Chapter 1.
Background and Composition of the New Testament

The world of the New Testament was a busy and exciting one. All roads led to Rome; the Caesars held sway across most of the inhabited earth; in a tiny town of Palestine One was born who was to change the world! Following the time of Christ on earth, the Christian Church emerged, beginning as a small band of men and women, then growing to a great multitude of people. To instruct local congregations of believers and to inform them of the life and teachings of Christ, the books of the New Testament were written.

But these events did not come about suddenly. They were the result of preparation—and that by God Himself! "But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). In the years that preceded the coming of Christ, God had been active in the lives of men and in the affairs of the nations. Many had a part in this pre-Christian era. Among the three most important contributors were the Hebrews and their religion; the Greeks and their language; and the Romans and their social and political organization.

The Hebrew Preparation

Chosen by God as "a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation" (Exod. 19:6), the people of Israel were in a position of privilege. They were to be the messengers of the Lord to the nations around them. But they failed! Because of almost continuous disobedience and the gross sin of idolatry, God's judgment fell with finality upon them in the year 587 B.C. and the nation was carried away captive by Nebuchadnezzar into the land of Babylon.

From this center of captivity they were progressively scattered across the ancient world. This crucial event, called The Great Dispersion, left its effects upon the Hebrew people. But as they went, and wherever they went, many of them let it be known that they were worshipers of the one true God, Jehovah. Two emphases in particular, monotheism (the belief in only one God) and the Law of God, stood out in the midst of pagan societies.

In later years, when Christ was born and the apostolic proclamations went forth, the way had been prepared. The words, the ideas, the message itself was not entirely new. And not only had people heard the message, but they had read it too. The Hebrew Old Testament was translated into Greek in the city of Alexandria in Egypt between the years 250-150 B.C. As Greek was then the common language of the world, this translation, called the Septuagint (meaning "the Seventy"), made the Old Testament teachings available to all who could read.

Sometime during the second century B.C., the major sects (or parties) among the Jews seem to have had their origin. As one reads the historical books of the New Testament (Matthew through Acts), the names of the Pharisees and the Sadducees often appear. The Pharisees were the larger of the two groups and were predominantly the students and teachers of the Old Testament, while the Sadducees were the powerful political leaders, including the high priests and leading officials of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin (composed of seventy people plus the high priest).

One is impressed with the orthodox character of the Pharisees. They firmly maintained the sacred character of the entire Old Testament, taught belief in the resurrection and the judgment of the last day, and affirmed the existence of angels and spirits. These tenets the Sadducees denied (Acts 23:6-8). Yet it was the former group which most often came under the condemnation of the Lord Jesus in His teaching—not because they failed to be orthodox, but because they emphasized the unimportant and neglected the weightier elements of the Law (Matt. 23:23, 24).

The Greek Preparation

One language and one world! That was the ambition of young Alexander, the son of King Philip of Macedon more than 300 years before the birth of Christ. His ambition was largely realized between the years 334-323 B.C. Sweeping across the ancient world, like lightning across the sky, Alexander soon conquered it. To cement his victories he established the Greek language as the lingua franca, the common tongue, and the Greek culture as the pattern of thought and life. Although his vast empire quickly disintegrated after his premature death, the results were of long standing.

How did these third-century happenings relate to the coming of Christianity and the New Testament? A matchless vehicle of expression for the Christian message was provided. The apostolic preaching was done largely in Greek; the New Testament books were written in Greek, the common language of the world. Using the vocabulary of their day, the writers filled the words with new and significant meaning designed to convey the message of spiritual life to their readers. Such important terms as Christ, redeem, ransom, church, wisdom, and word illustrate this.

The Roman Preparation

Above all else Rome was noted for her insistence upon law and order. The world was organized into a great empire extending from the western end of the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River in the Near East. By means of provinces and districts closely supervised by local governors, the empire was efficiently administered.

In the providence of God, the Romans prepared the world for the coming of Christianity in a number of ways.

First, the emphasis on law and order, backed by superior military might, made possible the days of peace during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It was during these days, says Luke the historian, that Mary brought forth her firstborn son (Luke 2:1-7) in the tiny village of Bethlehem in the Roman province of Judea.

Again, the Roman system of roads contributed greatly to the measure of ease and safety by which travelers could make their way back and forth across the empire. These roads were well paved, well drained, and usually patrolled. Paul traveled on such important roads as the Egnatian Way across Achaia and Macedonia and the Appian Way leading to Rome.

Another important factor, though negative in character, was the marked degeneration of morality and religion, and the deep longing for redemption found among the peoples of the Mediterranean Basin. They had lost faith in the ancient gods. The state religions were too formal and rigid to satisfy personal longings. The current philosophies of the day, likewise, lacked in real vigor and failed to appeal to the common man. Both in the East and the West, so-called mystery cults arose to offer personal salvation, fellowship with the gods, and the observance of secret rites.

