I once read that the letters of Paul were placed in the New Testament ordered by size, starting from Romans and ending with Philemon.

What was the criterion for ordering the gospels then, since the most obvious metrics such as size and chronology don't seem to apply?

I couldn't find anything in the Gospel's wiki page or any obvious answer on google.

I can imagine why the Synoptics are placed together, but why in this specific order, and why not start with John?

3 Answers 3


There was initially no uniform ordering of the 4 gospels within the lists we found embedded in the Patristic writings. From the 2021 The New Testament In Order article by Jacob Prahlow:

While we are not 100% certain what these collections initially would have looked like, by the late-second and early-third centuries, several clear groupings had emerged:

  • Gospels (often, but not always in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and sometimes including a Luke-Acts collection)
  • Pauline Epistles (often, but not always arranged largest to smallest, Romans to Pastorals, sometimes including Hebrews and sometimes not)
  • General Epistles (typically James to Jude)

There was no uniform standard in the earliest years of these collections, as usefulness and accessibility often governed what an early Christian community might have in their growing collection of scriptura. The Gospels were the most commonly circulated, followed by the works of Paul. Everything else enjoyed a pattern of usage that sometimes varied by geography. Finally, in the early fourth century, we begin to see evidence of the New Testament canon as we have it today:

  • Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  • Acts
  • Pauline Epistles: Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon3
  • General Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude
  • Revelation

This order was popularized by the time of Athanasius of Alexandria’s Festal Letter 39 and eventually became the standard ordering of the New Testament canon.

The current Gospels's ordering follows the chronological order of St. Augustine's hypothesis (cf his The Harmony of the Gospels Book 1, chapter 2, paragraph 4, c. AD 400), attested in extant manuscript as old as Codex Sinaiticus (mid-4th century), but which is now disputed since most scholars today believe Mark was written first and John last.


The early manuscripts present the Gospels in a variety of orders:

  1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (most manuscripts)
  2. Matthew, John, Luke, Mark (Codex Bezae, Codex Washingtonianus, the Old Latin)
  3. Matthew, Mark, John, Luke (Curetonian Syriac)


The sequence Matthew, Mark, Luke, John is strongly associated with Augustine, but can be traced even earlier, to Origen of Alexandria (3rd century), who recorded:

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.

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.'

And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John. (as preserved in Eusebius historia ecclesiastica 6.25.4-6)

The Patristic evidence (the writings of early Christian historians) favor two possibilities:

  1. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John (Origen, Augustine, implied by the Muratorian Fragment, sometimes Irenaeus)
  2. Matthew, Luke, Mark, John (implied by Clement, sometimes Irenaeus)

It is noteworthy that Matthew is always first. In the early sources there's no dispute, debate, or competing theory. Matthew is always first. The "Western order" which puts John 2nd is often thought of as an order of prominence--it puts the apostles first and the the associates of apostles (Luke & Mark) after the apostles.

It is also noteworthy that Origen of Alexandria disagrees with his own teacher, Clement of Alexandria. Origen puts Mark 2nd; Clement puts Mark 3rd.

The evidence is abundant that the early church believed that Matthew's Gospel was written first and John's Gospel was written last, and thus it comes as no surprise that Matthew's Gospel is always listed first and John is usually last. However, the early church appears less certain on the sequence between Mark & Luke; it is not difficult to hypothesize why this may be.

The Gospels were written in different parts of the Mediterranean (most sources put Matthew in Judea or Syria, Mark in Rome, Luke in Achaia, John in Ephesus). If Mark and Luke were written within a few years of each other, some churches would have obtained Mark's Gospel before Luke's, and some churches would have obtained Luke's Gospel before Mark's. Notably, the highly influential church in Rome is where Mark's Gospel is said to have originated. I explore this topic further in this video on my channel, where I argue that Mark's Gospel was written third, but that the Christians in Rome did not have Luke's Gospel until a few years after Mark was written.

If this argument is correct, the reason for the different ordering would be as follows:

  • Matthew, Luke, Mark, John: the chronological order in which they were written
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, John: the chronological order in which the highly influential church in Rome received the Gospels

I recognize that "Markan Priority" (the view that Mark was the first of the Synoptic Gospels written) is highly popular in academia today. In this video on my channel I review the major arguments for Markan Priority, and show that each is circular, reversible, or both: Why I Do Not Believe in Markan Priority.


It seems likely that they are ordered by the year in which they were written, with the exception that Matthew and Mark are switched. It seems natural that Matthew is placed first because it is written to a Jewish audience and has such a high incidence of Old Testament quotation. It is a natural bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament.

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