Understanding the New Testament
Lecture Notes for 1.1 - 1.3
Religion 102
Last revised: 1/18/05
Contained below is a manuscript summarizing the class lecture(s) covering the above specified range of topics from the List of Topics. For updated information about the class  see the class announcement board. Quite often hyperlinks (underlined) to sources of information etc. will be inserted in the text of the lecture. These should be consulted as possible sources for answering either the Objective Questions (Exam 1 option) or the Take-Home Questions (Exam 3 option). Test questions for all three exam options will be derived in part from these lectures.
1.1 1.1.1 1.1.2 1.2 1.2.1 1.2.2 1.3 1.3.1 1.3.2 1.3.3 1.3.4 Bibliography

     What is the New Testament? Literature? A novel? A collection of ancient historical documents? This question has spared a mirad of answers over the centuries as various individuals have examined this sacred writing of the Christian religion. In this lecture we shall explore a definition of the New Testament and its relationship to other similar religious writings.

     1.1 Definition of the Term. If you were asked to define the New Testament (hereafter abbreviated as NT), what answer would you give? Typically an initial activity would be to look up the term in a dictionary. For example, the online Meriam-Webster dictionary defines New Testament as "the second part of the Christian Bible comprising the canonical Gospels and Epistles and also the book of Acts and book of Revelation." But how is this a definition? It contains two elements: (1) a designation as the second part of the Christian Bible (character) and (2) specifies its contents. A very limited description of ancient writings that have inspired thousands of people to devote their entire lives to their study. More detailed and helpful is the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the New Testament with its definition of the New Testamant as

"The New Testament consists of 27 books, which are the residue, or precipitate, out of many 1st-2nd-century-AD writings that Christian groups considered sacred. In these various writings the early church transmitted its traditions: its experience, understanding, and interpretation of Jesus as the Christ and the self-understanding of the church. In a seemingly circuitous interplay between the historical and theological processes, the church selected these 27 writings as normative for its life and teachings--i.e., as its canon (from the Greek kanon, literally, a reed or cane used as a measuring rod and, figuratively, a rule or standard)."
Now we understand that the NT consists of 27 books with a two century time frame for their origin. In viewing these as 'sacred' the early church, through the NT writings, reflected on its self-perception as a religious movement growing out of the work of Jesus Christ and the apostles. As sacred these writings became authoritative expressions guiding belief and practice.
     This compares to the definition of Stephen Harris in The New Testament: A Student's Introduction (1): "The New Testament consists of twenty-seven Greek documents -- Gospels, a church history, letters, and an apocalypse (revelation) -- which the early Christian community added to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament)." The brief introductory sentence in the New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version (NT, iii) is more like the dictionary definition above: "The New Testament comprises the twenty-seven books that constitute the second of the two portions into which the Bible is naturally divided."
     What can be gleaned from a comparison of these four depictions of the New Testament? Indications of character, time of origin, extent of content, and role are reflected in these. How would you elaborate on these four elements? Do these definitions reflect a perspective that a Muslim would agree with? A Jew? Why?

    1.1.1 Testament. According to the online Meriam-Webster dictionary the word 'testament' has various meanings:

Main Entry: tes·ta·ment
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English, from Late Latin & Latin; Late Latin testamentum covenant with God, holy scripture, from Latin, last will, from testari to be a witness,
call to witness, make a will, from testis witness; akin to Latin tres three & to Latin stare to stand; from the witness's standing by as a third party in a litigation
Date: 14th century
1 a archaic : a covenant between God and the human race b capitalized : either of two main divisions of the Bible
2 a : a tangible proof or tribute b : an expression of conviction : CREDO
3 a : an act by which a person determines the disposition of his or her property after death b : WILL
- tes·ta·men·ta·ry adjective
From this one can understand that the English word 'testament' has its origin in the Latin 'testamentum.' Historically, this word came into English translations of the Bible because early English translators, including the KJV translators, simply transliterated the Latin Vulgate 'testamentum' into English, rather than translated it. With the wide spread influence of the KJV on the English speaking world the word 'testament' became lodged into our reference to the two segments of the Bible. Which one of the three definitions is appropriate?  Why is definition one termed 'archaic'?
     Very helpful is the use of the word 'testament' in English translations of the Bible. Quite interesting is a comparison of the translations that use the word 'testament' and those that choose an alternative word, using the Bible Study Tools online concordance to look up the word 'testament.' There are approximately thirteen places in the New Testaments where this translation issue surfaces. The word 'testament' is used with different meanings that can be grouped under the above M-W dictionary definition. Can you group these uses according to the correct meaning?
     Quite often responding to such a question would generate a listing of synonyms of the term 'testament.' Certainly this can suggest ways the word is used today. The Miriam-Webster Thesaurus gives several synonyms of the word 'testament' but none of them relate to our use of the term. Can you identify why this is so? There's a very significant, valid reason that is connected to the dictionary definition of the word 'testament.'

