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The Four Gospels in the Muratorian Fragment

I argued in my previous post that sometime between Justin, in Rome around 150-60, and Irenaeus in 185 the Gospels had begun to be known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  In my opinion this did not happen earlier (if some of you are wondering about the witness of Papias, I’ll say something about him in a few later posts).   In terms of his personal and ecclesiastical life, Irenaeus is best known as the bishop of Lyons in Gaul (i.e., the ancient forerunner of Lyon, France).   But he spent significant time in Rome itself before his appointment in Gaul, and he considered the Roman church to be the center of Christendom at his time.

There is another witness to the fourfold Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John from Irenaeus’s time, and also from Rome.   This comes to us in a fragmentary Latin text discovered in the 18th century and called the Muratorian Fragment.   This document was discovered by an Italian scholar named Lodovico Antonio Muratori in the Ambrosiana Library (and so it is named after him).  He published it in 1740, and it has been the source of scholarly fascination since.   [As a side note: My first ever PhD seminar in my graduate program at Princeton Theological Seminary, in 1981, was taught by Bruce Metzger on the “Canon of the New Testament.”  On the first day of class, Metzger handed out a photocopy of the Muratorian Fragment (in Latin, of course), and told us that our assignment for the following class was to translate it into English.   This was not easy to do.  The text is in truly *awful* Latin.   The guy sitting next to me in class timidly raised his hand and asked what students were supposed to do if they didn’t know Latin.  Metzger informed him that they taught Latin in evening school at the Princeton High School, and he suggested he go learn it there.   And so the semester began!]

The Muratorian Fragment – that is, the manuscript itself — probably dates from the seventh or eighth century; it is called a “fragment” because it is incomplete: it starts in the middle of a sentence.  It is a Latin translation of an original Greek composition.   The matter is debated, but the majority of scholars continue to think that the text contained in the Muratorian Fragment was originally composed at the end of the second century – say, roughly around the time of Irenaeus – and that it came from Rome (based on some of the references in the text).  (There have been scholars who have wanted to argue that it actually derives from the fourth century and from the East rather than the West, but that view is not generally held.)

The Fragment is a list …


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Papias and the Gospels: Some Background
The Gospels are Finally Named! Irenaeus of Lyons.



  1. Avatar
    Judith  November 20, 2014

    You made time for today’s post in spite of how frenzied the week is for you.


  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 20, 2014

    Maybe you’re going to deal with this in your next post as well. But…can you suggest why those early editors put the four Gospels in the order they did? Especially, why they put Matthew before Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2014

      Ah, good question! I’ll think about posting on it.

  3. Avatar
    bamurray  November 20, 2014

    Is the Muratorian fragment fragmentary because we only have part of the original document, or did the original copyist/scribe (of the document that we have) only have a fragment available?

  4. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 21, 2014

    By chance I’ve been reading Bruce Metzger’s “The Canon of the New Testament” while you’ve been writing about your current topic. Something that I’ve found curious is that in the 3rd chapter where he discusses these same early apostolic fathers that you’ve been talking about over the past week he mentions how in their writings scholars can see influences from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospel (or the oral traditions they used), but Mark is not mentioned as an influence seen in any of the writings of the apostolic fathers. Is that strictly true or is the truth of the matter more nuanced or detailed to go into in his book? It just seems odd to me that the two gospels that were written for opposite audiences (Jews vs Gentiles) would have been used in a single epistle or document, but nothing from Mark at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 21, 2014

      Mark was hardly ever quoted by ealry church fathers; most of them thought of it as a condensed version of matthew — so why quote the shorter version?

  5. Avatar
    Steefen  November 22, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman: Here is my hypothesis. I suggest that sometime after Justin, but before Irenaeus and the writing of the Muratorian Fragment, an edition of the four Gospels was published in Rome. This edition included the four Gospels that were most widely accepted and used in proto-orthodox circles. And in order to indicate which each of them was, the unknown compiler of this edition decided to call them by the names of apostolic authorities with whom they could each be associated. And so he indicated in his manuscript of the edition, that these were Gospels “according to Matthew,” “according to Mark,” “according to Luke,” and “according to John.”

    This edition of the Gospels became popular and influential in Rome as it was circulated and copied.

    Stephen: Justin at 150-160 but before Irenaeus 185, the gospels are named. And why should Rome care about a non-violent Messiah after the Jews revolted 115-117 Kitos War and 132-135 Bar Kokhba Revolt–of course, after 67-73, the Great Jewish Revolt? Why should they still be publishing gospels, in Rome?

    Answer: They did not want another revolt 20 years later. That’s a reason why any Roman should entertain any literature about a Jewish Messiah: he was peaceful and his Son of Man kingdom free of Rome was still put down by his crucifixion. The Jewish God is going to deliver the Israelites, shaking Rome off their backs as if Rome were Egypt?

    If we had to fight the Nazis three times, not just once, I might be able to imagine the annoyance the Romans had with the Jewish rebels and their Messiahs. Even after the gospels were written during the Flavian empire, Akiba calls Bar Kokhba the Jewish Messiah, a militant and violent one, at that.

