If you want the Great Commission (“Go makes disciples of all the nations”) to be genuine (and you need it to be in order to justify proselytizing and all its sequelae, like gay-bashing and Chick-Fil-A appreciation days) you in turn need Matthew (with its version of the Great Commission) to be the first gospel written, because we know with absolute certainty that it did not appear in the earliest versions of Mark (in the Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus), but was added only later, some three-plus centuries after Jesus died.
In support of this fact I can point out that Origen, who wrote in the third century comments on resurrection stories in Matthew, Luke and John, but not in Mark. Origin’s version, at least, did not have 16:9-20. Clement of Alexandria also fails to mention Mark 16:9-20, which provides some hints as to when the Great Commission was added to Mark. Eusebius, writing in the fourth century, did know of an extended version (ad Marinum) as did Augustine (writing in the early 400s in Easter sermons.
When tradition is challenged the certainty that tradition is true is more necessary than ever. So Matthew must have been first. The desperation to have this be true is almost palpable. But there are problems with making Matthew the first gospel written – many problems, in fact.
Let’s start by saying that the four canonical gospels do not match up well. There are many contradictions and variances between the four of them. The first three (Matthew, Mark, Luke), the synoptic gospels, are more generally similar than the fourth (John). The study of why the first three are different and yet alike is called “the synoptic problem” and the most common modern day solution to the problem was first proposed by a German scholar, Gottlob Christian Storr in 1796. His hypothesis is called the “Markan Priority”, which argues that Mark was the first gospel written. Though it met little initial acceptance at the time, it is the dominant view today.
Against the Markan Priority is the Augustinian Hypothesis, which is that Matthew was written first, then Mark, then Luke. Ancient supporters of this theory are Papias ( c. 60-130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Pantaenus (d. c. 190), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340), Epiphanius (c. 315-403), and Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386). But John Wenham, a modern defender of the hypothesis admits the whole tradition derives from Papias, who is generally considered unreliable.
Paul McKechnie cites Irenaeus in support of this theory (Against Heresies, 3.1.1), in order to prove that Matthew was written early (pre-70), but what he fails to mention is that the Matthew Irenaeus talks about does not resemble the Matthew we possess, as ours was not written in Hebrew but in Greek. Furthermore, Papias also mentions Irenaeus’ Matthew and provides the additional information that it was a collection of the sayings of Jesus, which our Matthew most certainly is not. Therefore, neither Papias nor Irenaeus are a great deal of help in support of the Augustinian Hypothesis.
Evidence in favor of the Markan Priority is more plentiful. Consider these facts about Matthew:
- Written in Greek c. 80-85 CE compared to Mark’s c. 70 CE (Mark’s Greek is more primitive).
- Fits the criteria of a Greco-Roman biography.
- Supposed to have been written by Matthew, the tax collection mentioned in Matt.9:9 but earliest witnesses are anonymous. Ehrman suggests he “must have been a Greek-speaking Christian, probably from outside of Palestine.” After all, how many Jewish tax collectors spoke and wrote in Greek and in the style of a Greco-Roman biography?
- Matthew incorporates nearly all of Mark, having some 130 verses in common with that gospel.
- If Matthew was Jesus’ disciple, why was he forced to take almost all his stories, some of them word for word, from another account (Mark)? These include his own call to discipleship (9:9-13).
- Contains an additional 370 verses not found in Mark, known as “M” material. M Material includes Visit of the Magi (2:1-12); Flight toEgypt(2:13-23); Instructions on Alms Giving and Prayer (6:1-8); Parables of the Treasure Hidden in the Field (13:44); Pearl of Great Price (13:45-46); The Dragnet (13:47-50); Unmerciful Servant (18:23-35); The Ten Virgins (25:1-12).
- ”Matthew consistently edits Mark, his main source, in a way that reflects later theological views of Jesus’ exalted status.”
- Jesus is the “new Moses” for Matthew.
- The phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” is mentioned 32 times in 31 verses. In comparison, Luke uses “Kingdom of God” and John, though he also uses “Kingdom of Heaven”, does not use it in the same way as Matthew for John’s Jesus is not Matthew’s.
