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The New Testament is the second, shorter part of the Christian Bible. Unlike the Old Testament, which covers hundreds of years of history, the New Testament only covers several decades, and is a collection of the religious teachings and beliefs of Christianity. The New Testament is not a single book written by one person, but, rather, a collection of twenty-seven books written in Greek by people from various places. There are many ways to interpret the New Testament. Millions of people view it as absolutely true scripture, and use its teachings as the basis of their belief systems. Some biblical scholars interpret it as a work of literature that uses beautiful poetry to describe religious myths. Others study its ethical and philosophical ideas, as its stories of the faithful attempt to instill certain values and outline an appropriate way to live.
The books of the New Testament were written in first- or second-century Palestine, a region that at the time was under the rule of the Roman Empire. Many of the stories are based on the rituals and beliefs of Judaism, as Jesus Christ and his disciples were all Jews. As a result, both Greco-Roman culture and Judaic traditions dominate the political, social, and economic scene of the New Testament. Judaism at that time was not a single tradition or set of beliefs, but contained many different divisions within itself. These divisions figure prominently in New Testament stories. The strictest Jews, the Sadducees, were the upper class of priests. They interpreted scripture literally and adhered to rituals strictly. They were opposed to oral tradition and to the concept of eternal life, since the latter is not discussed in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament. The Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, interpreted Jewish law for laypeople and established Jewish life outside of the temple. They were more liberal in their acceptance of scripture, regarding oral tradition and the words of prophets as scriptural as well.
Judaism at the time of Christ involved a rigid social hierarchy. The temple and the high priests who worked there were considered to be pure, holy, and closer to God than anyone else. The hierarchy continued with people who were Jews by birth, followed by converts to Judaism. Gentiles, or non-Jews, were considered by Jews to be ritually impure and not in the service of God. The New Testament documents a shift in this hierarchy. Christians challenged the system in which birth into the Israelite community determined a person’s level of purity. They said, instead, that repentance and acceptance of the teachings of Jesus Christ determined a person’s purity.
The writers of the books that now comprise the New Testament did not intend for their writings to replace or rival the Old Testament. The Christian scriptures were originally intended to be utilitarian documents, responding to specific needs of the early church. It was only with the passage of more than a hundred years after Jesus’s death that Christians began to use the term “New Testament” to refer to the scriptures that the fledgling church was beginning to view as a single sacred unit. Early Christians viewed the New Testament as the fulfillment of promises made in the Old Testament, rather than as the replacement of the Jewish scriptures.
The historical context of the New Testament greatly influences the way we interpret it as literature. Many of the speakers in the Bible address issues and problems unique to their moment in history, and a knowledge of the various cultural forces of biblical times provides a basis for understanding the characters’ motivations and reactions. Furthermore, the New Testament’s role as influential religious doctrine is another context. Just as historical situations shaped the development of the New Testament, the New Testament has also influenced the progress of history. Reading religious documents as literature requires an unusual understanding of the events surrounding the writing of the text.
Only in the second century a.d. did Christians begin to use the term “New Testament” to refer to their collection of scriptures. The New Testament as we now know it is comprised of twenty-seven books, but it was not originally written as a coherent whole. Jesus himself did not produce any written record of his work. The books that comprise the New Testament were mostly written in the century following his death, in response to specific needs of the early church and its leaders. At the time of Jesus’s crucifixion in approximately 30 a.d., most of the first generation of Christians believed that the end of the world was imminent. They therefore considered it unnecessary to compose records of Jesus’s life. By the mid-60s a.d., however, most Christians who had known Jesus and witnessed his actions firsthand were dying. It became necessary, then, to produce works that would testify to Jesus’s life. As it became clear that the second coming of Jesus would be delayed, the leaders of the church began to compose works that would enable the nascent Christian Church to survive.
The books that comprise the New Testament can be separated into three broad categories. First are the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. “Gospel” literally means “good news.” The “good news” to which these gospels refer is the life, teachings, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospels usually appear first among the texts of the New Testament, with Matthew placed first of all. But the order of the New Testament is based on importance, not chronology. The Gospels were probably written between 65 and 110 a.d., with Mark written first and John last.
The second category of texts in the New Testament are the letters from Paul. Paul of Tarsus was an early church leader and energetic missionary who spread the Gospel of Jesus across the Roman Empire, preaching to Gentiles as well as to Jews, who were the earliest targets of missionary activity. Paul wrote many letters to various Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean, settling points of doctrine and instructing new Christians in matters of faith. By the end of the second century a.d., Christian communities had collected thirteen letters that they attributed to Paul, and each letter became known by the name of the community or individual to whom it was addressed: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. A fourteenth letter, Hebrews, long accepted by Eastern churches, was accepted by Western churches in the fourth century a.d. The actual authorship and date of composition of many of these letters is seriously disputed, but it is generally agreed that Paul wrote some of them in the 50s a.d., making them the oldest existing Christian texts.
Other books in the New Testament are somewhat harder to classify. Acts of the Apostles (known simply as Acts) is a continuation of the Gospel According to Luke, giving the history of the church in the years after Jesus’s crucifixion. Acts traces the expansion of the church, as it moves out from Jerusalem and spreads throughout the Gentile world. The protagonists of the book are Peter, the chief of the Twelve Apostles, who were Jesus’s closest disciples, and Paul of Tarsus, the greatest early Christian missionary. Also included in the New Testament are seven letters, known as the Letters to all Christians, or the Catholic—in its literal sense, meaning “universal”—Letters, which resemble extended homilies. These letters are generally understood to have been written after the Pauline letters: James, 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2 and 3 John, and Jude. Finally, the Book of Revelation, written in the closing years of the first century, is an extended vision predicting the events of the end of the world and the second coming of Jesus.
In its early centuries, the church was highly decentralized. Each individual church community collected its own sacred documents. The fragmented nature of the church was complicated by the difference in intellectual tradition between the East, which spoke Greek as its scholarly language and was ruled from Byzantium following the division of the Roman Empire, and the West, which spoke Latin and was centered in Rome. The process by which individual church communities came together to decide on a canon of sacred works, and the process by which they preserved those works, is not entirely clear. Criteria that seem to have been important in canonization include the authorship of the texts—texts presumed to have been written by apostles, such as Matthew, or by those who witnessed Jesus’s revelation firsthand, such as Paul, were given priority—and the importance and wide acceptance of the doctrine expressed in the texts. It is known that in the decades just before and after 200 a.d., church leaders widely accepted the sacred nature of a collection of twenty works, including the four Gospels, thirteen Pauline letters, Acts, 1 Peter, and 1 John. The remaining seven works—Hebrews, Revelation, James, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and 2 Peter—were cited from the second to the fourth centuries and accepted as scripture in some, but not all, churches. Finally, by the late fourth century, there was wide, but not absolute, agreement in the Greek East and the Latin West on a canon of twenty-seven works.
It is generally agreed that the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, the scholarly language current at the time, and divided into chapters and verses. It is possible that a few books of the New Testament were originally written in Aramaic, a dialect popular among the Jews of Palestine, and most likely the language that Jesus himself spoke.