The Structure of the Bible: The New Testament

…The mystery hidden for ages and generations but now made manifest to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:26-27)

The New Testament teaches us of Jesus. It explains that He is the Son of God, that He is the long awaited Messiah, that His death, resurrection and ascension are the supreme events of history which saved us, and that we now enjoy a new kind of relationship with God, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. To do so, the NT authors refer constantly back to the OT, showing that the OT teaches of the coming Christ more than it does anything else. All books of the NT were written in Greek and there are no disputed books, as in the case of the deuterocanonical books of the OT.

There are five historical books of the NT; the first four are the Gospels which teach us the acts and words of Jesus. Then follows the Acts of the Apostles, which narrates stories of SS Peter and Paul during the first decade of the Church; it was written by Luke and, with his Gospel, can be considered a continuous two volume set. The Gospel of Matthew is believed by most academics to have been originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic and intended for a Jewish audience; it was quickly translated into Greek, presumably by St. Matthew himself.

Following these five books, there are twenty one epistles, which are letters written by various Apostles expounding on doctrinal and personal topics. St. Paul wrote fourteen of these epistles and these are normally listed up first in bibles, from the longest (Romans) to the shortest (Philemon). Each is addressed to a specific local church of Paul’s day or to an individual; they are titled according to the addressee. One of these ‘Pauline’ epistles is addressed to the Hebrews. Christians disagree on Paul’s authorship of this letter, so it falls at the end of the section of Paul’s epistles, satisfying both camps. For some, the writing style is very different from Paul’s other letters and so cannot be his. For others, that style is that of an academic teaching his peers; Paul was an academic among the rabbis of his time (taught by the famous Rabbi Gamaliel) and he wrote this letter to his fellow rabbis – therefore, it should be of a different, professional style compared to his personal letters to the Christian churches.

The remaining seven epistles were written by the Apostles James, Peter, John and Jude. They are not addressed to anyone and are assumed to be for the whole Church; as such, they are collectively called the Catholic Epistles by their universal nature.

Following these letters capturing the Apostles’ teaching, the final book of the NT is an apocalyptic work called ‘Revelation,’ written by St. John. It puts together OT apocalyptic images from Ezekiel and Daniel, describing the end of the world and the rise of the kingdom of Christ. Many Christians believe this to be a prophecy of the end of the world, still in the future; but others see in it a prophecy of the end of the Old Testament world, with the destruction of Jerusalem and the rise of the Church. As explained earlier on the OT, prophecies normally described an impending judgement and destruction, so there is merit to this latter understanding.

Although Christians do not dispute the inspiration of these twenty seven books, there were other ancient writings that some find interesting and some think ought to belong in the NT canon. Such works are called apocryphal by Catholics and Orthodox. (Note the word ‘apocryphal’ here is not identical with its usage in the OT canonicity disagreement.) Some of these are spurious works such as “The Gospel of Thomas,” “The Epistle of Barnabus,” etc., believed by some to be divinely inspired and worthy of inclusion in the Bible. Such works were rejected long ago by the sensus fidei; the Magesterium following suit in agreement. Others, however, are authentic and were read in the churches at one time, such as the “Epistle of St. Clement” or the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.” Others include stories that have made their way into our traditions, such as the staff of lilies we typically see with St. Joseph in art; this was taken from the “Protevangelium of James.” Again, the sensus fidei under the guidance of the Holy Spirit prevailed.

As a conclusion to these four essays on bible structure: Our Sacred Scripture is an anthology of many separate works, written in different places at different times in differing cultures/languages by different people. The common thread between them is the inspiration of God. These written works, together with Sacred Tradition, are the ‘tools’ of the Holy Spirit in guiding our lives. Nevertheless, it is not reasonable to read modern translations of these works and have immediate understanding of these words, written by strangers in strange lands. Many Christians today believe they can, but they miss so very much. Let’s immerse ourselves into the study of God’s Word and not just reading; let’s uncover the original meaning of the authors, according to their own literary ways. Thanks be to God, such an approach is very accessible to us moderns. God be with us and lead us to Himself.