Like hundreds of other Mediterranean religions, Jews believed in a divine realm with superhuman beings, worship with sacrifice of animals and food, and belief in a special holy place where the divine being lives on earth (the Temple in Jerusalem). Unique to Judaism and Christianity were their monotheism (belief in one God) and use of written scriptures (instructions) despite the fact that most people were illiterate—including early Christians who were mostly from the lower classes. Disciples Peter and John are specifically said to be illiterate in Acts 4:13. Christians relied on books read aloud in gatherings for worship.
We don’t have a record of the original Bible. Mostly the oldest copies we have were written centuries later. They differ from each other in thousands of passages because they were copied by hand over centuries. Some changes were accidental, especially because the Greek was written without spaces between the words and with no capitals or punctuation. All early Christian writing was in Greek. Some changes were made to conform to the belief of the scribe, as described later. Scholars try to understand what passages were added by latter writers or ascribed to an apostle like Paul who in fact did not write the letter. For example, the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is only found in John 7:53—not in the other Gospels–but scholars know it was not written by John because it uses a large number of words and phrases he didn’t use.
The earliest Christian writing was Paul’s first letter of instructions to the Thessalonians, 49 CE, about 20 years before Gospel accounts. Twenty-one of these letters by Christian leaders comprise most of the New Testament. We’re familiar with the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but many others were written, including gospels attributed to Philip, Judas Thomas, and Mary Magdalene. Stories of the apostles were written in various books, including the Acts of the Apostles that is part of the New Testament. The first list of the 27 books of the New Testament as THE books didn’t occur until 367 CE, compiled by the bishop of Alexandria named Athanasius, but the debate over which books should be included continued for centuries. Keep in mind the books were copied and recopied by hand with thousands of changes, accidental or intentional.
To be considered “original,” a passage should be found in the best old manuscripts, such as the Alexandrian text copied by careful scribes in Egypt. It should fit the writing style, vocabulary, and theology of an author. The King James Version is based on a 12th century manuscript that is one of the least accurate.
Paul and other apostles taught that Jesus would return soon from heaven to usher in the judgment and the end time, the apocalypse as described in The Apocalypse of John in the New Testament. (Jewish belief in the end times was described in the book of Daniel.) The early Christian communities were “charismatic” with a belief that each member had a gift of the Spirit for teaching, healing, prophecy or what ever. As they realized that the end time might not be soon, they started to write about how to structure their churches.
Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke (he also wrote Acts) used Mark as a source for their stories about Jesus. They modify their source, for example, leaving out accounts of Jesus getting angry (Mark 3:5 and 10:14) to emphasize his compassion. It’s not clear if the doctrine of the Trinity is directly taught in the New Testament or if Jesus knew when the end time was coming.
An example of changes made to fit the beliefs of the scribe was to downplay the role of women in the ministry of Jesus and in the early church. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he mentioned Phebe who is a deacon (or minister) and Paul’s patron helper. He mentions Priscilla before her husband in praise for their leadership, and other “co-workers” such as Tryphaena, Tryphosa, and Persis. Paul calls Junia “foremost among the apostles.” Later scribes changed her name to Junias, although that was not used as a man’s name. Scholars know that 1 Timothy was not written by Paul, but one of his second-generation followers. This is the passage that tells us women must not be allowed to teach men because Eve was created second for the sake of man. This is a long way from Paul’s statement that “in Christ there is . . . not male and female.”
Churches like the Catholics and Latter Day Saints (Mormons) deal with the difficulty of knowing the original meaning of the Bible by believing the Pope or the LDS President receive ongoing revelation from God.