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We all know that Mark was the first gospel ever written. Why then is it that when the New Testament was compiled, Mark was not listed as the first book in the New Testament? What are the reasons that the Early Fathers put Matthew first?

If the Early Fathers didn't know Mark was the earliest gospel when they compiled New Testament, surely they could reverse their decision if they knew, couldn't they?

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"We all know that Mark is the earliest gospel ever written" - at least some of the ante-Nicene fathers thought otherwise & I though I'm no expert, I'm more inclined to agree with them than the "all know" crowd until I've done further study:… – bruised reed Apr 7 '14 at 15:23
"We all know that Mark is the earliest gospel ever written" -- this is simply conjecture based on the assumption that since it is the shortest it must have come first. The church fathers tended to believe Matthew was written first actually. – david brainerd Apr 8 '14 at 3:30
FYI, you can read them that way if you'd like:… – The Freemason Apr 9 '14 at 20:22
@bruisedreed I recently read a letter to the editor of my local paper that said "we all know that millions of people lost their lives in the inquisition." – Andrew Aug 8 at 3:14
"We all know ..." This is a very widely accepted theory -- I think it's probably true -- but we don't really "know" it. – Jay Aug 10 at 13:22

2 Answers 2

up vote 16 down vote accepted

There was no mandate that the gospels should appear in the order they were written once they were gathered into a collection. This is true of the rest of the New Testament as well. The order is

  1. the gospel accounts,
  2. the history of the early church,
  3. the letters of Paul
    • to churches,
    • to people,
  4. letters by other apostles, and
  5. prophecy.

So, there are a lot of ways the New Testament could have been organized. They could have organized all the letters according to when they were written rather than by whom and to whom. Additionally, once John was written, they could have put that first, since its first statement corresponds to the first statement in the first book of the Old Testament.

Whatever the reason, the date of writing does not appear to be the primary consideration in organizing the books of the New Testament.

One possible explanation, however, could have been that Matthew seems to present Jesus specifically as the King of the Jews, while Mark presents Jesus as the Son of Man. The idea that the gospel was for the Jew first and then also to the Gentile could have been the reason why Matthew was placed first.

I do know that some Jewish people, who do pick up the New Testament, are often shocked to find in the very first verses a link from Jesus to Abraham. This can shatter some false stereotypes that the New Testament is antisemitic. In fact, in his book Betrayed, Stan Telchin had this exact reaction. So, again, that is at least a plausible explanation as to why Matthew is first.

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In Greek manuscripts, the general epistles are grouped with Acts. The ordering is: Gospels, Acts and General Epistles, Paul and Hebrews, Revelation. And Hebrews often comes between the epistles to churches and the epistles to individuals, rather than at the end of the Pauline Corpus. You're thinking in terms of modern Protestant ordering. – david brainerd Apr 9 '14 at 6:11

It's because the church fathers thought Matthew was written first. Augustine writes:

Now, those four evangelists whose names have gained the most remarkable circulation over the whole world [...] are believed to have written in the order which follows: first Matthew, then Mark, thirdly Luke, lastly John. (Harmony of the Gospels, 1.2)

Eusebius reports the testimony of earlier fathers in his Ecclesiastical History. One that he cites is Irenaeus (d. 202), who thought that Matthew was written before Mark:

Matthew published his Gospel among the Hebrews in their own language, while Peter and Paul were preaching and founding the church in Rome. After their departure Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, also transmitted to us in writing those things which Peter had preached. (Ecclesiastical History, 5.8.2–3)

Eusebius also reports that Clement of Alexandria (d. 215) thought that Matthew preceded Mark (Ecclesiastical History, 6.14.5–6). In light of this apparently general agreement, it's not surprising that these two Gospels are in the order they are in.

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FYI, there is some debate as to whether the church fathers placed Matthew first because they thought it was written first, or whether they decided it was written first because it was already placed first. While I think the former is much more likely, there is at least one document that states the letters of Paul are in the order they were written when that is certainly not true. (Paul's letters are actually in order from longest to shortest.) So, the latter option is not impossible. – ThaddeusB Sep 10 at 15:05
Thanks for the tip; I'll investigate that. – Nathaniel Sep 10 at 15:27

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