During the early period of the Church, during and shortly after the book of Acts time frame, the apostles wrote to various churches where they had visited before to encourage, teach, and clarify doctrine. Not only did the apostles write to churches, but through the years, elders of churches wrote to other churches and so forth until there were many different writings being passed around from church to church.
It soon became evident that there needed to be an established central body of writings that were inspired by God as the Old Testament had been. This was called the canon (authoritative list) of Scripture. The writings included in this canon had been subjected to a very strict criteria before the early church fathers chose them. Although there are many existant writings of the early church fathers (during the period immediately after the apostles), these writings are not considered as infallible scripture. They are, however, very insightful to read. They are not read much these days because there are no modern language translations of them and most people find it tedious to wade through much of the KJ English.
Oh, the criteria for whether it was Scripture or not?
Okay, now, as for translations. The original languages of the Bible were Hebrew and Aramaic (the Old Testament) and Koine Greek for the New Testament (with a few words here and there from the Aramaic). This is one reason why those who claim KJV only are a bit in error with their premise. They say that the KJV is the original version God gave to us. Uh....not quite. :o)
Since the church in Rome grew to be a dominant influence in church history by the 400's AD, Latin, the language spoken by the common people there in Rome, became the predominant language in church services, preaching and teaching. Also, it was natural for these things to be in Latin since it was a language spoken all over the large Roman empire. This allowed Christians from all over to communicate with each other and with other people to tell them more about their faith.
In the 400's a biblical scholar named Jerome took the Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek texts and translated them into the common language of Latin. This text (called the Vulgate which means of the common language) became the commonly accepted text for centuries. During this time, society became farther and farther removed from using Latin as the fall of the Roman Empire came crashing down around them in the late 400's.
However, by this time, the Latin version was so well known and loved that the Catholic Church (the predominate branch of Christianity in the West) began to oppose any other translations of the Bible.
In 1383 John Wycliffe, who was a Catholic (as were most Europeans of the day), believed that unless the common people would be allowed to read the Bible for themselves, they would not be safe from the "elite" clergy who were the only ones by this time who had read or could understand the Latin Vulgate. (And this was ironic because the very reason Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the Vulgate was so the everyday person could read it!) Wycliffe produced his translation and distributed it in England. Pope Gregory XI was very upset by this because it undermined his authority and that of his clergy. Although he wanted to execute Wycliffe for his impudence, there were some political movements at hand that spared Wycliffe's life.
The next bold translator was William Tyndale in 1530. Jerome had relied some on Greek and Hebrew texts, but also on previously translated Latin portions. Tyndale, on the other hand, took his entire text directly from the Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Again, he was trying to put the Bible into the hands of the common English-speaking people.
It was at this time that Martin Luther was also working on a modern language translation, although it was into German. His goal was the same as the others, to allow everyone to be able to read the richness of the Bible for him/herself.
And now we come to the King James version. King James commissioned this translation (remember, by now the Church of England had broken away from the Catholic Church completely). While under Catholic rule, many of the people during the Reformation were finding that they were oppressed and merely eeking by a living while the clergy of the Catholic Church were living very well off of their offerings. There were other corruptions the Protestants (protesters) were finding as well.
The decision was to take the power out of the hands of the clergy and put it back into the hands of the everyday people. And King James chose to do this by giving his people a copy of the Bible that they could read and study on their own to make certain the leadership of the church was really teaching them biblical concepts.
It was more than 250 years before a new translation was attempted and from it sprang the English Revised and the American Standard (1885). The Revised Standard came out in 1929 (and a revised Revised Standard in 1990), the New English in 1946 and the New International in 1973.
With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the availablity of the Codex Vaticanus (the earliest almost complete Bible written in Greek that was held at the Vatican, away from scholars from at least 1481 to the early 1900's), the newer versions, such as the New International and the New American Standard have returned to the earliest manuscripts possible for their translations.
There are some even newer translations out there that I have not had time to research, so I do not know how accurate they are, for example, the New Century and The New Living Translation.
There are also some out there that are not translations, but are paraphrases. A paraphrase is when one man took a passage and put it in his own words. While this makes the Bible easier to understand, I don't recommend you study from a paraphrase. If you've never read the Bible, then it might be a good place to start. The Living Bible, put out in the 70's, is a good paraphrase to read through just to get all the way through the Bible. The gentleman who paraphrased it started it out as a project to help his children have a more readable version than the KJV.
And speaking of the KJV, let's look at the irony of the KJV Only-ists. The very purpose of the KJV translation was so that the common, ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill Joe could read it and understand it. Today, it does not serve that purpose. Very few people today can read the KJV without a struggle. Some of the words in it have changed meaning over the 400 years of history since they were originally translated. In comparing it to some of the newly discovered manuscripts, there are a few minor discrepancies with some phrases.
However, overall, the translations out there give the basic knowledge and truths of a God who loves us, who became human and who gave that human life up on a cross to save us from our sins. Our perfect God has made certain that His message is there for all to read.
A comparative or parallel Bible is a really good idea if you are wondering what the differences are. It usually has 2 or 4 different versions, side by side in columns so you can see how they compare. Another good aid is an interlinear Bible, which gives the original language (Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek) and then under it tells you exactly word for word what it says. If all of this sounds confusing, try going to http://bible.crosswalk.com/ to see what kind of Bible study tools are there.
if you like the KJV and you can understand it fine, then go ahead and
use it. If it is hard for you to understand, try using a different version
that is more readable in 21st century English.
For more information on choosing the right study Bible,
see this article by the Christian Research Institute.
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