In our recent lessons, we’ve studied the rise and fall of Jerusalem. Simeon held the Child Jesus in his arms and praised God for the arrival of the Savior he called “the glory of Israel”. Thirty-three years later, Jesus was received into Jerusalem by crowds of rejoicing Jews shouting in celebration that their long awaited deliverer and king had finally arrived. Less than forty years later, Jerusalem lay in ruins with its great temple. It was an incredible rise and terrible collapse, all centered around the person of Jesus Christ.
After rising from the dead, Christ gave to His chosen Apostles “the Great Commission”:
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19-20
We know that the Apostles obeyed the Lord’s command. Therefore, we should be able to find the history of that obedience somewhere, no? We should be able to find the history of the Apostles’ going out through all the world to make disciples, establishing churches and teaching the commands of Christ—and we do. This history is contained in the writings of the New Testament. In fact, we might say that the New Testament was the result of the Apostles’ obedience to this command. In this lesson, we will work to understand how the New Testament was written, by whom and to whom it was written and when it was written.
What is “The New Testament”?
The word “testament” is a synonym of the word “covenant”, which you should know is an agreement made between persons. Therefore, the New Testament refers to an agreement that exists between some persons. In this case, the testament refers to an agreement made between men and God.
The adjective “New” suggests that there was an “Old” testament (or several older testaments) and that this testament replaces that one. There were a number of older testaments, described in the books we call the “Old Testament”. God made a testament with Adam, another with Noah, another with Abraham, another with Moses and another with David. Usually, we refer to these as “covenants” and we use the name of the man with whom God made the covenant as its name. We speak of the “Adamic Covenant”, the “Noahic Covenant”, the “Abrahamic Covenant”, the “Mosaic Covenant” and the “Davidic Covenant”. The most important of these, which we refer to when we use the term “Old Covenant” is the covenant God made with Moses. It was this agreement, based on the laws God gave to Moses for the people of Israel, that God’s relationship with Israel was based. Moses summarized the covenant with these words:
“The Lord thy God hath chosen thee, to be his peculiar people of all peoples that are upon the earth…because the Lord hath loved you, and hath kept his oath, which he swore to your fathers: and hath brought you out with a strong hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, out of the hand of Pharao the king of Egypt. And thou shalt know that the Lord thy God, he is a strong and faithful God, keeping his covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments, unto a thousand generations: And repaying forthwith them that hate him, so as to destroy them, without further delay immediately rendering to them what they deserve.” Deuteronomy 7:8-10
We can see that God promised His blessing and care to Israel if they would keep the laws and worship He revealed to Moses. This was the Old Testament.
Later in history, after Israel had failed to keep the Old Testament, they began to suffer the punishments of their unfaithfulness. They were routed in battles, brought into captivity and again enslaved as they had been in Egypt before God freed them and made His covenant with them. Nevertheless, God loved His people and decided that though they had broken covenant with Him, He would make a NEW covenant, or testament, with men. This message was given by the prophet Jeremiah around 600 BC:
“Behold the days shall come, saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Juda: Not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt: the covenant which they made void, and I had dominion over them, saith the Lord. But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord: I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart: and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying: Know the Lord: for all shall know me from the least of them even to the greatest, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Jeremiah 31:31-34
Jeremiah, then, announces that there will be a “New” covenant (testament) between God and man and this new testament was established by Jesus Christ. The new testament is not based on the agreement made between God and Moses, but between God and man through Jesus Christ. St. Paul describes this New Testament beautifully in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 2):
“You were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the household of Israel, and strangers to the [old] testament, having no hope of the promises, and without God in this world. But now in Christ Jesus, you, who some time were afar off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh: Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees; that he might make the two in himself into one new man, making peace; and might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in himself. And coming, he preached peace to you that were afar off, and peace to them that were nigh. For by him we have access both in one Spirit to the Father. Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God, Built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.”
Thus, we see very clearly that the “New Testament” is the agreement that God has made with man through the saving work of Jesus Christ. In this testament, He no longer offers His blessings to Israel alone, but to the entire world. In the Great Commission, Jesus Christ sent His apostles out into the world to announce and explain the New Testament. They were called “apostles” because they were sent into the world (Greek, apostello), and also “evangelists” because their message was good news (Greek, evangelion). The books they wrote are together called “The New Testament”, because they contain the message of God’s new and everlasting covenant with man through Jesus Christ.
