This is in response to the blog post by Razteca.  I’m gonna try to answer some of the questions you have. I have a book called The Case for Christ that kind of goes through some of these questions. I’ve pretty much paraphrased most of it, unless otherwise noted.

First, let’s start with the earliest copies of the new testament. The book says, the standard scholarly dating is in the 70 years after the ressurection for Mark, in the 80s for Matthew and Luke, and the 90s for John, but that’s still within the lifetimes of various eyewitnesses of the life of jesus, including hostile eyewitnesses who would have served as a corrective if false teachings about Jesus were going around. In comparison, the earliest biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than four hundred years after Alexander’s death in 323bc, yet they are considered to be generally trustworthy. He also says it’s arguable to say that the gospels were written even as soon as two years after Jesus’s ressurection.

About the reliability of our copies today, we have copies commencing within a couple of generations from the writting of the originals, whereas in the case of other ancient texts, maybe five, eight or ten centuries elapsed between the original and the earliest surviving copy. There are more than 5 thousand greek manuscrips in existence today, and thousands more in other early languages. In all, there are about 24,000 manuscripts in existence. Next to the New Testament, the greatest amount of manuscript testimony is of Homer’s Iliad, which was the bible of the ancient greeks. There are fewer than 650 Greek manuscripts of it today. They come down from the second and thrid century AD and following. When you consider that Homer composed his epic about 800bc, you can see there is a thousand year gap. And of course, those aren’t questioned as harshly as the new testament.

Even though there are like tens of thousands of variations among the ancient manuscipts, most of those are very minor things, like spelling or the positions of words in a sentence. In Greek that doesn’t matter because the meaning is the same. The way the variants are counted is misleading, too, because if a single word is misspelled in two thousand manuscripts, that is counted as two thousand variants. Scholars William Nix and Norman Geisler conclude, “The New Testament, then, has not only survived in more manuscripts than any other book from antiquity, but it has survived in a purer form than any other great book- a form that is 99.5 percent pure.”

The early church had three basic criteria in determining which books got put in the new testament. First, the books must have apostolic authoriy- that is, they must have been written either by apostles themselves, who were eyewitnesses to what they wrote about, or by followers of apostles. Second, there was the criterion of conformity to what was called the rule of faith. That is, was the document congruent with the basic Christian tradition that the church recognized as normative? And third, there was the criterion of whethter a document had had continuous accpetance and usage by the church at large. What’s remarkable is that even though the fringes of the canon remained unsettled for a while, there was actually a high degree of unanimity concerning the greater part of the New Testament within the first two centuries. The other documents are written later than the four gospels, in the second, third, fourth, fifth, even sixth century, long after Jesus, and they’re generally quite banal. They carry names-like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary- that are unrelated to their real authorship. On the other hand, the four gospels were readily accepted with remarkable unanimity as being authentic in the story they told.

About the Gospel of Thomas: It is not right to say that the Gospel of Thomas was excluded by some fiat on the part of a council; the right way to put it is, the Gospel of Thomas excluded itself! It did not harmonize with other testimony about Jesus that early Christians accepted as trustworthy. When the pronouncement was made about the canon, it merely ratified what the general sensitivity of the church had already determined. You see, the canon is a list of authoritative books more than it is an authoritative list of books. These documents didn’t derive their authority from being selected; each one was authoritative before anyone gathered them together. The early church merely listened and sensed that these were authoritative accounts. Some of the new testament books, like James, Hebrews and Revelation were more slowly accepted into the canon than others. This just shows that the early church was careful in adding books to the canon. It shows deliberation and careful analysis. Most of the other documents claiming a right to be in the canon were too far removed from Jesus’ ministry, having been written as late as the fifth and sixth centuries, and their often mythical qualities disqualify them from being historically credible.

I think the Bible, the Word of God, hasn’t changed over the many years as evidenced by what is written above. What changes are people, and people’s interpretations of what the Bible says and how it applies. That’s why you have to be careful with what people claim the Bible says, or is Bible-based. The good news is that there are SO MANY ways you can check the Bible yourself, and so few errors in the different versions, you’re bound to find a good answer.

About the Spanish Inquisition: I guess that just falls under the people suck category. *shrugs*