Call it Apologetics Wednesday, but I thought perhaps I'd briefly treat questions of the accuracy of the Bible (here, the New Testament).
1. How can we know that the original books of the New Testament were anything like what we have in our Bibles today?
When examining the authenticity of an ancient text, it's rare that the original texts still exist. Thus, historians rely on more indirect methods of establishing authenticity, like how many copies of the text exist, and how close the earliest copy is to the original writing.
Compare to two texts of antiquity, Homer's Iliad and the Bible:
Iliad - 643 existing copies; 900 years from original.
Bible - 24,970 existing copies (5,000 of the New Testament); 200 years from original.
In reality, few ancient manuscripts are as well-documented as even the Iliad. Many have only a handful of copies existing (5 to 10) and the earliest copies are dated 1,300 years or more after the original writings.
2. What about the "other" gospels?
There's some 80 or more supposed "gospels" that exist apart from the four in the New Testament. History shows us that Christians in the early centuries of the church believed a wide variety of doctrines that are rejected today by most Christian denominations.
It's important to remember first that the other gospels have late dates - 100 years or more after Christ. Comparatively, most Biblical scholars agree the original New Testament books were written within 65 years after Christ's resurrection.
Also, a majority of those gospels belie a "Gnostic" doctrine. Gnosticism was the chief heresy the early church battled against. As early as 110 A.D., we have church fathers quoting from the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), as well as some of Paul's letters and the book of Hebrews. These quotations indicate they considered those books to be Scripture. These books contain the foundations for the vast majority of Christian doctrinal beliefs, especially Christ's purpose, divinity and resurrection.
3. What about "disputed readings" of the New Testament?
There are parts of the New Testament (esp. the gospels) where the original text is not certain. Evidence of later "editing" has brought into question the original text - what it said or whether it was ever there. A couple points to remember:
i. A disputed reading usually consists of two potential renderings
ii. In no case do disputed or missing readings affect any significant Christian doctrine.
4. What about contradictions?
Contradictions typically arise from misinterpretation. Below is a list of 15 basic principles to consider when interpreting the Biblical text:
1. The unexplained is not necessarily unexplainableThere's much more. Most of what I have stated here can be found in Josh McDowell's book, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict
2. Fallible interpretations do not mean fallible revelation
3. Understand the context of the passage
4. Interpret difficult passages in light of clear ones
5. Don't base teaching on obscure passages
6. The Bible is a human book with human characteristics
7. Just becase a report is incomplete does not mean it is false
8. New Testament citations of the Old Testament need not always be exact
9. The Bible does not necessarily approve of all it records
10. The Bible uses non-technical, everyday language
11. The Bible may use round numbers as well as exact numbers
12. Note when the Bible uses different literary devices
13. An error in a copy does not equate to an error in the original
14. General statements don't necessarily mean universal promises
15. Later revelation supercedes previous revelation