What is the Old Testament and the New Testament? What is the difference between the two?

Last updated on June 1, 2022

Old Testament - New Testament - difference

The Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT) are two parts of God’s holy Word, the Bible. Although the Old Testament is called “old”, that doesn’t mean it is out-dated or irrelevant. And even the New Testament is already about 2000 years old… This article explains the contents and differences in the Old and New Testament.

Short overview

Old Testament - New Testament - difference - overview

In English, the word “testament” mostly refers to a legal document that describes how someone’s earthly possessions should be dispensed after their death. The Bible uses the word “testament” in this way as well (see Hebrews 9:16–17), but only rarely. Most of the time, the meaning is different.

What does the word “testament” mean?

In the Bible, the word “testament” most often refers to a covenant, which is a commitment between two parties, or a dispensation, which we could define as major epochs of time in which God has interacted with humanity in different ways.

What do the words “Old Testament” and “New Testament” mean?

The Old and New Testaments are the two major divisions of the Bible. The Old Testament contains all the books written during the first dispensation, so, during the time of God’s covenant agreement with humanity in general (see Genesis 9:8-10; 17:3-8) and with the people of Israel in particular, in which the law played an important role (see Exodus 24:8; 34:10).

The New Testament describes a new dispensation, where God made a new agreement with man on the basis of the salvation work of Jesus Christ. This new covenant had already been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 8:6-8). (We are in the process of writing a more detailed explanation of the meaning of Biblical covenants; this article will be published soon.)

For the rest of this article, we’ll discuss in more detail:

  1. The Old Testament
  2. The New Testament
  3. The relationship between the two Testaments

The Old Testament

What is the outline of the Old Testament?

The Old Testament consists of 39 separate books (some of which belong together as “part 1” and “part 2” of a longer book). These books can be divided into three major genres:

  • Historical books: starting from creation and mainly focusing on the history of the people of Israel and God’s dealing with them.
  • Poetic books or writings: songs, proverbs and poems.
  • Prophetic books: messages of God, mainly to the people of Israel.

For an overview of all Old Testament Bible books, see “What are the Old Testament Bible books about?” If you want to know why (only) these 39 books were included in the Old Testament, read “Who decided which books to include in the Bible?

What is the message of the Old Testament?
The Old Testament starts with how God created heaven and earth by breathing life into existence (Genesis 1-2). It tells us how the first human couple failed to obey even a simple command and how this disobedience has deeply affected all of creation but most of all the relationship between God and man (Genesis 3). But God took steps to open up the way back to Him by promising a Savior. This was as early as Genesis 3:15, right after the first sin. He promised that the power of Satan would be crushed by the offspring of Eve. This offspring refers to Jesus. The scarlet thread weaving through the Old Testament is the eager expectation of the promised Messiah.

The people of Israel as God’s people
God chose one man, Abraham, to become the father of a new nation, Israel; and He promised Abraham that through his offspring, all the families of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). At one point, Abraham’s descendants lived in Egypt for four hundred years and were treated as slaves (Exodus 1). God then raised up a leader, Moses, who led them out of Egypt to the promised land (Exodus 13: 17-22). God gave His law to the people (Exodus 20) and entered into a covenant with them (Exodus 34:10; 34:27): He would be their God, and they would be His people, and they were required to obey Him.

God’s faithfulness versus Israel’s disobedience

Once in the promised land, the Israelites were quick to forget God and often worshiped other gods. They also wanted their own king, even though this was against God’s will (1 Samuel 8:7). However, their second king, David, became legendary and was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Jesus would be born from his tribe; He would be a descendant of this great king (Luke 3:31).

The Old Testament also contains many prophetic writings and historical accounts about the period after king David, when the people of Israel abandoned God over and over again, and were finally sent into exile. Nevertheless, God did not abandon His people. The Old Testament looks forward to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah who would rescue his people and restore their relationship with God.

Who wrote the Old Testament?

