Biblical Studies (NT)/Brief Introduction to the New Testament
THE NEW TESTAMENT
A Rich Tapestry
The New Testament is a rich tapestry of people, culture, history, and theology. In its pages, we meet real people with real joys and sorrows. We meet a Messiah who loves the human race so much that he gives his life for it. We encounter God, not as a distant, uninterested spirit, but as one who is intimately involved in the affairs and lives of human beings. The New Testament is just as fresh and relevant today as it was two thousand years ago when it was written, and the process of familiarizing ourselves with its contents continues to be a fascinating journey of discovery.
The Importance of Context
One of the goals of this course is to provide the student with the context of the New Testament, because a knowledge of its context enriches our understanding and appreciation of it. This statement is not as simple as it looks at first glance. The immediate context of a verse is the passage in which the verse is located, which of course will tell you a lot about what the verse is saying. But you also have to consider the overall message of the Biblical document ("book") in which the verse is found, which might have some bearing on its meaning. Then you have to consider who wrote the book and why, and to whom it was written. It helps to know when and where it was written also, and the social, cultural, and political factors which may have influenced its contents. Finally, you have to look at it in the context of the entire Bible. Where does it fit in? What part does it play? Do other passages shed light on the one being studied? All of these things may have some bearing on our understanding of a given passage.
Unity in Diversity
While the New Testament is made up of twenty-seven separate documents, the usage of the last two thousand years has led us to think of it as a single work, and perhaps not even that, but only as the second major division of a larger work: The Bible.
Notwithstanding the New Testament's multiple authors, there is a progression from Matthew to Revelation that leaves one with a sense of unity. The canon (i.e. the collection of works which were allowed into the New Testament) evolved during the early years of the church as certain documents gained prominence and were acknowledged by general consensus as worthy of inclusion.
While the documents are not strictly in chronological order according to the time of their writing, there is a logical progression. It begins with the gospels, which present the life and ministry of Jesus. Next is Acts, which details the birth and growth of the early church after the time of Jesus. Next are the epistles (letters) of Paul, most of which were written during the time covered by Acts, so that Acts provides the social and historical context for Paul's epistles. The General Epistles, written by several authors, follow those of Paul, and like his epistles deal with a variety of issues, both theological and practical. Finally, the extraordinary prophecy which is the Revelation provides a dramatic, but logical, conclusion, not just to the New Testament, but to the Bible as a whole. It describes, among other things, the return of Christ and the Last Judgment.
The Bible as Literature
Even though the Bible was written over a long period of time by many different authors, we are accustomed to thinking of it as a single book, for it has been published as such for centuries. One aspect of the literary study of the Bible entails textual analysis to identify the presence of different authors, and gain a greater understanding of the editing processes and external sources which may have shaped the Bible's content. Such an approach is extremely useful and has made a significant contribution to Biblical studies. However, by its nature, it tends to focus on the diverse parts of the Bible, rather than the unity of the whole.
Other scholars (not just of the Bible, but of literature in general) take an approach which is based on the premise that once a work is published, it takes on a life of its own, independent of its sources. In such an approach, "the critic's task is to examine its linguistic structure and its aesthetic unity as an autonomous object." The Christian Bible as we know it today has existed for around two thousand years, a fact which, given its origins, is something of a phenomenon. Notwithstanding its diverse origins, it cannot be denied that it has taken on a life of its own as a single entity. It is therefore not unreasonable to approach the Bible as a single piece of literature to see whether it holds up as such, and if so, to see what gems, literary and otherwise, it might yield.
It does not take long for the observant reader to perceive that the Bible contains many literary forms, or genres. There is history, mythology, law, manuals for the priesthood, poetry, aphorisms, gospels, letters, prophecy, allegory, romance, parables, and more besides. But running through all of these, and binding them together, is the thread of a storyline (in literary terms, a plot). In his book, How to Read the Bible as Literature (Zondervan 1984), Leland Ryken writes:
- The most obvious element of literary unity in the Bible is that it tells a story. It is a series of events having a beginning, a middle, and an end... It begins with the creation of all things. The story of the Fall quickly takes the action down to the level of fallen history. But the story slowly and painfully winds its way to the consummation of history with the eternal defeat of evil and the triumph of good.
- The overall story of the Bible has a unifying plot conflict. It is the great spiritual and moral battle between good and evil... Almost every story, poem, and proverb in the Bible contributes to this ongoing plot conflict between good and evil. (178)
This story, which is astonishing in its scope and complexity, begins in Genesis with the creation of the world (1:1), and ends in Revelation with its destruction (21:1). It begins in Genesis (3:22-24) with human beings becoming corrupted and losing access to the "tree of life" (symbolizing eternal life), and ends in Revelation (22:2) with the restoration of the tree of life. It begins with the loss of peace and harmony (Gen 3), and ends with peace and harmony being restored (Rev 21:4). It begins with the human race being cursed because of Adam's sin (Gen 3:17-19), and ends with the curse being removed (Rev 22:3). The pivotal event in the development of the story is the coming of the Messiah, and this is where the New Testament begins.
