There are two great advantages that follow from counting Matthew first.
One is that it follows the independent testimony of history. The other
is parsimony. If Mark goes first, as modern Bible scholars believe, then
an otherwise unknown document known as 'Q' is required to account for the
material Matthew and Luke have in common, which is not found in Mark. William of Ockham's razor requires
us to slash away all unnecessary entities. 'Q' is an unnecessary entity,
since counting Matthew first eliminates the need for it. That doesn't mean
you can't make money selling it, to those suckers willing to shell out
cash for a non-existent book.
Epiphanius lists Matthew first, "For Matthew was the first to
become an evangelist. He was directed to issue the Gospel first.
. .Matthew himself wrote and issued the Gospel in the Hebrew
alphabet, and did not begin at the beginning, but traced Christ's
pedigree from Abraham." (Epiphanius, Panarion, Section IV, Chapter
51, p. 29 Brill). Then Mark: "Mark, who came directly after Matthew,
was ordered to issue the Gospel by St. Peter at Rome, and after
writing it was sent by St. Peter to Egypt." (Epiphanius, Panarion,
Section IV, Chapter 51, p. 31 Brill). Then Luke, then John: "Later,
therefore, though from caution and humility he had declined to be an
evangelist, the Holy Spirit compelled John to issue the Gospel in
his old age when he was past ninety, after his return from Patmos
under Claudius Caesar, and several years of his residence in Asia."
(Epiphanius, Panarion, Section IV, Chapter 51, p. 36 Brill). The revelations
John saw at Patmos, incidentally, fit in better with the brief
incumbency of Claudius' predecessor than the usual dating.
Other things being equal, one would expect the first gospel written
to be also the first cited. Matthew is the most commonly cited gospel by the earliest
Christian writers: "At the end of this first book, let me gather
briefly the conclusions which can be gleaned from the study of these
three authors [Clement of Rome, 'Barnabas,' Ignatius]. They all
reveal a knowledge and an indubitable use of the sayings of the Lord
drawn from the Gospel of Mt. . .The Gospel of Mk., on the other
hand, does not seem to have exercised an influence on the
composition of the various works of these authors, who never show
the slightest literary relationship to the second gospel." (Edouard
Massaux, The Influence of the Gospel of Saint Matthew on Christian
Literature before Saint Irenaeus, Book 1, p. 119). It is impossible
to understand why this should be if, as is claimed, Mark wrote
So early external evidence points to Matthew's priority.
Realizing that both early testimony and the external evidence of
the early use and widespread distribution of Matthew's gospel point
to Matthew's priority, why do modern scholars overwhelmingly prefer
to place Mark first?
One function of the popular conjecture of Mark's priority is to
discredit the other gospels, which, it is alleged, are copied from
him, but with free and unwarranted additions and subtractions:
"In contemporary studies of the way the gospels came
into being, scholars are all but unanimous today in asserting that
Mark was written first and that both Matthew and Luke incorporated
Mark into their narratives. The problem for the excessive claim of a
divine origin for the scriptures then comes when we discover that
both Matthew and Luke changed Mark, expanded Mark and even omitted
portions of Mark. That is not exactly the way one treats something
identified as the 'Word of God,' or even something thought to be
inspired by God." (John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 22).
Mark is the shortest gospel, so 'expanded' it must be. One can certainly understand why someone like Bishop Spong is attracted
to this conjecture, because his agenda is to discredit the Bible: "I had to
come to the place where I recognized that the Bible itself was often the
enemy." (John Shelby Spong, The Sins of Scripture, p. 11). It is far less
obvious why people who think the Bible is God-breathed also find this
speculative, fact-free construct appealing. Parsimony requires its abandonment.
When a book comes on the market, it does not obliterate prior
publications. Mark's gospel is the shortest, and also the most
action-packed, with less of the Lord's instruction than Matthew.
Some readers think it inconceivable a shorter work would be produced
after a longer. Some of these people think the gospels are collections of fictions which grow
by accretion, and some Christians, oddly enough, agree with them. Mark's
brevity is the basic argument
in favor of Markan priority:
"The third possibility, the Holtzmann/Streeter
Hypothesis, which is diagrammed on the next page, is the dominant
view today, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, Marks's gospel
is much shorter than the other two Synoptic Gospels, and scholars
have long theorized that it makes more sense that Matthew and Luke
added to Mark's bare-bones account than the opposite, that Mark
abbreviated a longer version." (Searching for Jesus, Robert J.
