History and Sources

What are the earliest Christian sacred writings?

Two broad types of literature comprise the bulk of the Christian scripture. Among the earliest documents are the letters of Paul. Tradition attributes fourteen of the New Testament’s twenty-seven “books” or epistles to Paul, but it seems likely that several were penned under a pseudonym. The largest and most important of the texts are addressed to local Christian communities collectively (Romans, I and II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, I and II Thessalonians). Four are addressed to individual Christian leaders who worked with Paul (I and II Timothy, Titus, Philemon). The addressees of the Letter to the Hebrews, almost certainly not written by Paul, are curiously diffuse and not as geographically identifiable as are the local churches. These epistles provide a great deal of information about the spread and organization of the early Church, and, to a lesser degree, about the personality of this man of prodigious energy called Paul, a man some regard as the true “founder” of Christianity. Seven other letters, two attributed to Peter, three to John, one to James, and one to Jude, afford small glimpses into the variety of theological and practical issues facing the Christian “diaspora,” the communities developing beyond the central Middle East.

At the heart of the Christian scriptures are four remarkable documents called “Gospels” (“good news”). Mark’s Gospel, likely the earliest, is also the shortest of the four. Matthew’s is addressed largely to those of Jewish background, and Luke’s followed within the next twenty to thirty years. Luke’s also has the distinction of being part of the only consciously crafted two-volume work in the New Testament, completed by Luke’s account of the post-Jesus church in the Acts of the Apostles. Because of their similarity of perspective and emphases, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called the “synoptic” Gospels. John’s Gospel, often referred to as the most theological of the four, almost certainly came last, around the end of the first century C.E. Last but not least is the Book of Revelation, also called the Apocalypse. Tradition attributes the work to John the Evangelist, since the work seems to date from around the same time as the fourth Gospel.


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