The Books of the New Testament
When we hold a copy of the Bible in our hands, we are actually holding a collection of 73 books, written by a number of different prophets, priests, kings, apostles and religious leaders from throughout history. These authors were holy men—many of whom we have studied in this course–who were inspired to God to write all that they did. It is a book like no other book in the entire world in that every part of it is true and free from any error—because God made it so. St. John wrote in his Gospel what is also true of any book in the Bible, that:
“These things have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in His name.” John 20:31
This Bible is divided into two parts. One part was written before Jesus Christ came into the world and is called “the Old Testament” or the writings that relate to the Old Testament. The other part was written after Jesus Christ came into the world and is called “the New Testament”, or the writings that relate to the New Testament. The Old Testament contains 46 books—beginning with the book of Genesis and ending with the books of the Machabees. The New Testament contains 27 books—beginning with the Gospel of St. Matthew and ending with the book of Revelation.
A full listing of the books of the New Testament—in the order they are printed in Bibles today—was established by the Catholic Church in 1546 AD at the Council of Trent:
“Of the New Testament: the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles written by Luke the Evangelist; fourteen epistles of Paul the apostle, (one) to the Romans, two to the Corinthians, (one) to the Galatians, to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, two to the Thessalonians, two to Timothy, (one) to Titus, to Philemon, to the Hebrews; two of Peter the apostle, three of John the apostle, one of the apostle James, one of Jude the apostle, and the Apocalypse of John the apostle.”
If you read through this list carefully, you should be able to see that these books are organized in the New Testament. The four evangelists are first, who narrate the life of Jesus Christ. These are called “Gospels”, which simply means “good news” in English. The history of the early Church follows the Gospels. The epistles (letters) of the Apostles are arranged by their author—St. Paul, St. James, St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude. Lastly, the book of Revelation gives readers a glimpse of what will take place at the end of the world. It is important to note that all of the books were written during by the Apostles chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ or by one approved by them. The books of the New Testament, therefore, are “Apostolic”. In the past, the New Testament was often referred to as “the Gospels and Apostolic writings”.
It is fascinating to think that the writings we have in the New Testament are the actual writings that were made by the Apostles as the Christian Church spread through the world! If we are concerned with reading the New Testament with an eye to its history, we should always begin our reading with the Acts of the Apostles. In the book of Acts, we read the beginning of the Church’s life and the works of the Apostles who led that Church. The Gospels, remember, were written by these Apostles (or their friends) at different times in their lives. The Epistles were written by the Apostles spoken of in the book of Acts, during the events described there. For example, Paul visited the city of Ephesus in Greece and the events we read of in the book of Acts will help you to understand what he is talking about in his epistle to the Ephesians. You can meet the people in Acts and then read St. Paul’s letter to them later in the New Testament! This is how chronology can help you enjoy the New Testament.
Our goal in this lesson is not to study the content or meaning of these books, or the exact details of when they were written as many modern scholars do. We simply want to have a basic idea of their chronology. This will allow us to enjoy reading them because we will understand the historical background (context) of the books.
Using Chronology to Read the New Testament
We are not studying world chronology to add a class to our college application or simply to fill our heads with trivia. This knowledge is necessary for understanding the meaning in anything we read. When we pick up a book, we must be able to tell who it was that wrote the book, when that person lived, to whom that person wrote and, in light of that context, what is significant about the writing.
Therefore, we consider the chronology of the New Testament, there are a number of important events we must keep in mind that will help us to read the it intelligently:
- Our Lord died, rose and ascended into heaven in 33 AD
- St. Peter was killed around 64 AD
- St. Paul was killed around 67 AD
- Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD
- The last Apostle to die was St. John, who died in 100 AD
Now, with just those basic events in mind, we can think of many important points that will help us to read the New Testament well—and we must spend time thinking like this! Let’s consider a few conclusions that can be made by thinking of just these events as you read:
- The Acts of the Apostles doesn’t mention the deaths of Sts. Peter or Paul, so it must have been written before 64 AD.
- The author of Acts would not have known about the destruction of Jerusalem when he wrote.
- All of the epistles of St. Peter must have been written before 64 AD.
