Jesus of Nazareth

The central figure of the New Testament, whose life, death, and resurrection are chronicled in the books. The four Gospels describe Jesus’s life until his resurrection, and the remainder of the New Testament concerns itself with the community of followers of Jesus that steadily grows after his death.

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Paul of Tarsus

More than half of the books in the New Testament have been attributed to Paul of Tarsus, the great missionary who directs the spread of Christianity after the death of Jesus. In these books, Paul uses his keen mind and robust intellect to develop Christianity’s first sophisticated theology. In the period immediately following Jesus’s death, he is an active persecutor of Jesus’s followers, but he later converts and becomes the most active proponent of Christ’s disciples.

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The first of Jesus’s disciples. Extremely devoted to Jesus and his mission, Simon is able to recognize Jesus as the Messiah before the other apostles. As a result, Jesus makes him the “rock”—renaming Simon “Peter,” which means rock—on which his church would be built (Matthew 16:1320). Although Peter denies his association with Jesus after Jesus’s arrest, Peter later becomes one of the leaders of the church in Jerusalem.

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John the Baptist

The forerunner to Jesus, spreading the word of Jesus’s imminent arrival. John the Baptist is an old ascetic who lives in the desert, wears a loincloth, and feeds on locusts and honey.

Mary Magdalene

A female follower of Jesus since the time of his Galilean ministry, when he exorcises her of seven demons (Luke 8:2). Mary Magdalene is a close friend of Jesus. She is one of the women who discover that Jesus’s body is not in his grave. Following this event, she witnesses the resurrected Jesus. She is also known as Mary of Magdala.

Pontius Pilate

As prefect, Pontius Pilate governs Judea by the authority of the Roman Empire during the time of Jesus’s trial in Jerusalem. The Gospels differ on the extent of Pilate’s responsibility for Jesus’s crucifixion. What is clear, however, is that Pilate holds the ultimate authority to determine whether or not Jesus should be executed.


Praised early in Acts for his generosity toward the church, Barnabas later becomes one of Paul’s traveling companions and fellow missionaries, joining Paul in spreading the Gospel among the Gentiles.

Judas Iscariot

One of the Twelve Apostles, Judas betrays Jesus to the authorities in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. According to Matthew, Judas commits suicide out of remorse (Matthew 27:310).


A leader of the Hellenists, a faction of the Jewish Christians, in Jerusalem during the years after Jesus’s ascension. Stephen preaches against the temple (Acts 67). When brought for trial before the Jewish court, Stephen seals his fate by issuing a ringing condemnation of the Jewish leadership.


The traveling companion and fellow missionary of Paul. Timothy coauthors letters with Paul—such as 1 Corinthians and Philippians—and serves as his emissary throughout the Christian communities of the Mediterranean.

Mary, Mother of Jesus

Luke’s narrative of Jesus’s infancy focuses heavily on the courage and faith of Mary, who becomes impregnated by the Holy Spirit. She is also one of the only people who remains with Jesus through the crucifixion. Gospel writers who have a high esteem for the female leaders in the early church community point to Mary as a model of discipleship.


Mary’s husband. Joseph is a direct paternal descendent of the great King David, which makes Jesus an heir to the Davidic line. This heritage reinforces Jesus’s place in the Jewish tradition.


A traveling companion of Paul. Christian tradition dating back to the second century a.d. claims that Luke is the author of the Gospel that bears his name and of Acts of the Apostles.


The high priest who presides over Jesus’s trial. Though it is Pilate who declares the verdict of Jesus’s guilt, the Gospel writers are insistent that Caiaphas is also responsible for the crucifixion.

Herod the Great

The King of Palestine from 37 to 4 b.c. According to Matthew, Herod hears of Jesus’s birth and decides to kill the child, who is prophesied to become king of the Jews. To evade Herod’s orders, Joseph takes Jesus and Mary to Egypt.