The Muratorian Canon

The purpose of is to look at how our church started and then morphed into the numerous diverse sects that make up the church now.  From what we can tell, what the people in the times of Jesus and the apostles considered “Scripture” was “the law, the prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44) although the apostles declared that what they had received was by revelation, and was the word of God, and certainly Jesus spoke the word of God, although none of this was written down at first.

For this cause we also thank God without ceasing, that, when you received from us the word of the message of God, you accepted it not as the word of men, but, as it is in truth, the word of God, which also works in you who believe. (1Th 2:13 WEB)

After the apostles, there were numerous gospels, epistles, apocalypse, and other documents produced claiming authenticity (see People Wrote Many Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses in Original Christianity, Some of Which Were Trustworthy for more) and there was even a heretic named Marcion who started his own list of acceptable scriptures (see 01.50 Marcion the Heretic is the One who Names the Old and New Testaments And Starts the Process to Canonize a List of Acceptable Scriptures, The First Creed for more), all of which contributed to a movement to produce a list of New Testament scriptures that would be acceptable in all the churches. By now, most Christian churches had accepted the Greek Septuagint as a canon of Old Testament Scriptures so for a lot of people that question was settled, but the question of what Gospels, epistles, apocalypses, histories, were genuine was up in the air for the believers. (Note, for our purposes, the acceptance of the Septuagint as the sum and substance of authentic Old Testament books is not proven, and in fact, at the very least, flies in the face of the fact that some books in the Septuagint were not accepted as authentic in the Protestant Bible.)

After Marcion churches began formulating lists of acceptable scriptures.

One of the earliest lists of writings to be considered a Scripture list with some useful information is the Muratorian Canon, also called the Muratorian fragment.  At 85 lines long it is short with the opening lines of its logic missing. Nowhere in those 85 lines does it refer to itself as a Canon. The designation “canon” has been imbued upon it by theologians to the point where the fragment itself is called “The Muratorian Canon”

The fragment was named after Ludovico Antonio Moratori, an Italian historical and theological scholar. It was actually published as a specimen showing the carelessness with which scribes in the Middle Ages copied manuscripts as there are repeated lines and other mistakes, some thirty clerical errors. This fragment was part of a Codex that had 76 leaves of course parchment, and included theological treaties of other church fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries besides the Muratorian canon.

According to the article below, THE MURATORIAN FRAGMENT: THE STATE OF RESEARCH, the fragment has been found in 4 manuscripts dated to later centuries.  The majority of scholars date it to the closing of the second century A.D although there is some challenge as one argument was that these kinds of lists started with Eusebius in the 4th century (as if it would be impossible for men a hundred and some years earlier to think and write along these lines).

The consensus is that it is the late 2nd century primarily because of:

“Hermas wrote the Shepard very recently…while Bishop Pius was occupying the [episcopal] chair of the church of the city of Rome” (lines 74-75)


Pius was bishop of Rome approximately 140 – 154 AD.[1]  This appears to confirm the writing’s date to the latter part of the second century.

It is not really a canon, per se, as it is more of a rationale for certain books over others than it is just a list of acceptable scriptures.  It is not just a list, it shows the evaluation of certain books specifying important points about certain books as to why or why not each is an acceptable book.  Also, there is no discussion of most of the individual books as being inspired in the lines we have (John’s Gospel does has a unique story of inspiration), although that might be assumed as the reason for the list in the first place. Also, there are lines missing that may have addressed inspiration more.

The list though has the tone of discussing what books are worthy to be read in the churches acknowledging that some books are out of date with the apostles and prophets (lines 78-80). On the other hand, there is revelation given to Andrew and possibly others concerning the formation of John’s gospel in lines 13-14. This speaks that there was inspiration of the gospel of John to be written, according to the fragment, and shows that the inspiration of God was, to some degree, in their evaluations as to the status of the books mentioned.

Also, John is not referred to as an apostle here, but the apostles were called disciples as we see in the following verses.

In these days, he went out to the mountain to pray, and he continued all night in prayer to God. When it was day, he called his disciples, and from them he chose twelve, whom he also named apostles: (Luk 6:12-13 WEB)

He called to himself his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness. (Mat 10:1 WEB)

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, (Joh 6:8 WEB)

In these days, Peter stood up in the middle of the disciples (and the number of names was about one hundred twenty), and said, (Act 1:15 WEB)

From this, we see that the disciples included the apostles. But we cannot guarantee that this is John the apostle as all apostles were disciples, but not all disciples were apostles so this John very well could be a disciple but not an apostle. It very well also could have been Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother with John and other disciples indicating that this was a meeting of apostles. By itself, it provides a compelling but not conclusive argument that this is John the Apostle conferring with other apostles.

