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: shatteredparadigm.blogspot.com.au/2008/06/… Apr 7, 2014 at 15:23
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    "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. Apr 8, 2014 at 3:30
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    FYI, you can read them that way if you'd like: biblestudytools.com/resources/guide-to-bible-study/… Apr 9, 2014 at 20:22
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    @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, 2015 at 3:14
  • 3
    "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, 2015 at 13:22

5 Answers 5


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. Apr 9, 2014 at 6:11

It's because the early church fathers thought that Matthew was written first. This is known as the Augustinian Hypothesis, and its namesake, 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)

But Augustine isn't the first to make this claim; he relies an existing tradition, such as what is recorded by Eusebius. He reports the testimony of earlier fathers in his Ecclesiastical History, like 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.

In response to the possible objection that these early fathers believed that Matthew was first because it was first in the collections they had, let me add a brief addendum. While this view is theoretically a possibility, it is problematic because:

  1. The testimony of Matthean priority is very early – already appearing in the second century.
  2. The order of the NT books, including the gospels, was still in significant flux during this period, so it would not have been natural to assume that the order of appearance automatically implied a historical order.
  3. The earliest traditions have Matthew being the only gospel originally written in "Hebrew" (probably Aramaic – EH 3.39.16), more closely associating it with the time of Jesus.

Many of the church fathers saw a correspondence between the Gospels and the four living creatures in Revelation 4:5-11. They disagreed over which living creature went with which gospel. However, if the correspondence was this:

Lion = Matthew
Ox = Mark
Man = Luke
Eagle = John

then the gospels are ordered according to the order of the four living creatures in Revelation. Furthermore, it is believed that the four major tribes, Judah, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan, each carried a standard bearing the image of an animal (or in one case, a man). Judah (from whom King David came), was the lion, etc. These then corresponded to prophecies in Ezekiel 1 and 10, and from there to Revelation. For the lengthy analysis, see here:


From the above, individuals who accept this particular association of creatures and gospel writers include:

Charles Feinberg
Norman L. Geisler 
William E. Nix

The correlation is deepened by noting the focus of each gospel writer. Matthew wrote to the Jews about Jesus the King (the Lion). Mark gave no lineage for Jesus, so that befits a servant (the Ox). Luke calls Jesus the Son of Man (the Man). John shows Jesus as The Word, as divine, (the Eagle). Note how the synoptic gospels are earthbound, while John (the Eagle) flies.

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    +1, interesting idea. My investigation of this some time ago suggests, however, that not that many fathers associated the Lion with Matthew. For this to have been the original source of the books being in the current order, we'd expect the earliest fathers to have taken this route, but that doesn't appear to be the case. Dec 9, 2016 at 22:29

I believe that since the focus of Mark, as the first Gospel written, was to support persecuted Christians in Rome, the details found in the other Gospels could wait. These persecuted Christians needed support quickly, and Mark took on this role. If I was being tortured or my friends and family were being killed, I would be less concerned about the details of what I already believed, and more concerned with answers about how to deal with the suffering going on around me.

  • Welcome to Christianity! However, this doesn't answer the question, which is why Matthew's gospel is listed before Mark's gospel in the New Testament. Answer posts such as these should attempt to answer the question. Please see the help center to learn how this site works.
    – Null
    Oct 27, 2020 at 16:05
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    Sorry, Lawrence but this answer is more a personal reflection and opinion about the question being asked. As such I am deleting it. You remain free to edit your post and add in documented sources and flag it to be reopened.
    – Ken Graham
    Oct 27, 2020 at 16:45

In the absence of definitive answers, I'll note one plausible theory (published here). First of all, there was no assumption that the gospels should be arranged in order of composition. Paul's letters, for example, clearly are not, but follow descending length (with Hebrews and letters to individuals grouped separately at the end). When early Christians began transmitting their scriptures in a codex (i.e., a book rather than a scroll), the single-quire papyrus codex then in common use was of limited capacity. Such a volume could accommodate all of Paul's letters, or any pair of gospels besides the two longest (Luke and Matthew). Therefore, the four gospels were arranged into two codices, with Matthew and Luke heading separate volumes, and proceeding within each volume by descending length:

Matthew – Mark | Luke – John

But someone early on noticed that the volume sizes could be better balanced by swapping the shorter two gospels, which yielded the second-most-prevalent ancient order, the Western order:

Matthew – John | Luke – Mark

As to why Matthew preceded Luke, presumably Matthew held a certain priority in the minds of the earliest Christians, who cited Mark and Luke much less frequently.

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