- Brian Chilcote
Time, Text and Translation: A (very) Brief Biography of the New Testament
Updated: Feb 20
It's around 40 CE. Stories and sayings of Jesus are circulating around Jerusalem, other nearby urban centers and Galilee. A novel Jewish sect has begun to form under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus and the small group of self-identified apostles. They engage in the traditional Jewish ways of understanding the work of Yahweh in their midst: remembering and debating what was said and done by the man they think might have been a prophet, or possibly a Messiah. Many expect the apocalyptic Day of the Lord as described in Isaiah to dawn at any moment. Others are starting to take a longer view, wondering if these new clusters of Messianists might benefit from writing down their own versions of the story.
These were Jews in good standing, who would have observed the laws and customs that identified them as such, like household purity rules, circumcision and keeping the Sabbath. We don't have much reliable historical data on this phase of church growth, aside from the New Testament book of Acts which of course is an "insider" document that may tend to idealize or dramatize the events it records. Acts was most likely penned much later in the century; scholars put its composition date to around 80 CE, at least fifty years later.
In the meantime, rumor had it that this Paul of Tarsus fellow was opening the door to foreigners- gentiles- who could enjoy the benefits righteousness without circumcision. A novel mixture of Jewish and Hellenistic ideas about metaphysics, cosmology, God and the gods, worship, politics and the nature of truth was brewing in the years just after Jesus.
Once the "Christian" sect's ideas penetrated more elite social circles, they reached the ears of some who had the training and ability to write it down, preserving it with papyrus and ink. Many new adherents were cut from common cloth; illiterate but far from dull. Connections were made with some in the elite levels of society as evidenced in Acts and in Paul's own texts, and somewhere along the line it made sense to produce and copy documentation of the story to propagate and nurture this new way of interpreting the recent events in Jerusalem. A written text made it much easier to communicate over long distances while maintaining some consistency in the core ideas. It also lent an air of respectability to the mostly Jewish movement which had always emphasized the importance of written texts as connections to ancient cultural wisdom. These traditions could be recited, listened to and debated apart from face-to-face contact with the famous eyewitnesses.
Some groups may have had access to one papyrus scroll. Others had a few more- we don't really know. Beside Paul's circulated letters, the first scrolls to appear in places that had access to the resources required to read, copy and store papyrus scrolls could well have been texts lost to history, one or two apocryphal works like Sirach or 1 Esdras and possibly Mark's gospel. The codex (a book with covers and bound pages) became popular starting in the first and second centuries possibly because they traveled better and made it easier to locate specific portions of text.
None of the four gospels were first to be written and circulated. That honor goes to some of Paul's writings which careful study shows probably influenced some of the ideas found in the gospels. If one were to read the texts in order, 1 Thessalonians or James would be first, and the earliest gospel, Mark does not appear for another fifteen years. Here's a list of what the current scholarly consensus indicates about the original dates of the books found in our New Testament:
James- either 45 CE or if it wasn't actually written by Jesus's brother, a late date of 80-120 Even so, it likely reflects what was important to the earliest form of the Jewish-Christian group in Jerusalem.
Paul probably wrote these letters between 45 and 65 CE, before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE:
Hebrews- sometime between 60 and 115 CE by an unknown author attempting to justify a break with traditional Judaism
Mark's Gospel- 64-72 CE - Overlaps the tail end of Paul's activity
Revelation- 70-100 CE, likely started circulating right after the Romans destroy Jerusalem
Matthew, Luke-Acts and John appear between 85 and 110 CE
Remember, we don't have the originals of any of these texts. Far from it- the time between the events recorded in these texts and our earliest physical copy of a copy of copy, etc. was easily 100 years. That's like reading a handwritten note about the sinking of the Titanic, re-copied an unknown number of times on fragile scraps of papyrus.
P90 as it's known, was found in a trash heap at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt along with a hoard of other ancient texts. Our best guess at a date is simply "second century." By 100 CE, P90 tells us that at least a few verses of John's gospel had made it halfway up the Nile and into a trash dump. Was there a community of Messianic Jews living there? We don't know, but it's the oldest evidence of written material that unequivocally shows biblical content.
There was also a fragment of Matthew found at Oxyrhynchus. It's likely that when an papyrus section wore out from weekly liturgical use, they hired a scribe to make a new copy, sew it into place and trash the old tattered one. You can imagine with weekly use- rolling and unrolling- the plant fibers would simply break, holes would form, and replacement was needed. If it was in codex form, the same wear and tear would take its toll.
