The New Testament is the second major division of the Christian Bible, following the Old Testament. It details the life and ministry of Jesus Christ as well as the growth and teachings of the early Christian church. But when exactly does the New Testament start?
The New Testament begins with the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These provide biographical accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ around AD 30. After the gospels come the book of Acts, which describes the growth of the early church in the years immediately following Jesus’ death. Next come the epistles or letters written by church leaders like Paul, James, and Peter to various churches and individuals. Finally, the New Testament closes with the prophetic book of Revelation.
- The New Testament begins with the four gospels recounting Jesus’ life and ministry
- It continues with the book of Acts chronicling the early church’s growth
- Much of the remainder consists of epistles or letters to churches and individuals
- Revelation provides apocalyptic prophecy and closes the New Testament
But when did the writings contained in the New Testament originate? Most scholars agree that the letters of Paul provide the earliest New Testament texts. Paul’s epistles were likely composed in the AD 50s. The gospel accounts came later, with Mark generally dated to around AD 70, followed by Matthew and Luke in the AD 80s, and John’s gospel written in the AD 90s.
So while the New Testament covers events starting around 30 AD, the textual record did not emerge until 20-60 years afterwards. Now let’s examine in more detail the major divisions of the New Testament.
The New Testament opens with the four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These provide historical narratives on the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ birth, baptism, miracles, parables, interactions with disciples, death by crucifixion, and resurrection form the core of the gospels. They end with Jesus commissioning his disciples to spread his teachings to the world.
The gospel of Mark is considered the earliest account, written around AD 70. It is the shortest gospel and focuses mostly on the adult life and ministry of Jesus. Mark emphasizes Jesus’ authority and the great crowds who followed him. Major themes include the Kingdom of God, discipleship, and the Messianic Secret – concealing that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1 NKJV)
Matthew and Luke were likely composed in the AD 80s using Mark as a source. Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, tracing his genealogy and fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. It groups Jesus’ teachings into five discourses like the Sermon on the Mount. Luke provides the most expansive account of Jesus’ life, adding details about his birth, childhood, and resurrection appearances. Luke accentuates prayer, concern for the marginalized, and salvation to the Gentiles.
The gospel of John presents a more reflective, theological account of Jesus’ ministry focused on his divine identity. It is the only gospel to refer to Jesus as the Word and only gospel without any exorcisms by Jesus. Written around AD 90, John differs in many respects from the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
So in summary, the four gospels anchor the New Testament – providing complementary perspectives on the foundational events of Christianity centered around Jesus Christ’s life and ministry.
Acts of the Apostles
The book of Acts forms the historical bridge between the gospels and epistles. Written by Luke as a sequel to his gospel account, it traces the growth and persecution of the early church in the 30 years following Jesus’ death. The major theme is the expansion of the gospel message from Jerusalem, where the church began, to Rome representing the wider Mediterranean world.
Key events in Acts include Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit, Peter healing a lame beggar, the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, the Jerusalem Council debating requirements for Gentile Christians, and Paul’s missional journeys throughout the Roman Empire. The book closes without describing Paul’s trial, making it open-ended. Acts establishes the historical context for the epistles and the religious climate of the 1st century Roman Empire.
“But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV)
Acts demonstrates that Christianity was no longer a Messianic sect within Judaism, but a thriving religious movement distinct from the temple establishment. Persecution from Jewish and Roman authorities resisted Christianity’s spread but could not stop its message of salvation through Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
Making up nearly half the New Testament, the epistles or letters convey doctrine, guidance, and encouragement to individuals and churches. The 13 epistles attributed to the apostle Paul make up the bulk of this corpus. Paul’s letters were occasioned by issues arising in the churches like immorality, erroneous teachings, and persecution. Since Paul did not accompany every copy made, he added closing remarks in his own handwriting to authenticate them.
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God…” (Ephesians 1:1 NKJV)
Paul’s epistles can be grouped based on recipient and circumstances:
- Romans – Paul’s theological treatise to the church in Rome before visiting
- 1 & 2 Corinthians – Issues in the unruly church at Corinth
- Galatians – Correcting the false teaching to observe Jewish law
- Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon – Prison epistles from Rome conveying grace
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians – Clarifying issues about Christ’s return
- 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus – Instructions to pastors about church leadership and morality
The epistles following Paul’s contain shorter, more general exhortations:
- Hebrews – Sermon explaining Jesus as high priest and perfect sacrifice
- James – Emphasizing righteous living and care for the poor
- 1 & 2 Peter – Encouraging suffering Christians with hope
- 1, 2 & 3 John – Calls to reject false teachers and love one another
- Jude – Warning against ungodly false teachers
The New Testament epistles applied the gospel to specific situations and needs facing the early churches. They instruct believers on sound doctrine and godly conduct during hardship and persecution. Paul’s letters in particular helped define the theological foundations of Christianity.
The New Testament and Christian Bible closes with the Revelation (or Apocalypse) of John. Written around AD 95 on the island of Patmos, Revelation contains visions and prophecies about the end times and second coming of Christ. It is filled with vivid symbolism and numerology, much of it referencing Old Testament apocalyptic literature like Daniel.
Revelation depicts cosmic spiritual warfare between God and Satan culminating in Christ’s triumphant return as king to usher in New Heavens and New Earth. Opening with letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, it describes plagues, seals, trumpets, and bowls symbolizing God’s wrath on the wicked world system called Babylon. Satanic Roman persecutions of Christians appear as a multi-headed beast and whore of Babylon. But God protects his faithful as Christ defeats evil and establishes his millennial kingdom.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” (Revelation 21:1 NKJV)
Containing symbolic numbers, creatures, and events, Revelation has been subject to wide-ranging interpretations. But it consistently affirms God’s sovereignty through Christ’s ultimate victory over Satan, sin and death. For early persecuted Christians, it provided encouragement that their suffering was meaningful and temporary. The dramatic visions fueled hope for Christ’s triumph and everlasting reign.
In summary, the New Testament canon emerged over several decades in the late 1st century. It contains four gospels recounting Jesus Christ’s life and ministry around AD 30, the book of Acts describing the early church’s growth, letters applying theology to concrete situations, and Revelation’s apocalyptic prophecy. Although composed after the death of Christ, the New Testament texts describe the origins of Christianity and anchor Christian belief and practice today. From the Gospels to Revelation, the New Testament testifies to Jesus Christ as Savior and coming King.