- All of the epistles of St. Paul must have been written before 67 AD.
- St. Peter and St. Paul died before Jerusalem was destroyed.
- The New Testament was being written while Apostles were dying for the faith.
- The writings of St. John were written after the deaths of Sts. Peter and Paul.
- Jerusalem was already destroyed when St. John wrote his Gospel, epistles and the book of Revelation.
- Jesus placed his Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, in the care of St. John. He would have known of her assumption into heaven when he wrote the book of Revelation near the end of his life.
You can see now that chronology allows us to meditate on the meaning of the books of the New Testament. We may not know the exact details of when and where a book was written, but we can know enough to use chronology to draw the meaning out of the books we read and uncover many important things. We can guess what information the writers would have had when they wrote and, in light of that information, what their meaning would have been. Let’s take a look at each group of books in the New Testament.
The Gospels & Acts
In the New Testament there are four Gospels: two written by Apostles (St. Matthew, St. John) and two written by disciples of the Apostles (St. Mark, St. Luke).
The first book of the New Testament was the Gospel of St. Matthew. St. Matthew was the famous tax collector who chose to leave his life of greed behind to follow Jesus. Matthew is mentioned only once in the book of Acts and that in the very first chapter, when he was simply listed as one of the twelve Apostles. We have to always keep in mind that Matthew, like the other Apostles, lived with Jesus Christ for 3 years, saw all of His miracles, saw Him die and rise from the dead…and ascend into heaven. Therefore, when we read the writings of St. Matthew we have to realize that he was writing about things he had seen with his own eyes. Christianity was no mystery to Matthew. His Gospel was written in Hebrew (not Greek) and therefore we must understand that it was intended for Jewish readers—to persuade them that Jesus Christ was their Savior and King. The exact date of Matthew’s Gospel is not known, but since it is written by a Jew to fellow Jews, we should expect that there would be signs that Matthew knew of the destruction of Jerusalem if it was written after 70AD. When you read the Gospel of St. Matthew—look for signs that might suggest when it was written based on what you know about chronology. Does it suggest in any place that St. Peter is dead or alive? Look for signs like this as you read.
The second of the Gospels is believed to be the Gospel of St. Mark, who was a disciple and companion of St. Peter. We may then think of this as St. Peter’s Gospel. It was probably written before St. Peter was put to death, possibly as an attempt to preserve the teaching of St. Peter before his death. There are many signs in the Gospel that it was written for non-Jews—such as the fact that Jewish customs need to be explained by Mark in the Gospel. It is most likely written to the same audience St. Peter’s letters were (see below)—the Christian converts of Greece and Asia. When we read the Gospel of St. Mark, we have to realize that we’re reading a book written by one of St. Peter’s closest friends, who probably knew of everything St. Peter ever saw, heard, did or said.
As St. Mark was a companion of St. Peter, St. Luke was a companion of St. Paul. His gospel may certainly be thought of as narrative that represents the teaching of St. Paul about Jesus. St. Luke was a doctor, which, in that day, meant that he had a classical liberal arts education. Therefore, when we read St. Luke’s Gospel, we can assume that he was aware of the rules of Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. He also would have been familiar with all of the great philosophers and poets—Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Homer, Vergil, and so on. We are allowed, then, to look for more signs of style and persuasiveness in his writings than in the writings of the more simply educated Jewish evangelists. The Gospel of Luke is the first part of St. Luke’s 2-part history of Christianity, which begins with the birth of Christ and continues through the history of the Church until St. Paul heads to Rome prior to his death. Since we know that the book of Acts had to be written before the deaths of St. Peter and St. Paul, the Gospel must have been written even earlier, around 60 AD.
St. John, we know, outlived all of the other Apostles and was the only Apostle to not die a martyr’s death. His Gospel was written well after the great Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul had been killed and after Jerusalem had been destroyed—between 90 and 100 AD. John was the caretaker of the Virgin Mary after the death of Christ. He lived with Christ as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, saw all that Christ did and worked miracles himself. What all of this means is that by the time John wrote his Gospel, the truth of Christianity was well established. The Jewish religion was all but brought to an end. Christian churches were established in every city. In John’s Gospel, we find a much deeper understanding of the Christian faith than we do in the earlier writings. For example, St. John begins with “In the beginning was the Word…”—an idea borrowed from the Greek philosophers and put to Christian use. We must realize that John would have been very old at the time he wrote his Gospel…it was 60 years after Jesus had ascended, which means that if John was 20 when he met Jesus, he would have been over 80 years old when he wrote the Gospel.
