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The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are known as the synoptic—meaning “at one look”—Gospels because each one tells a similar story, differing only in some additions, special emphases, and particular omissions according to the interests of the author and the message the text is trying to convey. Each of the synoptic Gospels tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, including his ministry, gathering of disciples, trial, crucifixion, and, in the case of Matthew and Luke, his resurrection. John is also a Gospel, though it is not placed with the synoptic Gospels because his story is so different. Rather than recording many of the facts about Jesus’s life, the Gospel according to John focuses on the mystery and identity of Jesus as the Son of God.
Acts of the Apostles follows John, although it was intended to be the second volume of a single unit beginning with Luke. The same author wrote Luke and Acts consecutively, and while Luke is a Gospel about Jesus, Acts picks up the story at the resurrection, when the early disciples are commissioned to witness to the world. Acts is a chronological history of the first church of Christ.
The twenty-one books following Acts are epistles, or letters, written from church leaders to churches in various parts of the world. The first fourteen of these letters are called the “Epistles of Paul” and are letters that tradition has accorded to St. Paul in his correspondence with the earliest churches in the first and second century. Historians are fairly certain that Paul himself, Christianity’s first theologian and successful missionary, indisputably composed seven of the letters, and possibly could have written seven others.
The seven letters following the Epistles of Paul are called the Catholic Epistles, because they are addressed to the church as a whole rather than to particular church communities. These letters identify as their authors original apostles, biological brothers of Jesus, and John the Evangelist, although it is thought that they were actually written by students or followers of these early church luminaries. The first of the Catholic Epistles is the Letter of James, attributed to James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the Christian church in Jerusalem. Next are the First and Second Letters of Peter, which identify themselves as letters from the apostle Peter. The First, Second, and Third Letters of John attribute their authorship to John the Evangelist, and the Letter of Jude attributes itself to Jude, the brother of James, who is elsewhere identified as one of Jesus’s brothers.
The last book in the New Testament is the Revelation to John, or Book of Revelation, the New Testament’s only piece of literature in the apocalyptic genre. It describes a vision by a leader of a church community in Asia Minor living under the persecution of the Roman Empire.