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Paul’s epistles and the Muratorian canon

February 18, 2012

Luigi Antonio Muratori, (1672-1750) archivist and librarian in Modena, found and published an ancient Latin fragment listing the books of the New Testament canon, known as the Muratorian canon. [1] The author is unknown; it represents the earliest known listing of the books of the New Testament, probably from about 190 AD.

The four Gospels, Acts, Paul’s epistles, the Epistles of Peter, and two Epistles of St. John, Jude, John’s Apocalypse, are mentioned; Hebrews and James are not.

The order specified for Paul’s epistles to the churches is: (1) 1 & 2 Corinthians; (2) Ephesians; (3) Philippians; (4) Colossians; (5) Galatians; (6) 1 & 2 Thessalonians; (7) Romans.

The personal epistles by Paul, to Philemon, Titus, 1 & 2 Timothy are mentioned.

The document reveals that the original order of Paul’s epistles was changed, possibly reflecting a mischievous scheme intended to enhance the power of the Roman pontiff over the clergy of the Eastern churches.

Because Paul refers to the wilderness experience in 1 Corinthians 10, the Corinthian epistles appear to correspond to the history of the Israelites in the wilderness, whereas the epistle to the Ephesians is more aligned to the account in Joshua about the conquest of the land of Canaan. A connection between the story of Joshua and the book of Ephesians was pointed out by F. B. Meyer. He wrote: [2]

There is another book in the New Testament in deep spiritual accord with the story told in the Book of Joshua, viz., the Epistle to the Ephesians; which rises above all its kin as the soaring cathedral tower rises above the maze of architecture beneath on which it rests indeed, but which it crowns, and carries within its heart bells that ring out the wedding peal. Already in that epistle we can detect notes which are to announce the consummation of creation in the marriage of the Lamb. The Book of Joshua is to the Old Testament what the Epistle to the Ephesians is to the New. The characteristic word of the Ephesians is “in heavenly places” (1:3, 20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12). Of course it does not stand for Heaven; but for that spiritual experience of oneness with the risen Saviour in his resurrection and exaltation which is the privilege of all the saints, to which, indeed, they have been called, and which is theirs in him.

According to Meyer, possession of the land of promise corresponds to the saints dwelling “in heavenly places” in Christ.

In Galatians, Paul deals with the problem caused by false teachers. In 2 Thessalonians he talks about a “man of sin” who would dominate the church. A correspondence can be perceived between the order of the epistles of Paul to the churches in the Muratorian fragment, and events in the history of the Israel of old, which implies that Israel’s possession of the land corresponds the saints being raised up to “heavenly places,” as Paul described in his epistle to the Ephesians, information which is obscured in the traditional ordering of the epistles employed in modern Bibles.