Note: See the full blog series here.
This series is designed to introduce lay Christians to the basic facts of how the New Testament canon developed. One of the key data points in any discussion of canon is something called the Muratorian fragment (also known as the Muratorian canon). This fragment, named after its discoverer Ludovico Antonio Muratori, contains our earliest list of the books in the New Testament. While the fragment itself dates from the 7th or 8th century, the list it contains was originally written in Greek and dates back to the end of the second century (c.180).
Some have argued that the list should be dated to the fourth century (e.g., Sundberg and Hahneman), but the consensus of scholars today still places the list in the second century. Joseph Verheyden sums up the modern debate, “None of the arguments put forward by Sundberg and Hahneman in favour of a fourth-century, eastern origin of the Fragment are convincing.”
What is noteworthy for our purposes here is that the Muratorian fragment affirms 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament. These include the four Gospels, Acts, all 13 epistles of Paul, Jude, 1 John, 2 John (and possibly 3rd John), and Revelation. This means that at a remarkably early point (end of the second century), the central core of the New Testament canon was already established and in place.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that the Muratorian canon also seems to affirm the Apocalypse of Peter. However, the author of the fragment immediately expresses that some have hesitations about this book. Those hesitations eventually won out, and the Apocalypse of Peter was never widely affirmed by the early church, and never earned a final spot in the canon.
The fact that there was some disagreement during this time period over a few of the “peripheral” books should not surprise us. It took some time for the issue of the canon to be settled. This occasional disagreement, however, should not keep us from observing the larger and broader unity that early Christians shared regarding the “core” New Testament books.
If there was a core canon from an early time period, then there are two significant implications we can draw from this. First, this means that most of the debates and disagreements about canonical books in early Christianity only concerned a handful of books. Books like 3 John, James, 2 Peter and so on. Early Christianity was not a wide open literary free for all, where there was no agreement on much of anything. Instead there was an agreed-upon core that no one really disputed.
Second, if there was a core collection of New Testament books, then the theological trajectory of early Christianity had already been determined prior to the debates about the peripheral books being resolved. So, regardless of the outcome of discussion over books like 2 Peter or James, Christianity’s core doctrines of the person of Christ, the work of Christ, the means of salvation, etc., were already in place and already established. The acceptance or rejection of books like 2 Peter would not change that fact.
Thus, the Muratorian fragment stands as a reminder of two important facts. First, Christians did disagree over books from time to time. That was an inevitability, particularly in the early stages. But this list also reminds us of a second (and more fundamental) fact, namely that there was widespread agreement over the core from a very early time.