New Testament biblical studies is the method for understanding the meaning of the New Testament through an application of various disciplines. Due consideration is given to the language, literature, authorship, genres, divisions, context, and themes of the books of the New Testament. Additionally, matters related to textual criticism and canonicity belong to this field of study. While the Greek text of the New Testament is the principle source examined in New Testament biblical studies, the literature of Second Temple Judaism and the Greco-Roman world helps inform our understanding of the context and content of the New Testament.
The New Testament comprises twenty-seven books that God the Holy Spirit inspired through the instrumentality of numerous human authors over a period of approximately forty to sixty years (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19–21). The books of the New Testament have been divided into four categories: the Gospels, Acts, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse. The Gospels and Acts are the divinely inspired historical narrative of the founding of new covenant Christianity; the Epistles are the divinely inspired interpretation of that narrative; and the book of Revelation gives us a symbolic description of the cosmic victory of Christ over the powers of darkness on behalf of His church.
The New Testament was written in Koine Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire. Jesus and the Apostles were Jewish and therefore, read and spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic. However, Aramaic was the prevalent language among the Jews in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Greek was the universal language of the Roman Empire, and since Palestine was a province of the empire, Jews in Palestine including Jesus and the Apostles had some familiarity with Greek as well.
The Greek language spread throughout the Roman Empire because it came to control most of Alexander the Great’s empire from Greece to India. The Attic Greek of Alexander’s reign underwent numerous changes until Koine Greek became the common world language in that part of the globe from approximately 300 BC to AD 500, while Latin grew more common in that period as well. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was written in Greek, revealing that Greek was the prevalent language of Rome itself—the center of the empire in the first century. The universal influence of the Greek language allowed for the expedient spread of the gospel to the unreached nations of Asia and Asia Minor.
Greek philosophy also helped pave the way for the reception of Christianity during the new covenant era. The philosophical postulations of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle moved away from the polytheism of Homeric mythology, and in the last century leading up to the coming of Christ, attempts to make Zeus the moral governor of the universe tended toward an acknowledgement of monotheism. In his engagement in the Areopagus in Athens, Paul appealed to certain aspects of pagan spiritual aspirations and to an implicit sympathy for monotheism in the philosophy of the Greek poets.
Greco-Roman mystery religions heavily influenced the formation of numerous mystical heresies that threatened the early church. Paul’s refutation of angel worship and asceticism (Col. 2:16–23) were likely tied to the influence of certain Greco-Roman mystery religions rather than to elements of Jewish sects that the New Testament writers elsewhere refute. However, various Jewish sects were also responsible for much of the heretical teaching that spread through the early church. Jesus’ disputations with the Pharisees and Sadducees (i.e., the two principal political and religion parties of the Jews) reveal the widespread influence of rabbinical tradition and teachings in the Jewish church of His day. The Apostle John wrote his first epistle to combat the harmful influences of Gnosticism—a hybrid of Jewish mysticism and Neoplatonism in the early church. The Apostle Paul wrote his polemical letter to the Galatians to refute the teaching of the Judaizers—Jewish false teachers who had infiltrated the churches in Asia Minor.
The revelation of the New Testament follows and fulfills the revelation of the Hebrew Old Testament. The New Testament is the fulfillment of all that was preparatory and anticipatory in the Old Testament. As Augustine rightly stated, “The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” The Old Testament is the Bible to which Jesus and the Apostles appealed. New Testament biblical studies emphasizes the importance of giving careful consideration to the New Testament use of the Old Testament. Many New Testament citations of the Old Testament are drawn directly out of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament). Other New Testament citations of the Old Testament were intentionally modified by the biblical authors, in keeping with the redemptive-historical fulfillment of what was revealed in the Old Testament. For instance, in Ephesians 4:8 the Apostle Paul takes Psalm 68:18 and explains its meaning in light of the redemptive-historical fulfillment in Christ. Among the most-cited Old Testament books in the New Testament are Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah.
Among the more important concepts belonging to New Testament biblical studies are the person and work of Christ, the glory of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, covenant, the new covenant, divine revelation, the kingdom of God, the gospel, atonement, faith, propitiation, justification, sanctification, adoption, law and gospel, the priesthood of Christ, prophecy, apostasy, false teaching, cases of conscience, the Temple, the divine mystery, ethics, prayer, family, church-state relations, church government, gender roles, demonology, and eschatology.
New Testament biblical studies is also concerned with the textual and source criticism of the New Testament. When Constantin von Tischendorf discovered the oldest complete extant manuscripts of the New Testament (the Codex Sinaiticus) at St. Catherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai in 1844, a resurgence of interest in New Testament textual studies and textual criticism followed. Since the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus, scholars have been able to determine with a high degree of certainty the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament text and the originality of various disputed passage of Scripture such as the long ending of Mark’s gospel (16:9–20).
We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work.
Although textual criticism is relevant for all documents of antiquity, it is especially important for New Testament documents. After all, as Christians, we believe that the original words of the New Testament writers were inspired by God. These authors wrote down exactly what God, through the Holy Spirit, led them to say. Thus, it is important that we recover the original text of any New Testament book—or at least the earliest possible text—and separate that text from any later scribal changes.
Erasmus published his Greek-Latin New Testament text in Basel in 1516. Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door a year later. The very first thesis challenges the Latin translation of the Greek word for ‘repentance.’ With Bible in hand, Luther and the Reformation took off in earnest. It was a few short years after the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses that Luther produced his labor of love for his own people: the New Testament in German. Later, both testaments would be made available to German readers. In 1525, Tyndale produced a New Testament, from the Greek, for the English-speaking world.
The first is that it helps us become better readers of the text. How so? By reminding us how far removed we really are from the ancient setting of Scripture—some two thousand years. If we forget this contextual distance, we will read God’s ancient text through our modern glasses, and this will inevitably lead to misreading the text.