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How was the New Testament formed?

Writer: Erkki Koskenniemi
Translator: Olli Huhtinen

The New Testament is the most important book in the world for Christians. More precisely, it is not just a single book but a collection of books by several different writers. This rich collection tells us about the acts and teachings of Jesus and his Apostles.

It would be interesting to also read what Jesus’ opponents or great pagan historians wrote about Jesus and the early Church. However, these sorts of references are rare, though common enough so that no expert can deny the historicity of the most significant events of Jesus’ life.

The New Testament is for us a sufficient source for coming to know Jesus as our Saviour.

Taking a closer look at the New Testament, one can immediately recognise that it contains different types of books. First to stand out are the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), then the Acts of the Apostles and a large collection of letters, and at last the Book of Revelation. But how have these books been formed and how has the collection known as The New Testament ended up between single covers?

The Gospels

Jesus himself did not write a single book, but has been the subject for innumerable books. The most important of these are the Gospels, which properly speaking are not biographies of Jesus. We would readily like to know for example something about Jesus’ youth, but the Gospels do not tell anything about it. In fact, they only describe a few events of his childhood following his birth. The Gospels have a simple purpose stated by John as follows:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
(John 20:30-31, ESV).

All the Gospels describe only a small selection of Jesus’ actions and teachings. In fact, describing a single weekend would require more space than what they use. John knows well that a lot has been left untold:

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.
(John 21:25, ESV).

In the formation of the Gospels we can distinguish the following phases:

  1. Jesus’ historical acts. Jesus taught people for three years. He made a great impression on countless people, who came to hear his teachings by thousands. In Jesus’ time, the whole of Palestine was full of stories about Jesus. As mentioned, those who regularly listened to his teachings heard a lot more of his words than what we can read in the New Testament. This concerns especially Jesus’ disciples and particularly the inner circle formed by the twelve disciples.

  2. Oral tradition. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, stories about Jesus were passed on. In the early church of Jerusalem the apostles knew what had actually happened. Their orally preached gospel gave birth to the Church. At the centre of the gospel were Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.

  3. Written tradition. The number of those who had heard Jesus himself speak started to decrease and because of this Jesus’ words were wanted to be recorded. We do not know what kind of records of Jesus’ words existed before the writing of the Gospels. Some have, however, existed, and one of the most significant of these has been the so called Logia-source, which has been used by the evangelists Matthew and Luke.

  4. Finished Gospels. The writers of the Gospels had at hand an abundance of different sources as they were writing about Jesus. The writer of the oldest Gospel, Mark, gathered a lot of oral tradition, apparently mostly related to Apostle Peter’s teachings, as all of it is told through Peter’s eyes. Matthew and Luke already knew the Gospel of Mark and supplemented it with their own sources. The writer of the youngest Gospel, John, evidently knew the works of his predecessors, but wrote his Gospel from his own point of view. Thus, the four Gospels mediate a rich and multi-faceted image of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and of the significance of his atoning sacrifice for our sins.

The four Gospels of the New Testament have possibly been written between the years 70-90/100 A.D., i.e. c. 40-60/70 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us try a thought experiment: Can you find a person who can tell you about events that occurred 40 years ago? In fact, even a period of 70 years would hardly make memory unreliable. The Gospels written earlier were very close to the time of Jesus which makes their narration reliable.

Also other gospels, which do not belong to the New Testament, have been preserved. These so called apocryphal gospels have formed outside the Church and clearly later than the four canonical Gospels. They bear no use for the Church and are very unreliable sources for researchers as well. They have been left out from the New Testament for a good reason. An interested reader can easily find them in English translation and some of them have also been translated into Finnish (e.g. The Gospel of Thomas).

Acts of the Apostles

Luke wrote a second book in continuation to his Gospel, telling how the gospel came to Rome. This is a unique book within the New Testament. However, outside the Bible we have a large number of stories about different apostles, for example Acts of Peter and Acts of Paul. They have clearly been written later than the other books of the New Testament and often include imaginative stories. Likewise, these works are easy to find in the library in English translations.


Numerically most of the books of the New Testament are letters. The most significant group is formed by the Epistles of Paul. At the core of these letters is the forgiveness of sins, God’s gift which he granted both to Jews and all other peoples in the death and resurrection of Christ. In addition to these, the New Testament contains letters from other Apostles (Jacob, John, Judah, Peter) and also the letter to the Hebrews written by a great, unidentified theologian.

