Traditional name for the canonical
collection of early Christian writings.
The word "testament"
is simply the English transliteration of the Latin word for something that has
been witnessed (testamentum). This term was widely used to refer to
the publication of a person's last will (a document that had to be signed by
witnesses). In Latin versions of the scriptures this term was used to
translate the Greek word for a dispensation (diathéké), a term that
was also generally used for a final will. But diathéké could refer
to any legal contract. Therefore, those who translated the Hebrew
Bible into Greek regularly used it for the Hebrew word for a binding pact or
"covenant" (berith) between two parties.
The idea of a new
covenant can be traced to the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who -- on the eve of
the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem (586 BCE) --
gave this assurance to Jews
that God would not abandon them :
The LORD says: "Look! The days are
coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and
the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their
fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out the land of Egypt...
But...I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.
And I will be their God and they shall be my people. [Jer
The author of an early
Christian treatise "To the Hebrews" cited Jeremiah's promise of a
new order to support his claim that the Christian dispensation replaced
the social order established by the laws of Moses:
In speaking of a new covenant he
treats the first as obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old
is ready to vanish away. [Heb
This author's distinction
between old & new dispensations was later adopted as a
convenient way to distinguish Christian scriptures from the Greek translation
of Jewish scriptures. So, when the Greek scriptures were translated into
Latin, these two collections became known as the Old & New
At first the books of the NT
were not published in a single volume but as separate codices.
By the 3rd century CE several
gospels or letters were occasionally bound
together. But the production of volumes containing many different types of
works (gospels, letters, acts, apocalypses) did not occur until after the
council of Nicea (325 CE) when
the emperor Constantine ordered 50 leather-
NTs from Eusebius
The contents of the
NT, however, have never been officially fixed by any universally recognized
church authority. Eusebius classified Christian scriptures in three groups:
- 20 that were generally
accepted (4 gospels, 13 letters of Paul, Acts, 1 John & 1 Peter);
- 5 that were disputed (James,
2 Peter, Jude, 2 & 3 John; Hebrews & Revelation are not
even mentioned); &
- others that were regarded as
spurious (including the gospels of Thomas & Peter).
Throughout the 4th c. CE
differing canonical lists of Christian scripture were published by various
bishops. The list that Athanasius of Alexandria issued in his festal letter 39
(367 CE) -- including all the works in Eusebius' first two groups,
plus Hebrews & Revelation -- was eventually accepted as the standard NT by
most Greek & Latin churches.
Still the contents of mss. of
the NT continued to vary for more than 1000 years. Some
- lacked some material (from a
portion of a canonical book to one or more whole works); and/or
- included other non-canonical
- presented canonical works in
There was no standard text of
the NT before the invention of the printing press. But even after this
biblical scholars & theologians continued to dispute the canonical status
of various NT books (especially
James, Hebrews, Revelation & the pastoral letters).