The Old Testament has been written over a period of about 1000 years by various human authors. They mainly wrote in Hebrew, with some portions in Aramaic. The first five Bible books have largely been written by Moses, who was adopted as an Egyptian prince but called by God as Israel’s political and spiritual leader. Of later historical books, we mostly don’t know who wrote them. The prophetic books record the words and experiences of Israelite prophets, but were not always literally written by the named prophet. The book of Jeremiah, for example, mentions the use of a scribe. The book of Psalms consists of songs by various writers, such as David, the sons of Korah, and Asaph. The books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs are traditionally attributed to King Solomon.

The fact that we don’t know the author of every single Bible book is not really a problem, since we believe that these human authors were guided by God’s Spirit to write these books. The authority of the books does not depend on their human authors, but on their ultimate Author – the Lord God.

When was the Old Testament written or put together?

Moses, the author of the first five Bible books, lived +/- 1400 BC and recorded oral and possibly also written accounts about the period ranging from creation till his own day. The later books developed over the centuries. The last books of the Old Testament were written and/or edited after Israel’s return from exile, about 400 BC.

Why is the Old Testament important?

Even though the Old Testament Bible books were written thousands of years ago, they are still important and relevant for present day believers. These books have been collected and preserved over the centuries since people believe that they are more than just human books; they have been inspired by the Lord Godthey have been inspired by the Lord God and are holy and infallible. Therefore the Old Testament, just like the New Testament, is called “the Word of God”. Through these books, the Lord reveals Himself to humanity. Both the stories about His dealing with man and the prophetic books containing His messages to people, teach us a lot about God and about His will for our lives.

These truths are timeless. But as God’s salvation plan unfolds through history, things do change. With Jesus’ coming, the new covenant has come with Jesus as our ultimate High Priest and King. This has implications for the relevance and application of Old Testament laws about sacrifices and priesthood, to name just one important aspect. As Hebrews 7:12 explains, “when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” Which parts of the Bible apply today and how they apply, is discussed in more detail in our articles “Do Christians have to keep the Old Testament law?” and “What parts of the Bible apply today?”.

Who believes in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament is the first part of the Christian Bible. But the Jews also value these Scriptures as the Word of God. So, the Old Testament Bible books are considered holy by both the Jewish and the Christian religion. Some Old Testament stories are also found in the Quran, but Muslims do not accept the Old Testament as the holy and infallible Word of God. For more information, read our article “Is it true that the Old Testament books of the Bible are in the Quran?

The time between the Old and the New Testament

As previously mentioned, the last book in the Old Testament was written about 400 BC. The New Testament starts with the announcement of Jesus’ birth about 4 BC[1] and the preaching of John the Baptist about 25 AD. There was no prophetic word from God during the period in between.

So, what happened in these 400 years? Has anything been written about that period? Yes, in the books of Maccabees. But these stories are not included in the canon, which means they are not considered divinely inspired and authoritative Scripture. These books are called deuterocanonica or apocrypha, and are not included in most Bibles, or they are included with a remark that these are not part of God’s Word like the 66 books of the Old and the New Testament.

The New Testament

What is the outline of the New Testament?

The New Testament consists of 27 books.

  • It starts with four gospels. These books narrate Jesus’ birth and His life on earth. They describe Jesus’ teaching and many miracles He did. They especially focus on the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection, since these are of central importance.
  • Then follows the book Acts, which relates the history of the early church.
  • This book is followed by letters or epistles from Paul and other apostles to newly planted churches and to individuals, in which the person of Jesus is put in the limelight again and again.
  • The New Testament concludes with Revelation, a book full of prophecies and culminating in the description of the new earth and heaven that God promises to create (Revelation 21-22).

For an overview of all New Testament Bible books and a summary of their content, see “What are the New Testament Bible books about?” If you want to know why (only) these 27 books were included in the New Testament, read “Who decided which books to include in the Bible?

What is the message of the New Testament?

