I’ve been blogging on the Gospels for two years now, and I thought I’d comment on the debate as to whose Gospel was written first, Matthew’s or Mark’s. The New Testament is traditionally ordered so that Matthew’s Gospel always comes first. The Fathers of the early church chose this order – Matthew – Mark – Luke – John – based on their understanding of the chronological order in which the Gospels were written. Thus the early Christian church believed that Matthew’s Gospel was written first (in Hebrew) and that John’s Gospel was written last. According to Wikipedia’s article on Markan Priority, Papias (130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340) Jerome (c. 340-420), and Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430), accepted this order of priority.
Wikipedia also tells us that several German Scripture scholars of the eighteenth and nineteenth century proposed that Mark wrote his Gospel first. These scholars include Gottlob Storr (Philosophy & Theology: Tubingen 1768), Karl Lachmann (Philology: Konigsberg ~1820), Christian Wilke (Philosophy & Theology: Leipzig ~1810), Christian Weisse (Philosophy: Leipzig, ~1830), and Heinrich Holtzmann (Theology: Berlin, ~1860). All five scholars are Lutherans or Christian deists.
Weisse and Holtzmann advanced the “two-source hypothesis,” arguing that the Gospel of Matthew comes from a) Mark and b) a collection of sayings called “Q.” The “Q” monicker stands for quelle, which means “source” in German. This theory is scholarly, but not particularly plausible given the evidence. The thesis is also declining in popularity among a younger generation of scripture scholars who feel less obliged to pay their respects to German historical-critical scholarship.
There are several weaknesses with the proposition that Mark wrote his Gospel before Matthew. First, there is no internal evidence, either in style, structure or content, that would suggest Mark’s Gospel was written first. Admittedly, it is a cause of wonder when a student of Scripture closely studies the synoptic Gospels, and discovers how similar certain passages are. There are many passages in Mark and Matthew that are identical, word-for-word, with each other. Yet the synoptic nature of the Gospels tells us nothing about the source of the Gospels. It only tells us that some of the material in Matthew, Mark and Luke has a common source.
A second flaw is that the “Q” hypothesis is not well-reasoned scholarship. Oddly, the study of Scripture is one of the few academic disciplines where pure speculation is considered serious scholarship. For example, think of the scholars of the “Jesus Seminar” voting on passages by using colored beads. The “Q” hypothesis is a scholarly contrivance erected on a foundation of sand. Returning to the world of reality and historical research, we realize that “Q” is simply a mathematical construct. It is the set of data that includes all passages common to Luke and Matthew, that is not common to Mark. There is no “Q” document sitting in a museum anywhere, nor in the hands of a private collector. “Q” simply does not exist.
A third flaw with the “Q” hypothesis is that there are places where Matthew, Mark and Luke agree, yet Luke and Matthew have common variations against Mark. In other words, Mark is the odd Gospel out in certain instances. These commonalities are known as “minor agreements,” and their existence undermines the argument for Marcan priority. A fourth flaw with “Q” is that “Q” is never mentioned by the early church. Several Fathers of the Church made extensive inventories of early Christian writings, even spurious and heretical writings. Nowhere do the Fathers of the Church say that Matthew copied from another source.
To press my case further, no historian of the first, second or third century tells us that Matthew or Luke borrowed material from a common or concise source, whether written or oral. The only evidence that Weisse and Holtzmann have is a second-hand reference by one Bishop Papias, a legitimate church authority of the late first century whose writings were lost.
Of course, Weisse and Holtzmann bungle their understanding of Papias. Eusebius tells us that Papias wrote a manuscript which was his own, second-hand, accumulation of the teachings of Jesus. Because Papias claims to assemble the “logia” (sayings) of Jesus from second-hand sources, Weisse and Holtzmann assume and infer, somewhat incredulously and with no direct evidence, that the author of the Gospel of Matthew does the same thing.
Are Weisse and Holtzmann right? Well, unlike the writings of Papias, which are lost, the Gospel of Matthew spread throughout the early church very quickly. It was rapidly accepted because a) Matthew was an apostle of Christ, b) the community regarded the Gospel itself as authoritative, c) and it was accepted as coming from an authority who knew Jesus personally. Papias, on the other hand, is a second-hand source. Further, he was never authorized by the twelve to write his own “Gospel.” It was an initiative he took up himself. Later church authorities, while neutral about his writing, do not regard Papias as an authoritative commentator on the life of Jesus. They saw the writing of Papias for what it was: an unauthorized and non-systematic mishmash of the sayings of Jesus.
Papias’ credibility is further undermined by the fact that his own “logia” or writings do not survive. What we know of Papias’ writings comes from second-hand ancient sources, like Eusebius. Papias’ writing did not survive because there was no demand for scriptural accounts that were unauthorized – even if they were written by a local churchman. The official Gospels had to be received not just by a single community but by all of Christendom, a region stretching from England in the north-west to Syria in the east. And the Gospels had to be received without objection by the sister churches. The early church, though far-flung, was small enough that word of the existence of a new “gospel” travelled quickly. If it was not of apostolic origin, then the gospel was not accepted.
Ironically,Papias himself testifies to the importance of Apostolic authority. Papias tells us that Mark was authorized by Peter the Apostle to write the Gospel of Mark. Papias also tells us that Mark paid no attention to chronological order: he simply tried to record the events of the life of Jesus based on what Peter told him. Contrary to what the scholars Weisse and Holtzmann tell us, Papias asserts that Matthew wrote his Gospel of his own accord. Papias himself is telling us that the “Matthew” who wrote the Gospel was his own Apostolic authority. In other words, Matthew the Apostle authored or dictated his own Gospel. What Papias tells us is not that Matthew wrote a Gospel based on someone else’s “sayings,” but that Matthew wrote a Gospel that was a first-hand account of the life of Jesus. Matthew, unlike Mark, was written by an eyewitness who just happened to be a smart, self-educated tax collector and astute student of Hebrew Scripture. In short, Matthew was the just the sort of man Jesus wanted as an Apostle who would one day write down what he had witnessed.
If you ask me, Jerome and Augustine were right. The first Gospel was written by an eyewitness, with a very sophisticated understanding of theology. The first Gospel was written by Matthew. The shorter Gospel of Mark was likely commissioned by Peter. Yet given the commonality of certain sections with Matthew’s Gospels, it would seem that Mark and Peter had access to the circulating Gospel of Matthew when they set about writing the second Gospel. It is quite possible that Peter authorized the Gospel of Mark. Yet at the same time, Mark appears to be a redaction of Matthew.