What members need to know before studying the New Testament this year

Tyler Griffin, BYU associate dean of religious eduction, offers insights to the culture, language and setting of the New Testament to help individuals better learn and apply its teachings

As we complete another year of ”Come, Follow Me,” we now shift our focus to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and His apostles in the New Testament. Let’s explore together a few things that will help us better understand this unique scripture and the world in which its events transpired.

The end goal here is not to help everyone become experts in the historical facts surrounding the Bible, but to learn enough about the culture, language and setting of the New Testament to better understand and apply its teachings and doctrines so we can more consistently follow Jesus Christ’s invitation to “come, follow me.”

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The setting and people 

The New Testament is greatly influenced by events that took place in the Old Testament. Additionally, notice how one page separates the Old and New Testaments but represents roughly 400 years of additional history that significantly shaped the world of Jesus and His disciples. During that period, the Greeks and then the Romans conquered the Middle East and introduced their philosophies, language and culture. The New Testament includes various sects and groups that started based on different reactions to those outside influences. 

In this image from Book of Mormon Videos, Christ teaches Nephite disciples. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Some, like the Sadducees, embraced the foreign rulers and were rewarded with political positions of power.

In contrast, the Pharisees went the other direction and became even more strict in their observance of the Law of Moses and the Oral Traditions that had been added to help prevent people from inadvertently breaking the Law.

The Essenes went even further by physically separating themselves from everyone else and living a life of strict self-discipline while abstaining from all physical pleasures.

  • 4% of the 89 chapters in the four Gospels focus on Jesus’ birth and early life up to age 12.
  • 62% of the chapters focus on His three-year ministry.
  • 28% focus on the last week of His life.
  • 6% focus on what happened after His Resurrection.

The Zealots despised the foreign rulers and relentlessly fought to overthrow them.

Rome used tax collectors, called Publicans, some of whom were Jews. These were openly despised by other Jews who saw them as traitors by taking Jewish money to help finance Roman oppression and idol worship.

The Samaritans, living in the lands between Judea and Galilee, were seen as impure by many of the Jews because they were part Israelite and part Gentile and worshipped God differently.

The Gentiles were non-Israelites who were viewed as unclean to the Jews. Strictly observant Jews were prohibited from intermarrying or sharing table fellowship with Gentiles.

  • The Sadducees were largely aristocratic and held control of the temple in Jerusalem. When Jesus cleanses the temple, it is the Sadducees who lost significant revenue that day..
  • The name Pharisees means “separated.” The Pharisees did not usually get along well with the Sadducees. Both groups became united in their efforts to condemn Jesus, however. A few Pharisees of note include Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Saul of Tarsus before his vision.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls were written and stored away by an Essene community at Qumran. These scrolls included scriptural texts that predate the King James Version’s Masoretic texts by about 1,000 years.
  • Matthew, known as Levi before his conversion, was called to be one of the apostles as a Publican. In fact, the call was extended by the Savior as Matthew was “sitting at the receipt of custom” (see Matthew 9:9; Luke 5:27).
  • Some Gentiles of note in the New Testament include the centurion of great faith who asked Jesus to heal his servant/son (Matthew 8:5–13; Luke 7:1–10); the Syro-Phoenician or Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:26; Matthew 15:22); the centurion at the cross of Jesus (Mark 15:39; Matthew 27:54); Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, who was baptized by Peter (Acts 10); Lydia, the first European convert, who was baptized by Paul (Acts 16:14–15); Luke, one of the four Gospel writers; Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2); Chloe (1 Corinthians 1:11); and many other early converts to Christianity from Paul’s missionary efforts. 

The Gospels and Christ’s message

In teaching His gospel, Jesus was not leading people away from Judaism or seeking to destroy the Law of Moses or temple practices of that day. He came to fulfill that law and give His disciples an upgrade to the teachings that had been delivered to Moses and other Old Testament prophets. This higher law is also known as the Law of the Gospel. Early disciples of Christ did not see themselves as abandoning their Jewish roots but rather discovering deeper levels and meaning of those roots. In fact, the first waves of converts to Christianity were all Jewish. Once Peter opened the work among the Gentiles, Paul served various missions throughout Turkey and Greece, bringing both Jewish and Gentile converts into the Church. 

The 27 books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, even though the Jews mainly spoke Aramaic. Matthew, Mark and Luke share many common elements, so they are often referred to as the “synoptics,” meaning “to see similar things.” Most of their stories and teachings take place up north, in the Galilean region. John’s Gospel, on the other hand, is over 90% unique. He focuses largely on Jesus’ ministry in and around Jerusalem. The fact that the four Gospels each give us slightly or drastic differing viewpoints on the life and ministry of Christ is a blessing. Each was written to a different audience to convince them of Jesus Christ’s divinity. 

Mark was likely written first. It is the shortest and fastest-paced Gospel. He focuses more on the actions of the Savior and less on His words.

Matthew seems to be writing to a mostly Jewish audience, trying to help it see how Jesus fulfills all the Old Testament prophecies and expectations for their coming Messiah. He focuses more attention than the other synoptics on Jesus’ sermons and speeches.

Luke is a Gentile convert who gathers information from a variety of people and other written sources to compile two books: his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. As a servant physician, Luke pays more attention to suffering and healing, to the outcasts or overlooked, and to women and children. He maintains a balance between stories involving men and women.

John gives us a close-up view of the Savior’s interactions and teachings. John’s Gospel is written to show Jesus’ divinity, power and unique oneness with the Father. John opens his Gospel with a premortal perspective of Christ’s identity and godhood. His Gospel contains no parables but rather emphasizes the Savior’s identity through seven “I Am” statements as well as alluding to His eternal identity as Yahweh (see John 8:58).

In this Bible Videos image, Christ’s apostles listen to Him teach. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The four Gospels were not written as biographies. They don’t give us any details about the life of Christ from around age 12 until about age 30. A good portion of the Gospels is focused on the final week of His life, but none more than John. One-third of John’s chapters are focused on the final hours, beginning in the Upper Room through the Crucifixion the next morning. 


As we embark on this New Testament year, we have more resources and tools to help us find deeper meaning and understanding than ever before. The Lord Jesus Christ is inviting us to “come unto [Him]” and “learn of [Him]” with the promise that we will “find rest unto [our] souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).

  • See for Greek word definitions, usages and various translations throughout the New Testament.
  • See for comparisons between the King James Translation and a couple of dozen other English translations that are made from other manuscript families of the New Testament.
  • See for an exhaustive list of every time each verse of scripture has been used in general conference.
  • See to explore additional Greek translations for every word and get additional interpretations on the verses you are studying.
  • See Gaye Strathearn and Frank Judd, “The Distinctive Testimonies of the Four Gospels,” Religious Educator, Vol. 8, No. 2 (2007). .

— Tyler Griffin is a Brigham Young University associate dean of religious education.

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