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Markan priority is the rule of the day when it comes to dating the Synoptics. However, this is a very recent phenomenon in the Christian Church. I think a good case can be made for Matthean priority. Here’s my case.

Many contemporary scholars date Matthew after A.D. 70 (80-100). They deny predictive prophecy and prejudice their view with presuppositions or, in the words of Carson and Moo, “antecedent judgments.”[1] This view does not fit the evidence as will be shown below. Conservative scholars date Matthew prior to A.D. 70. Those who hold to Markan priority typically date Matthew prior to A.D. 70, “but not long before.”[2] This view assumes that Mark wrote before Matthew and Luke. This view is comparatively recent in the history of the Church and does not adequately account for the views of the early Church Fathers. John Wenham says, “The universal tradition of the early church is that Matthew ‘in the Hebrew dialect’ was the first gospel.”[3] Some conservative scholars believe in an earlier date (see below). These deny Markan priority and believe that Matthew wrote his Gospel first as the early Church Fathers attest. I think this view is correct for the reasons below.

Whenever the Gospels are mentioned by the patristics, Matthew always heads up the list.[4] The clear implication is that they believed Matthew wrote his Gospel first. There is ample proof for this. Eusebius says of Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215), “…Clement has inserted a tradition of the primitive elders with regard to the order of the Gospels, as follows. He said that those Gospels were first written which include the genealogies…”[5] Origen (c. A.D. 185-254) says, “The first written was that according to the one-time tax collector but later apostle of Jesus Christ, Matthew, who published it for the believers from Judaism…”[6] The Gospel went first to the Jews then the Greeks. Matthew wrote his Gospel for the early Jewish believers and for Jewish evangelism. Augustine (c. A.D. 354-430) says, “Therefore these four evangelists, well known to the whole world, four in number, …are said to have been written in this order: first Matthew, then Mark, third Luke, last John…”[7]

The patristic evidence that Mark wrote Peter’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus either while Peter was alive in Rome or just after he died is widespread. Peter probably arrived in Rome in the mid 50s and died in A.D. 64 while Nero was unleashing his fury on Christians.[8]

Here is a sample of the patristic testimony. Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200) says, “… But after their [Peter and Paul] demise Mark himself, the disciple and recorder of Peter, has also handed down to us in writing what had been proclaimed by Peter…”[9] Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 150-215) says:

Mark, the follower of Peter, while Peter was publically preaching the gospel at Rome in the presence of some of Caesar’s knights and uttering many testimonies about Christ, on their asking him to let them have a record of the things that had been said, wrote the Gospel that is called the Gospel of Mark form the things said by Peter,…[10]

A second century prologue to Luke reads, “There were already gospels in existence, that according to Matthew, written down in Judea, and that according to Mark in Italy.”[11] An old Latin prologue to Mark says:

He [Mark] had been the disciple and recorder of Peter, whom he followed, just as he had heard him relating. Having been asked by the brethren in Rome, he wrote this short gospel in the regions of Italy. When Peter heard about it, he approved and authorized it to be read to the church with [his own] authority.[12]

The patristic testimony is that Luke wrote his Gospel for Pauline, Gentile ministry needs some time around the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Since Matthew was written prior to both Mark and Luke and since we know that Luke joined Paul’s Gentile ministry (i.e., second missionary journey [cf. Acts 16:6-11]) in the early to mid 50s and Peter went to Rome in about A.D. 55, we conclude that Matthew was written prior to both dates.

Finally, just as Luke was used by Paul for missionary purposes after Acts 16 and Mark could well have been used by Peter in Rome (the end of the book of Acts), so Matthew could have been used by the Jerusalem apostles during the period recorded in the early chapters of the book of Acts.

The Synoptic Gospels in relation to the book of Acts look like this. Matthew was written for ministry with Palestinian Jews in mind and corresponds with the Apostles ministering in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. This is recorded in the early chapters of the book of Acts. This occurred during the decade of the 40s. Mark was written for ministry in Rome somewhere in the mid 50s. Luke was written for ministry connected to Paul some time after his second missionary journey began in the mid 50s.



[1] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Second Edition; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 155.

[2] Carson and Moo, Introduction, 156.

[3] John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), xxiii. We will examine the evidence of the early Church below.

[4] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 43.

[5] F. David Farnell, “The Case for the Independence View of Gospel Origins” in Robert L. Thomas, editor, Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 238.

[6] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 41.

[7] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 42.

[8] ZPEB, M-P, 739.

[9] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 38.

[10] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 38.

[11] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 39.

[12] Black, Why Four Gospels?, 39.

11 Responses so far.

  1. Price says:

    Excellent! Interesting and useful.