    1.1.2. Covenant. The NOSB (NT, iii) asserts that "a more appropriate word than 'testament' to designate the character of these books is 'covenant'." The NOSB (NT, iii) suggests a good reason for this: "This [covenant] is the word that the Bible uses referring to the relationship that God established with his people." Although outdated in many respects Easton's Bible Dictionary online does provide additional help in understanding the preference for the word 'covenant':

     "Covenant: a contract or agreement between two parties. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word berith is always thus translated. Berith is derived from a root which means 'to cut,' and hence a covenant is a 'cutting,' with reference to the cutting or dividing of animals into two parts, and the contracting parties passing between them, in making a covenant (Genesis 15; Jeremiah 34:18,19).
     The corresponding word in the New Testament Greek is diatheke, which is, however, rendered 'testament' generally in the Authorized Version. It ought to be rendered, just as the word berith of the Old Testament, 'covenant.'"
Thus the NT writers, writing in ancient Koine Greek, used the word diatheke to express the OT idea of berith which virtually every English translation, including the KJV, render as 'covenant' rather than as 'testament.' A careful analysis of the uses of both words in the Bible uncovers the reality that the Greek and Hebrew words are virtually the same in meaning when referring to the religious agreement God made with Israel (OT) and with humanity (NT) as reflected in Jeremiah 34:18,19. Thus the same English word should be used in both the OT and NT, as is the case in the vast majority of more recent English translations. This is the basic reason why most recent English translations do not use the word 'testament' in the NT occurrences of the Greek word diatheke.

    1.2 Relation to Hebrew Bible.
        Quite obviously the New Testament implies the existence of an Old Testament. This way of refering to the Bible reflects a Christian view of these sacred scriptures.
        The revelation of God contained in the New Testament in some way replaces/supplements the revelation found in the Old Testament. Which of these verbs -- replaces / supplements -- is correct has been a source of difference of Christian opinion since the second Christian century and the views of Marcion. Even in modern times since the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Christians have differed over the connection of the Old Testament to the New. For some Christian traditions the Old Testament is a necessary part of the Christian Bible only to provide historical background for understanding the New Testament. The divine revelation that Jesus brought, however, replaces what is found in the Old Testament so that nothing found in the Old Testament is binding on Christians. But many other Christian traditions believe that all of the Bible contains divine revelation that remains binding on Christians today. Thus, many struggle to find ways to apply parts of the Old Testament like the dietary food laws to Christian practice in our world. A wide range of viewpoints can be found among various Christian approaches here.
        Quite fascinating is the issue of how Jesus and the apostles used the Old Testament. When OT verses are cited somewhere in the NT and the reader turns to the passage in the OT, the two expressions of the same scripture text seldom read exactly the same way. For example, look at Matt. 3:3 --(NRSV) "This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight' '" .  The OT passage is introduced as coming from Isaiah, but with careful study or the use of the marginal references in the NRSV, one discovers that the passage comes from Isa. 40:3, which reads, "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'"  The wording of the quote in Matthew is similar to, but not exactly like its source in Isaiah 40:3 What's going on here? Did Jesus and the apostles not know their Bible well? A variety of reasons exist to account for these differences. First, and perhaps most importantly, the definition of 'quote' is a modern Western understanding not shared by the ancient world, or even many other places in our world today. Additionally, careful study of the original language texts uncovers that often the NT writers were 'quoting' from the LXX, which frequently reflects a different understanding than the original Hebrew text. Most modern English OT translations use the original Hebrew text as foundational to their translation. Once in a while the NT writer will quote from the Hebrew text, or at least one of the manuscript traditions of the Hebrew text with which we're familiar. The apostle Paul also cites from the rabbinic text tradition which he memorized as a Pharisee. Then, on a few occasions, his citation of an OT text bears little resemblance to anything we know about in any of the available OT text traditions. This issue of the 'use of the OT in the NT' is very enlightening on how sacred scriptures were viewed and treated at the beginning of the Christian era.
       For Jewish people, on the other hand, the term 'Bible' simply means what Christians call the Old Testament, and nothing more. Yet, when one would pick up an English translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanak in Hebrew, and first check the Table of Contents page, he/she would discover that the documents found in the Bible are not all named with the same names nor listed in the same sequence as in a Christian translation of the Old Testament. The books in the Hebrew Bible are grouped around three categories: (1) TORAH (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy); (2) PROPHETS (Former Prophets -- Joshua, Judges, Samuel [1 & 2], Kings [1 & 2]), (Latter Prophets -- Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel), (The Twelve -- Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi); (3) WRITINGS (Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, Lamentation, Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles [1 & 2]). This threefold way of referring to the Hebrew Bible is very old. In fact, this is the division that Jesus often used (cf. Matt. 5:17, 7:12) when referring to the Old Testament. How did this grouping of the books of the OT come about? Why are they different in the Christian OT?