Into this scene came Christianity proclaiming salvation, forgiveness, and peace. Centered in the historical incidents of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity supplied the answer to man's spiritual need and moral void.

First Century Palestine

The principal ruling family in Palestine in the years which saw the dawn of the Christian era was the Herodian dynasty. Herod the Great was appointed by the Romans as the king of the Jews, reigning from 37 to 4 B.C. His rule was marked by intrigue and bloodshed, including the incident recorded in Matthew 2, called "the slaughter of the infants."

Of the sons of Herod the most noted in the gospel records was Herod Antipas who ruled from 4 B.C. to a.d. 39 as Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. It was this Herod whom John the Baptist accused of wrongfully marrying Herodias, costing John his life (Matt. 14:1-12). Jesus called Herod "that fox" (Luke 13:32) and it was he who was involved in the trial of Christ in Jerusalem (Luke 23:7-12).

Herod Agrippa I, the son of Aristobulus and grandson of Herod the Great, succeeded Antipas and ruled over Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. His reign, from a.d. 37-44, was cut short by his sudden death. Acts 12 records his murder of James the son of Zebedee and the imprisonment of Peter together with a cryptic account of Herod's death (v. 21-23).

The last of the family to reign was Herod Agrippa II (a.d. 50-100). He appears in Acts 25 and 26 in conjunction with the trial of Paul before Festus in Caesarea. He, along with Festus, rendered a verdict of acquittal (26:31, 32).

Among the Roman procurators of Judea in the first century, Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26-36) is most notable as far as the New Testament record is concerned. Because of his share in the trial of Christ and his condemnation of the Lord after repeatedly rendering the verdict of "not guilty" (John 18:38-19:6), Pilate has attained unusual notoriety in history. Shortly after the death of Christ, he was deposed by Tiberius for an attack on the Samaritans and was ordered to appear before the emperor (a.d. 36). What actually happened to Pilate after this is uncertain.

Amid these political circumstances, the Jews were ruled directly by their own high priest and his cohorts in the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Three of these high priests are mentioned in the New Testament. Annas, the high priest emeritus, was the father-in-law to Caiaphas, the ruling high priest at the time of the trial of Christ (John 18:13); Ananias appears in Acts 23:2.

The religious life of the Jews was centered in the temple in Jerusalem. This structure, called Herod's Temple, was in process of completion during the time of Christ (cf. John 2:20). It had as its antecedents the temples of Solomon and Zerubbabel and was the symbol of their religious hopes and aspirations. From near and far the people came to worship, offer sacrifices, and observe the religious festivals of Judaism, especially the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

Side by side with the temple in the religious life of Judaism was the synagogue. Especially to all those at a distance from Jerusalem, the synagogue was a substitute for the temple. There were a number of synagogues even in Jerusalem. They were primarily places of instruction and prayer for the Jews and Gentile adherents of the Jewish faith. The Scripture was read, commented on, and at various places in the service prayers were offered. Both Jesus and the early Christians frequented the synagogue (Luke 4:16-30; Acts 13:14 ff.; 26:11).

To the Jew, the Old Testament was the Book of God. God was One, the Law was the revelation of His will, and life was under His jurisdiction. There was an air of expectancy that God would intervene and save His people (Luke 2:25). So it was when Christ was born, He came into a world prepared—"in the fulness of the time." The New Testament complements the Old Testament, carrying on and completing the record of God's revelation, and clarifying to the Jew, the Gentile, and the Church of God the eternal truths of the living God.

Composition of the New Testament

The New Testament contains 27 books which may be classified into three major groups based on their literary characteristics.

Chronological division

Many scholars hold James to be the earliest book of the New Testament, written about A.D. 45. Aside from the question of the place of James, it is practically certain that some of Paul's letters represent the first written records of the early church. Galatians is regarded by some to have been written as early as a.d. 47/48. The Thessalonian Epistles are from the early ministry of Paul the missionary, written from Corinth before or during the time of Gallio (cf. Acts 18:12-17; 1 Thess. 3:1-10), which would mean A.d. 50 or 51. These early writings give an insight into the character of the Christian message and Christians themselves. Especially important in this regard are passages such as Galatians 1:6-2:21; 6:11-17; 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10; 2:13-16; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12; 3:6-15.

In contrast to these writings, those of John the apostle constitute the last of the books to be written. According to tradition, as well as indications in the books themselves, John's works reflect problems being faced by the church near the end of the first century. His major writings deal mainly with aspects of salvation: the Gospel—the nature of salvation; the First Epistle—the assurance of salvation; and the Revelation—the consummation of salvation.

Literary division

While the literary divisions of the New Testament do not follow a chronological scheme, they do reflect the logical order of God's program. First, the Gospels and Acts constitute the basic history which is necessary for a proper understanding and appreciation of the later works. The life of Christ and the origin of the Church is foundational. The story of the Founder is required before one regards the superstructure which was erected. The Church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone" (Eph. 2:20).