That believers who receive revelation to write books are operating the gift ministries of prophet and apostle is a future topic and a source of discussion in this area.

But the fragment does speak to the same John being the author of the Gospel of John and the three epistles bearing his name.

The author, who is unknown although some think it was Hippolytus (but also several other possible writers are listed in the State of the Research article), wrote various details about how the books were authored, and so forth. In that sense, it adds a lot of context to how the books of what we call the New Testament came to be and were related.

Some of these fascinating details include that Luke was not an eyewitness of the gospel that is credited to his name, but Luke wrote under the authority of Paul and as an assistant to him (lines 3-8). Also, in Acts, Luke only wrote about the things he physically witnessed in the Apostle’s time (lines 35-39).

Concerning John’s Gospel, the author writes that John urged his fellow disciples to fast with him for three days and “what shall be revealed to each one let us tell it to one another (lines 11-14)” so as to be a compilation of multiple apostles or bishops although John was expressly charged in Andrew’s revelation to put the Gospel in his own name. Metzger in his book, The Canon of The New Testament, concludes that “obviously the idea of the author was to endow the gospel of John with the combined authority of the 12 apostles.”[2] the fragment also specifies that the gospel of John, being the fourth gospel (line 9) is supposed to be a conclusion to the other accepted Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

As far as the book of Acts is concerned, the Muratorian Canon asserts that “the acts of all the apostles are written in one book”. This inclusion of “all the apostles” in the Book of Acts discussion almost certainly must have been directed against Marcion who focused singularly on the apostleship of Paul to the exclusion of the others. Marcion is specifically named a heretic (line 65).

After the book of Acts, the fragment then credits 13 epistles to Paul including first and second Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Galatians, first and second Thessalonians, Romans, and the four epistles to individuals, Philemon, Titus, and the two to Timothy (lines 39-57). In the same section, the author rejects epistles to the Laodiceans and the Alexandrians as forged (lines 63-68). These last two works are not works that have survived history.

Interestingly, the fragment identifies the reasons for some of the epistles: the focus of Corinthians was against “heretical schisms”, Galatians is against circumcision, and Romans, the author contends, is written to explain the plan of the Scriptures (lines 39-53). The author says the purpose of the pastoral epistles (Titus, Philemon, and the two to Timothy) is for the “regulation of ecclesiastical discipline” (lines 59-63).

Of interest is that “heretical schisms” is the only topic mentioned about Corinthians when there are so many topics in the books but perhaps the point is that all of the corrections in Corinthians were necessary because of one schism practicing the manifestations wrong while another taught the wrong doctrine on giving and so forth and so on.

The fragment makes the point of addressing that both John and Paul write to seven churches (lines 57 – 59). It also makes the point that even though only seven churches are addressed John speaks to all (lines 57 – 59).

John is named as Paul’s predecessor, possibly thinking that John’s works were written before Paul’s (line 48).

The fragment next mentions Jude and what is thought to be the second and third John, assuming that 1st John is mentioned when John’s Gospel is discussed (line 28).

Amazingly, the next reference is to a book that is Old Testament related, the Wisdom of Solomon, although no one can figure out why other than different Christian communities developed traditions to read different books (lines 69-70).  Also, Wisdom of Solomon is apocryphal to non-Roman Catholics, Proverbs like, and part of the Septuagint.[3]

It is fascinating that the author says they are limited to two apocalypses, one by John and the other by Peter, although he also acknowledges that the latter is held by some to be not worthy to be read in the churches (lines 71-72).  This appears to be an acknowledgment that they may be reading and teaching uninspired book(s) from the pulpit.

The Muratorian fragment also has some praise for the Shepherd of Hermas, but concludes that while it ought to be read, it can’t be read among the prophets or apostles because it is “after [their] time” (lines 73-80). So, it appears to be of some lower stature.  Still, it is another example of a Christian community opting to read in church from a work because they considered it to be valuable.  It also acknowledges that books could be categorized as either among the apostles and prophets or not.

The Muratorian fragment specifically excludes Arsinous, Valentinus, and Miltiades, “who composed a new book of psalms for Marcion, together with Basilides, the Asian founder of the Cataphrygian” (lines 81-85). This specifically addresses heresies as works to be avoided.

Missing are 1st Peter and 2nd Peter, Hebrews, and James.  The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are also missing, but it is acknowledged that there are four Gospels (line 9) and the first lines are missing so they were probably included there. Still, the fact that those four books are not even discussed may indicate that their books were not in circulation in that area at that time. It may indicate that they were not even under consideration, but that is doubtful.

What is Missing From The Fragment

For just a minute, let’s look at how what the people on the Muratorian fragment were doing and compare that to how the believers in the New Testament acted.

