While I sat musing about what to write for this, the least entertaining of blogs, I found myself dumbfounded and ill that I could not really think of anything. Until I noticed some discrepancies between the Gospels of Matthew and Mark; originally, Mark was thought to be a short summary of the events that occurred in Matthew, which would explain why Mark has played second fiddle for so many centuries (Perkins 2009). All of the sources used by Mark predate the written work, and were probably founded in the Gospel of Thomas, otherwise known as one of those pesky non-canonical works that tends to muck up most of what we conceive to be the modern Christian tradition and story. Most modern sources have concluded that the true author was not Mark the Evangelist, but rather an unknown source who happened to be working with a collection of odd and assorted stories, along with parables, converting them into a narrative story (Burkett). Matthew is dated to be between 80 and 90 CE/AD (Duling). The Gospel according to our unnamed storyteller dates back to around 70 CE/AD, which fits nicely into the Roman Emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians (Perkins 1998).
The question is then, why would the Gospel of Matthew come first? It is not as if we have not seen this before. The Book of Job is one of the oldest texts in the Bible, yet it is placed in such a spot that one must acknowledge it as wisdom literature (even though we probably would have done that anyway). When looking at the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, it becomes painfully obvious that there was no such decision, mostly because the texts are within the same genre (Wilkins). As we already know, the Gospel of Mark recalls the story of Jesus from his baptism to the discovery of his empty tomb. All the time, both Gospels paint Jesus as an almost purely heroic figure, even fulfilling the prophesied concept of the “suffering servant” (Boring). Basically, we are dealing with a short account of Jesus’ life, while Matthew is actually the summary that turned out to be an elongated form of the story that had already been told. Much like the Gospel of Mark, the author of Matthew is anonymous, tracing its name to Papias of Hierapolis, an early Bishop. Matthew, again like Mark, is little more than elongated collection of manuscripts and stories that converged to form a central story that was then heavily edited to form the Gospel.
As to why the Gospel of Matthew comes first, one can only really guess. I would suspect that those who originally collected the Gospels thought that Mark was just the summarized version of an already existing text, when in fact it was just the opposite. Then again, Matthew is far more detailed than Mark, tracing the nuisances of Jewish law and tradition in a much more lengthened and comprehensive fashion. Additionally, the Gospel of Matthew contains one immensely significant detail that Mark did not: the Messiah’s prophesied birth (you know, the thing that you hear every Christmas Eve like clockwork). With the addition of the birth, one might understand why it was placed in the front of the New Testament; it is really just a natural starting place for the new reader. After reading the entirety of Matthew, Mark and Luke might just become icing on the cake (until one notices the nearly complete change in detail from one Gospel to the next).
Deciding which Gospel is older becomes superfluous once one realizes that Paul’s Epistles are older than all of the Gospels, the newest dating around 55 CE/AD. If anything, this simply strengthens the concept that the New Testament was arranged to form a compelling story, one that would be capable of moving people to a nearly religious devotion to a single idea represented by a central figure. After all, it is far more comforting and easier to read the New Testament in its current form. One could hardly bear to read First Thessalonians (51 CE/AD) before the actual life of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Basically, one would be reading letters that were based on stories that have yet to be read, which would make for a wonderfully confusing venture.
So, just to sum everything up, Matthew was placed in the canon for some of the reasons that the Book of Job was set in its specific spot. Both stories help to lift the overall narrative to particular place of religious fervor, and perhaps even a place of wisdom for those who could read and hear the tales. One could certainly hold that the placement of Matthew was simply an editorial mistake, but it seems only natural that the birth of a practically mythic figure would make for a truly compelling beginning to story that would go on to create one of the world’s most dominate faiths and wellspring of theological and political philosophy.
Perkins, Pheme (2009). Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Burkett, Delbert (2002). An Introduction to the New Testament and the Origins of Christianity. Cambridge University Press.
Duling, Dennis C. (2010). “The Gospel of Matthew”. In Aune, David E. The Blackwell Companion to the New Testament. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 296-318.
Perkins, Pheme (1998). “The Synoptic Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles: Telling the Christian Story”. In Barton, John. The Cambridge companion to biblical interpretation. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 241-58.
Boring, M. Eugene (2006). Mark: A Commentary. Presbyterian Publishing Corp.
Wilkins, Michael J. Matthew: NIV Application Commentary. 2004