The New Testament contains 21 epistles (letters) either written by Apostles or approved by them. The first 14 epistles in our New Testament library—from Romans to Hebrews—were written by St. Paul. The titles of the epistles are important because they name cities in which he had started Christian churches as he traveled around the world. We can read the events of these travels in the book of Acts, written by St. Luke. He writes to the Christians in Rome (Acts 28), Corinth (Acts 18), Galatia (Acts 16,18), Ephesus (Acts 18-19), Philippi (Acts 16, Colossae and Thessalonica (Acts 17). He writes also to three individual Christians—Timothy, Titus and Philemon. Lastly, we have his letter presenting the Christian faith to the Hebrews—his own people. To truly enjoy these letters, we need to read them after first reading of the events described in Acts. You will find, for example, that St. Paul was in jail while at Philippi, that St. Paul taught in Corinth for 18 months, that in Ephesus the worshippers of the goddess Diana tried to kill him, that Paul was terribly troubled by Jews in Thessalonica, and so on. These events are crucial to enjoying the epistles. Knowing that St. Paul died in 67 AD, we know that his letters were all written before the writings of St. John and that he would have known nothing of the destruction of Jerusalem. As we read the epistles of St. Paul, we must always remember that this was a man who worked miracles and almost single-handedly converted most of the major Greek cities in the first century. He’s also a saint who paid the ultimate price, giving his life for the Lord’s sake. We must read these letters with reverence.
After the epistles of St. Paul, our Bibles hold the letter of St. James. Identifying the author is difficult because there are five different men named James in the New Testament. The author of the epistle, however, is the St. James who served as the Bishop of Jerusalem after the Church was founded in the book of Acts. He became the leader among the Jewish Christians around 44 AD, when St. James (brother of John) was killed and St. Peter was arrested and scheduled for execution by King Herod. Read Acts 12 for the details! St. James helped to publish a guide that explained to all new Christians what was necessary for the Christian life. Therefore, there are actually TWO epistles by St. James in the New Testament. One is included in the book of Acts (Chapter 15) and the other is the separate epistle of St. James. The epistle of St. James is written with great authority—James sharply rebukes the Jewish Christians and commands their repentance—which suggests that it was written after he became Bishop of Jerusalem. The epistle of St. James was surely written before 70 AD, because no mention is made of the destruction of Jerusalem and we know that the apostle and author of the epistle was put to death himself around 60 AD.
Next in the New Testament, we find the epistles of St. Peter, the head of the Church. The timing of these epistles is pretty easy to determine from what St. Peter writes in them. The second epistle was written as he prepared for his death. He says this plainly in 2 Peter 1:14-15:
“I think it is meet as long as I am in this “tabernacle” to stir you up by putting you in remembrance. Being assured that the laying away of this tabernacle is at hand, according as Our Lord has also shown me. And I will endeavor, that you frequently have, after my death, whereby you may keep a memory of these things.”
Thus, the purpose of the second epistle is clear: to provide his disciples with a reminder of his teaching to make constant use of after he is no longer present to remind them himself. His first letter was written much earlier, up to 20 years earlier, and we find him there writing not to experienced disciples who are in need to “reminders” but to new converts who he compares to newborn babies, freshly baptized, who are now being prepared to face their future trials as growing Christians. These are beautiful epistles and provide us with (a) a guide to getting started as Christians and (b) a guide for continued self-examination as we grow up. These epistles allow St. Peter to remain as the senior pastor of the Christian Church for all time. We can listen to the teaching of St. Peter just as the first Christians did and grow in the true faith.
