New Testament   [abbrev. NT ] 

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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 31:31-33]

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 And what is obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.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 8:13]

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 Testaments.

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- bound parchment NTs from Eusebius of Caesarea.

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 material; and/or
  • presented canonical works in different sequences.

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).

In 1546 the Roman Catholic Council of Trent affirmed the doctrinal authority of all 27 books on Athanasius' canonical list. While generally asserting the authority of the NT, Protestant & Orthodox churches have still not officially defined its contents.

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last revised 06 August 2017

 

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