New Testament | Study Guide


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New Testament | 10 Things You Didn't Know


The New Testament consists of 27 books in most Christian traditions, written in the 1st and possibly 2nd centuries CE. It includes the four gospels, descriptions of the life of Jesus written by disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The Acts of the Apostles follows, detailing the activities of the ministers of the early church. These were probably written by Luke. The epistles are letters spelling out doctrine and instructions for worshippers and had a number of authors. The book of Revelations describes the apocalypse, or end of the world. It identifies its author as "John"; this is commonly thought to be John the Apostle, but he is usually called John of Patmos, after the Greek island where the book was written.

The books of the New Testament are not arranged chronologically. The epistles of Paul are thought to be the earliest writings, but they are placed later in the text for the sake of narrative continuity. The New Testament is the source of Christian theology and is considered by Christians to be a covenant between God and the followers of Jesus Christ.

1. Jesus's real name was not "Jesus."

Jesus's actual name was not how the English language pronounces "Jesus." There is no "j" sound in either Hebrew or Greek, the languages in which much of the New Testament was written. The actual Greek name is pronounced closer to ee-yay-sous or eyay-zous, spelled Yesous. This is a form of the name Yeshua in the Hebrew Bible, which is a shortened form of Yehoshua. The prefix "Yeho" is an abbreviation of God's four-letter name, YHVH, often written as Yahweh.

2. Some scholars, and many Christians as well, claim that Jesus had four brothers and a number of sisters.

Scholars and theologians have been arguing for centuries about whether Jesus had siblings. The King James's version of the Bible includes the lines in Mark 6:3:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?

And Matthew 13:55–56 asks:

Is not this the carpenter's son? is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren, James, and Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?

Many claim that these lines refer to cousins or step-siblings. For Roman Catholics, Jesus's lack of siblings is an important aspect of their formal beliefs, as it supports the dogma of Mary's perpetual virginity.

3. There were at least three important women named Mary in Jesus's life.

Jesus's mother was the first Mary in his life, though her name in its original form may have been Miriam in Hebrew and Maria or Mariam in Greek. Mary's sister, oddly, was also named Mary, though this Mary may have been not the sister but the sister-in-law of Jesus's mother—Joseph's brother's wife. In the New Testament, this Mary, Jesus's aunt, was the mother of the Apostle James. The third Mary was Mary Magdalene, an early follower of Jesus. The Christian tradition claims she was a prostitute. All three of these Marys were present at the crucifixion of Jesus.

4. Two thieves were crucified on either side of Jesus.

When Jesus was crucified (a punishment used by Romans and others long before his death and considered especially painful and humiliating), he was not alone on Calvary. On Jesus's right, Dismas was crucified. According to theologians, Dismas repented for his crime and went to heaven. He was later made a saint. Gestas, on Jesus's left, blasphemed and went to hell. Both men were thieves, crucified for their crimes. The thieves' names are not in the Biblical texts, but they were named in a later extra-biblical writing.

5. Some scholars believe that Apostle Paul suffered from epilepsy.

According to the Bible, Apostle Paul was struck a with a great light on the road to Damascus and, as a result, converted to Christianity. Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran claimed this was the result of an epileptic fit, and other scientists agree. Paul referred to an ailment that he called "a thorn in the flesh, which acts as Satan's messenger to beat me, and keep me from being proud," which Ramachandran claimed was epilepsy. Paul was also said to have had poor eyesight.

6. Non-Jewish believers were not allowed to join the Christian church until around 50 CE.

Until the Council of Jerusalem, around 50 CE, only Jews were permitted to partake in Christian rites. Judaic Christians were insistent that non-Jews who practiced Christianity in Syria should have to undergo circumcision. At the Council, Apostle Paul joined in discussion with the church officials in Jerusalem. Paul and the church elders eventually decreed that gentiles, or non-Jews, who were Christians did not have to obey Mosaic laws, which included circumcision. There were, however, non-Jews baptized into the faith. The first may have been an Ethiopian eunuch whose story is told in the Acts of the Apostles; however, scholars have debated whether the eunuch was Jewish or a gentile.

7. The oldest fragment of the New Testament was found on a trash heap.

In 1920 scholars at Oxford University found some fragments of papyrus in a pile of trash in the Nile Valley. Another scholar, Colin Roberts, cataloged the find and discovered that one fragment, in Greek, contained verses from the Gospel of John. Specialists called paleographists studied the fragment and determined that it was written in the second century CE. The fragment was part of a codex, a book with writing on both sides of its sheets, which were often used by early evangelical Christians. The text of the verses is remarkably similar to the Bible verses used today.

8. Fifty-two texts were discovered in Egypt in 1945 that include several previously unknown gospels.

In 1945 an Arab named Muhammad 'Alí al-Sammán was digging in a field near Nag Hammadi in Egypt when he and his brothers discovered a tall jar that held 13 papyrus books. He brought the papyrus home, where his mother burned some of it in her oven. Muhammad gave one of the books to a friend, and it was eventually sold on the black market. The Egyptian government discovered the sale and confiscated most of the remaining books, but one was smuggled out of the country. A Dutch historian saw it and realized it was a secret gospel, the Gospel of Thomas. When the rest of the remaining books were investigated, they were found to include 52 texts in all, mostly concerning Jesus's life. They date from the 4th century CE, though the original text were probably written earlier, and are known as the Gnostic Gospels. Gnosticism refers to several different offshoots of Christianity dating from the 2nd century CE that posits that only a select few have the knowledge required for salvation. They are considered heretical by the Catholic Church.

9. There are a number of noncanonical gospels about Jesus's infancy, including one in which he fights dragons.

There are several apocryphal gospels that describe the childhood of Jesus. One is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which describes Jesus's miracles before the age of 12. Another is known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. One story from this gospel describes Joseph and Mary's flight into Egypt in an unusual way. As they traveled with the infant Jesus and four other children:

And, lo, suddenly there came forth from the cave many dragons; and when the children saw them, they cried out in great terror. Then Jesus went down from the bosom of His mother, and stood on His feet before the dragons; and they adored Jesus, and thereafter retired. Then was fulfilled that which was said by David the prophet, saying: Praise the Lord from the earth, ye dragons; ye dragons, and all ye deeps [9] And the young child Jesus, walking before them, commanded them to hurt no man. But Mary and Joseph were very much afraid lest the child should be hurt by the dragons. And Jesus said to them: Do not be afraid, and do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect; and all the beasts of the forest must needs be tame before me.

10. Balloons imprinted with the Gospel of Mark are floated into North Korea.

In North Korea, religious observance is strictly forbidden. However, Christians in South Korea print the Gospel of Mark, the shortest gospel, onto balloons and float them into the North, with holes pricked in the balloons to determine how far they should float before landing. In addition, North Korean defectors who have become Christians read the Bible in the North Korean dialect for a half-hour every day on the radio, trying to bring Christianity to the North.

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