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/… – bruised reed Apr 7 '14 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. – david brainerd Apr 8 '14 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/… – The Freemason Apr 9 '14 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 '15 at 3:14
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    "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 '15 at 13:22

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 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.
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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. – Nathaniel is protesting Dec 9 '16 at 22:29

"We all know that Mark was the first Gospel ever written".

No, we do not know that. In fact the evidence is heavily against it.

For 1700 years the church was uniform in the teaching that Matthew was written first, in Hebrew, to converted Jews. Then in the 19th century liberal "scholars" began to apply the dubious practice of modern textual criticism to the Bible. This practice introduced the theory that the gospel of Mark and a non-existent document they called 'Q' were the basis of the other synoptic gospels.

Why Matthew, an eye witness, would rely on the writings of a servant of Peter who himself was only relaying what he heard Peter teach, they never explained.

You can choose to accept the relatively new teaching of textual critics that claim Mark was first, or you can rely on the accepted testimony of the church fathers from as early as the second century that clearly indicate Matthew was the first gospel written.

So, while chronology was not the primary concern in ordering the New Testament, the Gospels are in fact placed in chronological order as taught by church history.

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    Textual criticism is neither a dubious practice, nor do only "liberal" scholars practice it. – curiousdannii Apr 19 '17 at 9:23
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    There is broad consensus among Biblical scholars (”liberal” and ”conservative“) that Mark was written first. There is a small school that still subscribes to the Griesbach hypothesis or the traditional order. In any case, this does answer the question, which is “Why was Matthew listed first?” not “Was Mark written first?” – AthanasiusOfAlex Apr 19 '17 at 10:35
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    Broad consensus of modern scholars does not displace the clear teaching and testimony of the near entirety of church history. The fact that this notion of Marcan priority is a late invention and contradicts Papias, Origen, Augustine and the universal teaching of the early Church should be enough to call it into serious question. – Anthony Jul 4 '17 at 8:36
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    The reason I refer to textual criticism as dubious is because it is in many instances very subjective. Also, it has been used by several to attack basic Christian dogma. While translators will always use some form of textual comparison the almost hyper-criticism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has become in many circles more of an attack on the Biblical text than an honest study of it in my opinion. – Anthony Jul 4 '17 at 9:09

An Apostle, Matthew would have experienced first hand the gospel he was inspired by the Holy Spirit to write. It is illogical that the Holy Spirit would publish first, the second-hand account of a recent convert who accompanied Peter on his preaching journeys, at a much later date.

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One answer above seems to make sense. I am sure that the canonizers of the NT knew about Mark and that his gospel had been written first. Matthew was probably written to a Jewish audience and Mark to a gentile one. In fact, while Matthew's gospel urges disciples to avoid going to gentiles, Mark's stoy of the encounter with the Syrophonecian woman starts the transition from a Jewish mission to a gentile one. After the incident where he cures her daughter, he returns to the Decopolis where the gentiles receive him. So I think that Mark came second as a reminder that the mission to the gentiles came secondly after the mission to the Jews

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