These letters were written for a real need. With their aid various heresies were rebutted and newly formed congregations were taught in right Christian living. These letters are still relevant for Christians and they have recorded the apostolic teaching about Jesus. Some researchers question the authorship of many of the letters, asking whether their author is the one reported. As a matter of fact this question is not very important: God did not let these books within the Bible by chance.

The Book of Revelation

The last book in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, is a unique book in the New Testament. It is based on St. John’s prophetic vision, through which God saw it beneficial to comfort His Church under persecution. This wonderful book unfolds through its images and symbols. It is impossible to understand it without a sound knowledge of the Old and New Testament. This is why this great book is often used incorrectly and in order to arouse fear. In reality it is a book of grace and comfort.

How was the New Testament formed?

As mentioned, in the early Church there was plenty of rich literature and its production continued in the second and third century when theologians such as Clement the bishop of Rome, Ignatius the bishop of Antioch, and Justin the Martyr step forward. Nevertheless, their writings do not belong to the New Testament, nor do especially the apocryphal gospels or the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles. But what was included and what was left out?

At the moment many quarters (often for instance within Muslim circles) attempt to highlight that the Church, as late as in the 4th century, freely included or excluded whatever it willed, thus forging the original message about Jesus. In the Christian quarters, similar view is held by those who highlight norms other than the Bible.
In reality, the decisions of the church assembly were preceded by a long ecclesiastical tradition in which the texts were read in the services of the church. The collection of St. Paul’s letters had already existed before the year 100 and the four Gospels consolidated their position in the second century. The other books of the New Testament also established their position in different regions of Christendom at the same time. In the third and even in the fourth century, there was vivid discussion concerning the collection of holy books, but it was mostly focused on a few books (especially the Letter to the Hebrews and the Book of Revelation). The church assemblies (Hippo in the West 393, Laodicea in the East approx. 360) joined with the tradition which the reading of the holy texts in the services had already formed two hundred years earlier, in part as a response to the spread of heretical writings. We believe that God’s Holy Spirit guided the Church as it was selecting books for the New Testament, and this process was supported by a strong early tradition.

Many of the books left outside the New Testament consist of useful reading. Worthy of mention in this context is the collection of the Apostolic fathers which contains books only slightly younger than the New Testament. Nevertheless, for us, these writings are not equal to the Holy Bible.


Unfortunately we do not have at hand for example the original copy of the Gospel written by Matthew. Without the original document we have to rely on its copies and the copies of these copies. The problem with the New Testament manuscripts is not a problem foreign for modern science. All old texts have survived for us as copies and no text has as many manuscripts as the New Testament. By comparing various manuscripts it is possible to achieve a reliable understanding of, for example, what Matthew wrote in his time. Only rarely does uncertainty arise and these problems do not apply to the principles of our faith. The New Testament in its original language (Greek) has been carefully compiled on the basis of various manuscripts and it contains a reliable apostolic gospel.


The New Testament was written in its time in ancient Greek which is why a part of a pastor’s expertise is the ability to read the text in the original language. An important contribution of the Reformation was that the Bible was wished to be read by everyone in their own language. The Bible or parts of it have been translated into countless modern languages. As language changes over decades and centuries, new translations are required. The international field is full of various translations, some of which aim at literal accuracy while others aim at fluency.
The translation used on this site is the English Standard Version.

What do we have in our hands?

The New Testament is a collection of books written by man. One has memorized Jesus’ word, told it to someone else, who then has written it down. The next one has written a Gospel relying on written and oral sources. All of this can also be studied scientifically, and as described before, there is no reason to doubt the reliability of the Gospels from a scientific perspective either. But this is not all. The New Testament is not only a manmade collection of books.

We believe that the New Testament, just as the whole Bible, is God’s revelation for us. When we read the Bible, God speaks to us and God ensures every word which He has given to be spoken through men. This aspect cannot be studied scientifically by anyone.

But what then separates this collection of books from all other religious texts? According to Christian faith, God’s Word itself affects so that man believes it to be God’s word. No form of human persuasion can achieve this. In Thessalonica, Paul preached Christ and most people disregarded his message. But some stopped and recognised God’s calling in the apostle’s speech:

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.
(1 Thess. 2:13, ESV)

Even today, those who read the Bible may experience the same as the officers who were sent out to imprison Jesus but could not fulfil the mission given to them:

The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!”
(John 7:45-46, ESV)

The risen Christ lives and governs and his Word will not pass away even though heaven and earth will pass away.