The Joyce Hill Column
The Biblical Order of the Gospels
My articles about the Epistles in recent months have led to various requests for information about the Gospels: what order were they written in? when were they written? who wrote them? why are they in our bibles in the order of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? It’s difficult to answer any one of these questions without getting entangled with all of the others! Yet to answer all four questions at once needs more space than I have in one article. So I’m going to start with the question of the biblical order, and then come back to the other issues later on.
Matthew comes first because it was widely believed in early centuries — including even by the great St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) — that this was the earliest. At that time, it was also widely believed that the short Gospel of Mark, which has a lot in common with Matthew, had been written as a summary or epitome of Matthew. Hence the order of Matthew followed by Mark when the Canon of Scripture (that is, the approved books, out of the many then in circulation) came together to form our present New Testament. The mid-fourth century is the earliest precise evidence for the whole of the New Testament Canon as we know it, but the Four Gospels and the Epistles of St Paul had come to be accepted as foundational authority by about 130 and were put on the same footing as the Jewish Old Testament over a period that can roughly be bracketed by the dates 170 and 220. These formed the kernel of the New Testament, to which the other New Testament books were gradually added later.
Luke came after Matthew and Mark for two reasons: it was easy to see that it had a good deal of material in common with Matthew and Mark; and so placing it third was logical enough, given the current supposition that Matthew should come first as the earliest, with Mark next as a summary of it. John came last, as a Gospel with quite a distinct character which sets it apart. The preceding three, which obviously belonged together, are known today as the Synoptic Gospels, referring to their shared nature as summarising accounts of the life and teaching of Christ: ‘synoptic’ meaning just that — ‘summarising’ (as in ‘synopsis’, ‘summary’).
Of course, we know now, thanks to nineteenth century scholarship and its subsequent refinement, that Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written; that the authors of Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source (along with other sources); and that the common ground between them comes from this textual interrelationship. John is undoubtedly distinct, and so its fourth position remains unproblematic. It can be described as a complement to the Synoptics, written to draw out Christ’s divinity and the sublime nature of his teaching and so, you might say, it needs the texts with the stronger story-line to precede it.
The order of Gospels followed by Epistles was and is a necessary order of priority: we have always needed the textual witnesses to the Christian story before we could understand the interpretative material of the Epistles and their teaching to the young church. But in chronological terms the earliest of the New Testament texts are actually those Epistles written by Paul, which were produced over several years, starting round about AD 50, as I’ve explained previously. Dating the Gospels is a quite complicated, and needs an article of its own.