Before the Protestant Reformation, there was only one Bible. Now, there were many manuscripts of the Scriptures, and the manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek (the language in which the New Testament was written) had many variant readings in them. For example, in mainly those manuscripts of the Byzantine text-type (a major text-type of the New Testament which is the text type from which the “Received Text” was developed in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries), John Mill published, in 1707, a Greek New Testament with a listing of about 30,000 variant readings, most of which did not alter the sense of the passages.
In addition to this, the New Testament had been translated into many other languages in the early Christian centuries. It had been translated into Aramaic, and today we have several different ancient translations of the New Testament into Aramaic, the most famous of which is the Peshitta. We have over 1,000 manuscripts of the Aramaic Scriptures, and these manuscripts agree closely with one another, making us confident that they were copied with great care and accuracy.
The New Testament was also translated early into Latin. People in the Western part of the Roman Empire could read Latin much better than Greek. Many, of course, could not read Greek, so very early in Christian history the New Testament was translated into Latin. Relatively few of these old Latin manuscripts survive, and we have very few of the earlier copies. It was called the Itala. This Old Latin, or Itala, New Testament was the Bible that the Waldenses had and later translated into the Romaunt language, which was the language of the people in Northern Italy and Southern France several hundred years later. In the fourth century, Jerome gathered the best Greek manuscripts that he could find of the New Testament and revised the Old Latin text to harmonize with these Greek manuscripts. This version (the Old Testament he translated directly from Hebrew) became known as the Vulgate. The Vulgate was about the only Bible in existence in Europe for most of the Dark Ages. It was the Bible that Martin Luther studied in the library in the university and later in the convent. It was the Bible that John Wycliffe used to translate the Scriptures for the first time into English. We have more copies of the Vulgate than we have even of the Greek New Testament. Unfortunately, as the Vulgate was copied over and over, it became corrupted so that the later copies were very far from the actual Latin Vulgate that Jerome had translated.
In addition to these two most important ancient versions of the New Testament, we also have several other ancient versions such as the Sahidic (Coptic dialect), the Bohairic (Coptic dialect), the Armenian translation, the Georgian translation (language spoken by a group of people living between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea), the Gothic translation (East Germanic language translation by Ulfilas), the Ethiopic and a few others.
Although there are thousands of variant readings in the different versions and in the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament themselves, any one of them, if studied carefully, will lead the reader to the gospel and salvation. They are an infallible guide to salvation, even though we do not possess a single autograph of a single verse of the New Testament. The Protestant Reformation started as a result of men like Martin Luther and John Wycliffe studying from the Latin Vulgate, which was the only Bible available to them at first.
But when the Protestant Reformation began, the future of the papacy was in jeopardy. If the new teachings were not met and opposed and proved in error, the future of the papacy was at an end. Because the Roman church was burning people for even printing the Bible, and because the Bible that was being printed before the middle of the Sixteenth century taught a completely different religion than was being taught by Tetzel and the leaders of the Roman church, it was becoming evident that there was an irreconcilable difference between the Church of Rome and the religion of the Bible. Both could not be right, because their teachings contradicted. For example, the Bible forbids a person to bow down in front of an image (Exodus 20:4–6) and commands men to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8–11), but the Roman church teaches men to adore images and to keep Sunday instead of the Sabbath. The Bible forbids not only adoration or worship of dead images but also of living images; we are forbidden to give the adoration of worship to any man (Acts 10:26), in direct contradiction to Roman practice.
Because of the threat of Protestantism to the papacy, the Council of Trent was called from 1545–1563. At this council four propositions were made which have affected Bible translations ever since that time.