The Christian Bible is revered as the most important book of the Christians. It combines the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament (OT), and the New Testament (NT). Catholic and Orthodox Bibles also include the Deuterocanonical Books. Like the OT, the NT was written over time (from about 50-150 C.E.) by a number of authors. It contains 27 books (4 gospels; 1 history book, 21 letters, and an apocalypse), and continues themes introduced in the OT, such as the intervention of God in history, promises (covenants) made to Israel, and the role of the Jews in the world. Focus centers on the life and meaning of Jesus, a man understood to be the messiah (which means "anointed") and the son of God.
The four gospels recount the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The first three gospels are very similar and so are known as the Synoptic Gospels ("seen together"). Most scholars accept that Mark was likely written first (ca. 65-70 C.E.); Luke and Matthew (both after 70 C.E.) use the narrative framework of Mark but insert some unique material (called "M" and "L," respectively). They also both insert a large number of sayings of Jesus and a few additional narratives- collectively known as the hypothetical source Q (for Quelle, the German for "source")-although these materials are used differently by Matthew and Luke. Although tradition claims that the disciples, or those close to Jesus' disciples, wrote the gospels, this source theory suggests that the authors were not eyewitnesses to all of the events they report. The fourth gospel, John, is unlike the Synoptic Gospels. It includes some unique stories (e.g., Samaritan Woman, miracle of changing of the water into wine) and many long speeches by Jesus. All four gospels describe Jesus as one who led an exemplary life, taught his disciples (apostles), and performed many miracles. He died willingly "for the sake of the world," then rose from the dead after three days and was seen by many witnesses. He now reigns in heaven, but will return on the last day of the world to judge people based on their behavior.
The second volume of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, describes the response of Jesus' followers to his death and resurrection, especially Peter, John, and Paul. The apostles, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, do miracles and the news about Jesus spreads from Jerusalem to Rome.
The NT contains many letters. Thirteen of them are attributed to Paul. At first, Paul persecuted the new Christians. On the road to Damascus, Paul met the resurrected Jesus and became a Christian himself. He spent the rest of his life traveling throughout the northeastern Mediterranean area, teaching people about Jesus and starting churches. These letters represent some of the correspondence that was preserved between Paul and the churches and people he met. Paul's letters are divided into three groups. The undisputed letters, most probably written by Paul, include 1 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Galatians, and Romans. The disputed letters include the Deutero-Pauline letters (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians) and the Pastoral Epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus). Although all claim to be written by Paul, changes in vocabulary, style, and the understanding of Jesus and appropriate Christian behavior differ significantly.
Other letters are attributed to James and Jude (brothers of Jesus) and Peter. Three letters (1-3 John) are so similar to the Gospel of John that they are attributed to the same person, although the author of the letters is identified as "the elder." Topics of the NT letters include reflections on the purpose and effect of the life and resurrection of Jesus, especially as he relates to Jewish traditions (the law, circumcision, ethical behavior, food laws, etc.). They instruct churches (or individuals) on leadership, worship practice, behavior codes, identifying false teachers, the return of Jesus, and suffering. Some personal information is also shared. Although the book of Hebrews is usually included in the list of letters, and at one time had been attributed to Paul, it does not follow the typical letter form nor is it similar in style and content to the other NT letters. Hebrews describes Jesus as superior to the prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua, and the priests; he is a superior sacrifice made once for all time.
The final book of the NT is the Book of Revelation, an apocalypse ("revelation") given to John (unlikely the author of the Gospel and Letters of John) in a mystical journey to heaven. John uses symbolic language to describe heaven and the events that occur there which, in turn, affect the events experienced on earth. He describes a battle between the forces of good (God, the lamb who was slain [i.e., Jesus], the angels) and the forces of evil (Satan, the devil, the beast); good ultimately wins. People on earth may experience persecution and cosmic upheaval, but those who are faithful will prevail.
The undisputed letters of Paul were likely written first, followed by the gospels, and the other letters from 70-120 C.E. The various NT documents were gathered together in their present form by the fourth century. The earliest existing manuscripts date to the early second century.