Only a few people- maybe ten percent- could read at the time, so the primary means of access to these writings was hearing it read to a group. We don't know if they sat for a two-hour session of listening to a gospel or broke it up into shorter sections for discussion and debate.
These processes went on for hundreds of years before parchment and codices (books with pages) replaced the scroll. We know of only eleven Greek-language papyrus manuscript fragments from the second century which include Titus, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, John, Matthew and other texts. *
How do we know how old these fragments are? Paleography is a field of study of just such things. Studying similarities in handwriting styles, inks, papyrus and parchment manufacture, and other factors that overlap with archaeology, like noting data that can be ascertained from where a text was located when buried or concealed, and the content of the text itself. Finding a date written in a document is extremely rare, but less rare is the record of an event recorded in the text that can be cross referenced with other records. For example, if the martyrdom of a certain person is recorded along with mention of a certain governmental official, we can safely conclude that it was written after that event, giving it a terminus post quem, or earliest possible date.
From papyrus scrolls to papyrus codices (books) in the 200's CE to parchment codices in the 300's, writing technologies progressed slowly. Specialists have even found fragments of biblical texts on broken pieces of pottery- the cheapest and most ready-to-hand of surfaces on which to write something down. One might find in a wealthy man of leisure's library papyrus codices alongside finely crafted parchment codices with leather bindings up through the 600's CE. Mass production of texts on paper had to wait until Johannes Gutenberg perfected the printing press in 1450.
From BibleGateway's Encyclopedia of the Bible:
"When the books of the NT were first written, they were largely “private” works rather than “literature” in the ordinary sense. This was especially true of most of the NT epistles, which were simply correspondence between individuals and groups. Even the gospels were written for a purpose that was different from that of ordinary literature. When a book of the NT was copied in this very earliest period, therefore, it was generally copied privately for personal use rather than by a professional scribe. Furthermore, since the message of the book or letter was the important thing, a person making such a copy of a NT book might not necessarily feel obligated to strictly duplicate the word order or details that did not affect the sense. In the case of the narrative books, moreover, the earliest copyists apparently sometimes felt free to add small details of information."**
We also know from sources that describe the volatile political situation in Palestine around 70 CE, that it wasn't in the church's best interest to widely publish, limiting their ability to compare and contrast the scrolls they kept. Verbal precision was not high on the list of priorities when producing texts like these, similar to the freedom the ancient bards felt when reciting the songs of Homer. They would routinely insert names or places pertinent to their audience to gain rapport, akin to what modern musical artists might do when they visit a city and insert its name in their songs.
Evidence also shows a high number of very different interpretations of the stories of Jesus as reflected in the wide variety of movements, "schools," and definable groups around the Mediterranean. From Ebionites to Mandaeans to Valentinians, and probably many more who left no records, these groups were not bound by a common orthodoxy by any means. Some even had their own versions of scriptures, borrowing from Gnosticism and mixtures of Judaism and Hellenistic mystery religions.
Did people know that they were writing scripture on the same level as the Torah or the Prophets? So far, we have no evidence of that, but we do know that ancient conceptions of the act of writing and circulating texts does not match our own. We are accustomed to a long tradition of seeing the Bible as a finalized, closed canon called the "Holy Bible." Changing, adding or subtracting to the canon sounds like insanity to us, but not to the original Jesus movements. The Jewish canon, aside from the Torah, was still fluid in the first century, so it's not much of a leap to suppose that they regarded their texts at a high level of spiritual importance.
Now let us focus on the origins of our English Bible by tracking down the "uncial" (uhn-shee-uhl) manuscripts. The term refers to a handwriting style that was used for copying literary works, as opposed to letters, business documents, and other messages which employed a more "cursive" style. Paul's originals were likely penned in the cursive style, but the most important and earliest Greek manuscripts containing large portions of New and Old Testament writings were copied in uncial form- all uppercase Greek letters with no spacing or punctuation. We'll never know how many of these were produced, or by whom and in most cases, what they were copied from.
The Codex Sinaiticus contains a complete set of Old and New Testament books, plus the additional Jewish scriptures 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, 1 & 4 Maccabees and The Wisdom and Sirach. The New Testament is all present and accounted for (although in a slightly different order), plus The Epistle of Barnabas and The Shepherd of Hermas. It comes to us from the 4th century- around 350 CE, well over 300 years from the first gatherings of Jewish-Christian groups in Jerusalem. It was discovered in the monastery of St. Catherine, built on the legendary site of Moses' encounter with the burning bush on Mt. Sinai (thus the name Sinaiticus) by order of Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 530 CE.
