POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

The Books of the New Testament

Continued from Introduction to the New Testament... 

The New Testament, shared by Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians is comprised of 27 individual books of varying length and literary genre.  A genre is simply a kind of writing.  Poetry, narrative stories, legal literature, prophecies are simple examples of different literary genres.  The New Testament contains four main genres of literature: gospel, narrative, epistle/letter and apocalyptic.  Many of these genres contain different sub genres such as parables, poems, creedal material as well as personal testimony.  The following is only a brief description of the parts of the New Testament.

The Gospel Literature - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John 

There are four books in the New Testament classified as gospel literature.  The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are considered to be gospels. The word gospel is derived from the Greek term euangélion, which simply means good news or good tidings.  So the gospels are books containing good news, but not just any kind of news.  It would be one thing if a historical rise in the stock market or the fortunes of a nation are recorded dispassionately as history.  That might be interesting, but it would not be world changing.  The New Testament gospels however record something different-they record good news of God's action in history, to bring people into a relationship of love and worship through Jesus Christ.  The gospels are a fairly unique form of writing comprising several literary forms.  In some ways they are part biography, part history and part theology.  They have the goal of presenting and persuading - they endeavor to present Jesus but also to teach us who he is and what our response to him should be.  Each of the gospels had a different audience which originally received the work and each was composed by a different author.  As such they record some of the same details of Jesus' life but at times in different ways.  There is a commonality in the events, but a different recording depending on the purposes of the author and his intended audience.

The Synoptic Gospels

The gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are known as the Synoptic Gospels, in that each provides a synopsis, or outline of the life and teaching of Jesus.  The word synoptic is derived from two Greek terms that when combined mean to see together.  When examined together, these gospels present a multifaceted view of the life and teaching of Jesus.  There is an interesting body of scholarship whose goal has been to investigate the origin and compiling of the synoptic gospels from early oral tradition and eyewitness accounts.  Scholars call this the synoptic problem.  The question arises from both the similarity and differences between the texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke and the literary and source connections between them.  A complete summary of the synoptic problem is well beyond our purposes here, but I think a brief summary will help you at least know some of the issues.  I will lay out a few of the issues that make the synoptic puzzle an interesting area of New Testament studies.  For those interested in a very brief, approachable, but scholarly summary of the current discussion I recommend Rethinking the Synoptic Problem published by Baker Academic.[1]  It is only about 160 pages so throw it in your Amazon.com shopping cart.

First Issue - We know the Gospels are Compilations 

The fact that the evangelists, the writers of the synoptic gospels compiled their accounts from other sources is non controversial.  It is the clear teaching of the Bible and of church tradition.  For instance, Luke begins his gospel with the following statement:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Luke 1:1-4 ESV

A few things should be noted about Luke's goals in writing his gospel.  First, he acknowledges others have taken up the task to compile a written narrative of Jesus.  Second, these compilations are based on eyewitness accounts from those who were with Jesus and ministers of the word.  Third, his concern was to put together a written, orderly, factual account of the teachings of the Christian faith.  Additionally, there is a strong tradition stating that Mark's gospel is a compilation of the account and preaching of Peter which was written around the time of the apostle's death.  We'll have more on that later.   So if the gospels are compilations which were written down at different times, for different communities, by different authors it is likely that they shared some of the same sources and perhaps used one another's writings. 

Second Issue - Same Stories, Different Accountings 

If you ever interact with people who are skeptical about the Bible they are sure to bring up the so called "contradictions" in the gospel narratives.   You see some of the stories are the same, sometimes verbatim (see next issue), but sometimes the stories are similar but have some pretty significant differences.  A quick read of the resurrection narrative accounts in the synoptic gospels will suffice to illustrate.  How many angels were there at the empty tomb?  If you go after answering that question for a moment you run into a feature of the synoptic problem.  My answer?  Probably, at least two...but each does not always get props in the story.

