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