    1.2.1 Hebrew Text. The Old Testament was originally written in either Hebrew (the vast majority of the OT) or in Aramaic, which were the languages that the Israelites used during that period of time. The ancient language was a semitic language, that is, similar in many ways to other languages of the ancient middle east. Some noticeable traits emerging from this semitic background include writing from the right to the left side of the page, the use of characters rather than letters for consonants along with dots (pointing) underneath the consonants for vowels. The language is very concrete in its expression of ideas, and contains almost no abstract nouns. For example, the Hebrew word for covenant transliterated into English is berith and literally means cutting.
        The documents of the Old Testament were still being put together during Jesus' day with only the first two divisions, the Torah and the Prophets, being in relatively fixed form. The third division, the Writings, was not yet established in terms of the content of documents viewed as authoritative. During the time of the writing of the books of the Old Testament, at least in the form familiar to us today, in the Babylonian exile and afterwards, the documents were written in Hebrew and copies of the texts began to be made. During the Middle Ages Jewish scribes developed the Masoretic text which serves until today as the basis of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament for both Judaism and Christianity.

     1.2.2 LXX.
        By the second century before the birth of Christ large numbers of Jewish people were living outside the Promised Land, in part as an outgrowth of the Babylonian Exile in the 500s B.C.E. After the conquest of the eastern Mediterranean world by Alexander the Great in the 300s B.C.E., the Greek language became the universally used and understood language of that world. Jews living outside Palestine increasingly used Greek rather than Aramaic as their mother language. In the 170s B.C.E., the movement arose to translate the Hebrew scriptures into Greek so that a larger number of scattered (Diaspora) Jews could read the Bible. Thus was born the Septuagint, symbolized by the Latin number 70, the LXX. The Letter of Aristeas contains a legendary story about the supposed translation of the LXX by seventy two Jewish scribes (six from each tribe) who worked independently for seventy two days to produce seventy two identical translations of the Hebrew Bible. This translation not only contained the documents found today in the Hebrew Bible, but also a set of documents known as the Old Testament Apocrypha, which are called the Deuterocanonical documents in Roman Catholic tradition.
        By the beginning of the Christian era, the LXX was widely used among Jewish people all over the Mediterranean world, and quickly became the Bible of early Christians who mostly spoke Greek and not Hebrew or Aramaic. By the end of the first Christian century the LXX was so identified with Christianity that it fell into disfavor among Jewish people and eventually was banned from usage among Jews. Most of the OT citations found in the New Testament are based on a LXX reading of the text, rather than on the Hebrew text.

     1.3 Relation to world religions scriptures.
        Judaism and Christianity are not the only world religions who claim to posses sacred scriptures. The other world religion that also traces its origin back to Abraham, Islam, possesses the Koran as its sacred scriptures. Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Bhuddaism make use of sacred scriptures, although not always viewing them quite the same way as Christianity does its Bible. Many other religious groups claim sacred texts as foundational to their religious traditions as well.

