"Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah--not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."
-- Jeremiah 31:31-33
Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins."
-- Matthew 26:27-28
The New Testament is a collection of ancient writings that forms the second part of the Christian Bible. The term "testament" is used as in "last will and testament", and as such is synonymous with the term "covenant" quoted above. The writings that make up the New Testament therefore deal with the new covenant or agreement between God and humanity prophesied in Jeremiah and fulfilled in the self-sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The earlist Christians (nearly all of whom were Jews) likely considered this covenant a renewal of the old Mosaic covenant. As Christianity developed and its adherents reflected on the meaning of Christ's saving act in light of what came after, the thesis that the "new" covenant was an entirely new agreement replacing the old one came to the fore.
Christians began to apply the term "New Testament" to a body of sacred writing used by the early Church sometime in the 2nd Century. The collection consists of:
- Four gospels (meaning a proclamation of "good news", specifically of triumph in war or some great act of the Roman emperor; here the genre is used to proclaim Christ's victory over sin and death.)
- The book of Acts, an account of the early Church and the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome.
- Twenty-one letters. A very small number of these are actually sermons or homilies presented as letters, but the majority were written from an individual to one of the Christian churches addressing issues that had arisen in those congregations.
- One apocalypse (a genre in which a human being is granted a revelatory vision by a heavenly messenger depicting the passing of the current evil and unjust era and the arrival of the Kingdom of God.)
That letters should form the largest part of the NT isn't surprising given the nature of early Christian belief. Feeling that the return of Jesus and the end of the world was near, they spread the gospel as quickly as possible across the entire empire, planting the seeds of churches and moving on, writing back to those churches to provide guidance and advice. In fact, most scholars believe that the earliest preserved Christian writing we have is Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians, composed in the early 50s--a mere twenty years after Jesus' death.
As this generation of evangelists began to pass away an effort was made to produce writings of a more permanent nature that would provide the same sort of guidance and strengthen the faith of Christians whatever their era, place, and situation. The early churches would of course not have had a complete set of New Testament writings. They might have had a handful of letters and a gospel, and as they traveled and received visitors they would share what they had and receive additional works from others.
Naturally there was dispute over which writings should be accepted as sacred and authoritative. Many factors were taken into account: among them its composition by an Apostle (or its place in a tradition that could authoritatively be traced back to an Apostle's preaching), the importance of the community it was addressed to or originated in, and its conformity with standard belief and practice. By the 4th century the Eastern and Western churches had come to an overall agreement (born of much debate and much compromise) on the twenty-seven books we know today as the New Testament.
There were of course many more Christian writings produced during the time the books of the NT were composed, some of which we know about, many more of which have been lost over time. While these may provide valuable spiritual, theological, or historical insights, the New Testament holds a unique position of authority. Its contents are the books that have been acknowledged and accepted for all time as the basis of Christian faith. Despite efforts from many individuals and groups over the centuries to ignore or remove individual books, or include as equally authoritative other works some find more palatable, they remain to comfort and challenge the members of the Body of Christ just as they did nearly two thousand years ago; and perhaps in new and unanticipated ways as well, for it is the belief of Christians that whatever their origin or means of selection, these are the books through which the eternal voice of God's Holy Spirit continues to speak.