Third Issue - Same Stories, Same Wordings 

Many times the synoptic gospels contain the exact same stories and teachings of Jesus Christ.  This would be rather uninteresting as a mere accounting of the same life would suffice to explain this occurrence.  However, many times in the gospels we find Matthew and Luke repeating Mark almost word for word.  Additionally Matthew and Luke contain some of the same sayings of Jesus that are not found in Mark. This asks the question: Who was using what writings in compiling their work?  In any account, there appears to be a literary interdependence of the synoptic gospels and their sources.  This has led to the dominant position among many scholars today known as the Two Source hypothesis.

The Dominant Solution - Two Source Hypothesis

  • Mark was written first.  The view that Mark was the first gospel is simply assumed by many in New Testament studies today. [2] For example, Ben Witherington begins his commentary with a simple statement regarding studies of the gospel of Mark: "The sheer volume of recent studies, however, suggests that we are trying harder to grasp the meaning of this, the earliest of the gospels."[3]  There are many reasons for thinking Mark may have been written first. [4]
  • Matthew and Luke had Mark available to them as they wrote
  • Scholars have formed a hypothesis (a good and educated guess) of another source which they have called "Q"[5] (from the German quelle for "source").  It is held that this source contained sayings that Matthew and Luke share in common but are absent from Mark.  Q is a working hypothesis used by some scholars.  There is not a single shred of archaeological evidence of its existence.  We do not have one copy of this source.  Yet it is a reasonable inference due to the material shared by Matthew and Luke.  It is questioned by some scholars and an assumed hypothesis by others.
  • Today, Markan priority and the use of Luke/Matthew of Mark/Q remains the dominant view.

However, in the last several decades there have been others who are arguing quite convincingly for the priority of Matthew.[6]  This holds promise for a couple reasons.  First, the tradition and teaching of church history is univocal that Matthew was written first.  This was unchallenged for over 1800 years.  Second, this school of thought is giving much more credence to patristic studies, studies of the writings of the church fathers.  For those interested in this school of thought will want to see Why Four Gospels by David Allan Black.[7] 

Let me close briefly by saying that all evangelical scholars-whether those who hold to the two source hypothesis or the priority of Matthew-hold that the synoptic gospels were written down by the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit.  All evangelical New Testament scholars agree that each view is compatible with the truth that the writers of the gospels recorded scripture as inspired by God. 

Dr. Craig Blomberg sums this up well: 

...it is important to state up front that none of the major solutions to the Synoptic problem is inherently more or less compatible with historic Christian views of the inspiritation and authority of Scripture. [8]

Though the precise solution to the literary connectedness of the gospels is not of central importance to our faith, it is good to be aware of these issues.  Many so called "contradictions" skeptics claim to find in the synoptic narratives are easily resolved when we realized that each other arranged his material to tell the story of Jesus to a specific audience of Christians from a particular perspective.  Our chief concern with Matthew, Mark and Luke is the person to whom they testify.  Our gaze is the person of Jesus who lived in history, taught us many things, gave his life as a sacrifice for sin and rose from death to set people free.  This Jesus is the Jesus of the synoptic gospels - and to him, the final gospel calls boldly to us...Believe! 

John's Gospel - Believe!

John's gospel states its goal forcefully and with clarity in the twentieth chapter of the book.  These are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31 ESV). John is writing for the purpose of presenting Jesus as the Christ, the one sent from God to deliver his people from sin, and calling us to believe.  It is a narrative of the miracles and teaching of Jesus which has a different feel from the synoptic gospels.  John wrote his material with the divinity of Jesus in the forefront and wants no neutral readers.  To read John is to be brought close to the Son of God in his glory with majesty on display.  The fourth gospel cannot be ignored and calls for a radical commitment of life to the Savior.  All who hear his voice in Scripture will follow and believe and no one who comes to him will he cast out; this is the radical message of John.

