matthew was the first gospel written

Closely connected with the supposed requirements of development [used for dating the New Testament] is the manifold tyranny of unexamined assumption – John Robinson

Modern Biblical scholarship seems to be overwhelmingly in the position that the first gospel to be written was Mark. The primary reason for this claim is that they believe Matthew used Mark as a basis. This, in effect, is saying that a direct apostle of Christ used a non-apostles’ writing on which to base his own narrative. Mark is said to have based his own version on the preaching of Peter, some accounts claim after Peter’s death. If it is claimed Mark was only using Peter’s words (by tradition, long after they were said) then it is claiming a tax collector (Matthew) copied words from a fisherman (Peter) in forming the original gospel of Matthew. This also pushes back the writing of Matthew past 64 AD (the death of Peter) at least.

Proponents of the Markian theory also overwhelmingly overlap with those claiming a source Q gospel that was in circulation before the writing of any gospel. This suggests that the writers of the Gospels were not first or second hand witnesses but basing their writings on a mysterious list of sayings, one never mentioned by anyone in antiquity. Additionally, those advocating Markan priority tend to push back dating of most books of the Bible until after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem, because they cannot imagine a world in which Jesus could allude to this before the fact. This is despite Josephus naming an entirely different Jesus who did just that (Wars of the Jews, book 6).

The primary reason people believe Mark predates Matthew is because they want to claim the longer versions of stories are fabrications or embellishment. They want to show a progressive evolution and expansion of the narrative of Christ and wish to discredit the Bible. For example, atheist Early Christian scholar Bart Ehrman, while never positing a defense for Markan priority, tends to insert this point as an indisputable fact when trying to make points against the inherency of the Bible (see Misquoting Jesus). It is unfortunate that many Christians follow suit with these people for the sake of making themselves appear more scholarly.

Of course, to claim Mark was written before Matthew is to discount the Church Fathers as well as force imaginary stories on existing evidence. Contrary to the Markan priority theory, the early church historians seem to be overwhelmingly of the position that Matthew was the earliest gospel:

3. In his [Origen’s] first book on Matthew’s Gospel, maintaining the Canon of the Church, he testifies that he knows only four Gospels, writing as follows:

4. 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.

5. 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

Origen [184/5–253/4 AD] noted that’s these four are the only indisputable ones. Origen, although not without his flaws, is a Biblical scholar whose magnum opus was a six language interlinear Old Testament Bible with commentary. He is well aware of additional gospels in circulation. He also is aware of what we currently know as the book of Mathew (as evident by existing fragments of his “Commentary on Matthew”) and cites that it was originally written in Hebrew (some claim that he means Aramaic). Origen places Matthew first. Clement (c. 150 – 215 AD) is of the same opinion:

5. Again, in the same books, Clement gives the tradition of the earliest presbyters, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:

6. 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

Although elsewhere Clement wrongly ascribes the book of Hebrews to Paul and does not agree with Origen about the second gospel written, this reference to the genealogies being composed first fits nicely into the history of Christianity. After all, the Gentiles were not ministered until Paul came on the scene and Matthew is thoroughly crafted to reach a Hebrew audience. Any Hebrew would be obsessed with genealogies (especially in proving who the Messiah would be). This also fits nicely into the common assertion by the Church Fathers that the original Matthew was written in Hebrew.

14. Papias gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel.

15. This also the presbyter said: 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.

16. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: 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 via Papias and Origen, Matthew was first written in Hebrew and then translated to Greek. Eusebius, most definitely had the Greek version we know today and equates this to Papias’ Hebrew text. It seems very early that the Hebrew Matthew original was translated into Greek and the Hebrew shunned. The diaspora and the world at large would only have use for the Greek version. Only a small Jewish minority would be able to use the Hebrew text. Hebrew text, of any kind, seems to have been used seldomly and not have been terribly well preserved. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the earliest Hebrew Old Testament texts (or of any kind) were dated in the 10th century AD. By contrast, “Premier among these ninety-four [Biblical Greek] papyri, however, are forty-three that are dated prior to or around the turn of the third/fourth centuries” [Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research]

Greek texts abounded in the ancient world when we find no traces of Hebrew.

