Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey


3. The New Testament Writings

Video Introduction


The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books of seven different types: four Gospels, the book of Acts, nine letters of Paul to churches, four letters of Paul to individuals, the letter to the Hebrews, seven letters attributed to people other than Paul, and the book of Revelation.

The books of the New Testament came to be regarded as Scripture by Christians through a process that included attention to whether the writings were representative of apostolic tradition. A connection to the earliest followers of Jesus or to Paul could be established more reliably in some cases than in others and consideration of which writings belonged to the New Testament canon continued for centuries.

The academic field of New Testament study encompasses a wide variety of methods and approaches. Text criticism is devoted to reconstructing the original manuscripts of the New Testament books. Archaeology uncovers physical evidence and ancient documents that shed light on the New Testament world. Sociological criticism analyzes how various social phenomena are addressed in the New Testament, and cultural anthropology seeks to understand the New Testament period through comparison with other cultures. Historical criticism uses the New Testament writings as a resource for understanding the emergence of Christianity within world history.

Source criticism is concerned with identifying and possibly reconstructing materials that the biblical writers drew upon when composing their books. Form criticism classifies materials according to genre and purpose, while redaction criticism analyzes how the authors arranged and edited their material. Narrative criticism draws on modern literary theory to determine particular effects that biblical stories are expected to have on their readers. Rhetorical criticism focuses on strategies employed by the writers to establish the points they wish to make. Reader-response criticism explains how and why texts come to mean different things to different people. Different types of ideological criticism advocate for receiving texts from particular perspectives. Deconstruction draws upon postmodern philosophy to suggest that interpretations always privilege certain possibilities at the expense of others.

Biblical scholars sometimes distinguish between exegesis and hermeneutics: the former term refers to the actual explication of texts through the use of various methods and approaches; the latter term refers to philosophical reflection on the process of interpretation, including consideration of the manner in which any given interpretation is to be deemed authoritative.

Study Questions

  1. Explain why the thirteen letters attributed to Paul appear in the New Testament in the order in which they are currently found.

  2. Define what is meant by “the apostolic tradition” and discuss the extent to which the New Testament writings are exemplary of this.

  3. Identify two developments that made the question of canon a pressing one for Christians and indicate how the church sought to address that question.

  4. List the seven New Testament books that had more difficulty attaining status as Scripture than the others.

  5. Compare and contrast the basic goals of the following pairs of disciplines:

    sociological criticism and cultural anthropology

    source criticism and form criticism

    redaction criticism and rhetorical criticism

    narrative criticism and reader-response criticism

  6. Explain the difference between exegesis and hermeneutics, and give an example of how the same exegetical approach might be used differently by interpreters with different hermeneutical stances.

Video: From Jesus to Us