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The History of the New Testament

Central Institute of Theological Studies
Course # CHS 109



The New Testament is a collection of books that we often say we “believe”, but few Christians truly know how it came into being. Some say the Apostle Paul wrote it. Others say that a bishop in Rome during the third century collected it all together and published it.

We often consider it to be a book of which faith in Jesus Christ can be revealed to us and explained to us. But, do we know its history well enough to understand its importance and its content.

When we look at its content we see that it contains three basic content groups. First, there is the historical content of the New Testament. This segment of content is generally limited to the New Testament’s geography and the various leader’s names with limited biographical facts.

The second area of content is classified as biographical in genre. This type of content is largely about Jesus and a few of the apostles. Though several of the New Testament’s figures receive the title of “Apostle” or “Disciple”, less than a half dozen including Jesus himself , are given much biographical content. Most of what we know about the other apostles has been passed down to us through non-canonical documents or church tradition.  

The third and final area of content is that of the New Testament’s theology. The core theological content is primarily confined to two books of the New Testament – the Gospel According to John and Paul’s epistles, specifically  and primarily the letter to the Romans.  

The New Testament contains a basis for which the practice of Christianity can be considered to be “text based”. This is a fairly unique formatting, considering that very few of the world’s religions or faith practices are actually established on a collection of historical, biographical and theological writings which articulate the purpose and lifestyle that its adherents should display.

The New Testament is universally considered by the Christian church to be “scripture”. The designation of scripture defines the New Testament as a collection of sacred writings. When something is considered to be “sacred” it is directly associated with the divine, specifically in this case the Judeo Christian God. In other words, God is involved in the writing and compiling of this twenty seven book library. 

Most of the Christian church would describe the nature of the Bible, and specifically the New Testament as 1). Inspired [spoken by God through the hearts and hands of a man – God breathed] ; 2). Inerrant [perfect communication from God’s perspective] ; 3). Complete [the content is adequate for Christian living].




The New Testament contains twenty seven books. These books are divided into four categories. There are the gospels which each tell perspective story of Jesus the Christ. There are three synoptic gospels; Mark (the first gospel written), Matthew and Luke. The fourth gospel of John is considered to be a theological and spiritually oriented gospel, even though there is some of the chronological presentation of the life of Jesus contained therein.   

The only book that records some format of historical spread of the gospel and the development of the early church is called the Acts of the apostles. Since it was written by Luke, the gospel writer it flows very nicely in content and storyline with the synoptic gospels. Luke depicts the story of the gospel and the church moving north from Jerusalem and then west to Rome.

Then there are twenty one epistles (letters) that were either written to a group of churches, a specific church, an individual or to other church leaders (pastoral epistles). Paul is often credited with seven to thirteen of these letters. The rest were written by Peter and other early church apostles.    

Finally the New Testament concludes with what is considered a prophetic book called the Revelation of Jesus Christ. Though the book is often interpreted as being a contemporary depiction of world history and the politics and persecution of the church in the day it was written (90-95 AD) , most scholars and theologians will agree that the last chapters of the book foretell to some extent the future of the planet earth.




There are two ways to date when the New Testament books were originally composed. These two ways are often classified as the conservative and liberal dating methods. The gospels tend to be the most controversial in their dating. The date of writing for the epistles are not often challenged.    

Conservative theologians will date the writing of the gospels in this order; Mark 45-50 AD; Matthew 50-55 AD; Luke 55-65 AD; John 90-95 AD. These dates are primarily established on the style and development of the Greek that was originally used in comparison to other non-canonical secular writings of the first century, and also because of their lack of mention of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD in their recitation of the mount Olivet discourse in the synoptic gospels.

It has become obvious over the last three centuries of archeological findings which have developed a much broader comprehension of the development of first century Greek that Mark was the first gospel that was composed. The story line of Mark appears in Matthew and Luke almost exactly. Each writer (Matthew and Luke) supply additional content to Mark’s storyline. (This storyline is sometime referred to as the “Markan Spine”*). Matthew and Luke also quote the words of Jesus from an identical source that is not Mark’s gospel. This source has become known as the “Q Gospel” based on the German word “quilla” which means “source”. There are no manuscript generational copies of “Q”, but it has been easily reconstructed from looking diligently at the manuscript copies of Matthew and Luke.    