- “On eleven separate occasions Matthew indicates that an event occurred ‘in order to fulfill what was written in the prophet[s].’ None of these passages can be found in Mark.”
Too, the eschatological urgency is greatly toned down in Matthew and Luke from Mark, reflecting the amount of time that has passed without the Kingdom of God arriving. By Luke’s time, many people had died who were promised by Jesus to see the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 9:1). As Moody Smith has written, “the centrality and urgency of the expectation of the imminent future revelation of Jesus suggests that Mark does not anticipate a long shelf life for his book. Conversely, Matthew and Luke anticipate a long shelf life for theirs.” Smith also points out that “the earliest development of Christian scripture occurred in a Jewish milieu that was becoming Christian.”
This development can be seen in the synoptics in a progression from Mark to Matthew to Luke, particularly in a comparison of Mark with Luke, for Luke envisions the necessity of a mission to the Gentiles. As we have seen, this occurs in Mark only at the section added after 16:8, with the Great Commission missing from the earliest witnesses. Clearly, if Mark was the first gospel written and lacked reference to the Great Commission, the evidence argues that there was no Great Commission. It was only added to Mark later, when it had already appeared in Matthew, the second gospel written.
Just as there are a great many reasons to take Mark as the first Gospel written, a great many things argue against it being written before 70 CE. For instance, the latent anti-Semitism (present in all the Gospels) but also the very fact of its predictions of the destruction of the Temple, or the Little Apocalypse as it is called (13:1-2) and the tearing of the Temple curtain when Jesus died (15:38). John A.T. Robinson might say of the failure of the Gospels (any of them) to mention the fall of Jerusalem that the “silence is…as significant as the silence for Sherlock Holmes of the dog that did not bark” and apologists like N.T. Wright and Paul McKechnie might agree with him, but this is all nonsense.
The Gospels portray events which took place prior to the death of Jesus in 30 CE. Why would they mention or even discuss the fall of Jerusalem 40 years later, especially if the intent was to make them appear to have been written much earlier? It would rather be giving the game away! The mere prediction was in any case enough to make the point to audiences living after the fact. Then, as Robert Eisenman mentions, there is the absurdity of “Jesus’ meanderings about the peaceful Galilean countryside – at a time when Galilee was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor and internecine strife.”
As Bart Ehrman says, “The clearest evidence that the Gospels do not present objective data from the life of Jesus is that they differ from one another in so many ways, both major and minor. Virtually every story they tell bears the imprint of their authors, who have retold the stories in light of their own points of view and the message (the gospel) they are trying to convey.”
Fundamentalists are still retelling the stories in light of their own points of view and culture war agenda, often ignoring Jesus altogether in favor of a cherry-picked Old Testament (bashing gays but not men who shave, when both are equally condemned in the Bible, for example). One might have more respect for fundamentalists if they at least lived their “inerrant word of God” before trying to shove it down our throats, but they’d prefer to pick and choose to suit their own modern needs.
With a literate, thinking public that knows the Bible at least as well as they do, and in many cases, better, this just isn’t going to fly – neither the Great Commission’s call to convert, nor its use as justification for cultural and religious genocide. It’s time to make clear to fundamentalists that we are not going to entertain their plans for us.
 For a brief description of the synoptic problem see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third ed. (Oxford University Press, 2004), 84-91.
 John Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark & Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem (InterVarsity Press, 1991), 116.
 Paul McKechnie, The First Christian Centuries: Perspectives on the Early Church (InterVarsity Press, 2001), 29-30.
 Ehrman, (2004), 110.
 Ehrman (2004), 92-93. See also Delbert Burkett, An Introduction to the New Testament and the origins of Christianity (Cambridge University Press 2002), 174.
 James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, 90. For example, Matthew changes Jesus from a tekton (builder) to the son of a tekton because the stigma is less if he is the son of a builder and not a builder himself.
 Bart Ehrman, (2004), 97-98, 101-104.
 Bart Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (NY:OxfordUniversity Press, 2006), 26.
 Moody Smith, “When Did the Gospels Become Scripture?” JBL 119 (2000), 11.
 John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 13.
 Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus, (Penguin Books, 1997), 56.
 Bart Ehrman, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot (Oxford University Press, 2006), 141-142.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.