As historians trace differences between the many manuscripts we have, they have proven to be highly consistent. However, we still have a notable gap between likely composition dates and the time they first appear in a manuscript. Sometimes, all we have to go on is a reference or a short quotation by an early writer that shows that texts were being produced and circulated, but there is no direct evidence of their content until the fourth century.
An interesting rabbit hole to explore is the role textual criticism plays in producing accurate modern versions of the New Testament. Does your Bible contains Matthew 17:21? If not, it's because the publisher agreed with the consensus that it was added later by a scribe. You can see it in the Codex Sinaiticus. See this short four and a half minute video by Dan McClellan on Scribal Glosses
Our New Testament is eclectic- translated and compiled from many different source manuscripts. It’s a reconstruction, meaning that some imagination was used at various times during the long journey from scroll to page. To help put this in perspective, consider Abraham Lincoln. More than 150 years ago, he lived, governed and died. Since then, a huge range of articles, multi-volume books, movies, TV shows and more have saturated our cultural library so that scholars and non-scholars alike feel entitled to speak with authority on the minutia of his life and times. But do we really know Abraham Lincoln? We know a lot, but not everything. He didn't write a memoir. Our sources are a patchwork of different authors, writing for different audiences and reasons.
Now imagine researching Abraham Lincoln if there were NO written documents about him until around 1960. Perhaps you might rely on the stories told by both enemies and fans, and a few handwritten clues. Someone who attended the Gettysburg Address could possibly recount what was said, but without the five extant copies in Lincoln's handwriting, we'd have to trust his or her long term memory. The last Civil War veteran died in 1956.
We tend to forget our assumptions about the Bible, having placed it in a special category of literature: sacred scripture. Given an immutable and perfect God who must have superintended and inspired the process of transmitting written texts down through centuries of changing languages and cultures, it's logical to then assume that the Bible must be error free and precise in its description of words and events from long ago. Otherwise, how would we know the truth about this God?
This view is unique to our modern conception of the Bible. From plentiful evidence, we are reasonably certain that the idea of isolating a selection of approved texts was not considered until the rise of second century bishops who insisted on unifying the church by building walls between orthodoxy and heresy. More on that later.
Historical data must be qualified by probabilities and likelihoods. It's possible to get reasonably close to reconstructing the who, what, when, why and how of past events, but far from an exact science. That's true for any recollection of the past, from asserting that I had pancakes for breakfast to using available evidence to show that Americans landed on the moon. Having the cake of a historically grounded faith and eating it too by claiming it was supernaturally preserved is a real paradox for Christian apologists.
Notable gaps in the historical record aside, we have nine codices, of which three are the most important sources for our modern English Bibles. Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus (dating from the 300's CE), and Codex Alexandrinus from the 400's CE are the earliest and best Greek language versions we have. Most of our modern English translations derive from these sources. There are historical translations into Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic- the common language of Palestine in Jesus' day), Latin, Coptic (Egyptian languages), Gothic, Armenian, and other languages that help us reconstruct how translators made decisions about the meanings of the earlier Greek texts.
One way to track down the best possible old manuscripts is to analyze variant readings. As a document moves through time and the hand copying process, inevitable mistakes occur which results in differences between them. Determining when variations first appear, and observing how they are repeated or corrected adds accuracy to the study of the journey these works have taken. Some examples of variant readings are as follows:
Unintentional Variants: confusing letter pairs, mistaking one Greek letter for another, and other mistakes that arise from visually shifting from the written page to the page you are working on. Sometimes, entire lines are skipped because the copyist lost his place. Sometimes similarly shaped words are confused, for example CURRANT and CURRENT. A quick glance and you might copy the wrong word. This was especially problematic for copyists who didn't understand the Greek language and were simply copying upper case Greek letters as quickly as possible.
Sometimes copies would be made by a reader sounding out the letters or words that were then written down by scribing monks. Misspellings and changed words from listening mistakes were common in the copies. As we can all attest, without spell check, we can easily add or omit letters which may change the word completely. One example is from 1 Thessalonians chapter 2: "We became infants" is very close to "We became gentle." the words for infant and gentle look like this: νήπιοι ( nepioi- infants) and ἤπιοι (hepioi- gentle).
