"Jesus was the Messiah... who was written about in the Old Testament."
The New Testament
Most of the 66 books of the Bible relate to the time before the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity who is described as the Son of God. The final 27 books - known as the New Testament – start in around 5BC and tell the story of Jesus and the early days of the Christian church which was founded by his followers. The final book, Revelation, has a very different style and uses dramatic, apocalyptic imagery.
The first four books of the New Testament are known as the Gospels. They were written by four different men and focus on the life and death of Jesus Christ and his resurrection, when he came back to life. They explain that Jesus was the Messiah – the saviour or leader that the Jewish people had been waiting for who was written about in the Old Testament. The writers were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All of the Gospels are based on eye-witness accounts and were written down about 30 years after Jesus.
Matthew and John were among the 12 disciples – a group which Jesus recruited as his first and closest followers. Mark was a younger man and one of a bigger group which also followed Jesus. Luke was a doctor. He also wrote the book called Acts, which comes immediately after the four Gospels. John also wrote four later books including Revelation.
The Gospels are not identical, although the core events are the same. This is not as strange as it might seem. They were intended for different audiences: Matthew, for example, was writing for a Jewish audience. In fact, some might say it would look suspicious if the four accounts were exactly the same. It is rather like four newspapers reporting on an event: each will take its own angle. Some stories about Jesus’ life appear in every Gospel, some stories are just in one of them.
The Gospels tell about the Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a town just outside Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago. This is the event that is celebrated at Christmas. There’s not much information about Jesus’ early life although it’s known he was a carpenter and lived in Nazareth. Most of what’s in the Gospel books concentrates on the last three years of Jesus life, when he travelled around what is now Israel and the West Bank with his disciples, teaching crowds about God. He also performed miracles, healing many people who were sick.
Jesus’ teaching forms the foundation of the Christian faith. Some of it is very well known. For example, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both report an event called the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus spoke to a crowd on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. He told them about people who were blessed – or would experience a dee pinner joy from God: ‘blessed are the merciful ... Blessed are the peacemakers … Blessed are those who hunger for justice…’
Some passages describe events; others are stories (or parables) which Jesus told to make a point. One famous parable describes an outsider - the Good Samaritan - who helped someone who had been beaten up and robbed.
The Gospels tell how Jesus was eventually betrayed, put on trial and executed by the Romans by crucifixion. And then how he rose from the dead and continued to be with his disciples for six weeks. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the heart of the Christian faith.
The birth of the Christian Church
The next book, Acts, starts with Jesus returning to heaven. Quickly it moves onto the story of the birth of the Christian Church. This begins with an event called Pentecost where about 120 followers of Jesus have an extraordinary mystical encounter with God which leaves them transformed, rather like being spiritually re-energised. But soon they begin to be persecuted for their beliefs and they scatter.
Acts then tells how some of these followers – sometimes called ‘apostles’ - travel around the eastern Mediterranean region, telling people about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Much of it follows the journeys of Paul. He wasn’t one of Jesus followers at first. He was Jewish and very committed to his faith. He led the persecution of Christians until he had a miraculous life-changing vision of Jesus and became a devoted follower.
Everywhere they went, the apostles established new groups of followers. These groups became known as churches and the new followers were called Christians – because they were followers of Jesus Christ.
The book of Acts feels like an adventure novel: there’s a prison break-out, a shipwreck, persecution, martyrdom, bravery and treachery.
The letters to the new churches
Apart from the final book, Revelation, the rest of the New Testament is a collection of 21 letters written by the apostles to churches and individual Christians. These churches were in places such as Rome, Corinth in Greece and Ephesus in what’s now Turkey. This explains the names the books: Romans, Corinthians and Ephesians.
They contained more teaching about Jesus and instructions on how to live a Christian life. Most of these letters were written by Paul. Other writers included John, Peter and James – who were among the first 12 disciples.
Some of the letters are well-known. For example, in Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth there is a passage about love which is often read at weddings: ‘love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast … it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres’.
The final book of the New Testament was written by the apostle John in 90AD. It is a dramatic apocalyptic writing full of symbolism. Written at a time of persecution, it aimed to showed that Jesus was still in charge in spite of what might be happening on Earth. And it pointed ahead to a future time when God would live among those who love him.