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New Testament | Interpretations

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The New Testament

A canon is a list of texts or books that are considered sacred and authoritative by a particular religious group. The term canon comes from the Greek word kanon, meaning "ruler" or "measuring stick." The New Testament canon consists of 27 books that are considered sacred for Christianity; Christians use the New Testament together with the Hebrew Bible, called the Old Testament by Christians, to form the full canon of the Bible.

In the New Testament there are four narratives about the life and death of Jesus: a historical book about the early Christ-believing communities called the Acts of the Apostles; 14 epistles or letters traditionally attributed to the early Christ-believer Paul and addressed to specific individuals or communities; 7 Catholic epistles written to the "catholic" or "universal" church; and an apocalyptic text about the end of time and the final judgment, called Revelation.

While these books form the canon, there are many other texts written by early Christ-believers that are not part of the canon.

Forming the New Testament Canon

The New Testament canon formed over time as part of a process involving different people and groups and some key principles of selection. The most important people involved were the New Testament authors themselves. These individuals wrote in Greek between about 50 CE and 125 CE, and they wrote in a variety of genres, depending on the intended audience and the type of content they wished to present.

Christ-believing communities used and popularized the texts, and community leaders such as bishops compiled lists of authoritative and useful books in their local communities. In the 4th century, Christian bishops gathered in councils and worked cooperatively to lay out a biblical canon for the whole church. In 367 CE Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, produced a canon list of the 27 books. Although disputed at the time, that list forms the New Testament canon today.

Several criteria were used in determining a text's canonical status. The popularity of a book played an important role. Another consideration was theological content and the ability to trace a text's teachings back to Jesus's apostles. Texts that contain teachings accepted by a majority of Christ-believers or, alternatively, do not contain teachings that were considered incorrect, were more likely to be included in the canon.

The four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) that are part of the canonical New Testament were all traditionally linked to the first followers of Jesus. They were widely read in Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world, and they each include a Passion narrative (an account of the death and resurrection of Jesus).

Translation and Transmission

The New Testament texts were originally composed in Koine or "common" Greek, a form of the ancient Greek language that was used throughout the Mediterranean world during the Hellenistic Period (the 4th century BCE to 31 BCE) and during the Roman empire (31 BCE to the 5th century CE). Most readers of the New Testament in the ancient world were reading Greek versions of the texts that were eventually included in the canon.

Over time, communities that did not use Greek as their primary language began producing translations of the Bible. In the 4th century CE a Christian bishop named Jerome made a translation of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament into Latin; it is known as the Vulgate, a title that comes from the Latin adjective vulgata, which means "commonly used." The Vulgate was used in Western Christian churches for close to a millennium. Eastern Orthodox churches continued to primarily use a Greek translation of the Bible.

Beginning in the 14th century the Bible was translated into modern European languages, largely as part of the Protestant Reformation, which placed a high value on enabling individual believers to read and hear the biblical texts in their native language since Protestants hold Scripture to be the most important authority in religious life (known as the doctrine of sola scriptura, or "Scripture alone"). As early as the 7th century CE, attempts were made to translate the Bible into Old English. However, John Wycliffe is credited with the first complete English translation. The King James Version is the most famous English translation from the early 17th century that many Christians today still consider beautiful. Today, scholars and believers from around the world continue to produce biblical translations and even paraphrases in a variety of world languages.

The New Testament in Christianity

The texts that belong to the canon are used in many ways by individual Christians and Christian communities today, in every part of life from private prayer to institutional organization. Most Christian congregations that gather for liturgy (public worship) read selected portions of the New Testament. Often the priest or minister will provide some commentary to help people make connections between the biblical text and their everyday lives.

The New Testament also offers a framework for leadership within many Christian churches, since narratives like the Acts of the Apostles and epistles like 1 Timothy and Titus describe job titles and essential qualities for church leaders, such as bishops or deacons. Christian religious rituals, like baptism (a rite of initiation into the Christian community), may refer to the New Testament and even quote directly from it as part of the ritual celebration.

Different sects or denominations within global Christianity—such as Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians—have varying beliefs about what exactly takes place in a celebration of the Lord's Supper, but nearly all Christians refer to texts like Mark 14:22–24 and 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 to explain why they celebrate the ritual. Finally, the Christian practices of private prayer and Bible study usually involve the New Testament as a source of authoritative teaching and personal inspiration for ethics, spiritual growth, or meditation.

Inspiration and Interpretation

The question of divine inspiration can affect New Testament interpretation and usage. In general Christians hold that the New Testament texts are inspired by God, but explanations of the process and implications of divine inspiration vary. Some more conservative readers tend to see inspiration as the direct influence of a divine agent like the Holy Spirit on the form and even wording of the biblical texts. More liberal readers tend to see inspiration as an indirect motivation that led human authors to express religious beliefs in literary and rhetorical forms shaped by their specific historical and cultural contexts.

Interpretation is an inevitable part of reading, but there are diverse views among believers and scholars about how best to interpret the New Testament. A question about biblical inerrancy often accompanies discussions about divine inspiration. For certain groups of Protestant and American Evangelical Christians, especially in the late 20th century, the New Testament's teachings are seen to be without error in historical detail and doctrinal (teaching) content.

Other Christian groups, including some Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox Christians, also hold that the text is without error in its theological teachings but allow that the role of history and culture in biblical composition have led to historical inaccuracies. Believers in these different groups often vary in their attitudes toward what is called a historical-critical approach to reading biblical texts.

This approach, developed primarily by biblical scholars in the 18th to 20th centuries, pays careful attention to the roles of historical, geographical, and cultural contexts in shaping the form and content of New Testament books. For example, when the four canonical gospels conflict in their telling of key events in Jesus's life, a belief in biblical inerrancy would suggest that all four are reporting events accurately, even if that creates complicated historical problems; a historical-critical approach might allow that a gospel author changed or misrepresented historical events in service of a theological message.

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