By comparing large numbers of different manuscripts, most from the middle ages, we also find judgement errors. Copyists might include marginal notes thinking they are part of the actual text. Some examples are:
Adding liturgical phrases that complete a homiletical purpose. In Matthew 6:13, the phrase "...for yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen." is found in later manuscripts and included in the King James Version, and added as a footnote in many other modern English versions.
In Mark 1:2, the earlier texts rendered the Greek as "Isaiah the prophet." in later texts, Isaiah was dropped in favor of "the prophets," since the first half of the quotation was actually from Malachi. Most modern Bibles keep the reference to Isaiah out of faithfulness to the earliest renditions.
None of these variants make a theological impact on the core message of any New Testament books, but that cannot be said for the very first few generations of these texts, which are lost to us. Historical likelihood tells us that there was probably a lot of experimentation going on with the sayings and stories of Jesus.***
Next, we pick up the project with the Muratorian Canon. Published in 1740 it turned out to be a seventh century Latin list of books making up the New Testament. It was found to have a tantalizing line that mentions Bishop Pius of Rome whose term dates to 140-155 CE. That means it was originally composed in Greek and somewhere along the way translated into Latin for use in the church.
As the centuries rolled on and the church grew, so did opposing ideas about what writings belonged in a common set that all churches could agree on. A truly wide variety of texts were in circulation (in the form of scrolls and codices among those who could afford them). To this day, the Catholic church and many Synagogues read from ancient writings that didn't make the official canon affirmed by Protestants; books like The Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, and 1 and 2 Maccabees.
Early church patriarchs battled for their interpretation of which books belonged in church libraries and which did not. Marcion of Sinope in Asia Minor argued in the 150's CE that unity and truth in the increasingly gentile church depended on a single set of writings upon which faith and practice could rest. He championed a complete rejection of all Jewish scriptures, replacing them with one gospel (Luke) and all of Paul's letters. That's it. That started a long march toward an "approved" list of Christian scriptures.
What Marcion started, other church leaders took much further.
Irenaeus in his writings circa 185 CE, quotes from 22 books he considered authoritative. All four gospels, Paul's letters, 1 John, 1 Peter, Revelation and The Shepherd of Hermas.
Origen of Alexandria put his stamp of approval on all the books in the modern canon except James, 2 Peter and 2 and 3 John. He agreed with Irenaeus on the Shepherd of Hermas and included it.
Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea wrote his famous history of the Church in 325 CE. In it, he describes a list in three categories: accepted, disputed and rejected. In the first category are all 20 works cited by Irenaeus. Revelation appears in both the accepted and rejected categories. Why he didn't simply place it in "disputed" is a mystery.
One interesting note on the criteria used to gauge a book's fitness for a canon bears mention. The ideas of inerrancy and inspiration did not matter to those involved in the debate. Since all Christians are indwelt with the Holy Spirit, the reasoning went, it did nothing to distinguish one text from another; they all were composed by authors who were in Christ. The one book that actually does claim to be inspired by God is Revelation, which was continually in jeopardy of rejection.
Here we encounter another one of those annoying blanks in our story. We don't know much about the what happened in the time period between Eusebius and our next leader, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria.
Athanasius published a list of 27 New Testament books in the year 367, the very same list we have in our English Bibles today. In the interim, the Council of Nicaea debated questions brought by one Arius of Cyrenaica (Libya) on the nature of Christ (was he both human and divine? And if so, how do we explain it?), pinning down the dates of Easter, responding to a splinter group in Egypt, and various matters of church polity, e.g., what to do with readmitting lapsed or formerly heretical church members. The canon was not on the agenda.
From there, the canon we're familiar with has continued to undergo debate and disagreement. Roman Catholics did not firm up their canon until 1546 at the Council of Trent, and even then it did not pass by majority vote. The Eastern Orthodox branch of Christendom continues to use books the west has long ignored as rejected and uninspired.
After that long history, we reach a relatively stable period through the European Middle Ages and the Enlightenment, as Protestantism settled on a version of the Bible that depended on older Greek and Latin texts, and translated many times into various western languages. English is a particularly changeable tongue; many who read the 1611 King James Version have multiple layers of translating to do when reading, including having to decipher an archaic form of English to arrive at possible interpretations.
So how did we arrive at today's many versions of the Bible? How was the NIV or The Revised Standard Version produced? Why is each one so different? Reading the New American Standard Version is a very different experience than reading The Message or The Passion Translation.
