The New Testament

The second part of the Christian Bible. A testament is a covenant, a treaty. The first Christians desired a clear distinction between the Old Covenant, the treaty between God and man, through Noah, Abraham and Moses, and the New Covenant, the one between Jesus and mankind. The expression 'New Testament' is first used at the Last Supper, as described in Matthew 26:28.

The text of the New Testament has been handed down in Greek only. The books describe the life and teachings of one Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish teacher and prophet with revolutionary ideas, probably active in the first decades of the first century AD. For more information on the historical Jesus: read this Wikipedia article.


The most important manuscripts existing today were written during the 4th century. They are known as the Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. The oldest fragment contains some verses by John. This piece of papyrus is kept in Manchester and probably dates back to the 1st half of the 2nd century.

Note that the absence of original manuscripts does not question the authenticity of the gospels. The same holds for many of the classics: the only manuscripts in existence are copies, several centuries younger than the originals.

Today the Codex Sinaiticus, is generally considered the most authentic and complete version of the New Testament. The text was disclosed by the German theologian Von Tischendorf (1815-1874), during his visits to the monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai where it was being kept. The codex was most likely compiled by scholars in Alexandria during the 4th century.

Note that Sinaiticus was not known when the King James Version was written. The King's translators had to work with the textus receptus, a compilation of Greek writings that deviates on several points from the more authentic 4th century texts. For example, verses Mark 16:9-20 are not part of Sinaiticus, nor is the story of the adulterous woman in John 8:3-11.

The textus receptus had been compiled by the Dutch scholar Erasmus and published in five editions between 1516 and 1535, each successive edition containing fewer (printing) errors. The KJV translators used the 3rd edition, published in 1522. Erasmus owned a collection of Greek manuscripts. In addition, he had access to the Vatican library where the Codex Vaticanus was kept. He concluded that Vaticanus contained too many falsifications to be of any use, thereby effectively denouncing the Vulgate. Erasmus' text was condemned by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545 - 1563).


Most scholars agree that the gospels were written between 60 and 100 AD. This means that the story of Jesus was written at least 30 years after his death — a considerable gap if the writing is to be regarded as a reliable description of the event. There are indications that the gospels relied upon earlier Christian writings. Paul's epistles, if original, date from the years between 50 and 60. This implies that the gospels were written after Paul formulated his vision on Jesus' teachings, and after he founded the first Christian communities.


As in the Old Testament, the books in the New Testament are grouped by kind and not by age. First come the four gospels, describing the life and teachings of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles. Then come a series of letters, or epistles: Paul's letters to the Christian communities and their students, followed by the anonymous epistle to the Hebrews, and finally the general letters, not addressed to any particular person or group. The last book in the New Testament is the Book of Revelation.

It would take several centuries before the current list of canonical books was agreed upon. Both religious and secular leaders had their say, the latter often pushing the more rigid texts that left no room for discussion. Kings and emperors needed a strong Church, teaching a single message; they had no interest in the many variations and deviations of early Christianity.

By the end of the 2nd century it was generally agreed upon that the four gospels, the Acts and Paul's epistles were true and sacred. It took two more centuries to achieve the current selection, which was divided into 27 books in the 12th century.

The fierce discussion about the canon of the New Testament caused the 'drop outs' to be soon forgotten. As a result, the apocrypha of the New Testament are much less known than the ones of the Old Testament. They were never published together with the canonical books. The best known is probably the Gospel of Thomas. Other examples are the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistle of Barnabas (both were included in Sinaiticus), Didache and 1 Clement.

Gospels and Acts: Epistles
by Paul, directed at Christian communities: Pastoral epistles: Catholic epistles:
Apocalyptic scriptures: