Which Gospels was Written First?

(This post was supposed to go out last Saturday, but I realized yesterday it hadn’t.)

The order of the Gospels in the New Testament is Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, however, scholars typically believe they were written in a different order. How did they come to this conclusion?

In my article What is the Synoptic Problem?, I showed there is so much in common between the Synoptic Gospels that the later Gospels must have copied from the first one written. How much is in common in the Synoptic Gospels? As you can see below, most of the content in Mark is found in Matthew, and a large percent is also found in Luke.

Gospels

Content in Common1

Matthew and Mark

  • Matthew 60%
  • Mark 97%

Mark and Luke

  • Mark 88%
  • Luke 47%

Matthew and Luke, but not Mark2

  • Matthew 1%
  • Luke 1%

In other words, one or more synoptic gospel used one or more synoptic gospel. Altogether there are eighteen possible permutations of this theory, though three have presented themselves as the most plausible:  (1) the Augustinian hypothesis: Matthew wrote first and was utilized by Mark whose gospel was used by Luke; (2) the Griesbach hypothesis (suggested by J. J. Griesbach in 1776): Matthew wrote first and was used by Luke, both of whom were used by Mark; and (3) the Holtzmann/Streeter hypothesis (suggested by H. J. Holtzmann in 1863, and refined [and complicated!] by B. H. Streeter in 1924): Mark wrote first and was used independently by Matthew and Luke.3

Was Matthew Written First?

While there is little internal evidence Matthew was written first, some of the church fathers in the second to fourth centuries indicate it may have been. Eusebius of Caesarea, writing about A.D. 310-325, quotes an earlier source, Clement of Alexandria (about A.D. 150-215), saying “The Gospels containing the genealogies [Matthew and Luke]…were written first.”4. This indicates either Matthew or Luke was the first Gospel written.

Two other quotes I found by church fathers, Origen of Alexandria  and Irenaeus of Lyons, give the traditional order of the Gospels:

Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a publican, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew language. The second is by Mark, who composed it according to the instructions of Peter And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John.5.

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.6

Notice Origen writes  “Hebrew language” and Irenaeus writes “Hebrew dialect”. Modern scholars are unsure if the language was Hebrew or Aramaic. Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew, and even uses the same alphabet. Aramaic was commonly spoken in Jesus’s time, and Jesus likely knew both Hebrew and Aramaic (and probably Greek, the international trade language at the time).7

Some people argue the style of writing in the Gospel of Matthew indicates it was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. The quotes above are clear Matthew was written first, and in Hebrew.

Was Mark Written First?

There are several pieces of internal evidence in the Gospels suggesting Mark was written first:

In some places Mark has the longest description of an event8. If Mark was copied from Matthew or Luke, the author could have removed details, but he’s less likely to add them, because it’s believed he wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, and wouldn’t have had first-hand knowledge of the events. On the other hand, Matthew could have added details to Mark’s account, since he was an eyewitness. The counter-argument is that the Gospel of Mark is based on the teachings of Peter, and Peter would have been able to expand on what Matthew had written.

Mark has a few words written in Aramaic along with their Greek translations (Mark 7:11 (ESV)9, Mark 7:34 (ESV)10), but these Aramaic words are not used in Matthew or Luke. Since the Gospel of Mark was written for the Christians in Rome, most of whom would have spoken Greek, there would be no need to add the Aramaic words if he were copying an earlier Gospel. It seems more likely the author used the Aramaic words because he received them from his source, then translated them into Greek for his intended audience.

Some of Mark’s wording could be misunderstood. Compare the parallel verses where Jesus is in his hometown of Nazareth and the people rejected him (Matthew 13:53-58 ESV, Mark 6:1-6 ESV):

  • Matthew 13:58 (ESV): And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.
  • Mark 6:5 (ESV): And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

Matthew states Jesus “did not do many mighty works there” while Mark states “could do no mighty work there”. The wording in Matthew implies Jesus chose not to perform miracles, while Mark’s wording almost seems like he wasn’t able, or didn’t have the power, to perform miracles. It is more likely Matthew cleared up a possible misunderstanding in Mark, than Mark creating a possible misunderstanding from Matthew.11

Sometimes Matthew or Luke have different wording than Mark, but it’s rare both of them do. This is best explained by Mark being written first, and one of the  later Gospels following Mark’s example and the other Gospel changing the text to what the author thought was clearer or more appropriate for the intended purpose or audience. For both Matthew and Luke to disagree with Mark could be a coincidence.

