What is the origin of the New Testament?

paul in prison

What is the New Testament?

The New Testament is actually a library of 27 separate documents, all originally written in Greek during the second half of the first century of the Common Era. It consists of the founding documents of Christianity, telling the Good News of Jesus the Messiah and relating the events and teachings of the first two or three generations of His followers, who came to be called Christians.

When and where was the New Testament written?

The traditional authors of these documents include the apostles Matthew, John, Peter, and Paul, as well as apostolic companions Mark and Luke, and two early leaders, James and Jude, who happened to be half-brothers of Jesus himself. Paul wrote nine epistles to churches (two to the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, and one each to the Romans, the Galatians, the Ephesians, the Philippians, and the Colossians), as well as epistles to two of his associates (two to Timothy and one to Titus), and one to a friend, Philemon.

The others are all the authors of documents that bear their names, except that Luke also wrote Acts. In addition to these eight authors, the identity of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews remains uncertain, though many have tried to guess his identity.

For most of these documents, the location at the time of writing is unknown, though in a few cases we can deduce the location from the text itself. For example, Paul probably wrote First Corinthians from Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 16:8) and Second Corinthians from Macedonia (2 Corinthians 7:5-7; 8:1; 9:2). If you look for such references as you read the New Testament, you can discern as much as any scholar on the points of origin, except that “Babylon” of 1 Peter 5:13 is probably code for the city of Rome (see also Revelation 17:5, 9, 15, and 18). Suggested locations include at least Jerusalem, Syrian Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome.

From the beginning, these writings, which at first circulated separately, were accepted as inspired by God because their authors were known to be prophets. Christians everywhere regarded their teachings and commands as having the authority of Christ Himself.

None of the writings of the next generation or the centuries that followed were accepted as inspired, though some of them were read and recommended. These include an epistle by Clement of Rome to the Corinthian church, the epistles of Ignatius, an epistle from Polycarp, an allegory called The Shepherd of Hermas, a document called The Teaching of the 12 Apostles (also called “The Didache”), among others.

Who gathered all of the documents?

Scholars believe that by the 90s, the epistles of Paul were already circulating as a collection, and by the end of the second century what we know as “The Four Gospels” were being copied together. The Muratonian Canon, a document written some time between 170 and 200 CE, lists the New Testament documents one by one. This document is also called “The Muratonian Fragment” because its beginning is broken off; the text starts with Luke as the third gospel, from which we reasonably infer that it originally mentioned Matthew and Mark in the lost portion. The “Canon” omits only the Epistle by James and one by John (probably Third John). It rejects two epistles as pseudo-Pauline and mentions the Apocalypse of Peterand The Shepherd of Hermas as accepted by some but not by others. It also commends The Wisdom of Solomon as written in Solomon’s honor by his friends, but we now know that it originated long after Solomon’s death.

By the third century, the various sections of the New Testament (the Four Gospels, Acts, the Pauline epistles, the General Epistles, and the Book of Revelation) are attested by manuscript evidence. In fact, nearly the entire New Testament is represented by p45, p46, p47, and p23, all dated from the third century. It is not until the fourth century, however, that we have manuscripts containing the entire New Testament in the original Greek (Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus).

What is the earliest New Testament still in existence?

The earliest manuscript known to contain a New Testament text is p52, known as “The John Rylands Fragment,” which contains a few words from John 18, and is dated perhaps as early as 125 CE. One scholar claims that a fragment among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is actually a New Testament text datable to before the Jewish war with Rome (67-73 CE), but the fragment is now known to be from a non-biblical text. The codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the earliest containing the New Testament in its entirety.

What difference does it all make?

Once you understand that the documents of the New Testament arose from different authors in different locales, you find yourself becoming impressed with the continuity and unity of thought and purpose that these writings demonstrate. The New Testament’s claim to be God message to humanity challenges you to make an important choice: do you accept this claim or reject it? If you reject it, then you must look for an alternate explanation that discounts the New Testament’s allegations and rejects its authority. If, however, you accept its claims as valid, then you must submit to the Lord Jesus Christ, the central focus of its pages. Your Christian “walk,” as it progresses, will deepen your appreciation of the New Testament.


Want to go deeper?

Several passages in the New Testament reveal for us its author’s sense of authority and inspiration. Here’s the short list:

  1. John 14:26 – Jesus promises inspiration to His apostles.
  2. John 15:26-27 – Jesus promises His apostles that the Spirit wouldtestify about Himself.
  3. John 16:12-15 – Jesus promised His apostles that the Spirit would “guide [them] into all truth” and reveal “the things of Jesus” to them.
  4. Acts 2:42 – From the very beginning people converted to Christ submitted to the teaching of the apostles.
  5. 1 Cor. 14:36-38 – prophets should acknowledge that Paul’s writing is the Lord’s command.
  6. 1 Tim. 5:18 – Paul apparently quotes the Gospel of Luke as Scripture.
  7. 2 Peter 3:16 – Peter calls Paul’s writings Scripture.

Find additional passages on your own in which the apostles recognized their writings as authoritative messages from God.

How we got the BibleRecommended for purchase:

Neil R. Lightfoot. How We Got the Bible 3rd ed., Baker, 2003.

Ralph Earle. How We Got Our Bible. Beacon Hill, 1997.

F. F. Bruce.The Canon of Scripture. Inter-varsity, 1988.

Bruce M. Metzger. The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development & Significance. Oxford, 1997.

William C. Hatcher. Circles of Truth. Hatcher, 1978. – Explains in simple terms the basis for tying New Testament authority to the authority of the apostles, and ultimately to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

Recommended for online reading:

F. F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable (5th ed., 1959).

B. B. Warfield – “The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament” (1892)

Emile Puech – “Seven Greek Fragments of the Epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch 100, 103, and 105) from Qumran Cave 7 (=7QEngr)” (Eng. summary, 1998) – Refutation that a certain Dead Sea Scroll fragment should be regarded as the earliest New Testament manuscript. See additional discussion.

B. B. Warfield – “The Formation of the Canon of the New Testament” (1892)

More on the Muratorian Canon.

More on New Testament canon (which books belong).

More on New Testament manuscripts.

As always, I don’t necessarily agree with everything these books teach. Part of “going deeper” is developing your own spiritual discernment. It’s good to “taste-test” before swallowing.