Updated: Nov 8, 2019
The New Testament has 27 books. They are organized similar to the Old Testament by historical, writings, prophecy. They are not organized chronologically. The first book to be written was James around AD 46-49. The last book to be written was Revelation around AD 95-96. All of the books were written by the end of the first century. Why is this important? Because people were still alive who had witnessed the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These books were copied and circulated immediately after being written. People would have known if their contents had been a lie.
The first 5 books of the New Testament, the four Gospels and Acts, are considered the historical books and cover a time period of 5 BC to AD 100. The next 21 are epistles which is a fancy word for letters. These letters are organized by the first 13 are Pauline letters (written by Paul) and are broken up into:
Paul’s 9 Letters to Churches
Paul’s 4 Letters to Individuals
After the Pauline letters the next 9 books are General letters (written by others). Revelation is a prophetical book written in letter form, so it is still considered a general letter on some charts.
We believe we know who wrote every book of the NT except for Hebrews. Some believe Paul wrote it. Most scholars believe either Barnabas or Apollos wrote it. It was included in the Canon because it met the criteria – was used in the early church and the doctrine was sound - meaning it conformed to the teaching of the entire Bible.
Here's a chart I made for students to visualize the organzation.
All Bibles have the same 27 books of the New Testament organized in the same manner.
The first 4 historical books of the New Testament are called the Gospels. The term gospel means good news and these books are about “Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” The Gospels tell a story about the actions and teachings of Jesus; Jesus proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom; and that God’s promises to His people in the Old Testament are now fulfilled in Jesus. There is only one gospel written by four evangelists, “the” gospel according to… The gospels are four similar, yet distinctive stories about Jesus’ life and work from four related perspectives. They are four different points of view on the history of Jesus, but only one divine conclusion as to His identity as the Son of God.
Each writer of a gospel had certain material which he wanted to convey and transmit to a particular audience. Each writer rearranged, broadened or edited according to the interest of that audience. But there are no contradictions of historical details. We do not know everything about Jesus’ life, but only what God wants us to know. John 21:25 tells us, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” (NASB)
Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the synoptic gospels. The word synoptic means “seen together.” This just means that they are very similar. John’s gospel is quite different in content from the synoptic gospels. John includes material and adds details that the others do not include.
The four Gospel writers portrayed Jesus from different angles.
Written to the Jews
Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the King of the Jews
Written to the Romans (non-Jews)
Jesus came to serve; Jesus is the Son of Man; the power of God is active in the world
Written to the Gentiles (non-Jews)
Jesus is the Perfect Man seeking men
Written to everyone
Jesus is the Word of God/ the Son of God
The Synoptic Gospels emphasize the theme of the kingdom of God and the Gospel of John focuses on the concept of eternal life. I love how George Guthrie who has a conversation with Darrell Bock in his book, Read the Bible for Life, (affiliate link) explains it:
The Synoptic Gospels were written from ‘the earth up,’ gradually allowing the reader to discover who Jesus is as the story unfolds. John was written from ‘heaven down,’ telling us immediately that Jesus is the Lord of the universe.(1)
Many Bibles have charts on the Harmony of the Gospels and there are charts in study Bibles comparing the miracles and parables in the Gospels.
Luke wrote one book, Luke-Acts, which was later divided into two books. Acts focuses on the birth of the church, the spread of Christianity, and explains Christ’s continued work on earth through the Holy Spirit.
After Acts are the 13 epistles written by Paul - Romans through Philemon. These are not in chronological order when Paul wrote them. They are organized by his letters to the churches (9 letters) – longest to shortest - and his letters to individuals (4 letters) – longest to shortest. All are instructional on how to live the Christian life.
After Paul’s letters come the General Letters, Hebrews through Jude. These are also about Christian living. Most of the General Epistles/Letters were written during the years of heavy Roman persecution of the Christian population. The content and tone of the General Letters combats false teaching and encourages the Christians to stand firm in their faith. These letters were written over a period of approximately fifty years.
It is important to know that the 21 epistles are occasional documents. This means that each letter was written to address a specific set of issues, at a specific time, and in a specific place. So it is prudent to gain some context of the letter by reading an introduction to that book of the Bible in your study Bible or in another book. Although these books were written to specific people for a specific reason, there is much Christians today can learn from them. Although time moves on, human nature is the same.
The book of Revelation (and please don’t put an “s” on the end of Revelation) is a letter John wrote from the island of Patmos to 7 churches. It is a prophetical book proclaiming God’s message of salvation and judgment at a crucial moment in history, the second coming of Christ. It also is a special genre of writing, known as apocalyptic literature. An Apocalypse was a popular type of literature for Jews, Christians, and others. We know this was a popular type of literature because of the sheer number of Apocalypses that exist from ancient Jewish, Christian and even pagan communities of that period. Apocalypses were often written at a time of crisis and convey the message through signs, symbols, dreams, and visions. The books of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament both contain some apocalyptic writing. The Old Testament is the “Code Book” for the symbols of Revelation. If you haven’t read the Old Testament, a lot of the symbolism is going to be lost on you.
The 27 books of the New Testament tell us about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, about Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies, about His crucifixion and resurrection; that Jesus is the Christ; the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell in believers; about the founding of the universal church; the spread of the gospel message; how believers should live; and the second coming of Christ when God wins the battle against evil.
Read the book of your faith.
George H. Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life, (B&H Publishing Group, 2011), 152-153 (affiliate link)