Liberal theologians and scholars generally date the gospels in this order; Mark 65-75 AD; Matthew 70-80 AD; Luke 80-90 AD; John 90-100 AD. The lack of mention of the destruction of Jerusalem is not significant because the gospels are generally thought to be speaking reflectively and more emotionally than concentrating on specific chronologies and meanings. There is no argument over the sequence that they were written.  

The earliest epistle was written by Paul and generally is either thought to be the book of Galatians which may have possibly been written as Paul arrived at Jerusalem around 49 AD for the apostolic council which was recorded in Acts 15.

Others who would place a later date on the writing of the letter to the Galatians, often agree universally that Paul’s first letter was the first epistle to the Thessalonians, written about 50 AD shortly after he was exiled from that city for political reasons at the beginning of his second missionary journey.  




The New Testament traces its beginnings from the early oral traditions of the first believers. Jesus was probably born around 4 BC and was crucified and resurrected somewhere between 27-30 AD. We know this because of certain historical evidence that is mentioned in the New Testament regarding Roman rulers and geographical territories that they occupied.

There is a verse in Acts 20:35 that clearly indicates that oral communications (stories and historical accounts) about Jesus Christ were already quickly being passed on from person to person, and group to group as the first texts were being written. It reads, "In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"

This quote of Jesus speaking is not recorded anywhere in the four gospel accounts, which is where it should be. It does tell us that the words of Jesus and His story were being communicated adequately to others throughout the Roman Empire. When people of antiquity spoke they spoke more accurately and with more precise memory than we do in our day. This was because they had nothing else to rely on. They couldn’t go look it up in a book or on the internet. This meant that when they said something that reflected historical or spiritual value, it must be communicated precisely and accurately.  

The unfortunate fact is that we do not have any of the original autographs of the canonized scripture. An “autograph” is what we call the actual document that the actual original Biblical author (example; Paul, John, Luke etc.) wrote on. We only have manuscript copies that were made generational down through the years.

We also do not have any of the original autographs of the non-canonized scripture such as the apocryphal texts and the Gnostic gospels either. So they are not comparable in their contextual or historical settings either.

The oldest manuscript copies we have date back to the early 2nd  century, around 110 AD. A document called the John Ryland’s P457 papyrus conveys texts from the Gospel of John on both sides of a fragment about the size of a hand. Ironically it includes the famous question that Pilate asked of Jesus, “What is truth?” Other documents titled the Chester Beatty Papyrus P46, validate themselves in the late 2nd to early 3rd centuries.

So who started writing the New Testament? The best we can tell it was either the Apostle Paul or the writer of the gospel of Mark, depending on if one takes a conservative posture to the dating of the writing of the Gospels. As we discussed earlier, there are a couple of ways to approach which text was actually the first New Testament passage to be written down. Assuming that Paul might have written several epistles by the middle of the 6th decade of the first century we can see by one text that they were already beginning to be recognized for their spiritual and theological content before the New Testament was completely written.   

Many scholars and theologians debate whether or not Peter wrote the two epistles that are attributed to him in the New Testament canon. Even if they are pseudonymous works composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after Peter’s death, they are still highly indicative of what was going on with the formation of scriptural writings in the early Christian community. 

The text reads; 2 Peter 3:14-16         Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord to be salvation; just as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him, wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction.

The key phrase is “as they do the rest of Scriptures”. This indicates that Paul’s letters were being considered and equated in value with already accepted Scripture. These type of comments and attitudes show us that a Scriptural canon (collection of writings) was already a developing consideration by the late first century.  

Let’s discuss the writing and formation of the Gospels. Excepting some of the language used at the end of the Gospel of John, the other three gospels are definitely anonymous. They claim no specific authorship. The connection of sequence between Luke’s gospel and the Acts of the Apostles is highly indicative of who wrote the two books, but still there could actually be an argument made in various ways about the other two synoptic gospels.

Acts 4:13 says “Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.” The typical Galileans like Peter and John were not well educated men, even though many were tri-lingual to some extent out of necessity. This however does not eliminate them from being able to compose a gospel by dictating it to someone who was reasonably more literate than themselves. There is no doubt that this was probably how the earliest scripture (not written by Paul) came into existence.     

It was actually not until the middle of the second century that they were assigned names by the Apostolic Fathers. If you look in your Bible they will most likely be titled “The Gospel According to Mark” instead of “The Gospel Written by Mark”. In fact the Mark’s gospel is probably really Peter’s version of the gospel being dictated to Mark. We must be very careful not to make authorship equal to inspiration.




