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

If the Early Fathers didn't know Mark was the earliest gospel when they compiled NT, surely they could reverse their decision when 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: shatteredparadigm.blogspot.com.au/2008/06/… –  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
The books are ordered by size and grouped. Why would Mark be first? –  The Freemason Apr 9 '14 at 20:19
FYI, you can read them that way if you'd like: biblestudytools.com/resources/guide-to-bible-study/… –  The Freemason Apr 9 '14 at 20:22

3 Answers 3

up vote 11 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

I don't claim to know why our Bibles include the Gospels in the order that they do. I'll be interested if somebody else on here has a definitive answer to that question.

But why do you suppose they should be included by the order in which they were written? I don't organize the books on my bookshelves by their copyright dates: I group them in ways that seem logical to me. I've written a couple of books and I most certainly did not arrange the chapters in the order in which I wrote them. I arranged the chapters in an order that seemed to me to build a logical progression. Like, put chapters that discuss the basics before chapters that discuss more advanced topics.

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I have read that the early church fathers put Matthew first because they thought it was the earliest and also was more important than Mark (Sermon on the Mount, etc.)

We now have good reason to believe that Mark was first from textual and literary analysis. Nevertheless, it is really bucking against tradition to reorder the books. Also it would confuse people to have different versions of the Bible containing the books in different order. Think of the difficulty Catholics experience when picking up a Protestant Bible, even if it includes the Deutero-Canonical books (and vice versa).

I have heard of some missionaries who distribute the New Testament in foreign countries having a version printed with John first. It avoids having potential readers getting bogged down in the genealogies and giving up too soon.

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