    It rouses two questions: 1. When did the recent Markan priority arise and what would cause the men behind it to stray from the early testimonies? 2. What do you know about John’s gospel that you could share?

    • Richard Barcellos says:

      Price,

      1. It was popularized by B. H. Streeter in a 1924 publication. It is based on internal evidence alone – attempting to explain the differences and commanalities (content and order) between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It came about due to the use of literary criticism. It is a hypothesis seeking to explain how the Synoptic Gosepls came about and what sources each author (or editor) utilized to compile the final product. As far as what’s behind the theory causing those who adhere to it to stray from the early testimonies goes, it depends on the individual theorist.

      2. John’s Gospel was, most likely, the latest of the four. It was probably written in Ephesus and was intended to supplement the others.

  2. Stanley Reeves says:

    Nice case, Richard! How do you see this impacting our understanding of the Gospels? Is this purely a historical question?

  3. Richard Barcellos says:

    I’ll answer in reverse order.

    2. No, it’s not purely a historical question (see below).

    1. Scot McKnight says, “The fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark and the hypothetical source Q should inform our exegesis. The student can now trace with a high degree of probability the changes made by the two Gospel writers [Matthew and Luke] and, with sufficient evidence, posit reasons for these alterations” (Scot McKnight, Interpreting the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 40.). McKnight says, “The fact that Matthew and Luke used Mark and the hypothetical source Q should inform our exegesis.” First, both Q and Matthew’s and Luke’s dependence upon Mark are hypotheses. Second, he says that these [hypotheses] “should inform our exegesis.” So even Markan priorists (at least McKnight) admit that the Synoptic “Problem” is more than a purely historical issue. Any view of inter-Synoptic compositional dependency affects our exegesis, as would holding the independent view. For more on the problems of literary dependence, I recommend Eta Linnemann’s “Is There a Synoptic Problem?” I don’t follow her at all points but she does an excellent job of tracing the rise of NT criticism and identifying some of its unhealthy tendencies and fallacies. I also highly recommend Black’s “Why Four Gospels?” Read Black first.

  4. Richard Barcellos says:

    Some thoughts to possibly clear-up some matters:

    1. Affirming Matthean priority does not necessarily deny inter-Synoptic dependency. Luke 1:1-4 seems to leave room for literary dependence on some level. Both Black and Wenham acknowledge this.

    2. Papias’ debated statement is translated by David Alan Black as follows: “So then Matthew composed the sayings [ta logia] in a Hebrew style [hebraidi dialekto],…”[1] Due to this statement, some have concluded that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or possibly Aramaic. This is debatable.

    3. Matthean priorists do not base their view on external evidence alone – maybe some do but certainly not all. Markan priority seems to base itself on internal evidence alone. This is so, at least in part, because there is *no* external evidence in the patristics supporting the Markan priority hypothesis. As a matter of fact, it is a less than 100 year old hypothesis.

    4. Any view has its difficulties. All must admit that there is some similar material and some dissimilar material in the Synoptics. How one goes about explaining these differences gives rise to the various hypotheses. And let’s not forget that they are hypotheses. The Bible neither affirms nor denies independency or dependency.

    ——————————————–

    [1] David Alan Black, Why Four Gospels? The Historical Origins of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications), 41.

  5. Randy Snyder says:

    Very Cool Rich. So can you tell me if you believe that Matthew was first written in Aramaic?

  6. Richard Barcellos says:

    Randy, I’ll quote from above:

    Papias’ debated statement is translated by David Alan Black as follows: “So then Matthew composed the sayings [ta logia] in a Hebrew style [hebraidi dialekto],…” Due to this statement, some have concluded that Matthew wrote in Hebrew or possibly Aramaic. This is debatable.

  7. Randy Snyder says:

    I wondered what you thought you sly fox. LOL. You are slippery sometimes as we all are. I would also like to know what makes that debatable. Can you offer me a resource or two on why it was written in Greek first?

    • Richard Barcellos says:

      🙂
      Well, get Black’s book and read it. He argues that Matthew’s Gospel utilizes several Greek literary forms, an indication that it was written in Greek. Greek was the common language of communication in the Roman Empire and the natural language of choice. Papias’ statement can mean Hebrew “style” and not “language.” Black cites J. Kurzinger, Orchard, and Riley on p. 50, n.13. They argue that Origen misunderstood Papias.

      • Randy Snyder says:

        Thanks Rich. BTW, isn’t it recorded somewhere that Irenaeus said that Christ was put to death around age 50? I saw he was referenced also. wasn’t there a bit of confusion about that issue also.

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