Grace Institute: General Epistles & Revelation: Overview: Literary Context

Grace Institute for Biblical Leadership


Survey of the New Testament: General Epistles & Revelation

Winter 2007

Literary Context

Contents of the New Testament

New Testament AuthorsThe Old Testament contains 39 books which were written by dozens of authors over the course of over one thousand years. In contrast, the New Testament contains 27 which were written by only 9 different authors over maybe 50-60 years. Three of those authors wrote nearly 75% of the total content of the New Testament. The apostle Paul himself wrote over one-third of the New Testament.

Whereas each Old Testament book can be very lengthy and consist of multiple literary genres all within one book, the New Testament books are much shorter and follow a consistent literary genre. The New Testament contains only three different literary genres 1) Historical Biography; 2) Epistle, and 3) Apocalyptic literature.

Historical Biographies

The first four books are called the gospels, and they tell of the words and deeds of Jesus. The word “gospel” means “good news,” for they proclaim the good news of Christ's life and death and resurrection. The fifth book, Acts, recounts the history of the early church and especially the words and deeds of the apostle Paul as he spreads the gospel throughout his journeys. While often the gospel and Acts are considered separate literary genres, the style of the gospels and Acts is very similar.

The Epistles

Gospels & Acts

Pauline Epistles

General Epistles







1 Corinthians




2 Corinthians

1 Peter




2 Peter




1 John




2 John




3 John



1 Thessalonians




2 Thessalonians




1 Timothy




2 Timothy











The epistles are letters written by the early apostles to churches and individuals. Most of the epistles were written by the apostle Paul to churches he founded or was going to soon visit. For these “Pauline Epistles”, the name of the book tells us the recipient of the letter. For the rest of the epistles (known as the “General” epistles) the name of the book tells us the sender of the letter.

Most of these letters were written to address specific issues faced by the recipient. As such, the content of the epistles are fairly unique and narrow in focus and are not exhaustive treatises on theological topics. When studying the epistles, determining the occasion for which each letter was written becomes a key to understanding the book.

Nonetheless, there are a few themes which are repeated throughout the epistles. Paul is particularly concerned with the unity of the church and potential split between Jewish and Gentile Christians. His letters repeatedly speak to living in harmony and reminding his readers that the Gentile Christians are not required to obey the Old Testament law. The General epistles focus more on the problem of heresy, the need for the church to be on guard against false teaching, and an encouragement for believers to endure through persecution.

The Apocalyptic Literature

The New Testament closes with a very unique book. The Revelation of Jesus Christ is an apocalyptic book, describing a vision seen by the apostle John. The vision is highly symbolic and focuses on the victorious return of Jesus Christ at the end of this age. While Revelation is the only apocalyptic book in the New Testament, this was a popular genre in the first century. The Essenes wrote numerous apocalyptic books describing the coming of the Messiah in symbolic terms, and the Gnostic writings of later centuries contain much apocalyptic literature.

The Canonicity of the New Testament

The 27 books in our New Testament were by no means the only Christian writings available to the early church. There are numerous second and third century texts, including letters and documents from Orthodox Church leaders that further the traditions found in the New Testament. There is also a large body of work surviving from this period known as the “Gnostic” gospels. How then did these 27 books become selected, and how can we be assured of the historical reliability of these texts?

For the first 300 years of the church, there was not really a need to formally name the books which were legitimate. However by the second and third century there rose a number of books supposing to be new gospels and new epistles from the apostles. Most of these books contained teachings which were contradictory to the rest of scripture. So the church needed to define for itself what books were to be included in the “canon.” The word canon means “rule” or “standard.”

There was a four-fold test given to determine whether a book should be included in “the canon,” or the group of books accepted as Scripture (McRay) :

•  Was it written by an apostle or with an apostle's backing? (e.g. Luke had Paul's sponsorship while Mark was sponsored by Peter)

•  Does the book claim to be inspired?

•  Does the book have universal acceptance by the all churches?

•  Does the book have the feel of genuineness?

Today it is clear that the books which claimed apostolic origin but were left out of the canon were written much later than the rest of the scriptures. We can find manuscripts for nearly all the canonical texts dating from the second century AD. However, the earliest Gnostic gospels date from the third or fourth century AD. These texts must be discounted because of the span of time from when the events occurred and when they were written. To consider them historically accurate one must believe that there was a fabulous cover-up in orthodox Christianity that lasted for three centuries purposely suppressing the opposing teachings of Jesus, at a time when the church had no political influence and was under tremendous persecution.

Modern Texts

Often students wonder how reliable our current New Testament is. How do we know that the texts we read today are really the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John?

First, while we do not have the actual original manuscripts, we have such an abundance of manuscript copies. Textual critics have been able to put together these texts by comparing and contrasting manuscripts to create a text today which is remarkably close to the original.

Furthermore, while our modern New Testament are translations of the original Greek and Hebrew texts, the scholarship of modern translations, the abundance of translations and the variety of study tools available make it possible for even students who do not read Greek and Hebrew to get an accurate understanding of what the original text says.

[Next: Historical Context]

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