Which Gospel Was Written First and Last? Exploring the Timeline
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman
Which of the gospels was written first and last? Exploring early Christian history provides an exciting opportunity to study the order in which the Gospels are written.
From my sophomore year onward, I’ve been captivated by the challenge of unraveling literary connections and unearthing the origins of Christianity.
I recommend joining a free 50-minute webinar with Bart Ehrman for those intrigued by these fascinating issues. This unique opportunity enables you to delve deeper into the resources that shape our understanding of early Christianity. Just click the link above.
Seeing Mark, Matthew, and Luke Together: A Synoptic problem
To determine the order of the Gospels, it is necessary to investigate their relationship more thoroughly. Mark, Matthew, and Luke are known as the synoptic Gospels because they share many similarities, unlike the Gospel of John. This is a view widely held by scholars.
Firstly, they tell many of the same stories (Jesus’s temptations, exorcisms, his prayer in Gethsemane, etc.). Almost every story in Mark is also found in Matthew or Luke. As E.P. Sanders and M. Davies note: “With regard to substance, about 90% of Mark is also found in Matthew and more than 50% also in Luke… In periscopes which are in common, verbatim agreement varies, but on average is about 50%.”
Additionally, synoptics may even convey the same narrative using identical wording. In Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, Bart notes that, unlike the Gospel of John, Synoptics “tell so many of the same stories, sometimes word for word the same.”
A case in point is the feeding of five thousand – depicted in the table below.
Similarities in the Synoptic Gospels
Mark 6, 35-37
Matthew 14, 15-16
Luke 9, 12-13
By this time, it was late in the day, so his
As evening approached, the
Late in the afternoon the Twelve
disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already
came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late.
came to him and said,
Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside
Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.
“Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.”
But he answered, “You give
Jesus replied, “They do not
He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
Scholars Concur: Matthew, Mark & Luke Copied From One Another
As you can see, there are many similarities.
This story is intriguing because it appears in both the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. However, unlike the Synoptics, John (6, 1-14) tells the story differently. You can read K. Aland’s, The Synopsis of the Four Gospels to explore other examples of agreements and differences.
Notably, the agreements among the Synoptics are even more remarkable when we consider that Jesus spoke Aramaic while the Gospels are written in Greek. Consequently, virtually all scholars concur that Mark, Matthew, and Luke copied from one another!
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Did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Actually Write Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John?
The New Testament Gospels are anonymous. So why did early Christians say they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? And what's the evidence that they actually did?
Which Gospel Was Written First: The Search for Answers
The widely accepted theory, as emphasized in H. Bond’s book “Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed,” suggests that the Gospel of Mark was the initial Gospel to be written.
I have two supporting arguments for this theory and include a thought experiment to help readers relate to the process of creating the Gospel of Mark.
Mark Was the First Gospel - Argument 1
The Redaction Profile of Mark’s Gospel
Based on everything we know about synoptic Gospels, it is easier to postulate that Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark while writing their narratives about the life of Jesus.
Scholars call this line of evidence an argument from Mark’s redaction profile. Redaction means the author’s changes to their source while composing a new story version.
It is contradictory to suggest that Mark wrote after Matthew and Luke, as the redaction profile of his Gospel implies otherwise.
Take a Walk in Mark's Shoes - A Thought Experiment
Let’s engage in a hypothetical thought experiment that promises to be enjoyable! Imagine yourself in Mark’s shoes.
You are living in Rome in 70 C.E., relaxing in your living room, sipping on a glass of wine, and planning to write about Jesus’s life. Suddenly, a fellow believer arrives and hands you a copy of Luke’s Gospel.
Before we begin, it’s important to note that Jesus’s birth story is only recounted in the books of Matthew and Luke. In this hypothetical scenario, let’s say you’re reading through Luke’s account as Mark and choose to exclude the captivating nativity story. This decision doesn’t seem very logical from a redactional standpoint.
Furthermore, the Gospel of Mark ends abruptly with the women who found Jesus’s empty tomb running away in fear.
But remember, you are still in Mark’s shoes!
Would you neglect to include the awe-inspiring post-resurrection stories found in Luke’s Gospel in your narrative? This enigmatic conclusion reinforces the theory that Mark was the first written Gospel.
A Point to Note: Luke's Perspective
It’s important to note that this perspective isn’t interchangeable. Let’s consider Luke’s point of view. He’s putting together his story about Jesus and has a copy of the Gospel of Mark in front of him.
Therefore, it is understandable why you might feel the need to make the same additions that Luke did. They include accounts of Jesus’s birth, his post-resurrection appearances, and other unique elements.
Was Mark the first Gospel written? His redaction profile strongly suggests it.
Mark was the First Gospel - ArgUment 2 Editorial Fatigue
Another piece of evidence indicating Mark is the first Gospel written is the concept of editorial fatigue. Mark Goodacre’s article “Fatigue in the Synoptics” highlights that Matthew and Luke occasionally become tired while reworking Mark’s text.
These writers seem to change Mark at the beginning of a story but then lapse into copying directly out of Mark. This phenomenon results in inconsistencies in the rewritten version of the story.
I will again use a favorite example – the feeding of five thousand.
- According to Mark, the event happened in a “deserted place by themselves.” The disciples then recommend that Jesus send the people to nearby towns and villages for food.
- However, at the beginning of his version, Luke relocates this event to Bethsaida – a major fishing village. Not a deserted place by any stretch of the imagination. But, as the story continues, Luke reproduces the disciples’ statement, “We are in a remote place here.” That statement doesn’t make sense because it’s referring to Bethsaida.
Goodacre asserts that Luke probably lapses back into copying his source material (Mark), creating a narrative inconsistency.
It’s worth mentioning that there are no signs of fatigue in Mark which could indicate that he’s copying from either Matthew or Luke. This leads to the question – was Mark the first Gospel written? Editorial fatigue seems to support this possibility.
Which GOspel Was Written last? Let's Take a Look at John
Modern scholars are virtually in universal agreement! The Gospel of John is the last canonical Gospel written. In his highly acclaimed Introduction to the Gospel of John, Raymond Brown notes, “The General opinion fixes 100-110 C.E. as the latest plausible date for the written composition of John.”
One line of evidence used to support a very late date for John is the development of theology. Take, for instance, the fact that Jesus, in John, explicitly asserts his divine status.
Famous sayings such as “I and my Father are one” (10, 30) and “Before Abraham, I was” (8, 58) are only found in John. Furthermore, there is an increase in anti-Judaism embedded in the narrative of John.
In his book Jesus Interrupted, Bart highlights that scholars have frequently claimed that John is the most vehemently anti-Jewish of the Gospel accounts. This is likely because John mirrors the social context of the late 1st century, where Christianity had become predominantly practiced by Gentiles.
Conclusion: WHICH GOSPEL WAS WRITTEN FIRST AND LAST?
Which Gospel Was Written First and Last? As you can see, there are no simple answers.
Based on compelling scholarly arguments, I believe that the Gospel of Mark was the first gospel, written around 70 C.E. Moreover, both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source.
After that, the Gospel of John was composed at the end of the 1st century, which makes it the last gospel. Consequently, exploring the timeline and analyzing the relationship between the Gospels provides a deeper understanding of the origins of Christianity.
To embark on this journey of knowledge, Bart’s course “The Unknown Gospels” is highly recommended; click the link below.
NOW AVAILABLE! THE UNKNOWN GOSPELS
A closer look at the Gospels from a scholarly perspective. How do we do when the Gospels were written? Why do scholars think Matthew and Luke copied Mark? And much more...