Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

New Testament

NEW TESTAMENT (Gr. ὴ καινὴ διαθήκη), the Christian Holy Scriptures (other than the Hebrew Bible and the Apocrypha).


"The New Testament" (NT) is the usual name for a collection of 27 ancient Greek books concerning Jesus of Nazareth and his earliest followers. It forms the second part of Christian Bibles following "the Old Testament," which in Protestant Bibles contains the same books as Jewish Bibles but in a different order. Catholic and Orthodox Christian Bibles have their own orders of "the Old Testament" in which other ancient books are interspersed. Such additional books are sometimes found in Protestant Bibles in a separate section titled "Apocrypha" and placed between the two "Testaments." Thus, whereas the extra books are authoritative for Catholics and Orthodox, for Protestants they have the lower status of informative and edifying material that bridges between the "Old" and the "New."

The NT begins with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, four accounts of the activities of Jesus. The authors do not write under those names; the ascriptions come from early Christian traditions. Thus the fourth gospel's anonymous writer claims to be recording the testimony of a source figure identified only as "the beloved disciple" of Jesus. In broad terms, these gospels present similar versions of Jesus' arrest, condemnation, death, and resurrection, but the Gospel of John has a markedly different account of earlier events and of the content of Jesus' teaching. Consequently, the first three are commonly termed the "Synoptic Gospels" because of the ease with which they can be printed in parallel columns as a "synopsis." Matthew and Luke contain versions of the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary (Matthew: shortly before the death of Herod, i.e., 4 B.C.E.) and Luke includes his visit to Jerusalem at age 12; otherwise only the last period of his adult life is featured (Luke: from age "about 30" on).

Next comes the Acts of the Apostles, which introduces itself as the continuation of the third gospel. In it, "apostles" mostly refers strictly to 12 early close disciples of Jesus. Acts begins with the last instructions of Jesus to his followers (after his resurrection), his ascent to heaven from the Mount of Olives, and their subsequent reception of the Holy Spirit. Their attempts to win over other Jews lead to clashes with the authorities and to the dispersal of most of them elsewhere. But then the appearance of Jesus himself in a vision to a certain Saul, who was their chief persecutor, turns Saul into an ardent follower. The latter, now called Paul, makes a series of journeys to the Jewish Diaspora, where his preaching about Jesus causes divisions among Jews but has remarkable success among non-Jews, especially those previously close to Judaism. He eventually returns to Jerusalem, where the followers of Jesus are again living peacefully among other Jews, but his eager style creates new clashes and leads to his arrest. After years of detention by the Romans in Caesarea, he is sent to Rome for two more years, awaiting trial, where the book ends rather abruptly (c. 60 C.E.).

The next 21 books are epistles of various early Christians. Nine epistles to Christian communities and four to individuals announce themselves as from Paul. A 14th, the Epistle to the Hebrews, lacks that announcement, but its concluding statement is in Pauline style. Others come from "James" (1), "Peter" (2), and "Jude" (1), who calls himself "brother of James." Traditionally, Peter is identified with the initial leader of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, and James, as "brother of Jesus," with their subsequent leader after Peter set out on his own missionary journeys. The other three epistles are traditionally ascribed to "John," who is identified with the source figure of the fourth gospel and with the author of the last book of the NT, Revelation, in which a certain John records a series of heavenly visions. These include messages to seven Christian communities and prophecies about coming persecutions (mostly Roman) and the eventual end of history, in which a new Jerusalem descends from heaven to inaugurate the universal rule of Jesus with God.

Language and Style

It is frequently, but wrongly, said that the NT books are written in popular Hellenistic Greek as opposed to the literary Attic Greek of the period. In fact, Hellenistic Greek was the language not merely of the populace but of learned scholars and officials in the Greek-speaking world created by the conquests of Alexander of Macedon. This scholarly language modified Attic by replacing its more idiosyncratic features with forms and words current in the wider world. The attempts of purists to impose the exact dialect of ancient Athens began around 200 B.C.E., gained ground slowly, and triumphed completely only in the later second century C.E.

There is indeed great variation in the language of the NT, reflecting the origins and genres of the various books. Thus in Matthew and Luke (to a lesser extent in Mark) and in the early chapters of Acts, much of the language has affinities to the "translation Greek" characteristic of the Septuagint as well as containing Hebraisms recognizable from rabbinic literature. By contrast, the introductions to Luke and Acts, the later chapters of Acts, and the Epistle to the Hebrews consist of elegant Hellenistic prose. Paul's writings addressed to communities are composed in a brilliant epistolary style that evoked the admiration of Wilamowitz, the leading 20th-century authority on Greek literature. Only one book, Revelation, contains plain grammatical errors. The anonymous writer of the Gospel of John, however, writes in a Hellenistic Greek that is both very simple and very correct.