Why do we even have these early Christian documents? Because they primarily were Alexandrian in origin (coincidently this gives those who argue in favor of accuracy in “earlier” manuscripts an Alexandrian bias). Ehrman writes:

As noted earlier, papyrus MSS survive only when protected from moisture – when placed in protective caves, jars, or buildings, or when buried in the soil of virtually rain-free regions of Egypt, Palestine, or Mesopotamia (though papyri must neither be too near the surface nor so deeply buried as to be affected by a rising water table).
[Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament in Contemporary Research]

The texts that remain do so against nature. All we have is a fragmented look into the past by documents lucky enough to be located in ideal locations and surviving two thousand years of man’s destruction. In all possibility, there could have been an original Matthew written in Hebrew that no longer exists today, as attested by the Church Fathers. In fact, the useful shelf life of a Hebrew manuscript would be so short, it would explain Tertullian’s non-mention of it:

therefore, John and Matthew first instil faith into us; while of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it afterwards. These all start with the same principles of the faith, so far as relates to the one only God the Creator and His Christ, how that He was born of the Virgin, and came to fulfil the law and the prophets. [Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book 4]

Tertullian [160-225 AD] indicates that John and Matthew wrote the first gospels, followed by Luke and Mark. He quotes exclusively from the Greek Matthew, never mentioning the Hebrew version. Either it was a non-issue to him, or the original language of Matthew had already fallen from memory due to the abundance of the Greek translation.

But what of Greek idioms in Matthew? Despite the fact that sometimes Jesus most likely spoke in Greek (John 3:7 is the use of a Greek idiom) in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic, translators sometimes transliterate idioms across languages during translation:

A knowledge of Hebrew and especially of Aramaic will occasionally throw light upon a variant reading in the Gospels. For example, the words of Jesus in Mark 14.25, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God,” are transmitted in three different forms… It appears that the Eucharistic words of Jesus, which were undoubtedly spoken in Aramaic or Hebrew to the apostles, have been preserved in literalistic fashion in the third variant reading, whereas the other two readings provide alternative interpretations of the meaning, expressed in more idiomatic Greek. (The second reading, in fact, can be called a misinterpretation, for it omits the idea expressed by “again.”) [Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament, 4th Edition, p 331]

Translators sometimes try to bridge the idiom gap and write to their reader’s language. There is no reason Matthew could not have been written in Hebrew originally.

Mark, then, could have been written at a later date to those speaking Greek, specifically written to Greek Jews and non-Jews. He would form his gospel after the Hebrew gospel penned by Matthew and based on the later teachings of Peter. He would neutralize Jewish elements in the Gospel and more focus on reaching the audience of Peter (the diaspora). This would result in a “reader’s digest” version of Matthew, conveniently as to what Mark is commonly referred. This would also explain why sometimes Matthew and Luke agree word for word where Mark differs.

Mark is not the earliest Gospel. Mark was written during the waning of the Hebrew mission and the rise of the diaspora and Greek mission. It was written as a Readers Digest version of Matthew, shedding very Hebrew centric ideas in favor of more broadly accepted ideas.

See also: Dating the Biblical Book of Mark

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
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22 Responses to matthew was the first gospel written

  1. Pingback: Speaking of St. Mark…. « A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics

  2. Keith says:

    Christopher, what do you think is the earliest possible date for Matthew?

    • I just made a post that tangentially answers your question:

      If Mark was written 45AD and Matthew before it, we can cap the oldest that Matthew can be at 45AD. Robinson dates it between 40-60AD although I don’t know of any reason why it could not be mid-30s.

      • realexodos says:

        ‘mid-30s’ I like that.

      • Gary says:

        Dr. Wilbur Pickering who published “THE GREEK NEW TESTAMENT according to Family 35 found colophons written by scribes at the end of the Gospels. I will let him explain:

        “”In the colophons, f35 [50%] have, “published eight years after the ascension of Christ” [Matthew], to which all but f35 add, “in Jerusalem”. For 50% of the MSS to have this information probably means that the tradi-tion is ancient; and of course, I have demonstrated, to my own satisfaction at least, that f35 goes back at least to the 3rd century. If this information is correct, then Matthew was ‘published’ in 38/39 AD. The same sources have Mark published two years later (40/41) and Luke another five years later (45/46), while John was ‘published’ thirty-two years after the ascension, or 61/62 AD. Not only were the au-thors eyewitnesses of the events, but many others were still alive when the Gospels appeared. “

  3. Pingback: dating the biblical book of mark | reality is not optional

  4. Pixie says:

    ” This, in effect, is saying that a direct apostle of Christ used a non-apostles’ writing on which to base his own narrative.”

    Your argument against Mark being written first seems to be based on the assumption that Matthew was actually written by the apostle Matthew. No, it is not saying that “a direct apostle of Christ used a non-apostles’ writing on which to base his own narrative”, it is saying some anonymous author used a non-apostles’ writing on which to base his own narrative, and this second narrative later became associated with Matthew.

    • That is exactly what I am assuming. The author to whom all the world, and all the ancients, ascribe the Gospel of Matthew was the actual author of Matthew. Crazy, I know. Maybe you should clarify your evidence that it was not written by Matthew. The intro quote about “unexamined assumptions” is relevant. The John Robinson link gives plenty of reasons for an early date of Matthew.