Hutchinson, p. 19).
Yes indeed, scholars have long put Mark first for this very
reason, that it is the shortest gospel. But Mark had no reason to think Matthew's already
published gospel would blink out of existence if he wrote down
Peter's gospel. Nothing in Matthew's gospel has been lost as a result of
subsequent efforts in the same genre. Your
church foyer may have a table, like mine, with pamphlets spread on it. A
pamphlet is a short version, but it is not the only version known to
the church. Why anyone would write a pamphlet, when there are books available, is
not actually any great mystery, especially since publishing the
pamphlet in no way harms, diminishes or hollows out the books in the library.
Moreover, if Mark did write first, then Matthew and Luke abbreviate
him, because their stories often lack detail found in his version of the
story. So by
shoving him first in line before Matthew, you haven't solved the
'mystery' of abbreviation, just put in on other shoulders.
The nineteenth century answered the question of how things came
to be with an adverb, 'gradually.' This was the essence of Darwin's
revolution in biology. But not only does 'gradually' explain nothing, the fossil record
stubbornly persists in showing no sign of
'gradually,' and so in time this revered adverb was displaced in favor of
punctuated equilibrium, by means of which it was hoped to salvage Darwinism. The
idea that the Bible came into existence bit by bit, growing slowly
by accretion, appealed to the nineteenth century mind. Therefore,
Mark, the shortest gospel, must be the first, because these things grow. .
.gradually. But there was never any objective evidence in favor, and
surely such an antiquated mind-set cannot continue to forge reality
to fit its demands, when it is no longer accepted even in its field of
origin. Almost all of Mark in incorporated into Matthew. So
either Matthew built upon Mark, or Mark epitomized Matthew. The
external evidence points to Matthew first. If Peter preached with
Matthew's gospel open before him, he would naturally present his
anecdotes in the same order.
Certainly these four gospels might have been written in any
order. The bad use which has been made of the purported priority of
Mark is not sufficient reason for denial. Except once the
reader understands there is no good reason to affirm it, but mainly bad
reasons of primary interest to cultural historians interested in the
nineteenth century, and that all the external evidence points to Matthew
instead, it is unconvincing.
As to where Mark's gospel was published, given its contents, Rome
seems a likely bet. Mark is pre-eminently the gospel of the the
Lord's triumph over demonic possession. Rome was a city haunted by a thousand
demons. Converts from the pagan world understood that the Lord had
defeated their gods, who were demons:
"A careful inquirer would do well to refer this to our
Lord and Saviour Jesus the Christ of God, and to turn back again to
the record, relating to His Presence among men, by which He routed
the hostile invisible powers of evil and corrupt daemons and of
wicked and impure spirits, and won very many peoples for Himself out
of all nations."
(Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius of Caesarea:
Demonstratio Evangelica (The Proof of the Gospel) Book V, Chapter 2.
(Kindle Locations 3742-3744). Kindle Edition.)
The pagans had not intended to worship corrupt, fallen spirits, they had intended
to worship the resplendent heavenly bodies, the forces of nature,
and other noteworthy things. But the sun did not show up at their
ceremonies; the only entities that ever did show up for the
shin-digs at the pagan temples were not resplendent luminaries but
quite the contrary. The demons were worshipped only by imposture,
not by intent. Readers not from a pagan background often flip
through the many exorcisms of the gospel of Mark with impatience,
but to pagans they were the trumpet call of liberation. Tradition
reports Mark as Peter's interpreter, i.e. translator, in Rome, and
this seems likely from internal evidence. According to Eusebius, the
disciples were illiterate, and even orally competent only in
"If then, these Disciples of our Saviour were deceived
and deceiving, I would add this also: They were unlearned, and
altogether illiterate; that is, they were even barbarians, and
understood no language except the Syriac. How then did they, after
the departure of their Lord from among men, go forth into the whole
creation, and give their testimony to His Godhead? And, by What
sort of advice were they prevailed on to attempt this? By What
power too, did they effect that which they undertook?"
of Caesarea. Eusebius of Caesarea: Theopania (Kindle Locations
4671-4674). The Fifth Book, Chapter 26. Kindle Edition.)
This seems doubtful but it would not be surprising if Peter, a fisherman, did need a translator in Rome.