When the order of events in the Gospels is different, either Matthew and Mark agree, or Mark and Luke agree. There aren’t any cases where Matthew and Luke agree and Mark is different.12

Was Luke Written First?

It seems the majority of people who advocate Luke was written first are basing the opinion on the quote “The Gospels containing the genealogies…were written first.”13, but this quote doesn’t indicate if the first Gospel was Matthew or Luke, just that one of them was. Actually, it’s even possible this is referring to Hebrew (or Aramaic) Matthew and Greek Matthew; it may not even be referring to Luke at all. It clearly does not put Mark first, since it has no genealogy. The statement contradicts the quotes by Origen and Irenaeus, which both list Luke third.

Was John written first?

John is believed to have been written last, to cover the gaps left by the Synoptic Gospels. It seems no scholars seriously consider the possibility John was written first.

Summary

Both Matthew and Mark have good arguments for being the first Gospel written. The Matthew theory is supported by the church fathers14, while the Mark theory is supported by the internal evidence. Scholars can make educated guesses which Gospel was written first, but there’s not enough evidence to prove any of the theories. The most widely accepted theory puts Mark first, then Matthew, Luke and John. Should scholars trust the internal evidence or the church fathers? Are scholars overlooking additional information which would help resolve the issue? Any real evidence has been lost to us, but for Christians, it doesn’t really matter which one was written first: all the Gospels are the Word of God.

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV)

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.
  2. Matthew and Luke have in common about 235 verses not found in Mark. (Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.)
  3. Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.
  4. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XIV, Paragraph  6-7.  (CCEL.org)
  5. Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 184-253). Quoted in: Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XXV, Paragraphs 4-6.  (CCEL.org)
  6. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies (On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis) (A.D. 175-190) Book III, Chapter I, Paragraph 1. (Early Christian Writings)
  7. Whether these ancient authors were referring to Hebrew or Aramaic, however, is not entirely clear. Some scholars have argued that when Papias said “Hebrew” he really meant “Aramaic.” The difference between Aramaic and Hebrew is not great. The two languages are related to each other roughly like Spanish and French. Both languages share many words, either in an exact or similar form, and have a similar grammar; there are of course many differences as well, both in vocabulary and grammar, as one would expect in different though cognate languages. By the first century A.D. both languages, Hebrew and Aramaic, also used the same script, so that by that time they even looked alike. (Howard, George. “Was The Gospel of Matthew Originally Written In Hebrew?” in Bible Review (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2:4, Winter 1986))
  8. But anyone who studies a synopsis of the Gospels where the common material is arranged in parallel columns will see that for the most part it is Matthew and not Mark who abridges. Mark, of course, omits more than half the material which appears in Matthew; but for the material which they have in common Mark is usually fuller than Matthew. (Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) Location 637.)
  9. But you [Pharisees] say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”‘ (that is, given to God)–then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:11 ESV)
  10. And looking up to heaven, he [Jesus] sighed and said to him [a deaf man], “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” (Mark 7:34 ESV)
  11. There  are  several  passages  in  Mark  which paint a portrait  of  Jesus  (or  the  disciples,  etc.)  that  could be  misunderstood.  These  passages  have  been altered  in  either  Matthew or Luke or both on every occasion.(Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.)
  12. …in the narratives common to all three, Matthew and Luke agree in sequence only  when they agree with Mark; when they both diverge from Mark, they both go in different directions.  What  best  accounts  for  this?  Most  NT  scholars  have  assumed  that  Markan priority  does. (Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Eddetdsd.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.)
  13. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book VI, Chapter XIV, Paragraph  6-7.  (CCEL.org)
  14. Black, David Alan. Why Four Gospels? (Credo, August 13, 2018; Website) Accessed 21-Jun-2019.

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  1. […] my last two articles I’ve researched What is the Synoptic Problem? and Which Gospel was Written First?. It is frequently accepted by modern scholars that Mark was written first, and the Gospels of […]

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