But the most decisive witness before we come to Irenaeus is the Muratorian Canon. Here we have the fourth Gospel definitely assigned to its author, and finally established in its place amongst the canonical or authoritative books. It is true that the account of the way in which the Gospel came to be composed is mixed up with legendary matter. According to it the Gospel was written in obedience to a dream sent to Andrew the Apostle, after he and his fellow disciples and bishops had fasted for three days at the request of John. In this dream it was revealed that John should write the narrative subject to the revision of the rest. So the Gospel is the work of an eyewitness, and, though it and the other Gospels differ in the objects of their teaching, all are inspired by the same Spirit.
There may perhaps in this be some kernel of historical fact, as the sort of joint authorship or revision to which it points seems to find some support in the concluding verses of the Gospel (’we know that his witness is true’). However this may be, the evidence of the fragment is of more real importance and value, as showing the estimation in which at this date the Gospel was held. It corresponds very much to what is now implied in the word ‘canonical,’ and indeed the Muratorian fragment presents us with a tentative or provisional Canon, which was later to be amended, completed, and ratified. So far as the Gospels were concerned, it had already reached its final shape. It included the same four which now stand in our Bibles, and the opposition that they met with was so slight, and so little serious, that Eusebius could class them all among the Homologoumena or books that were universally acknowledged.
ON THE STATE OF THE CANON IN THE LAST QUARTER OF THE SECOND CENTURY.
I should not be very much surprised if the general reader who may have followed our enquiry so far should experience at this point a certain feeling of disappointment. If he did not know beforehand something of the subject-matter that was to be enquired into, he might not unnaturally be led to expect round assertions, and plain, pointblank, decisive evidence. Such evidence has not been offered to him for the simple reason that it does not exist. In its stead we have collected a great number of inferences of very various degrees of cogency, from the possible and hypothetical, up to strong and very strong probability. Most of our time has been taken up in weighing and testing these details, and in the endeavour to assign to each as nearly as possible its just value. It could not be thought strange if some minds were impatient of such minutiae; and where this objection was not felt, it would still be very pardonable to complain that the evidence was at best inferential and probable.