The New Testament is all about Jesus and the new covenant. The stories in the Old Testament make abundantly clear that people are not able to keep God’s laws. They break the covenant over and over again. Therefore, God the Father sent His only Son to deal with the problem of sin once for all. Jesus came to take away sin and to reconcile man with God. It does not matter whether one belongs to the people of Israel or not; all are one in Christ. It is through faith that one is saved from eternal death – because of grace that God showers on us through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8).

The New Testament records a lot of the teaching of Jesus. The letters contain a lot of teaching as well on the meaning of Jesus’ salvation work, how to live as a Christian, and what to expect in the future. It tells us that God’s Kingdom has already come for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord, and that it will be completed at the end of time when God will finally destroy evil and create new heavens and a new earth where all believers, from Old Testament times and after Jesus’ coming, will join in worship.

Who wrote the New Testament?

The first four books of the New Testament are named after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Matthew and John belonged to Jesus’ inner circle of disciples and thus were eye witnesses of Jesus’ ministry themselves. Mark was a close friend or pupil of the apostle Peter (who was an eye witness) and Luke was a companion of the apostle Paul. In the introduction to his book, Luke writes:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-3).

The book of Acts has also been written by Luke. The apostle Paul wrote 13 epistles and possibly also the book of Hebrews. Besides his gospel, the apostle John wrote three epistles and the book of Revelation. The remaining letters are named after their authors: Peter, Jude and James. These men were either disciples or brothers of Jesus.

When was the New Testament written?

Jesus died and rose +/- 30 AD. The first gospel was probably written about late AD 60’s or early AD 70’s, and the last one was completed around 100 AD. For more detailed information on this topic, see “When were the four gospels written?“. The epistles were written in the first century as well, by contemporaries of Jesus.

Why is the New Testament important?

This question can be answered by quoting some Bible verses. Luke and John express their goal of writing: their gospels have been written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31) and “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

Why is this so crucial? Because we humans are naturally alienated from God and subjected to death. The only way to be saved and have eternal life is: “that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). So, the gospels tell us the only way towards true life and happiness. The rest of the New Testament explains and applies this. This is authoritative Scripture for believers from all time, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Who believes in the New Testament?

The New Testament is an exclusively Christian book. No other religion recognizes it.

The relationship between the Old and the New Testament

The Old and the New Testament are “part 1” and “part 2” of the ongoing story about God’s dealing with man. In all their diversity, they are a literary unity. They progressively reveal God’s plan of salvation. Even though the new covenant in Jesus was radically new, it was firmly rooted in the older covenants.

The New Testament builds upon the Old Testament

The Bible writers in the New Testament (with the possible exception of Luke) were all Jews who knew the Holy Scriptures. This is demonstrated by their numerous references to Old Testament prophecies and practices. Sometimes they quote verses, but more frequently they allude to passages and stories. Scholars count up to 4,000 such references. These quotations come from all kinds of Old Testament books, ranging from Psalms, prophetic books such as Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah, to history books such as Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.

The New Testament fulfills the Old Testament

The Old Testament looks forward to coming of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord. Jesus says it points to Him: “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). By mentioning the three major sections of the Old Testament, Jesus says that all Scripture that was available by then, was actually about Him.

It was not His mission to abandon or replace the Old Testament, but to fulfill it: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The gospel of Matthew in particular draws our attention to many prophecies that came true in Jesus – for some examples, see “What Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ?” and “What Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled in Jesus’ suffering and death?”. But the “fulfillment” goes further than specific promises about Jesus’ place of birth and so; He Himself is the embodiment of God’s salvation plan. He is the promised Messiah.

Conclusion

The Old and New Testament are the two parts of the Bible, God’s message for humanity. Together, these books reveal everything we need to know about God! I strongly recommend reading the Bible regularly. If you don’t know where to start, here is some advice. For a helpful introduction on every single Bible book, I also recommend our five Read Scripture courses. These can help you grow in your knowledge and understanding of both the Old and the New Testament.

[1] Intuitively, one would think that Jesus’ birth year should be AD 1. After all, AD stands for Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord”. However, this system of BC and AD was set up centuries after Jesus’ birth and the monks the framed the calendar probably made some miscalculations.

Share post