Origins, Acceptance, and Canonization

There is little firm evidence on which to date the precise composition of the NT books, except that the few Christian writings surviving from the early second century indicate knowledge of those four gospels and of collections of Pauline epistles. The NT books give almost no clear dates for Jesus himself (Matthew and Luke, as above). Thus their dating mostly reflects scholarly fashion. Whereas earlier fashion dated many of them to the period 100–140 C.E., current fashion puts almost all of them within 50–100 C.E. One leading scholar, John A.T. Robinson, dated them all before 70 C.E., above all because it is difficult to identify any NT author who is clearly aware of the Jewish catastrophe of that year.

At the beginning of the second century, only the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint counted as inspired Scripture for Christians. By the end of that century, almost all the 27 books had widely acquired that status and Christian writers were speaking of Scripture as "the writings of the Old Covenant and of the New Covenant." The contrast is derived from the expression "new covenant" (berit ḥadashah) of Jeremiah 31:31 (30), which receives various interpretations (as kainê diathêkê) in the NT books. The English names "Old Testament" and "New Testament" reflect the translation of that expression (as novum testamentum) in Latin versions of the NT.

The final list, the "canon," was established only through the convocation of bishops from all over the Christian world in Ecumenical Councils, beginning in the fourth century. Only in some cases can a doctrinal reason be identified for the exclusion of what are called "New Testament Apocrypha," such as other gospels and the acts of apostles not recorded in the canonical Acts. An interesting case is an ancient account of the childhood of Mary the mother of Jesus, currently called "the Protevangelium of James." Although never canonized, it provides the source for many Christian holy sites in Israel and its story features in well-known traditional icons.

History of Scholarship

Scholarly studies of the NT fall into two main areas: edition of the text and analysis of the content. The widely used early edition of Erasmus (1517) was based on a handful of later manuscripts, among other defects. Later editors have employed hundreds of Greek manuscripts as well as translations into other ancient languages and quotations in early Christian writers. Today's critical texts follow the lead of Westcott and Hort (1882), as updated in the many editions of Eberhard Nestlé and Kurt Aland.

Through his long residence in the Netherlands (1628–49), the philosopher Descartes provoked probably the earliest harsh questioning of the content of the Bible. The "Cartesian method" prescribes that in order to find secure foundations for science, one must first reject any statement about which the slightest doubt can be raised. Descartes himself explicitly excluded theology from such questioning, but his ardent Dutch disciples had fewer scruples. Especially the writings of Baruch *Spinoza and Balthasar Bekker provoked a massive controversy and scores of polemical publications in Dutch. Only the Latin works of Spinoza, however, had a major impact on the broader European public.

In the early 19th century, the Cartesian approach gained ground in classical philology in Germany. Under the influence of Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) especially, it became fashionable to question the authenticity of works ascribed to ancient authors merely on the basis of inconsistencies in the alleged author's style and viewpoint. For example, major dialogues of Plato and a dozen speeches of Cicero (including the four against Catilina) were declared unauthentic. The Iliad and Odyssey, following Wolf, were seen as loose collections of poems by multiple authors; "Homer" was a fiction.

This skeptical paradigm of research was at its peak in the middle decades of the century, when German scholars began to apply the methods of classical philology to biblical studies. Ready targets were the differences of style and emphasis in the Pauline writings and the very existence of four different gospels, which contain evident minor discrepancies in parallel passages as well as the broader differences noted above. In particular, the studies of David Friedrich Strauss (1808–1874) and Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792–1860) provoked first furious rejection, then cautious imitation. Both of them employed various arguments to undermine the testimony of the NT authors; then they employed Hegelian dialectics to build up reconstructed versions of the life of Jesus, the history of the first Christian communities, and the process whereby the NT books emerged.

By the early 20th century, classical philology had largely retreated from this kind of skepticism. Plato recovered his dialogues and Cicero his speeches. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey were now seen as brilliantly integrated compositions of a poetic genius; the remaining question was whether there was one Homer or two. In NT studies, by contrast, skepticism spread further, such that today its practitioners and classicists have difficulty in finding a basis for a shared discussion. Anything from four to 13 epistles are ascribed to Paul by different scholars, but using arguments of the kind that classicists today treat with great caution.

The result is that NT scholars have amassed an impressive quantity of information about the background of the NT but are deeply divided over questions of the origins and content of the books. As with Strauss and Baur, skepticism creates room for ingenious speculations rather than firm results. Concomitantly, a host of methods borrowed from elsewhere, be it "form criticism" and "redaction criticism" or methods of analysis of modern literature, are employed to find lasting significance in these theologically authoritative texts. An example is the commonly maintained view that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest and that it was used in the composition of Matthew and Luke in various combinations with a lost document designated as "Q." During the later 20th century the main arguments in favor of this view were undermined by criticism. Yet it continues to be taught, less out of conviction than because its critics failed to gain acceptance for any of the proposed alternatives.

