The Vulgate is the official Latin text of the Bible. We use the English word vulgar to refer to bad talk, but the word vulgar was not always so pejorative or negative. It literally means “common.” So the Vulgate was simply the Bible in the common language of the people. Now, the Bible was originally written in Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament, with a few parts in Aramaic. But none of those was the common or the vulgar language in the fourth century; Latin was. And people needed a Bible in their own language.
So one of the early church fathers, Jerome, led a team of translators to produce what has come to be called the Vulgate. For well over a thousand years, this was the Bible text for the church. Jerome began by editing an old Latin text of the Gospels, the Vetus Latina. Around AD 400, Jerome published his edition. Others, unknown to history, started working on other parts of the Bible, likely under Jerome’s leadership as editor. Of course, this is all happened before the printing press, so everything was done by hand. And there were more than sixty-six books in the Vulgate because it included the apocryphal books.
Various edits were made to the Vulgate throughout the Middle Ages. Gregory the Great, while he was pope, made a number of changes, but the Vulgate was considered the biblical text. This was the text Wycliffe used when he translated his English edition of the Bible. His wasn’t a translation from the original languages, but from the Latin Vulgate.
In 1455 The Latin Vulgate was the first major book to come off of Gutenberg’s printing press, and then along came the Reformation. One of the key elements to the Reformation was the Renaissance cry, ad fontes. This Latin expression simply means “to the fount” or “to the source.” The Vulgate, the church’s official Bible at the time, was a translation of the original. And the Reformers wanted to go back to the source, to the original.
Now, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. In 1516, Erasmus published his Greek text for the first time. In 1516, coffee was introduced to Europe from Arabia. And in 1517, we have the Reformation. So, we can put the whole thing into a formula, can’t we? Greek New Testament plus a cup of coffee—and the next thing you know, you have the Reformation.
As a response to the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church held a church council. It’s known as the Council of Trent, and it met from 1545 to 1563. One of the many things to come out of Trent was that the Vulgate, which had been “unofficially” officially the Bible of the church, was now officially the Bible of the Roman Catholic Church. It was and remains the final authority. So all matters of doctrine or dispute in the Roman Catholic Church are settled by turning to the Vulgate, which comes to us from the church father Jerome, from the 400s.