Early Confirmation of the Bible Canon
“EVERY line seems to have been written specifically to arouse the curiosity of those who have an interest in primitive Christian history.” That is how an ancient document was described. Can you imagine which document?
It is one you may or may not have heard of—the Muratorian Fragment. In either case, you might wonder, ‘What makes the Muratorian Fragment so special?’ It is the oldest existing canon, or authoritative list of books, of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
You might take it for granted that certain books belong in the Bible. Yet, would it surprise you to know that there was a time when some doubted which individual books should be included? The Muratorian Fragment, or canon, sets out a list of writings considered to be inspired. As you can understand, the exact content of the Bible is of immense importance. So, what did that document reveal regarding the books that now make up the Christian Greek Scriptures? Well, consider first a bit of background about the document.
The Muratorian Fragment is part of a manuscript codex of 76 parchment leaves, each measuring 11 by 7 inches [27 by 17 cm]. Ludovico Antonio Muratori (1672-1750), a distinguished Italian historian, discovered it in the Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy. Muratori published his find in 1740, thus its name—Muratorian Fragment. It seems that the codex was produced in the eighth century in the ancient monastery of Bobbio, near Piacenza, northern Italy. It was moved to the Ambrosian Library at the beginning of the 17th century.
The Muratorian Fragment consists of 85 lines of text found on leaves 10 and 11 of the codex. The text is in Latin, evidently copied by a scribe who was not very careful. But some of his errors have been identified by comparing it with the same text included in four 11th- and 12th-century manuscripts.
When Was It Written?
You might wonder, though, when the information in the Muratorian Fragment was originally written. It seems that the original was composed in Greek many centuries before the Fragment text, which is a Latin translation of the Greek. Here is a clue that helps in dating the original. The Fragment mentions a non-Biblical book, the Shepherd, and states that a man named Hermas wrote it “very recently, in our times, in the city of Rome.” Scholars date the final writing of Hermas’ Shepherd between 140 and 155 C.E. Thus, you can see why the Greek-language original of the Latin Muratorian Fragment is dated to between 170 and 200 C.E.
The direct and indirect references to Rome suggest that it could have been composed in that city. But the identification of the author is debated. Clement of Alexandria, Melito of Sardis, and Polycrates of Ephesus have been suggested. Most scholars, however, point to Hippolytus, a prolific author who wrote in Greek and lived in Rome during the period in which the contents of the Muratorian Fragment were likely composed. While you might find that of passing interest, you probably want to know more about its contents that makes it so valuable.
Information It Contains
The text is not merely a list of the books of the Christian Greek Scriptures. It also comments on the books and their respective writers. If you read the text, you would see that the first lines of the manuscript are missing, and it also seems to end abruptly. It starts by mentioning the Gospel of Luke, and the document states that the writer of this Bible book was a physician. (Colossians 4:14) It states that Luke’s is the third Gospel, so you can see that the missing initial part likely made reference to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. If that is your conclusion, you would find support in the Muratorian Fragment, which says that the fourth Gospel is that of John.
The Fragment confirms that the book of Acts of Apostles was written by Luke for the “most excellent Theophilus.” (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) Then it goes on to list the letters of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians (two), to the Ephesians, to the Philippians, to the Colossians, to the Galatians, to the Thessalonians (two), to the Romans, to Philemon, to Titus, and to Timothy (two). The letter of Jude and two letters of John are also mentioned as inspired books. The apostle John’s first letter was already alluded to, along with his Gospel. Apocalypse, or Revelation, concludes the list of the books considered inspired.
It is significant that the Fragment mentions an Apocalypse of Peter but states that some felt that it should not be read by Christians. The writer warns that counterfeit writings were already circulating in his day. The Muratorian Fragment explains that these should not be accepted, “for it is not fitting that gall be mixed with honey.” The document also mentions other texts that were not to be included among the holy writings. That was either because they were written after the apostolic period, as was the Shepherd of Hermas, or because they were written to support heresies.
You may have observed from the foregoing that the letter to the Hebrews, Peter’s two letters, and that of James are not mentioned in this catalog of authentic Bible books. However, noting the workmanship of the scribe who copied the manuscript, Dr. Geoffrey Mark Hahneman observed that it is “reasonable to suggest that the Fragment may have contained other references now lost, and that James and Hebrews (and 1 Peter) may have been among them.”—The Muratorian Fragment and the Development of the Canon.
The Muratorian Fragment thus confirms that most of the books now found in the Christian Greek Scriptures were already considered canonical in the second century C.E. Of course, the canonicity of the Bible books—that is, their right to be included in the divine library—does not depend on their being mentioned in a certain ancient list. What gives evidence that the Bible’s books are the product of holy spirit is their content. They all support the authorship of Jehovah God and are in complete harmony. The harmony and balance of the 66 canonical books of the Bible testify to their unity and completeness. Thus, you do well to accept them for what they truthfully are, Jehovah’s Word of inspired truth, preserved until our day.—1 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17.
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Ludovico Antonio Muratori
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The Ambrosian Library
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The Muratorian Fragment
Diritti Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Vietata la riproduzione. Aut. No. F 157/05
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Fragments: Diritti Biblioteca Ambrosiana. Vietata la riproduzione. Aut. No. F 157/05; Muratori, based on line art: © 2005 Brown Brothers