The Muratorian Canon (also called the Muratorian Fragment) is an ancient list of New Testament books—the oldest such list we have found. The original document, which was probably written in Greek, is dated to about AD 180 and lists 22 of the 27 books that were later included in the New Testament of the Christian Bible.
The Muratorian Canon was discovered by Italian historian Ludovico Muratori in the Ambrosian Library in northern Italy and was published by him in 1740. The manuscript copy that Muratori discovered was written in Latin and has been dated to the 7th or 8th century AD. Several internal indicators have convinced most experts that the original Muratorian Canon should be dated near the end of the 2nd century (c. AD 180).
It is noteworthy that the Muratorian Canon omits several epistles that later did win acceptance in the Christian New Testament such as the books of James and 2 Peter. This may go to demonstrate that the early church practiced discernment in recognizing which books carried with them apostolic authority. They did not immediately accept any book or letter that claimed to be associated with an apostle. This fact makes it all the more remarkable that the Muratorian Canon includes all four biblical gospels as well as the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline Epistles, and most of John’s writings. This means that, within 150 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the core writings that were later included in the New Testament were already deemed authoritative by early Christians. These books present a unified doctrinal message on the person of Christ and His atoning work on the cross.
For instance, in the documents listed in the Muratorian Canon, Jesus is repeatedly referred to as “Lord” (Romans 10:9; Acts 2:36; Jude 17) and is equated with God (John 1:1–3; 20:28; Philippians 2:6–8). He took on human flesh (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2), died in the place of sinners (1 Corinthians 15:3), and was soon raised bodily from the dead (Luke 24:36–40; Acts 1:3; 2:24–35; 1 Corinthians 15:4). A person can find forgiveness of sins only through faith in Him (John 6:47; Acts 13:38–39; Galatians 2:15–16).
These central doctrines represented Christian orthodoxy for the early church. The existence of the Muratorian Canon demonstrates that, well before the New Testament canon was officially recognized, early Christians already had access to authoritative documents carrying apostolic authority. It was from these apostolic books and letters that the early believers derived their central beliefs about the person and atoning work of Jesus Christ.