Narrative Literature - The Book of Acts

The book of Acts is primarily narrative in nature as it records the unfolding and preaching of the gospel from Jerusalem outward through the Roman Empire.  It begins with the story of the coming of the Spirit at a Jewish feast known as Pentecost and people in Jerusalem becoming followers of Jesus.  It continues with opposition and persecution in Jerusalem and the spread of the gospel outward in the first missionary efforts of the church.  The bulk of the narrative contains the travels of Paul and his companions establishing Christian communities throughout the trade routes of the world.  It tells a story and as such it is narrative literature

Epistles and Letters - From Paul and Others

A large portion of the New Testament is made up of letters written and distributed widely to teach and instruct the early church.  Whereas the gospels lay out the life teaching of Jesus, the epistles expound on the gospel leading us in how to live as followers of Jesus on his mission.  The epistles further explain the gospel, give us instruction on how to move into the world as Christ's followers and teach us how we are to live together as the church.  The letters are usually divided into two groups, the letters of Paul and those known as the general epistles.  We'll look briefly at both groupings. 

Paul's Letters

Much of the New Testament was written by a guy named Paul. Paul was sort of a big time guy in his day that had it on his mind to stamp out the new Christian movement.  As a religious Jew he saw the followers of Jesus as departing from the way of their fathers and began to persecute the church heavily with permission from civic leaders.  On his way to give some people a beat down the tables were turned on him.  Jesus smacked him around, blinded him for a few days and told him that he would now be a Christian and bring the gospel to the Gentiles (non Jews).  Paul then became a pretty radical guy who nobody could silence.  He preached the gospel with courage and at great peril to his own life.  In establishing new churches Paul would write to them, inspired by God, to teach and instruct the new followers in the way of Jesus.  Thirteen of Paul's letters make up a large portion of the New Testament.  Many of the letters are named after cities where the new churches were living.  The book of Romans was written to those in Rome, 1 and 2 Corinthians to the church in Corinth, etc.  If they were written today they would be something like 1 Nashvillians.  The Pastoral Epistles were written to Paul's younger disciples teaching them how to be servant leaders in the church and named after these men.  Finally, Philemon is the name of a friend of Paul and that letter bears his name.  Here is a listing: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Galatians; The Prison Epistles - letters written during his house arrest in Rome - Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon; The Pastoral Epistles - 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus 

General Epistles

The remaining letters of the New Testament were written by apostles and early Christian leaders dealing with particular concerns of missional living and doctrine in the early communities.  One book, though early on held to be written by Paul, has remained anonymous in its authorship.  It simply is title the epistle to the Hebrews.  Here is a listing of these books: Hebrews, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, 1, 2 and 3 John 

The Apocalypse - The Revelation of Jesus Christ

The final book of the New Testament has a unique literary genre known as apocalyptic literature.  The word apocalypse comes from the Greek word which means to reveal, to uncover, unveil or disclose.   As such the book is commonly called Revelation.  This book has proved very controversial over the centuries with many schools of thought on how we should interpret it.  The book however is very clear in its purpose from the opening lines.  It is a revelation of Jesus Christ.  Whether the book is about bar codes on our foreheads, apache helicopters, one world government, meteors crashing into the earth or being left behind I will leave up to you.  But one thing we must know, the book is about Jesus, not just the end of the world.  The book is about the worship and praise and ultimate revealing of Jesus Christ.  We would do best to focus here when reading this book. 

That is but a brief fly-over of the New Testament writings, but our focus is on the gospels and the gospel of Mark in particular.  So let us move to the gospel literature, the books that focus us on the life, teaching, death and resurrection of the carpenter from Nazareth.

[1] David Alan Black and David R Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2001), 1. Emphasis added.

[4] D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1992), 32-36.

[5] More on "Q" can be found at Peter Kirby, Q Document(2001-2006, accessed August 13 2007); available from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/q.html.

[6] Most influential has been the late William Reuben Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, a Critical Analysis (New York: Macmillan, 1964).  See brief discussion in R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark : A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 42.

[7] David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels - the Historical Origins of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2001).

[8] Black and Beck, Rethinking the Synoptic Problem, 18.