1.3.1. Koran (Qur'an)
        The scriptures of Islam are known in English as the Koran. Originally composed in the Arabic language, these writings of the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century AD are regarded as the sole authoritative base of the Muslim religion.
        One very different view toward sacred scripture among Muslims that sets them apart from Christianity is the view that the Koran is sacred scripture only in its original Arabic language text. Translation of the original Arabic text into another language such as English means that the translation version of the Koran ceases to be sacred scripture and becomes an ordinary book with no religious authority.  On the other hand, Christians all over the world refer to their favorite translation in their native language as the Bible with the same level of religious authority as the original Hebrew and Koine Greek texts, if not more so in some view points.
        Another difference relates to the view of 'inspiration' of the Koran. According to Islamic belief, its words were dictated directly by Allah to the prophet who recorded them exactly as told by Allah. Thus the Koran was produced at one time through a single person. Christianity, however, understands that spiritual insights were given a variety of individuals over several hundred years in different cultures and these insights were written down originally by numerous persons in multiple languages -- Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek -- only gradually over time to be brought together into a collection of sacred documents through the providential guidance of God.

1.3.2 Vedas
         In Hinduism the Vedas are regarded as sacred scriptures providing a basis for understanding life and spiritual matters. For Hindus these are essential documents to their religious faith as described in the following:

"The Srutis are called the Vedas, or the Amnaya. The Hindus have received their religion through revelation, the Vedas. These are direct intuitional revelations and are held to be Apaurusheya or entirely superhuman, without any author in particular. The Veda is the glorious pride of the Hindus, nay, of the whole world!

"The term Veda comes from the root 'Vid', to know. The word Veda means knowledge. When it is applied to scripture, it signifies a book of knowledge. The Vedas are the foundational scriptures of the Hindus. The Veda is the source of the other five sets of scriptures, why, even of the secular and the materialistic. The Veda is the storehouse of Indian wisdom and is a memorable glory which man can never forget till eternity.

"The Vedas are the eternal truths revealed by God to the great ancient Rishis of India. The word Rishi means a Seer, from dris, to see. He is the Mantra-Drashta, seer of Mantra or thought. The thought was not his own. The Rishis saw the truths or heard them. Therefore, the Vedas are what are heard (Sruti). The Rishi did not write. He did not create it out of his mind. He was the seer of thought which existed already. He was only the spiritual discoverer of the thought. He is not the inventor of the Veda."

         As becomes clear from just the above quote, Christianity and Hinduism have significantly different views about their individual sacred scriptures. The Vedas are very philosophical in nature and are not rooted in a historical narrative. The Christian Bible moves along opposite directions, although the common goal of dealing with issues of living in this world and coping with the reality of eternity is shared by both.

1.3.3 Upanishads
        Also in Hinduism additional sacred writings are known as the Upanishads. These writings provide perspectives on the mystical side of Hinduism, as is reflected in the following quote from Atma Up. 3, p. 242.

"The supreme Self is neither born nor dies. He cannot be burned, moved, pierced, cut, nor dried. Beyond all attributes, the supreme Self is the eternal witness, ever pure, indivisible, and uncompounded, far beyond the senses and the ego... He is omnipresent, beyond all thought, without action in the external world, without action in the internal world. Detached from the outer and the inner, This supreme Self purifies the impure."

1.3.4 Bhagavad Gita
        These Hindu writings present another perspective on spiritual insight supposedly from the Hindu god Krishna. Very quickly the enormous difference between these writings and the Christian scriptures becomes quite apparent, as the following quote illustrates:

"It [the Bhagavad Gita] is the divine discourse spoken by the Supreme Lord Krishna Himself and is the most popular and well known of all the sacred scriptures from ancient India. Always being revered as a true source of spiritual knowledge it reveals the purpose and goal of human existence. In conjunction to this we will be presenting precise Vedic verification of the Supreme Lord Krishna's divine incarnations as evidence confirming His supreme position. In Bhagavad- Gita, chapter 10, verse 20, the Supreme Lord reveals that He manifests as the immortal soul within each and every living entity. No where else within any other religious scripture is this information available."
        Again the philosophical nature and the mystical view of life are the prevailing orientation of these writings, in contrast to the Christian scriptures being rooted in history and culture.


     Freed, Edwin D. The New Testament: A Critical Introduction. Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001. (Abbreviated as Freed)

     Harris, Stephen. The New Testament: A Student's Introduction. Third Edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999. (Abbreviated as Harris)

     Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., editors. New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version. Revised edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. (Abbreviated as NOSB)

Created by   a division of   All rights reserved©