The Moratorian fragment is probably the first evidence of any discussion of the process of evaluating Scripture after the apostles.   The question of whether something is from the Lord is really a question for the holy spirit.  This is not dissimilar to something in the Book of Acts. The Book of Acts describes the Council of Jerusalem whereby the apostles and prophets met in a leadership Council and they made a decision on a doctrine, namely circumcision, and with that what parts of the law to include as part of the church.  There was a big to do about this.

The apostles and the elders were gathered together to see about this matter. When there had been much discussion (Act 15:6 WEB)

The end result was that James stood up and announced some reasoning and a decision. But if you’re not careful you’ll miss who really was in charge of the meeting.

For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay no greater burden on you than these necessary things: (Act 15:28 WEB)

The case being made on the fragment is that there was an evaluation going on to determine which books should be included as the doctrine for the church. And there is some reference to looking for the leading of the Spirit as the fragment specifically mentions Andrew receiving revelation regarding the writing of John’s Gospel.

But what is lacking is the same spiritual oversight that we see in Acts 15.  It is pointed out that there were prophets and apostles at this meeting.  We already see the apostles and prophets mentioned above. We see the reference to the holy spirit’s presence above.  Here we see a reference to prophets:

Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers with many words, and strengthened them. (Act 15:32 WEB)

Paul specifically writes about the ability of those who are “spiritual” to determine whether or not something is of the Lord.

If any man thinks himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him recognize the things which I write to you, that they are the commandment of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. (1Co 14:37-38 WEB)

When we look at those verses, they spell out a few things. If someone is “spiritual”, that means there spiritually enabled. That verse is saying that the people who are spiritually enabled to determine whether or not something is from the Lord need to do so. The next line says that if people are “ignorant”, that means that if they can’t they shouldn’t say anything. The ability to tell whether something is from the Lord is just that, part of the ability of the Holy Spirit that we have received and that some of us can do while others can’t for whatever reason.
In the book of Acts in chapter 15 we see people who have the ability to determine whether something is from the Lord. In the Muratorian fragment, we see people who can’t determine it, although they appear to be trying their best.

And it appears that we will see similar things as other Scripture Lists and Canons are investigated although all of the different canons claim to be led by the Holy Spirit despite the fact that the canons are different and everyone cannot be right.

In Conclusion

From reading the fragment and assuming it is genuine as it is assumed so, we can get a picture of the process that the bishops and the people in their churches took to decide what books to include in the churches a century or so after the apostles. The thinking process that these people used to compile their scriptures list is specified here in very interesting detail, the elements that should be taught in the Gospels (lines 16 – 26), the purposes of the different epistles of Paul, as well as the rejection of Marcion, Arsinous, Valentinus, and other heresies.

There is definitely some reference to seeking out the inspiration of the Lord in determining which books to include as seen in the illustration of John consulting with Andrew and other disciples to write his gospel and the mentioning that Andrew received revelation regarding John’s Gospel.

Two books that were disputed at times during these early centuries, Jude and Revelation (of John) are included in what appears to be probably the earliest list of acceptable Scriptures. The first epistle of Peter, which was readily accepted as being apostolic in origin is missing, but perhaps that is more to the availability of that book in the area where this list was comprised as anything else. In fact, any book that is missing may be missing for that reason as the fragment discusses books that were later clearly ignored in Scripture lists, The Shepherd of Hermes and the Apocalypse of Peter. The list also describes works of heretics like Marcion and others.

It’s a very interesting bit of writing. It does give insight into the process that at least some people may have used to determine their lists of Scriptures. And it emphasizes the human nature of the decisions regarding which texts were acceptable.  But especially because we don’t even know who wrote it at best it can provide only supplemental information in evaluating which books are truly Scripture.

Still, this along with other early church writings is the only evidence we have into the process of evaluating the Scripture lists and canons that developed in the church. And for just having 85 lines the Muratorian fragment has a lot of insight.

[1] Pope Pius I

[2] The Canon Of The New Testament, Bruce M Metzger, Clarendon paperbacks, Oxford, 1997, P. 195

[3] Wisdom of Solomon, Brittanica online


The Books and the Parchments, FF Bruce, Fleming H Gravelle company, Westwood New Jersey, 1963

The Canon Of The New Testament, Bruce M Metzger, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997

The Making of the New Testament, Arthur G Patzia, University Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1995

THE MURATORIAN FRAGMENT: THE STATE OF RESEARCH, the fragment lines are listed specifically on P. 235 – 238

Wikipedia, Muratorian fragment

(c) 2023 Mark W Smith, All rights reserved. last revised 11/29/23

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