The New Testament is composed of 27 books: The four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), the Acts of the Apostles, the 21 Epistles (letters), 14 of which are attributed to Saint Paul the Apostle, one to Saint James, two to Saint Peter, three to Saint John and one to Saint Jude, and lastly, The Apocalypse, the Revelation of Saint John the Divine. The Gospel writers Matthew and John were two of Jesus Christ’s twelve disciples. Luke and Mark were close friends of the disciples.
The first compilation of the sayings of Jesus was written before the middle of the first century and, very probably first in Aramaic and later in Greek. This compilation is known as the “Saying – Source”, conventionally designated “Q”, later affected the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The Epistles of Saint Paul constitute the oldest section of the New Testament.
The scripture of Saint Mark may be regarded as a new use of the word ‘gospel’ (from Old English = God-spell meaning ‘good news’), by which is meant not only
the oral but also the written account of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Basically, two kinds of material are contained in the Gospels. Firstly the Narratives, that is, stories of the birth, upbringing, baptism, performance of miracles and healing, the death and resurrection of Christ, and secondly, His prophecies and apocalyptical sayings, parables, sermons and interpretations of the law and proverbs.
The oldest of the Gospels, is the Gospel of Saint Mark, the text of which formed a basis for the other Biblical writers, and the direct source for Matthew and Luke. Mark addressed himself particularly to those who had already become Christians rather than unconverted Jews. After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the Jewish community took a stand against Christianity, and it is thought that this caused the Gospel of Saint Matthew, recorded in around the year 80 to be aimed at the Christians of Jewish origin living in Palestine and Syria. The Gospel according to Saint Luke is reckoned to have been written at the same time as Saint Matthew’s. Saint Luke, later companion of Saint Paul, is also thought to be the author of the Acts of the Apostles. Both Saint Luke’s texts address the Greek-speaking citizens of the Roman Empire. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, are known as the Synoptic Gospels because these first three Gospels tally so closely in structure, content and wording that they could readily be organized in parallel columns, providing a synoptic view of their content, (‘synopsis’: from the Greek syn = together with, and opsis = view).
The Gospel according to Saint John, written just before the end of the first century, is different in character from the other three. It is thought to have been written, together with three epistles, while he was in Ephesus with the Mother of Jesus, especially for the benefit of the churches around Ephesus. Some regard Saint John as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. This fourth Gospel seems to be more theological, spiritual and can be considered mystical.
The Acts of the Apostles is an account of the activities of the disciples chosen by Jesus, and how, through them, the first communities of converts were formed. The Epistles were written by the followers of Christ, in order to lead the early Christian converts to show them how to live according to Christ’s teachings and how to overcome the difficulties they would encounter. The Book of Revelations contains predictions of future events in the words of Saint John the Divine.
All these Books of the New Testament, written at different times, by different authors, were edited and compiled during the first two centuries. The canonical list of the New Testament texts was determined in the 4th century. Writers of the apocryphal Gospels often attempted to convince readers of the historical and theological reliability of their texts, sometimes maintaining that they expressed secret doctrines given by Jesus to only a selected few of His disciples. Some of the material was taken from canonical Gospels and some from versions of their own theology. The Church recognizing the doubtful sources did not accept these as authoritative.
Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church is an institution whose first churches have known unbroken continuity, and they have adopted the same sacred ceremonies. The split between the two churches, Western and Eastern, stems more from political and cultural differences than disagreements on theology. From the cultural standpoint, the divergence of Western Christianity from Orthodox is an extension of the division brought about by Latin being the prevailing language in the Western Roman Church, while in the Eastern Byzantine Church the written language is Greek.
In the 5th century after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, the Pope, who until then had held honorary supremacy over all churches, now assumed imperial powers to a large extent. Although the Patriarch in Constantinople was head of the Church, he was never able to gain independence such as that enjoyed by the Pope, so long as total power was in the hands of the emperor. The Eastern Church’s insistence that the Holy Ghost derived only from God the Father was accused by the West of being a heresy. In 1054, the Pope and the Patriarch excommunicated each other, and an irreversible schism took place. The sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, rendered impossible any effort at unification, and neither Church acknowledged the other until as late as 1965.
The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as well as Muslim organizations preserved their identities in the face of Communist regimes. The Orthodox Church consists of a number of self-governing churches, the oldest of which are the Greek Orthodox and those governed by the Patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch (Antakya), and Jerusalem. The Patriarch of Istanbul enjoys primacy of honour but has no universal jurisdiction. Orthodox churches are predominant in the Balkans, the Slav countries and parts of the Middle East. Like the Protestant Church, the Orthodox does not recognize the Roman Papacy.
Orthodox bishops and monks are obliged to remain celibate, but priests are permitted to marry.
In Orthodox services, Mary is referred to as the Mother of God. The Holy Thursday service is performed to commemorate the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. Priests wear beards as specified in the Bible. Musical instruments are not allowed in the churches and there are no statues. Music is provided by singing in the choir, and walls are decorated with pictures, frescoes and mosaics. The church’s most lavish decor is the iconostasis.