There probably were no official collection of New Testament books (Canon) offered for liturgical practice or religious study until the middle of the second century AD.

Probably the first such collection was the Marcion Canon. Marcion was a wealthy merchant and early gnostic teacher located in Rome around 140 - 150 AD. Marcion compiled his own canon of scripture that consisted of a highly edited version of Luke’s gospel and eleven of Paul’s epistles. Marcion believed there were actually two “Gods”. He thought there was an evil god who created the world and was the god of the Old Testament Jewish nation, and that there was a good God who was indeed the Father of Jesus (a doctrine often referred to as “dualism”). Thus, because Luke’s gospel is the least Jewish in nature, he adhered himself to only that gospel. He also interpreted Paul from a different angle than does orthodox Christianity today. He saw Paul as have a more mystic concept of Jesus and being far more concerned about the deeper wisdom Jesus was trying to convey to us than His atoning death burial and resurrection.          

Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, France (then known as Gaul) was  a Christian apologist and theologian around the same time as Marcion (120-180 AD). He wrote extensively and quoted large amounts of what we now have as our canonized New Testament scripture (excluding Philemon, II Peter, III John and Jude). He did give any value to the books Shepherd of Hermas or the letter of Clement of Rome. He was the first to proclaim the necessity of four gospels, identifying them as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. He connected them metaphorically to the four winds and directions (North, East, West and South) of the earth as well as the four living creatures of Revelation 4 & 5 and Ezekiel 1.

Irenaeus was the first to use the term “orthodox” referring to the “straight” or “correct” truth of scripture and what was to be considered sacred scripture worthy of use in doctrine, worship and personal spiritual growth. His book “Against the Heresies” was an attack on the works and beliefs systems that had been promoted by Marcion in Rome.     

Another discovery by 18th century Italian scholar named Muratori yielded a verifiable canon that could be accurately dated around 200 AD. It contained four gospels two of which were unnamed but were almost identical to Matthew and Mark, and Luke and John’s gospel. In this canon list was also included what was then believed to be thirteen of Paul’s epistles, two of John’s epistles, the epistle of Jude and a Book of Wisdom. This early third century canonical list has become known as the Muratorian Canon.   

The New Testament as we know it today did not receive official organization and recognition until the middle of the fourth century AD.  The first so called Christian emperor , Constantine ruled the Roman Empire from 312-377 AD, exercising a very beneficial tolerance of the Christian faith during his reign. He organized the first “official” meeting of all the known Christian bishops, which later became known as the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. This is where the Christian faith developed a stronger unity because of its theological debates which resulted in the writing of the Nicene Creed, a unifying doctrinal statement that is still widely accepted in many Christian traditions today.

Sometime after that council Constantine offered make fifty uniform copies of the Christian scriptures available throughout the Roman Empire. The earliest list was compiled and finally officially recognized was in a letter dated 367 Ad by Alexandrian Bishop Athanasius listing the 27 NT books as we now have them today. The Council of Carthage confirmed this list of officially recognized New Testament books in 397 AD.   

Now that we understand the historical significance of the New Testament canon and how it came into existence, let us examine the criteria for how each book came to gain acceptance into the canon. There were basically four means of examination. 1). Timing = They must be those writings that were written nearest to the time of Jesus 2). Authorship = They must be written by an apostle or companion of an apostle  3). Common use = They must be writings which were used in liturgy and doctrine by a majority of churches .  4). Orthodox = They must be writings that were in harmony with prevailing Christian teachings, beliefs and practices.

The last criteria that we will examine is that of the qualification of the gospels to be a part of the New Testament canon. There were many documents in the first three centuries being passed around from church to church, city to city, claiming to be a “gospel”. There was well over fifty that we are aware of and probably more that we have no account of. After being scrutinized by the above four aspects of criteria, it was decided that for a gospel to qualify it simply must recite an accurate description of the passion of Jesus Christ in His death, burial and resurrection as the redemptive work for salvation. This was theologically connected to Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth in chapter 15 where he writes; “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:16-17) This became the orthodox emphasis of the gospels and the pivotal point of salvation for the Christian community of faith at large.



Read and study the text for this course, taking notes as you go through it. Then click on the link titled EXAMINATION. Print the examination and answer the questions. Then mail it to the address below.  

Central Institute of Theological Studies
P.O. Box 750491
Dayton, Ohio 45475