The sections which do not directly further the progress of the story have a direct relationship to it. They explain much about the culture and psyche of the people through different periods in their history. For example, the Law is given in the context of Israel's journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, and it provides the legal and religious foundation for Israel from that time forth. The psalms are mostly attributed to King David and are central to Israel's worship. They tell us much, not just about the king, but about the attitudes and beliefs of the nation as a whole. The book of Proverbs is attributed to King Solomon, and its contents further exemplify his legendary wisdom. The prophets show us the events of the historical books in a different, more critical, light, while the historical books, in turn, provide the settings for the prophets and are essential to our understanding of them. Similarly, in the New Testament, the epistles shed further light on the events of Acts and crystallize the theological significance of the gospels, while Acts, in turn, provides the context in which the epistles were written.
No other literary work has influenced Western history and culture like this one. No other book claims to have such a clear outline of God’s plan for the world. When we add the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament) to the Greek (Christian New Testament), we see that the Bible, though it has many authors and genres, contains a complete story, and like any other good story, it has an introduction, a development, and a dramatic conclusion.
This course provides a comprehensive overview of the New Testament in eighteen lessons. The lessons include reading assignments from the New Testament which are shown in shaded boxes. Most of the lessons have a single assigned reading after the test at the end of the lesson, but a few have a series of shorter readings which occur as the lesson progresses, so the student will want to have a Bible at hand, either hardcopy or online. (Suggestion: open another window in your browser and go to www.BibleGateway.com, where you can view the assigned passages by typing their references in the box. You can then switch back and forth between windows.) If using a hardcopy, an edition which only includes the New Testament is fine for the purposes of this course.
The readings have been carefully chosen to cover all of the essential material without being so long as to become burdensome. They are an important part of the course. If a reading occurs in the middle of a lesson, it should be completed before continuing. If it occurs at the end, it should be completed before beginning the next lesson. Each lesson also has a multiple choice test. Since the course follows the order of the New Testament, the lessons, readings, and tests are not all of equal length.
Upon completion of all eighteen lessons with their accompanying tests and readings, you will have acquired a good basic knowledge of the New Testament. This can be further enhanced by reading those parts of the New Testament which are not included in the required readings and, of course, these lessons can also be reviewed at any time.
Note that there is a discussion tab at the top of each Wikiversity page where you can make comments and respond to the comments of others if you want to. To keep the discussion in one location, it is recommended that students record all comments at the discussion tab on the Contents page. (It is best to create a Wikiversity user name and password before doing so, then you can use the signature button to sign your entries with the user name you have created.)
How to Grade Yourself
There are a total of 200 questions in the course. As you complete each lesson, keep a record of your test score (see the score sheet to the right). The goal is to master the material, so if you take a test and are not satisfied with the result, feel free to review the lesson and retake the test. Record your highest score. When you have completed all of the lessons, add your scores together, then divide the total by two. This is your percentage. Use your percentage score to give yourself a letter grade as follows:
- A+ (97-100%)
- A (93-96%)
- A- (90-92%)
- B+ (87-89%)
- B (83-86%)
- B- (80-82%)
- C+ (77-79%)
- C (73-76%)
- C- (70-72%)
- D+ (67-69%)
- D (63-66%)
- D- (60-62%)
- F (0-59%)
Students who only wish to study selected portions of the New Testament can turn directly to the relevant lessons. To calculate your grade, divide your total of correct answers by the total of questions answered to obtain a percentage, then refer to the chart above.
New Testament citations usually occur in parentheses after the quote, and in the following format:
- Lk 17:21 (The gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verse 21)
- 1 Jn 4:8 (The first epistle of John, chapter 4, verse 8)
- Jude 20 (The epistle of Jude, verse 20. Jude is short and has no chapter divisions.)
Whole chapters are referenced in the following way:
- Mt 5-7
- Rom 12
The following list gives the commonly used abbreviations for the New Testament documents, though slight variations do occur:
- Matthew (Mt)
- Mark (Mk)
- Luke (Lk)
- John (Jn)
- Acts (Acts)
- Romans (Rom)
- 1 Corinthians (1 Cor)
- 2 Corinthians (2 Cor)
- Galatians (Gal)
- Ephesians (Eph)
- Philippians (Phil)
- Colossians (Col)
- 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess)
- 2 Thessalonians (2 Thess)
- 1 Timothy (1 Tim)
- 2 Timothy (2 Tim)
- Titus (Titus)
- Philemon (Philem)
- Hebrews (Heb)
- James (Jas)
- 1 Peter (1 Pet)
- 2 Peter (2 Pet)
- 1 John (1 Jn)
- 2 John (2 Jn)
- 3 John (3 Jn)
- Jude (Jude)
- Revelation (Rev)
Test Your Knowledge
This lesson, being introductory, has only one question, mainly to demonstrate the format.
Next lesson: 
- Vincent B. Leitch, gen ed. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2001. p1372.