New Testament | Study Guide


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New Testament | Key Figure Analysis


Jesus/Jesus Christ

Jesus is a 1st-century Jew from the region of Galilee in the Roman province of Judea. As an adult he takes on a complex role as a healer, teacher, prophet, and exorcist. His public ministry begins after he is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. He gathers a group of 12 followers called apostles who join him in his travels and his mission. As recorded in the canonical gospels, eventually Jesus's teaching and ministry bring him into conflict with Jewish authorities who pay his disciple Judas Iscariot to hand him over. The Jewish authorities accused him of blasphemy, after which he was arrested by Roman forces, given to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and condemned to death by the Roman authorities. Jesus is crucified but is resurrected from the dead. After his resurrection he appears bodily to his apostles for a period of 40 days, after which he ascends into heaven. Later he appears to Saul/Paul in the Acts of the Apostles and inspires Paul's belief that Jesus is the Christ. Jesus is mentioned throughout Paul's letters and the other New Testament letters, and he takes on the role of judge in the expected "parousia" (second coming) in the book of Revelation.


God is the God of Israel whose story is told in the Hebrew Bible. The New Testament depicts God as a father who sends his son Jesus to save all those, both Jews and gentiles, who believe in him. God is depicted as loving and merciful to all human beings, who are identified as God's children. God will also guarantee just judgment for the living and the dead at the end of time.

Holy Spirit

In the gospels, the Holy Spirit comes down upon Jesus at the time of his baptism in the Jordan River, and the Spirit is described as motivating or driving Jesus to perform certain actions. In the farewell discourse of the Gospel of John, Jesus promises that once he has died and returned to the Father (God), he will send the Holy Spirit to be with his apostles as a paraclete or advocate who will assist them in their ministry. The Acts of the Apostles narrates the descent of the Holy Spirit at a feast called Pentecost, and the Spirit is a driving force for the apostolic mission in that book.

John the Baptist

According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptist is the son of Elizabeth, who is the cousin of Mary the mother of Jesus. John was arrested by the Jewish king Herod Antipas, who eventually beheaded him at the request of his wife and daughter.

Mary the mother of Jesus

Luke's Gospel describes an event called the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary ("Miriam") that she would bear God's son. While pregnant, she travels to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant at the time with John the Baptist. While visiting Elizabeth, Mary proclaims a song of praise to God, called the Magnificat. According to the Gospel of John, Mary was at the foot of Jesus's cross with the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus charges them to become mother and son so that the disciple takes her into his home. The Acts of the Apostles notes that Mary is present with the community of Christ-believers after the resurrected Jesus has ascended into heaven.

Paul (formerly Saul)

Paul's story is told in the Acts of the Apostles, which describes his dramatic realization that Jesus was the Christ or Messiah promised in the Hebrew Bible. Acts describes Paul's journeys through the Mediterranean, his preaching, and his conflicts with Jewish and gentile opponents. Paul's own words to Christ-believing communities are preserved in at least seven letters that most scholars think are genuine, and other New Testament letters that are attributed to him.


Herod appears in the Gospel of Matthew as a villain who seeks to kill the infant Jesus, because Jesus has been identified as a "king of the Jews" and Herod feels his own power is being threatened. In the Gospel of Luke, Herod also plays a role in helping Pontius Pilate decide what to do with Jesus after his arrest. The name Herod actually refers to several different kings: Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas, who is responsible for beheading John the Baptist, according to the Synoptic Gospels. Beyond the gospels, Acts 12 mentions Herod Agrippa I persecuting the church; and Acts 25 describes his son, Agrippa II, as sympathetic to Paul's preaching.

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate is variously portrayed as a villain in Jesus's story and as a somewhat sympathetic figure who is put in a difficult position by the Jewish authorities who seek to execute Jesus. To follow local custom, Pilate attempts to release a prisoner—either Jesus or Barabbas—to the people of Jerusalem. They choose Barabbas and Jesus is condemned. Famously, Pilate washes his hands of responsibility for Jesus's death.

The Twelve disciples or apostles

The Twelve are called individually or in pairs to become followers of Jesus. According to Matthew, Mark, and John, there are several sets of brothers among the group (Andrew and Simon Peter; James and John, the sons of Zebedee). Also among the group are Levi or Matthew the tax collector and Judas Iscariot, who eventually hands Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. The Twelve have several important functions in the accounts. They are one major audience for Jesus's teachings. When he tells parables (short symbolic narratives that end with a moral teaching) that are cryptic, he usually explains the deeper meaning to the Twelve. They may also represent typical Christ-believers who see Jesus's power and hear his message but nevertheless have difficulty understanding his significance until after the crucifixion and resurrection. In the Acts of the Apostles, they continue spreading the Christian good news throughout the Mediterranean region, setting up Christ-believing communities in Jerusalem and beyond.

Simon/Simon Peter/Cephas

Simon's name is changed to Peter (Greek for "rock") after he correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah (= "anointed one"), while others misrecognize him as a prophet or another John the Baptist. He also called Cephas in the New Testament, an Aramaic word also meaning "rock." In Matthew, Jesus tells Peter he will be the rock on which the church is built. Peter's special status does not prevent him from stumbling. At the Last Supper Jesus predicts Peter will deny him three times, a prediction that is proven correct while Jesus is on trial before Jewish authorities. Nevertheless, after Jesus's resurrection Peter steps up as a leader of the remaining apostles and disciples. The Acts of the Apostles expands on Peter's story, telling how he became an important missionary, spreading Christian teachings to both Jews and gentiles (non-Jews) in Jerusalem and nearby cities. The letters of 1 and 2 Peter are traditionally attributed to him.

Gospel writer(s)

In reality, the authors do not name themselves in their texts, and scholars do not know the real identity of the evangelists. The Greek style of each text varies, so most scholars would argue the evangelists have varying levels of formal Greek education.All four canonical gospels refer to material in the Jewish Scriptures, such as important figures like Moses and selected Psalms. The evangelists must have known about Jewish teachings describing the Messiah (Hebrew for "anointed one"; translated "Christos" in Greek), as well as major portions of the law and the prophets.

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