Matthew—The introduction to "Jesus Christ, the King of the Jews." Herein is recorded the fulfillment of many of the Old Testament prophecies with the coming of the Messiah. The teaching of Christ is emphasized.

Mark—The picture of Jesus as the "Servant of the Lord." He is busy about His Fathers work, thus Mark emphasizes the activity, and especially the redemptive activity, of Christ.

Luke—The portrait of Jesus as "the Son of Man," the perfect representative of humanity. His life was given "to seek and to save that which was lost" (19:10). The sympathy and graciousness of Christ are emphasized.

John—The presentation of Jesus as the "the Son of God," the eternal Word who came to reveal God to man. This Gospel emphasizes the relation of Christ to those around Him—the personal contacts which changed the lives of those who met Him. By the true realization of His divine Sonship, eternal life was received.

A Harmony of the Ministry of Jesus
Gospel The Period
The Period of
Public Ministry
Period of
Period of
Opening Closing
Matthew 1:1-4:16 4:17-16:20 16:21-26:2 26:3-27:66 28:1-20
Mark 1:1-13 1:14-8:30 8:31-13:37 14:1-15:47 16:1-20
Luke 1:1-4:13 4:14-9:21 9:22-21:38 22:1-23:56 24:1-53
John 1:1-34 1:35-6:71 7:1-12:50 13:1-19:42 20:1-21:25

Acts—This is the continuation of Luke's Gospel and presents the Risen Christ working through His apostles who had been empowered by the Holy Spirit. The origin of the Church, the Body of Christ, and its expansion "unto the uttermost part of the earth" is the theme of this first church history.

Secondly, the New Testament Epistles give the interpretation of the person and work of Christ and apply His teachings to the lives of believers. The majority of these letters, at least 13, were penned by the apostle Paul. Most of them are written in letter form. Of the 21, all have names attached to them except Hebrews and the three Epistles of John.

Nine of the Pauline writings were sent to churches; four to individuals. Most of them deal with problem situations then existing in the churches (Ephesians seems to be an exception). Some are very personal in tone (Philippians and 2 Corinthians); others appear to have a more formal, almost thesis-like style, and in their main features (excluding the usual personal introduction and conclusion) show a rather businesslike tone. Romans would probably be the outstanding example of this type. Further, the letters of Paul show great variety in content, and also combine doctrinal and practical components in good balance.

The remaining epistles, while varied in authorship, may be conveniently grouped under two main headings. Some deal primarily with the problem of suffering (Hebrews, James, and 1 Peter), while the rest treat the problem of false teaching (2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude). Both these problems became increasingly serious as the first century progressed. Persecution came first from Jewish opponents and later (after a.d. 64) from the Roman government. Christ had warned His followers of the rise of false Christs and false prophets (Matt. 24:24), and Paul had said much the same thing to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20:29, 30). By the time John wrote his letters, the Gnostics (teachers who claimed to possess a superior philosophical-religious type of knowledge) were plaguing the Church. His epistles were an answer to that error.

Finally, there is the well-known prophetical writing in the New Testament, the Revelation (or Apocalypse, the unveiling) of Jesus Christ. Like the prophecy of Daniel in the Old Testament, this book deals, for the most part, with the judgments of God in the last days upon "those that dwell upon the earth." In Revelation, the climax of redemption is portrayed. The earlier word of Paul, that God's purpose was "to sum up all things in Christ" (Eph. 1:10 ASV), is realized as John writes, "The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of His Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever" (Rev. 11:15).

And so the New Testament has come to us. "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son" (Heb. 1:1, 2).

Discussion Questions

  1. Discuss the significant contributors and their contributions leading to the coming of Christ and the writing of the New Testament.
  2. In what important ways did the Jewish Dispersion prepare the way for Christianity?
  3. How did the Greek language and culture relate to Christianity?
  4. In what ways did the Roman Empire contribute to the rise and spread of Christianity?
  5. Distinguish between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Which group is more prominent in the Gospels?
  6. Name the three literary divisions of the New Testament and list the books included in each division.
  7. Compare John's dealing with the subject of salvation in his Gospel, the First Epistle, and the Revelation.
  8. How do the Gospels and the Acts lay the foundation for the remaining New Testament writings?
  9. In what ways do the Epistles deal with the life and teachings of Christ?
  10. How does the Book of Revelation present Christ?

Application Activities

  1. To get a clearer view of Christ in the New Testament, prepare a simple chart to use throughout the class sessions, listing the various aspects of His character and work. For example:
Portraits of Christ
His Character His Work
Model Sufferer, Luke 23:34 Savior, Luke 2:11
Sinless One, Luke 4 Teacher, Matthew 5
  1. As the class sessions develop, list specific qualities in Christ's life desirable in your own life.
  2. Refer to several good Bible commentaries or dictionaries for further background studies in preparation for a deeper understanding of the New Testament. In commentaries, background information is generally given prior to verse-by-verse comments.