In order to diminish the importance and relevance of the Bible, it's common for skeptics to point out that the early Christians didn't even have an official Bible. They claim that what we now call the "New Testament" wasn't compiled until hundreds of years after the life of Christ and the Apostles, when church councils convened to decide which books were "in" and which ones were "out." Famously, Dan Brown, in his best-selling book, The DaVinci Code, even alleged that the Emperor Constantine chose the books at the council of Nicaea in AD 325. (1)
The Muratorian Fragment is a big deal because its very existence is evidence that these notions are not true.
What is the Muratorian Fragment?
Sometimes called the "Muratorian Canon," the fragment is an ancient manuscript that includes a list of New Testament books. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list of biblical books it contains dates from around AD 180. (2) Other than a highly abridged collection by the heretic Marcion, it is the oldest list of New Testament books we have, and it affirms 22 out of the 27 books. This is remarkably early to have such a comprehensive canon.
When speaking of the biblical canon, some scholars insist that the word canon can only be applied to the final, closed list of books that was officially sanctioned by the church in later centuries. However, many prominent scholars disagree. Dr. Michael Kruger writes, "The term canon can be employed as soon as a book is regarded as 'Scripture' by early Christian communities." (3) The Muratorian Fragment shows us which books early Christians considered to be Scripture.
What do you need to know about the Muratorian Fragment?
1. It affirms all four Gospels, the book of Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, along with Jude, 1 John and 2 John, and Revelation. (There is also a possibility that 3rd John is included but that is disputed.)
What this tells us: There was widespread agreement regarding most of the books of the New Testament by the end of the 2nd century.
2. It mentions the non-canonical Apocalypse of Peter but testifies to the fact that not everyone was in agreement about its authority.
What this tells us: There definitely was some disagreement over certain books, but it highlights the fact that there was general agreement over most of them.
3. It references the Shepherd of Hermas as a book that was widely read and appreciated among early Christians but was rejected as Scripture because it was written "very recently in our times."
What this tells us: Early Christians understood the concept of canon and recognized certain attributes in canonical books by rejecting anything written after the time of the Twelve Apostles (the apostolic era). This means the canon was, in principle, already closed by the beginning of the 2nd century, when the Apostles were no longer alive. (4)
Why is the Muratorian Fragment a big deal?
Remember the claim that Constantine chose the books of the New Testament? Other than the fact that there is no historical evidence to support this assertion, the Muratorian Fragment existed before he was even born, and the official canon wasn't finalized until about 60 years after his death. Constantine is certainly an interesting historical figure, but he did not determine the canon.
The Muratorian Fragment demonstrates that as early as the late 2nd century (not even 100 years after the last of the Apostles died), there was a core canon that was affirmed by Christians and accepted as Scripture on par with the Old Testament. And that is a very big deal!
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(1) Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (Anchor, 2009) p. 251-252
(2) Andreas J. Kostenberger & Michael J. Kruger, The Heresy of Orthodoxy (Crossway, 2010) p. 157
(3)Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (IVP Academic, 2013) p. 35
(4) Kostenberger & Kruger, p. 170-171