I imagined it something like this: soon after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, some people who had followed Jesus felt compelled to write his biography (the four gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John). They didn't consult with each other, so they each show a slightly different perspective of Jesus. From consulting all four of them, we get a complete picture of Jesus. Not very long after, I imagined, as Jesus' followers formed churches in various cities, they got letters of instruction of Paul and the other apostles. Those letters were to teach them correct theology and holy living. All of those writings were immediately and widely recognized as inspired by God, and the first church leaders saved them and put them together into a collection--the New Testament. That collection of New Testament writings was carefully copied through the years to help preserve it, and eventually translated into English. Sometimes people argue about the best translation, but at least we can go back to the words of God in their original language if there is any dispute in English.
It's a beautiful imagination, isn't it? Unfortunately, it's very far from the truth according to scholars who study the history of the Bible.
I had my first glimpse of this when I was still a teen. I was in the middle of writing a homeschool high school essay called "Why I Believe What I Believe," and one of my points was that the Bible was inspired. I wrote down something like this: "Written over ____ years by ___ authors in different countries and in several languages, the Bible amazingly has no contradictions." Then, I grabbed our family encyclopedia to check exactly how many years and how many authors. True horror suddenly gripped me as I saw words on the page like "disputed author", "written in the second century," and "not settled until the fourth century...". My vision blurred; I slammed the encyclopedia shut. Eventually, I calmed down enough to continue writing, having mentally explained away the data as yet one more humanistic attack on God's obvious truth. But I never managed to feel really confident in my finished essay, especially that one vague sentence in particular that read, "Written over approximately 1500 years by many authors...."
Years later, I was forced to encounter that information again. It was in my New Testament survey class at my evangelical Christian college, which was taught by a leading Christian expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls. This time, the horror happened in slow motion--class after class of unknown authors, late writing dates, and uncertain place in the canon until the fourth century.
It's a great irony in fundamentalist Christianity: putting so much faith in a book but willfully remaining ignorant of how the book got into your hands. It doesn't do any credit to a person's beliefs if those beliefs are too weak to encounter reality.
What is the reality?
The reality is that we don't have any original manuscripts of any books of the Bible. The oldest ones that we have are from hundreds of years after Jesus. Additionally, the oldest manuscripts are extremely fragmentary and sometimes vary from each other significantly on important points.
The reality is that in the first three centuries of Christianity, there were many other Gospels, Acts, and Epistles that various groups of Christians believed had been written by the apostles. Based on those other writings, there was a lot of variety of beliefs among early Christians, and many of those beliefs would be considered extremely heretical today. Eventually one group of early Christians became more powerful and influential than the others, but this was merely because they were connected to Rome and thus connected to the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity in the fourth century.
The reality is that there was no consensus on what books should be included in the collection of the New Testament until over three hundred years after Jesus. In the end, a council of people commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in the year 325 decided what beliefs were correct or "orthodox". AFTER THAT, the writings that most matched their "orthodox" views were unofficially chosen to be part of the New Testament canon.
The reality is that now, based on the past 300 years of study, we know that some of those writings included in the New Testament have false attributions of authorship or false claims of authorship. The Gospels, for example, were not written by the uneducated, illiterate, Aramaic-speaking first disciples of Jesus, but were written down many decades later by more educated Greek-speaking Christians, based on oral tradition. For instance, the first Gospel, Mark, was written in AD 70 or later, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, sometimes even quoting it word for word. (Have you ever noticed that Paul's letters never reference the Gospel writings? It's because they were written after his time.)
The reality is that almost all secular and Christian Biblical scholars know that some of the Pauline epistles in the Bible were in fact later forged in Paul's name. In particular 1&2 Timothy and Titus were certainly not written by Paul; Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians.are heavily contested. Even the letters that were certainly written by Paul have been tampered with in places, and these alternations are part of our modern English versions. For example, the verses in 1 Corinthians 14 ("The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church") were added in later manuscripts, and are not part of the oldest and best manuscripts!
The reality is that there is not uniformity of message in the Bible. If you let each author speak for himself--let each book stand alone as the author intended--then you get very different messages and not simply the traditional Christian message. The "good news" that Jesus preached in the Gospels is different from the "good news" that the apostles preached in Acts, which in turn is different than the "good news" that Paul wrote about.
It's a harsh reality for people like me who grew up viewing the world through the lens of the Bible, being taught to ignore my thoughts and feelings based on the "clear" teachings the Bible contained. But although it is shocking and unsettling at first, it can become very beautiful and so freeing. You can see the world and maybe even see God more clearly when you stop wandering through life with your face buried in a book. Look up--the world is in color; it's not all black and white!
If you are interested in further reading, I recommend perusing Wikipedia to start. If you are ready to hear directly from the Biblical scholars, I recommend two books: "Jesus, Interrupted", written by an ex-fundamentalist agnostic Biblical scholar, and "The Canon of the New Testament", written by a leading Christian Biblical scholar. If you discover other worthwhile books or articles on the topic, please let me know about them as well!