What do we find in the New Testament ?
The New Testament consists of twenty seven books divided into four sections :
- The Four Gospels, which deal mainly with Christ’s life and ministry. They are attributed to the authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John but were in fact written by a number of authors. Each one portrays Jesus, his teaching and his words against the background of the author or authors.
- The Acts of the Apostles, which are attributed to Luke tell us how the apostles spread the Gospel worldwide, from Jerusalem to the farthest parts of the Roman Empire, converting both Jews and non-Jews to the new faith in Jesus Christ.
- The Letters and Epistles grouped together by author, actual or presumed. Amongst these can be found Paul’s letters, which are the oldest Christian documents in existence (from A.D.50 to A.D.65). They were written to communities in the main towns of the Mediterranean basin to help them reconsider their way of life from a Christian point of view and to give them support in dealing with topical issues.
- The Book of Revelation, an important work written in the apocalyptic style, in order to sustain the faith of believers in times of hardship, at the end of the world and at Christ’s return. It was written in the political context of the Roman Empire when it was compulsory to adhere to the religion and culture of the State (towards the end of the first century A.D.).
The New Testament was written in Greek, the everyday language of the inhabitants of the Mediterranean Basin.
The New Testament was written because of three major crises
These were :
- Jesus’ death in 30 A.D., which made his whole life appear a failure to his disciples, who had after all put their faith in him and left all they had to be his followers. However, things changed when they discovered his tomb was empty and they believed that God had raised Him from the dead. A new beginning seemed possible. Their proclamation “Jesus was dead and rose again” is at the heart of the Gospel. It is the foundation of all the other texts in the New Testament.
- The persecution of some of Jesus’ disciples when they proclaimed the Good News of the resurrection. They had to leave Jerusalem, but continued to spread the Gospel to Jews and non-Jews alike.
- The death of founder members of Christianity during the 60’s and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D.70, meant it was important to keep on record eye witness accounts of what Jesus had said or done and all the more so because both Jews and Christians were suffering from intense persecution. Christian converts from Judaism were barred from synagogues. From now on, it became necessary for Christians to have written texts so they could maintain and pass on the basis of their true identity.
The New Testament canon
Until the 2nd century there were many texts in circulation which had been written by the early Christian communities. Progressively, some were rejected as the early Church began to be established. The canon was made up little by little and not without discussion. However, in 363 the Council of Laodicea set out an almost definitive list of the books of the New Testament. There were still special cases though ; one example is that of the Syrian Christians who only recognized one Gospel for a long time, the Diatessaron. This work made its author, Tatien (born around 120), very well known but, sadly, today we know only a few phrases. It was a bold attempt to merge all four Gospels, and was mainly based on the sequence of events in the Gospel according to Matthew.
Today, the twenty seven books of the New Testament are the same for all Christian Churches.
Calvin and the Bible
Although Calvin considered the Bible to be of fundamental importance in his theses, he cannot be considered a fundamentalist. The authority of the Scriptures, according to him, called for interpretation : in fact, to refuse this course of action was inconceivable. What was required was to read the texts in such a way that both intelligence and faith played their part, so as not to separate the intellect and the spiritual.
The Bible and Culture
The Bible opens up a whole world which it spreads before us as a neverending source of creative inspiration. The Scriptures have had a major influence on the arts and culture of the western world.
Humanism and translations of the Bible into the vernacular
The 16th century was a turning point in the history of the Bible ; it was widely distributed due to the invention of printing. Humanism advocated a return to the original manuscripts in Greek or Latin for classical literature, and also to the original Hebrew or Greek texts for the Bible. As the Bible was translated into the vernacular, it became accessible to more and more people.
The Bible in times of persecution for the French Protestants (1685-1760)
From 1685 onwards the Bible was forbidden in France. However, at this time it was still read and preached by Protestants who also managed to have copies in their homes. Of course, they had to use devious means in order to do so and great secrecy was necessary.
Luther and Bible Reading
Before the Reformation the Bible was mainly read by a priest to a church community during an act of worship, and usually in Latin. This practice changed with the Reformers : because preaching had become more important, reading the Bible became the heart of the liturgy. Now that believers could read it in their own language, it was also read individually and within the family. Luther, through his work as a theologian and translator, influenced this change.
What is the Bible ?
The Bible is the most widely read and most extensively published book in the world. It is a literary masterpiece : many scholars have written Biblical commentaries and over the centuries the Bible has been a source of inspiration for writers, musicians, painters and sculptors.
For Jews and Christians the Bible has a very special place in their religion, as it is considered to be of fundamental importance.
The Old Testament
The expression “Old Testament” was first used by Christians in the middle of the second century to describe the books which they shared with Judaism when they were putting together their own collection of writings which later became known as the “New Testament”. The name indicates the essentially Jewish nature of the Scriptures for Christians. The Old Testament tells a very long story, which begins with the creation of the world and of humanity itself. Some of the Old Testament figures have become quite culturally symbolic such as Abraham, Moses, David or Job and some texts such as the Psalms, Proverbs or the Ten Commandments have been heard of by nearly everyone.