      If Matthew is early and widely attributed to Matthew, why should we believe otherwise?

      This blog post is directed towards those who believe the Bible, many of whom accept the order that the critics suggest, although not understanding their reasons.

      • james jordan says:

        “If Matthew is early and widely attributed to Matthew, why should we believe otherwise?”

        Papias says that Matthew wrote the sayings of the Lord in the language of the Hebrews, and each one interpreted (i.e. translated) as best he could…right?

        So our Matthew is a translation, or in fact, one of many translations. And Papias seems to not have much confidence in any of the translations. “As best they could” is certainly a jibe at their quality. What we have received by tradition is no Greek KJV of the original Matthew. Its more like a Greek NIV of the original Matthew. And there’s the rub.

        • Definitely true. And when Jesus spoke in Aramaic, his sayings were interpreted into Greek. And then, some of Paul’s and Jesus’ quotes come from the Greek translation of the Old Testament. I don’t see translations as necessarily resetting the date on books.

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  6. Pingback: failed prophecies in matthew | reality is not optional

  7. Pingback: the ending of the gospel of mark | reality is not optional

  8. FactsAreNotOptional says:

    It’s nice to see that you’re interested in early Christian literature. Ever considered taking an introductory course in New Testament at your local university?

    • Welcome to the blog. Perhaps you might want to list out specific criticisms. Then we can examine them individually. I always find that direct scrutiny of specific concepts is a better way to find the truth rather than veiled ad hominem attacks. As to the appeal to authority gambit, enjoy.

  9. james jordan says:

    The original Mathew was written first, but all 4 canonical gospels were written last. That is, all the canonical gospels in their present form have gone through pro-Pauline editing. Matthew 19 the change of “Why do you ask me what is good? One thing is good, so if you would enter life, keep the commandments” to “Why do you call me good? None is good but God. But if you would enter life, keep the commandments” is proof of it. And its not alone.

    Matthew was written first, then Mark, then Luke. Then all three were edited to conform to Paul somewhat. Then John was written. Then all four were edited somewhat more.

    • Thank you for the informative comments. I wish there was a “like” button on comments.

      If all 4 gospels have undergone Pauline revisions then this seems to contradict your other point that Paul was ignored until the 1900s (which I agree with). The four gospels seem to contradict Paul (John being the most Pauline gospel). They reaffirm that Jesus was sent only to the Jews, that Jesus was teaching works salvation to a coming physical kingdom (that would overthrow the Romans), and that Jesus was preaching an imminent end. If you can elaborate on what fashion of Pauline edits were made that would be useful.

  10. Sean Grimes says:

    From what I’ve researched so far, dating the Gospels and pinpointing exactly who wrote them is impossible. Even the early church fathers seemed to have had issues on this topic and just had to come to an agreement because the original authors had long been deceased. All we can agree upon is that the writings were anonymous, they were not written right after the crucifixion of Jesus and they were not written before Paul’s letters. We can only deal with the actual evidence we have access to and unfortunately, the copies of the manuscripts that are available won’t tell us much.

    One can simply read the introduction to the book of Matthew to get some insight on this problem.

    I’m no scholar, but if I’m presented with a non-original anonymous document 100 years or more after it was written, at best, I can only say for a fact that it is anonymous and give my personal opinion on who I think MAY have authored it.

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  12. Brent Ewing says:

    Christopher, James wrote, “And if any one of you is lacking wisdom, let him ask of God ~ Who simply gives to all and doesn’t put to shame ~ and it will be given to him. And let him ask in trust, while not wavering.” As I read your comments back to the comments above, I was impressed with the gentle goodness of your answers, and thought it was probably the result of wisdom sent from God.
    Just wanted to encourage you.

  13. RD777 says:

    For over 1,900 years, the church said Matthew was written for Jews, and that it was written before Mark. That is why it appears first. Page 476 of the book I’m reading called “The Tryptych of the Kingdom” has Matthew dated between 50-55 A.D, and Mark thereafter up to 62 A.D. Luke around 65 A.D., and John between 90-100 A.D. I cannot stand reading Wikipedia which says Matthew did nothing but copy Mark, and that “scholars” agree Matthew was written from 70-110 A.D. ! What bosh ! I do not posess the Wikipedia editing skills to change this. They are so biased against the history of Christianity it is disgusting. What can be done ? To the anti-Christians, a date before 70 A.D. is critical because they want us to believe that Christ’s prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction was after-the-fact.
    Just like today, when they claim that “wailing wall” is a wall of Herod’s temple, when in reality it
    is not a wall of the temple, but a wall of the Roman Fort Antonia.

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