The King James Bible, still one of the most-read books in the world, was published in 1611 by order of James the First of England. Some of the motivation behind it was political; like Constantine's Council of Nicaea it was hoped that negotiations at Hampton Court would unify a fragmented religious landscape. While it failed in that regard, a happy outcome was a masterpiece of language and translation for use as the only approved edition in the Church of England. Remember, however, that the oldest Greek manuscripts we currently have weren't discovered until 1844, so the scholars that produced the KJV were working from much younger and less accurate manuscripts.
Today we have the privilege of being able to compare much older manuscripts with each other and develop a family tree of translations. Because of the historical gaps, a great deal of sleuthing is needed to determine which manuscripts belong in which branches based on similarities and differences. For more detail than anyone could possibly handle in one sitting, see Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.
Neither did the Cambridge and Oxford scholars have any of the New Testament papyri, which started to see daylight in 1895. The Dead Sea Scrolls weren't unearthed until the 1940's, adding yet another set of documents from the first century BCE.
Textual criticism has evolved as an extremely robust academic discipline in the last 100 years. Accumulated data has brought us much closer to accurate reconstructions of the original documents- something not available to translators before the modern era. With the onset of computational methods, our ability to analyze and authenticate documents is light years from where we stood only a century ago. Language studies have also developed a high degree of sophistication so that the study of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and other Middle Eastern languages like Akkadian and Ugaritic have opened many new insights into the ancient biblical and extrabiblical texts.
Our modern English Bibles, then, are the result of careful study and translational decisions by teams of scholars whose goal is to render ancient near eastern religious texts into modern western languages. Many of the differences between versions have to do with the tension of making the Bible more understandable to western minds while respecting the sometimes opaque phraseology of the original writers.
Modern Americans are products of their culture, like any people at any time or place. One of our cultural values is precision and accuracy in written or spoken verbal communication. We like to think that truth corresponds to the fidelity of the account given. In courts of law, we take great pains to determine what actually happened as opposed to what should have or might have happened. And yet, we're conflicted (or impatient?) when it comes to accessing history. Do we want a mediated version that fills in all the gaps? An interpreted shortcut to get to the meaning more quickly? Or do we want a text that sticks as close as possible to the original? The question raises a controversy: who makes the decisions about the text's possible meanings?
A strictly Greek to English translation of Matthew 6:24 results in almost unreadable text which you can see in an Interlinear Bible:
"Ou dynasthe Theo douleuein kai mamona"
"Not you are able God to serve and money."
Greek syntax is far different from ours, so translators make decisions to render the basic idea found in the Greek text into English like this:
Ye cannot serve God and mammon (ASV, KJV)
You cannot serve both God and money (Good News Translation)
You cannot serve two masters: God and money (The Living Bible)
You can’t worship God and Money both. (The Message)
You cannot serve God and wealth. (NASB- with a footnote about the word "Mamonas," a personification of wealth that one might worship)
You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money (New Living Translation)
From this you can see the different directions translators took with Matthew's account of Jesus delivering wisdom to his followers on the subject of money. They are all close to a central meaning: a warning against dividing your loyalties between accumulating financial resources and God, but each one colors the idea slightly differently. If you are a student of Koine Greek and the culture in which this was produced, knowing the themes and objectives of the gospel of Matthew and it's relationship to other similar texts, you might feel equipped to derive a reasonably accurate idea of what Matthew has Jesus say here. Otherwise, you must rely on a translator to do a bit of interpreting for you, plus anyone else who offers their opinion about the effect this passage should have on us.
This is one reason why the best translations are done in large teams, where the level of pre-interpretation can be debated, or where footnotes about word meanings should play a role. Both literal and paraphrased versions can mislead readers. The goal of making a Bible understandable can inject too much theological bias that limits the possibilities of meaning, while at the same time, a high-fidelity version can include phrases that we uncritically define in terms of modern usage instead of what then meant centuries ago.
For example, earlier in Matthew 6, Jesus is portrayed as discussing the eye as the lamp of the body. Having a clear eye means that your entire body is full of light, but if there's evil in there, darkness prevails. Compare how both The Message and the NASB render the passage:
(MSG) “Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a musty cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!"
(NASB) “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then, if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. So if the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"
And here's the Greek text they both use:
A strange passage, indeed. The MSG does some interpreting for the reader, substituting "window" for "lamp," and introducing the idea that we're talking about wonder and belief set against greed and distrust. I certainly don't want my body to be a musty cellar. The NASB is a lot more faithful to the Greek, but we are still left wondering what Jesus is talking about; there's no obvious connection to the way we think about good and evil and what they have to do with eyes.
