer. Paul, Saint Marcion Irenaeus, Saint

The generally recognized canon consists of four accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, known as the Gospels (“good news”; evangelion in Greek); an extension of one of the Gospel accounts that describes the creation of the early Christian communities and some of the travels of Saint Paul (Acts of the Apostles); fourteen letters (epistles) originally ascribed to Paul and addressed to individuals or communities; seven other letters, two ascribed to the apostle Peter, three to John, and one each to Jesus’ brother James and James’s brother Jude; and an apocalyptic vision of Heaven and the end of time ascribed to Saint John the Apostle (Apocalypse or Revelation). Most scholars agree that the earliest of these writings are the Pauline epistles (c. 55-c. 68 c.e.). These were originally composed in Greek, and there is general (but by no means universal) acceptance of Paul’s authorship of all except that to the Hebrews, which is now recognized as the work of someone other than Paul. The actual authorship and dating of the other, non-Pauline epistles is hotly debated, but the early Christians accepted them as authentic and quoted from them as authoritative. The latest New Testament book is probably 2 Peter, dating from perhaps as late as 125 c.e.

When Paul wrote of the Gospel of Christ he referred to the message, or “good news,” because no Gospel account now recognized was written during his lifetime. The Gospels ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were probably composed in Greek between the late 60’s c.e. and the end of the first century. Modern scholars have posited the existence of a very early written source (German Quelle) nicknamed “Q,” which would have consisted of a list of Jesus’ major teachings or sayings, perhaps known to Paul and the communities he established. The Gospel according to Mark, whose author may have been associated closely with Saint Peter or communities and traditions he established in Rome, is likely to be the earliest narrative Gospel, incorporating his own source materials. The Gospels named for Luke and Matthew apparently have their bases in Q and Mark, as well as other sources unique to each. The author of Luke appears to have strong connections with the Pauline mission, as the details on Paul’s career in the Gospel’s continuation, the Acts of the Apostles, makes evident, and as does mention of a Luke in three of Paul’s epistles. The apostle Matthew’s Gospel seems to have originated in a community of Christians with both Jewish and gentile roots, perhaps in Antioch or Palestine. Together, these three Gospels are often called the synoptics (look-alikes), since they share many common stories and essential teachings. John’s Gospel, attributed by tradition to the “beloved Apostle,” is structured quite differently from the other accounts and is far more concerned with complex theological teaching that clearly identifies Jesus as divine. The earliest surviving written connection of the specific authors to these works dates to about 140 c.e., but clearly the early Christian communities and writers had accepted these attributions as authentic long before this.

In the earliest Church, “Scripture” referred to the Hebrew Bible. Only slowly did specifically Christian writings come to be treated as Scripture, to be given the same respect as the Hebrew texts that guided the community from which Jesus and his apostles emerged. In large part this was due to the successes of the early faith communities, whose founders and earliest leaders died off, leaving a need for guaranteed sources of the teachings of Jesus and Paul. As long as authentic teaching remained a matter of oral preaching, the door remained open to false doctrine, against which the New Testament authors from Paul on warn their readers. Members of both the Greek-speaking gentile and the Jewish communities among whom the Christian message was spread were literate and respectful of written authority, and the direct quotation of authoritative sources such as Paul and the Gospels served the needs of Christian leaders and followers alike. However, the question remained: Which writings were truly authentic? As Christian writings increased in number, the distinction had to be made. As major differences in teachings developed by the early second century, both proto-orthodox Christians, or those whose interpretations of the Christian message eventually came to dominate, and those who would be labeled heterodox (otherwise believing), marshaled their arguments around what they considered authentic texts.

The earliest canon (list) of accepted works is probably that of Marcion, developed in Rome between 137 and 144 c.e., whose Gnostic, heterodox ideas spurred other Christian leaders to begin to create their own. Marcion rejected any authority of the Hebrew Scriptures, insisting that Christian writings replace these as sources of God’s message to humankind. He tried to reconcile the differences between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and to remove any pro-Jewish elements in them, creating his own blended version of a single Gospel (ignoring Mark and John). He listed only ten Pauline epistles as authentic. Non-Marcionite Christians (and even many of Marcion’s followers) rejected this approach, reasserting the importance of the Hebrew writings, of all four Gospels and Acts, and of fourteen Pauline epistles. The core of the canon is recognizable as early as the mid-second century, as Christian authors treated certain writings as authoritative and inspired sources of Christian faith and doctrine, other works as useful but not authoritative, and still others as clearly flawed or even heretical. The earliest proto-orthodox canon appears in the work of Saint Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, France, and enemy of Gnosticism, which dates from after 180 c.e. As time went on, however, Eastern theologians and other writers, such as the fourth century Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-339 c.e.), either rejected or debated the use of certain non-Pauline epistles (especially 2 and 3 John and 2 Peter) and Revelation, leaving the final definition of the canon to the Council of Chalcedon. In the Western Church, arguments over which works should be in the canon ended by the later fourth century with the creation of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible, which became the medieval Western Church’s standard edition.

Significance

The significance of the compilation of the New Testament lies in its establishment of an agreed-on set of writings whose authority would become, by the early fifth century, unquestioned among the major Christian churches. Unlike the Christian Old Testament, which differs in content among the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions, the New Testament would prove a unifying factor in the Church’s history. By rejecting Gnostic and other apparently heretical works as invalid, the proto-orthodox Church differentiated itself from the other Christian streams of the day and aided its own self-identification, a process nurtured by its evolving clerical structure and system of local and ecumenical councils. Nonetheless, canonization did not eliminate the influence of early noncanonical works, as both the Roman and Orthodox churches relied on such sources’ stories, such as those about Mary’s youth and Jesus’ descent into Hell, in their elaboration of the Christian tradition.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Edward Raymond. An Introduction to the New Testament. New York: Doubleday, 1997. Catholic Father Brown discusses historical background of each book in clearly organized detail: date, sources, authorship, community of work’s origin. Bibliographies and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Full textbook treatment of the creation and reception of the recognized and rejected texts. Illustrations, bibliographies, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farmer, William R., and Denis M. Farkasfalvy. The Formation of the New Testament Canon: An Ecumenical Approach. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1983. Two self-standing, extended essays that outline the basic issues and controversies surrounding the canon’s development. Notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994. Introductory study and reconstruction of the conjectured controversial and lost sourcebook of the authentic sayings of Jesus and the beliefs of the communities that produced it. Short bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maier, Paul. Eusebius: The Church History. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1999. New translation with book-by-book commentary of this key early history of the Church. Illustrations, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Metzger, Bruce. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance. 1987. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Classic treatment of the canon’s development and importance in the early Church, and beyond. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Cyril C. Early Christian Fathers. 1953. Reprint. New York: Touchstone Books, 1995. Standard collection of major works of such writers as Clement, Justin, and Irenaeus. Indexed.
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