In the early history of the Christian Church, the church fathers asserted that Matthew was the first to write the gospels, yet in recent years many have asserted that Mark was the first author. The intention of this blog is to examine the arguments for both so readers can develop their own conclusions. I will also present my conclusion.
Arguments supporting Mark as the first author
Two hypotheses have been advanced to assert Markan priority: the Two-Source Hypothesis, which claims that Mark wrote first and Matthew and Luke wrote independently and based their gospels on both Mark and a Q (or Quelle) source (although the Q source was never mentioned by anyone in antiquity); and the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis, which asserts that Matthew based his gospel on Mark’s while Luke based his gospel on both Matthew and Mark.
Supporters of the theory that Mark was the first to write the gospels give several reasons: (1) Mark’s literary style lacks the sophistication and polish that is found in Luke and Matthew. They believe that Luke and Matthew improved upon Mark’s style – rather than Mark degraded Luke’s and Matthew’s texts; (2) Mark’s gospel includes potentially “embarrassing” passages that portray Jesus and His disciples in an undignified way; (3) because there is (somewhat unusual) material in Mark that Luke and Matthew did not include (1: 1; 2: 27; 3: 20– 21; 4: 26– 29; 7: 2– 4, 32– 37; 8: 22– 26; 9: 29, 48– 49; 13: 33– 37; 14: 51– 52), supporters feel that it is easier to suggest that Luke and Matthew chose to ignore these passages rather than believe that Mark chose to add these passages to the exclusion of more significant passages, such as the Sermon on the Mount, the genealogies, the infancy narrative, and the Lord’s Prayer; (4) Luke and Matthew diverge from one another in the passages in which there is no Mark to follow, such as in the infancy narrative; (5) Mark has a more primitive theology than Matthew and Luke, so supporters believe Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel and applied upgrades; (6) Mark’s gospel is the shortest with 661 verses and 11,025 words. Matthew’s gospel contains 1068 verses and 18,293 words, while Luke’s gospel contains 1149 verses and 19,376 words; (7) 97% of Mark’s gospel is duplicated in Matthew, whereas 60% of Matthew’s gospel and 47% of Luke’s gospel is duplicated in Mark. Accordingly, supporters question why Mark would write his gospel after Matthew, knowing his unique contributions would be minimal. The last two points were referenced from here: https://bible.org/article/synoptic-problem.
Arguments supporting Matthew as the first author
Two hypotheses have been advanced to support Matthean priority: the Augustinian-Butler hypothesis, which proposes that Mark referenced Matthew, while Luke referenced both Matthew and Mark; and the Griesbach-Farmer hypothesis, which proposes that Luke referenced Matthew, while Mark used both Matthew and Luke.
Supporters of the theory that Matthew was the first author state that a direct apostle of Christ and educated tax collector would not have based his writings on a non-apostle who based his account on the preaching of Peter, a fisherman. Supporters may further question why a more educated and sophisticated man, Matthew, would heavily rely on a source considered grammatically and theologically inferior? Finally, supporters could point to Deuteronomy 17: 6-7, which underscores the importance of having two witnesses to a testimony instead of only one, to explain Mark’s decision to contribute only 3% of his own unique material to Matthew’s narrative.
Supporters also note that early church fathers claimed Matthew to be the first author. In his first book on Matthew’s gospel, Origen (184 – 253 A.D.) said the following:
“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, who in his Catholic epistle acknowledges him as a son, saying, ‘The church that is at Babylon elected together with you, salutes you, and so does Marcus, my son.’ 1 Peter 5:13.”
Eusebius, Church History, Book 6.
Clement (150 – 215 A.D.) is of the same opinion:
“The gospels containing the genealogies, he says, were written first. The gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome, and declared the gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the gospel he gave it to those who had requested it.”
Eusebius, Church History, Book 6.
Papias’ opinion (which is based on traditions handed down by the presbyter John) maintains the ordering:
“Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely. These things are related by Papias concerning Mark.”
“So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” Eusebius, Church History, Book 3
According to Eusebius (based on Papias and Origen), Matthew first wrote his gospel in Hebrew and it was later translated to Greek. Click here for an expansion of this argument: https://realityisnotoptional.com/2012/01/10/matthew-was-the-first-gospel-written/
In his book The Harmony of the Gospels, St. Augustine (354 – 430 A.D.) also affirms the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John ordering of the gospels (Chapter II):
“Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world, and whose number has been fixed as four,–it may be for the simple reason that there are four divisions of that world through the universal length of which they, by their number as by a kind of mystical sign, indicated the advancing extension of the Church of Christ,–are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John.”
“Matthew and Luke have in common about 235 verses not found in Mark. The verbal agreements between these two is often as striking as it is between Matthew and Mark, Mark and Luke, or Matthew and Mark and Luke. Cf., e.g., Matt 6:24/Luke 16:13; Matt 7:7-11/Luke 11:9-13. Only two viable reasons for such parallels can be given: either one gospel writer knew and used the gospel of the other, or both used a common source. Lukan priority is virtually excluded on the basis of a number of considerations (not the least of which is his improved grammar, as well as the major gap in his use of Mark), leaving Matthean priority as the only viable option for intra-gospel borrowing.” (Source: https://bible.org/article/synoptic-problem).
Atheists and agnostics often support the Markan tradition, likely so they can make the assertion that the fact that Mark’s earliest gospel ended with the empty tomb discovery (and did not detail the resurrection of Jesus) that the later synoptic authors embellished upon Mark’s gospel to assert that Jesus rose from the dead. Though John’s gospel contains 92% unique material and includes an account of the resurrection, atheists often make little mention of his gospel, only noting that it was the last to be written.
Of course they ignore the undisputed verse that is contained and its implications: Mark 16:6
“‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.'”
Though we cannot be certain as to whether Matthew or Mark was the first to write the gospels, we can find evidence to support each of the four aforementioned hypotheses. Markan supporters heavily weight the brevity of Mark’s gospel in their decisions, suggesting that he had little to add to Matthew’s more sophisticated and theologically superior gospel. Yet proposing that one of Christ’s apostles would base his gospel on the writings of a less sophisticated, less educated, and less theologically knowledgeable non-apostle follower of Peter seems to me to be too much of a stretch. Furthermore, claiming Markan priority stands in stark contrast to that which was confirmed by the early church fathers. I therefore prefer the Matthean tradition, yet I realize that my opinion varies from some of today’s great apologists, and there may be more information I haven’t considered to support a Markan priority.
Thank you for your time.
Augustine of Hippo (version 2004). The Harmony of the Gospels. Retrieved March 3, 2018 at https://www.basilica.ca/documents/2016/10/St.%20Augustine-%20The%20Harmony%20of%20the%20Gospels.pdf
Fisher, C. (2012). Matthew was the first gospel written. Retrieved March 3, 2018 at https://realityisnotoptional.com/2012/01/10/matthew-was-the-first-gospel-written/