Enter ancient beliefs about the way eyes worked. It was assumed in those days that the dynamics of sight involved "light" beaming out from one's eyes and illuminating whatever was in range, enabling one to picture what was out there. This is quite the opposite of what we know to be true today: light bounces off of objects in our field of view and enters our eyes- two little ball-shaped cameras which project an image onto the retina, which converts the energy into electrical impulses that travel to our brains to be synthesized into a mental image. To ancient folks, some kind of internally-produced energy emanating from within the body poured out through the eyes, enabling perception. In addition, the "Evil Eye" referred to the belief that one's "eye energy" could affect another person for better or worse. If an evil person's eye fell upon you, there might be suffering ahead.
Now the Matthew passage makes a bit more sense. If Jesus was referencing some common knowledge of his culture, it would stand to reason for them to heed his warning about taking care of personal evil as mediated by the eye. How one cleanses one's eye from evil is not addressed, but at least we are reminded that it needs solving.
The first translations of the Bible into English were sourced from Latin as early as the eighth century in Anglo-Saxon Britain. Then came the Norman invasion in 1066, after which French became the primary language of the Island. Latin continued in the church, Then Middle English made its appearance. Just after 1380 John Wycliffe of Oxford led a movement that sought to put the Bible in the language of the common people. Handwritten versions were produced that were translated from the Latin Vulgate, Jerome's late fourth century rendition of a combination of Greek and older Latin manuscripts. Then came William Tyndale.
Tyndale was one of the very first to use the printing press to produce large quantities of his translation. He published more than 15,000 copies of his first six editions of the New Testament which he had translated directly from Greek. Bowing to political pressure, he left England to set up operations in Germany where he paid a visit to none other than Martin Luther in Wittenberg. Tyndale's enemies finally caught up with him in Belgium, and he was executed by King Henry VIII in 1536.
After this, a number of translations circulated, like the Coverdale, Matthew's, Taverner's, The Great Bible and the Geneva Version. As political and religious attitudes ebbed and flowed, so did changes to the English language and customs. New versions of the Bible were regularly produced, the KJV being among the most notable- some drawing on Latin source material, Hebrew and Greek documents or all three. The English Revised version of 1885 marks the entry of Americans into the process, with another long-lasting translation arriving in 1901. The American Standard Version is known for its updates of the King James, using terms like "Holy Spirit" instead of "Holy Ghost." It's an accurate work, without the literary flourishes of the KJV.
From then on, Americans published dozens of different translations and paraphrases in varying degrees of theological bias, overly complicated or overly simplified English, by lone individuals and large interdenominational teams of scholars. The New International Version is one of the most popular versions in today's Christian churches. It was first published in 1978 and represents an effort to balance readability with fidelity to the Greek texts. A steady stream of niche Bibles have continued to emerge from publishing companies, from volumes that contain commentary material like the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible which contains photos, lengthy introductions to each book, notations on verses, articles on the contexts and cultural factors that aren't apparent in the text and more. There are Bibles for people in recovery from addiction, men's and women's Bibles and Teen versions. Bibles like the Discovery Bible involve the reader in the details of the Greek text behind the English. There's an archaeology study Bible, Bibles for journaling, one-year Bibles- arranged so that you can read it cover to cover in 12 months, and sportsman's Bibles with camouflage covers. Most are based on popular translations like the NIV.
We can assume that the English New Testament we hold in our hands is accurate to within 150-200 years from the events recorded in it. The more difficult question to answer comes from our own assumptions and biases about written records, especially those that purport to be special in a spiritual way. When we approach a text, we ascribe some basic authority to it simply because its published. Until we read or hear contradictory information, we generally trust what's written, especially if it fits our biases or ways we see the world. We do well, though, to interrogate our assumptions about the Bible. What we read in the New Testament isn't actually eyewitness testimony nor does it record verbatim speeches given by Jesus and others. Reading Paul and the Gospels is like leaping onto a moving train that left the station many years before we even knew about it. In the new Testament, we join the Christian movement partway into the story, having missed the beginning; we're still aren't sure of all the reasons the ancients wrote their accounts. Still, it's remarkable that we have what has been preserved and the challenge for every generation of readers and interpreters is to get as close as possible to the core of universal wisdom and insight about our condition.
Head over to History in the Bible for a chart showing our best approximations of the dates of various writings pertinent to the NT.
Also BibleGateway's Encyclopedia of the Bible