After the epistles of St. Peter, we find three epistles of St. John the evangelist. These three letters were written near the end of St. John’s life, when he was 80 or more years old. That he was an old man when he wrote is clear from the fact that he addresses his audience as “my little children”. It would be silly for a 40 or even 60 year old man to refer to a Christian community as “children”. In the second and third epistles he refers to himself in the opening line as “the ancient”. Despite his old age, he is still traveling and visiting churches! We must see in John’s writing the experience of a man who has seen everything, who lived with the Lord and watched Him die, rise again and ascend into heaven. He saw the nations converted. He saw Jerusalem destroyed. He saw his friends and fellow Apostles tortured and killed for Christ’s sake. He cared for the Blessed Virgin Mary in her old age and saw her received into heaven. Moreover, he had likely already received the revelation about which he wrote in the book of revelation (see below). Here we read the wise advice of the last living Apostle near the close of the Church’s first generation.
The second to last book in the Bible is the epistle of St. Jude, one of the twelve Apostles and the brother of St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem and author of the epistle discussed above. Jude seems to speak of the other Apostles in the past tense, which means the book was probably written after their deaths, sometime around or after 70 AD. His concerns seem to be the same as St. John, rather than of Sts. Peter and Paul, which again argues a later date for Jude.
The Apocalypse or Revelation
The last book of the Bible—and most mysterious by far—is the book of Revelation. This book is called “apocalyptic” because it speaks of the end of the world. It contains a series of revelations that Jesus Christ gave to St. John near the end of St. John’s life just before 100 AD. It is addressed to “the seven churches of Asia”, which are the churches in the cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamus, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. This, of all books, is that which our knowledge of chronology will prove most helpful. The visions St. John receives are very mysterious. For example, he writes:
“And there was given me a reed like unto a rod: and it was said to me: ‘Arise, and measure the temple of God, and the altar and them that adore therein. But the court, which is without the temple, cast out, and measure it not: because it is given unto the Gentiles, and the holy city they shall tread under foot two and forty months: And I will give unto my two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred sixty days, clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees, and the two candlesticks, that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if any man will hurt them, fire shall come out of their mouths, and shall devour their enemies. And if any man will hurt them, in this manner must he be slain.’” Rev. 11:1-5
Now, when we read all this talk about the “Temple of God” and remember that the temple of God in Jerusalem was already destroyed when St. John received his revelations, we must ask, “What temple did he see?” Where is this altar? Who are the “two witnesses”? Why are they referred to as “olive trees” and “candlesticks”? The images and symbols in the visions had to have meaning to St. John and those for whom he wrote these revelations, otherwise there would be no reason to share them. If we are ignorant of history, we will have no idea what he could be talking about and we’ll begin to think of things that we know about that John’s readers didn’t. Chronology can help us better understand the imagery in Scripture and there’s no more challenging book to read than the book of Revelation!
In this lesson, we have studied the chronology of the writings of the New Testament. You should understand what the New Testament is. You should understand how the New Testament (which is a covenant) differs from the writings we call “the New Testament”. You should know all of the books of the New Testament and who wrote them. You should have a general idea of when the books were written—not an exact knowledge, but a general idea of the time. Most importantly, you should be eager to start reading the books of the New Testament and put your knowledge of chronology to work!
- The Ancient World (4000 BC – 750 BC)
- Ancient Egypt begins (3000 BC)
- Life of Noah (2950 BC – 2000 BC)
- Life of Abraham (2000 BC – 1780 BC)
- Hebrew Exodus (1450 BC – 1410 BC)
- Trojan War (1200 BC)
- Life of King David (1000 BC – 960 BC)
- The Temple of Solomon (circa 960 BC)
- City of Rome Founded (753 BC)
- Homer Writes the Illiad & Odyssey (750 BC)
- The Classical World (750 BC – 500 AD)
- Assyrian Captivity (722 BC)
- The Prophet Daniel in Babylon (600 BC – 535 BC)
- Babylonian Captivity (586 BC)
- Esdras the Scribe (530-450 BC)
- The Roman Republic (509-31 BC)
- Classical Greece (480 – 323 BC)
- Conquests of Alexander the Great (336 – 323 BC)
- The Hellenistic World (323 – 146 BC)
- The Punic Wars (264 – 146 BC)
- The Life of Julius Caesar (100 – 44 BC)
- The Roman Empire (27 BC – 476 AD)
- The Life of Jesus Christ (5BC – 33 AD)
- The Christian Church Founded (33 AD)
- The Destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD)
- The New Testament (50 – 100 AD)
- The Medieval World (500 AD – 1500 AD)
- The Modern World (1500 AD – present)