The Muratorian Canon – an early witness in church history of the N.T Canon

Muratorian Fragment  1

Introduction                                                                                                                                 Today’s post features one of, if not the earliest listing we have of the New Testament Canon. This document, commonly referred to as the “Muratorian Canon, is so named after the man who discovered its existence by the name Lodovica Antonio Muratori (1672-1750).2 Canonicity is an important concept in the study of the scriptures. For those readers who may want a refresher on a definition of canonicity, I offer a previous post on this blogsite: https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2013/11/01/defining-inspiration-inerrancy-infallibility-canonicity-preservation-textual-criticism/

Before presenting the text of the Muratorian Canon, I want to quote Dr. Norman Geisler’s summary of it to give the reader an idea of why it is significant for us today:3

“The Muratorian Canon (A.D 170). Aside from Marcion’s heretical canon (A.D 140), the earliest canonical list is the Muratorian Fragment.  This list coincides exactly with the Old Latin, omitting on Hebrews, James, and 1 and 2 Peter. Westcott (a 19th century Greek scholar) argues for the probability of a break in this manuscript that may have once included those books. It does seem strange that Hebrews and 1 Peter should be omitted while Philemon and 3 John were included. This feature is opposite of the lists of Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria.”

A few thoughts on the significance of Dr. Geisler’s quote

When one realizes that Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria were two church fathers who wrote roughly around 180 A.D, the conclusion to be drawn is that the early church by the mid-second century had reached a near general consensus of recognition of the inspired New Testament books. Clearly it was not the church that formed the Bible books or the Canon, but rather the opposite: the words of God in the books of the Bible are used by the Holy Spirit to bring about conversions and the formation of the church.

This evidence clearly flies in the face of current radical, liberal, critical scholarship that repeatedly states that the church existed for nearly four centuries before such a consensus on the canon was reached. Documents such as the Muratorian Canon (or fragment as it is sometimes called) are important for Bible believing Christians to see that contrary to revisionist scholarship, church history testifies that in reality, our 27 New Testament books today were almost immediately recognized upon their completion by large segments of the early church and then by all Christians everywhere before the early fourth century. With those thoughts in mind, we now turn our attention to the text of the Muratorian Canon:4

The text of the Muratorian Canon 

“….but at some he was present, and so he set them down. The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, was compiled in his own name in order by Luke the physician, when after Christ’s ascension Paul had taken him to be with him like a student of law. Yet neither did he see the Lord in the flesh; and he too, as he was able to ascertain [events, so set them down]. So he began his story from the birth of John. The fourth of the Gospels [was written by] John, one of the disciples. When exhorted by his fellow-disciples and bishops, he said ‘Fast with me this day for three days; and what may be revealed to any of us, let us relate it to one another.’ The same night it was revealed to Andrew, one of the apostles, that John was to write all things in his own name, and they were all to certify. And therefore, though various elements are taught in the several books of the Gospels, yet it makes no difference to the faith of believers, since by one guiding Spirit all things are declared in all of them concerning the Nativity, the Passion, the Resurrection, the conversation with his disciples and his two comings, the first in lowliness and contempt, which has come to pass, the second glorious with royal power, which is to come. What marvel therefore if John so firmly sets forth each statement in his Epistle too, saying of himself, ‘What we have seen with our eyes and heard with our ears and our hands have handled, these things we have written to you’? For so he declares himself not an eyewitness and a hearer only, but a writer of all the marvels of the Lord in order.

The Acts however of all the Apostles are written in one book. Luke puts it shortly to the most excellent Theophilus, that the several things were done in his own presence, as he also plainly shows by leaving out the passion of Peter, and also the departure of Paul from town on his journey to Spain.

The Epistles however of Paul themselves make plain to those who wish to understand it, what epistles were sent by him, and from what place and for what cause. He wrote at some length first of all to the Corinthians, forbidding schisms and heresies; next to the Galatians, forbidding circumcision; then to the Romans, impressing on them the plan of the Scriptures, and also that Christ is the first principle of them concerning which severally it is [not] necessary for us to discuss, since the blessed Apostle Paul himself, following the order of his predecessor John, writes only by name to seven churches in the following order – to the Corinthians a first, to the Ephesians a second, to the Philippians a third, to the Colossians a fourth, to the Galatians a fifth, to the Thessalonians a sixth, to the Romans a seventh; whereas, although for the sake of admonition there is a second to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians, yet one Church is recognized as being spread over the entire world. For John too in the Apocalypse, though he writes to seven churches, yet speaks to all. Howbeit to Philemon one, to Titus one, and to Timothy two were put in writing from personal inclination and attachment, to be in honour however with the Catholic Church for the ordering of the ecclesiastical mode of life. There is current also one to the Laodicenes, another to the Alexandrians, [both] forged in Paul’s name to suit the heresy of Marcion, and several others, which cannot be received into the Catholic Church; for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey. The Epistle of Jude no doubt, and the couple bearing the name of John, are accepted in the Catholic [Church]; and the Wisdom written by the friends of Solomon in his honour. The Apocalypse also of John, and of Peter [one Epistle, which] only we receive; [there is also a second] which some of our friends will not have read in the Church.

But the Shepherd was written quite lately in our times by Hermas, while his brother Pius, the bishop, was sitting in the chair of the city of Rome; and therefore it ought indeed to be read, but it cannot to the end of time be publicly read in the Church to the people, either among the prophets, who are complete in number, or among the Apostles.

But of Valentinus the Arsinoite and his friends we receive nothing at all; who have also composed a long new book of Psalms; together with Basilides and the Asiatic founder of the Montanists.”5

Endnotes:

1.The picture inserted at the beginning of today’s post comes from the website http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html.                                                   At that website the reader is given a thorough treatment of the history, meaning and significance of the Muratorian Canon.  Highly recommended!                                       

2. http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/muratorian_canon.htm

3. Norman Geisler andWilliam E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Moody Press 1986. Page 292.

4. http://www.earlychurchtexts.com/public/muratorian_canon.htm

5. It is interesting to note that in this early canonical list, some books (such as ‘the Shepherd of Hermas’) were considered good books, but not inspired or worthy of being read in the church as scripture.  Canonicity tells us not only what books are inspired, but also draws the line in showing us what books are not inspired.

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About pastormahlon

By the grace of God I was converted to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 10 and called into the Gospel ministry by age 17. Through the Lord's grace I completed a Bachelors in Bible at Lancaster Bible College in 1996 and have been married to my beautiful wife since that same year. We have been blessed with four children, ranging from 7-18 years of age. In 2002 the Lord enabled me to complete a Master of Arts in Christian Thought at Biblical Theological Seminary, Hatfield PA. For nearly 25 years I have been preaching and teaching God's Word and have been studying the original languages since 1994. In 2016 God called my family and me to move to begin a pastorate at a wonderful Southern Baptist Congregation here in Northern New York.
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