Relationships with Judaism

A Jewish reader will readily note in the NT books such resemblances to Jewish tradition as are evidence that they were written by Jews or in a Jewish milieu. A massive commentary on the NT from rabbinic sources was compiled by Paul Billerbeck (1922–28). Yet the significance of such relationships has often been minimized in skeptical scholarship. Many NT scholars have refused to take rabbinic literature into account because its earliest written source, the Mishnah (early third century), is "too late" for any reliable comparison. For classical scholars, of course, the mere "lateness" of a source is irrelevant; thus the main witness to Parmenides is Simplicius, who wrote a thousand years later.

Since no writing by Jesus himself is known, many scholars have advocated a "criterion of double dissimilarity" in order to ascertain the nature of his teaching. Take all his many sayings in the gospels one by one, they say, and set aside any that have parallels in Jewish tradition or later Christian writings, since the authors of the gospels may have projected the latter back upon Jesus. Whatever little is left may stem from him. Overlooked in this Cartesian approach is that it equates our knowledge with our ignorance. For if a new Dead Sea scroll or a lost early Christian work is discovered, it may well contain parallels with whatever the criterion has not yet excluded. Built into the criterion, therefore, is the assumption that ultimately nothing can be known about what Jesus taught, but that whatever he did teach was antipathetic to Judaism.

Particular violence was done to the interpretation of Paul in attempts to distance him from Judaism. To this end, early 20th century scholars invented a parody of rabbinic Judaism as a religion that sought salvation in an obsessive preoccupation with the minute details of Torah observance. Paul was proclaimed as the liberator from all that. More recent studies, fortunately, have demonstrated the falsity of that image of Judaism. Also, Paul expected Jews to remain faithful to Torah and rather sought to reformulate Judaism's demands upon faithful non-Jews.

Dissent from the dominance of skepticism has come from two directions. On the one hand, there are NT scholars whose original training was in classics. On the other, the renewal of Jewish existence in the Land of Israel created new realities. Besides Israeli scholars who brought their familiarity with land, language, and tradition, there are Christian scholars who acquired similar familiarities by living in this Jewish society. A pioneer among the latter was the Anglican scholar Herbert Danby, whose translation of the Mishnah into English (1933) remains a standard. A pioneer among the former was Joseph *Klausner with his studies of Jesus (1929) and Paul (1946). His major important insight was to see that most characteristic of Jesus is less individual sayings, which have other Jewish parallels, than the ethical vision that suffuses them as a whole.

More recently, the decades-long cooperation at the Hebrew University between David *Flusser and Shmuel Safrai promoted a generation of younger Jewish and Christian scholars whose shared familiarity with both traditions transcends denominational affiliations. One of Flusser's personal contributions was his pioneering use of the Dead Sea scrolls to illuminate a layer of thought that underlies various NT epistles. Another was the realization that the normal language of the teaching of Jesus, and especially of his parables, was not Aramaic but Hebrew, enabling a reconstruction of parts of that teaching through careful comparisons of the text of Luke and Matthew with Jewish sources. Flusser also found a novel solution to the paradox of the Gospel of Matthew, which is in some regards the most Judaic of the four, yet it contains the most severe attacks upon the Jewish people. The attacks occur precisely in passages that are less Hebraic, or lack parallels in Luke and Mark, or give an unusual twist to parallels there. This Greek gospel is an adaptation of a Hebrew original by a sect of non-Jews who (like today's "black Hebrews" in Dimona) felt that the Torah should belong to them because they were observing the Torah far more faithfully than the Jews.


The literature on the NT is too vast to be surveyed here. Since 1956 it has been recorded systematically in New Testament Abstracts. Besides book reviews, this journal summarizes articles from many periodicals both under general categories and by NT book, chapter, and verse. The standard Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament is by F.W. Danker (20003), continuing the work of Walter Bauer. For the main textual issues, see the various books of Bruce M. Metzger. The relevant work of John A.T. Robinson is Redating the New Testament (1976). On the paradigms of scholarship and their history, see Malcolm F. Lowe, "The Critical and the Skeptical Methods in New Testament Research," in: Gregorianum 81 (2000), 693–721. The problematic attitude of early 20th-century scholarship to Judaism was exemplified in Emil Schuerer's The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ; the thoroughly revised edition by G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Goodman (1973–87) eliminated Schuerer's biases and provides excellent background information for the NT. The Flusser-Safrai approach can be seen in the series Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum (many authors). See also the revised version of Flusser's Jesus (1997) and his articles collected as Judaism and the Origins of Christianity (1988), edited by his pupils Steve Notley and Brad Young, respectively. The reevaluation of Paul and his relationship to Judaism is due to W.D. Davies, E.P. Sanders, Krister Stendah and John Gager among others.