    We all know and can know this is true because when the Romans returned from victory of the Bar Kokhba revolt, there was no celebration. What a nuisance the Jewish revolts had become in Rome’s consciousness. Not a surprise, I, myself, would have liked to have read a revision of history, the gospels, that the Jews never became militant, there was no Great Revolt, there was no Kitos revolt, there was no Bar Kokhba revolt.

    Dr. Ehrman, it makes sense that the four gospels would reach polished form and be published in Rome, as opposed to being perfected in Phoenicia, or Antioch, Syria and published there. I don’t believe the gospels are not to some degree war literature/propaganda. Just as we cannot see Captain America outside the context of WWII, Christianity in Antiquity has to be seen to some degree within the context of the three revolts.

  6. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  November 22, 2014

    Your argument of how the Gospels came to be named makes sense. I wonder if the compiler didn’t use names already ascribed to the Gospels by tradition of by some authority rather than on his own. In other words, was the compiler naming the Gospels on his own or reflecting the understanding of a community?

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  November 22, 2014

    Bart D. Ehrman:
    Why do we have no witness to the names of these Gospels before then, but at this point, in authors connected with Rome, we do have such a witness?

    Probably because they were written by members of the Quindecimviri Sacris Faciundis which regulated Rome’s foreign religions–Messianic Judaism would have been a Roman regulated foreign religion (Passover garments of the high priests were kept by Rome).

    In order that the gospels not appear to be the word coming down from Rome, they had to be renamed to characters associated more closely associated with Jesus.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 22, 2014

      [correction] …they had to be renamed to characters associated more closely with Jesus.

      If you cannot track the writing of the gospels back to Paul or other Hellenists, you might have to credit the Romans for putting pen to paper about a Pacifist Non-Violent Messiah after Jews began to revolt, beginning 66 C.E. and whatever trouble was brewing slightly before then.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 23, 2014

    I can’t believe you are making time to post this week. That two letters ascribed to Paul were not admitted to the canon because they were forged really makes me wonder how common this false attribution of authorship was in early Christianity and I, of course, have read your book on the subject. It is also intriguing how an idea can arise, in this case about the authorship of the Gospels, circulate, and then become the standard “truth.”

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  November 25, 2014

    The Muratorian fragment mentions “the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] (39) when he journeyed to Spain”. lines 38-39

    Dr. Ehrman, have you reached any comments or conclusions about whether or not this is true?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 26, 2014

      Are you asking whether I think Paul actually journeyed to Rome? My sense is no.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 2, 2014

        I think you’re saying he didn’t journey to Spain but he did make it to Rome. Yes?

  10. Christopher
    Christopher  December 7, 2014

    How ad-hoc is your hypothesis that the 4 gospels were collected together and published together, in a single volume, shortly before Irenaeus mentions them, as you posit? I’m assuming there isn’t any evidence, for this, but that you posit it because it is a good explanation, of the evidence we have. What other explanations could there be? I suppose we could always just assume that the 4 gospels got their names via rumors, and popular myth?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 8, 2014

      I’m not sure what you mean by ad hoc. But it’s a theory I myself have that I’ve never floated publicly before now. It tries to make sense of the fact that no one before Irenaeus mentions our Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but both Irenaeus and the Muratorian Fragment, both connected with Rome, do so around 180 or so (when Justin, also in Rome, quotes the Gospels but without nameing them, in 150 CE).

      • Christopher
        Christopher  December 14, 2014

        I didn’t mean ad-hoc in a bad way, I’m sorry if it seemed like that. What I’m asking is; Are there any examples of the kind of document you are proposing? Maybe not specifically with the gospels, but with any other documents?

        I’m just thinking ahead to what a Christian apologist would say when they hear the theory. Inevitably, they’re going to retort, with, “Well, there’s no evidence for such a document! It’s completely made up!” How would you answer that retort. Lol.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 15, 2014

          Yes, we do have manuscripts from the early church that combine the four Gospels into one manuscript and give them their names.

  11. TWood
    TWood  May 25, 2016

    1. Did the author did see the Rev. of Peter as equal to the Rev. of John himself (you seem to say that)—or is he doing what (I think) Eusebius did and give an objective “accepted list” and a “disputed list”? I guess it doesn’t matter… either way some early Christians saw Peter’s Rev. as equal to John’s (unless I’m misunderstanding something)…

    2. For those who did believe Peter’s Revelation to be Scripture… did they also believe it was actually written by Peter himself? It makes some sense that they believed the apostle John wrote John’s Revelation due to the tradition that John lived late into the first century… but the tradition of Peter’s death was under Nero… which is why I’m wondering if they maybe thought it was a different Peter (which I can’t imagine being what they thought—but how they thought Peter wrote his Revelation in the 60s sounds strange too).

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2016

      1. Yes, with the proviso that “some” did not want it to be read in church; 2. Yes, or by dictation through a scribe.

      • TWood
        TWood  May 26, 2016

        But why the proviso for Pete’s Rev if it was seen as equal to John’s Rev? Is it as simple as “some” (in contrast to the author) did not see the two Revs as equal?

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