Question: "Which gospel was written first?"
Answer: There is much debate as to how the gospels in the New Testament were composed, who actually wrote them, and when they were written. Some believe the gospels were written in the order they appear in the text of Scripture. Others consider Mark to have been the gospel written first.
While all the data needed to answer this question in detail cannot be provided here, we can supply a brief summary that outlines a possible order in which the gospels were written, with supporting evidence from the writings of the early church.
In his book Why Four Gospels? Dr. David Alan Black asserts that Matthew was the gospel written first. According to Black, the gospels, arranged in order from earliest to latest, are Matthew—Luke—Mark—John. The following points are a summary of Black’s view of this chronology:
• After Christ was resurrected from the dead and the Church was born (Acts 2), the believers realized the need for a written record of the account of Christ’s life. Matthew was selected for the task of producing that account, and, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he penned his work before the Jerusalem believers were scattered from the persecution of Herod Agrippa I, which occurred in AD 42.
• Paul began his evangelistic work and found the need for a gospel account that spoke more to the Gentiles (Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience). Paul worked with Luke to produce his gospel, which was completed sometime between AD 58 and 60.
• During Paul’s detention in Rome (AD 60—62), he asked Peter to personally authorize Luke’s gospel, which he did. While in Rome, Peter delivered a number of testimonies about Christ’s life to an illustrious Roman audience. Those messages were recorded by John Mark, Peter’s secretary. After Peter was martyred, Mark’s work was published as a gospel in AD 66 or 67.
• John’s gospel was then written later and published while John lived in Ephesus. The completion of the Gospel of John rounded out the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life.
Support for Black’s timeline is found in the writings of the early church fathers. Referring to the Gospel of Matthew, Origen (AD 185—254) writes, “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.”
Clement of Alexandria (AD 150—215), quoted by Eusebius, supports Origen and provides some details for Luke: “Clement has set down a tradition of the earliest elders about the order of the Gospels, and it has this form. He used to say that the earliest written gospels were those containing the genealogies [Matthew and Luke].”
Clement also speaks of Mark when he writes, “Peter was publicly preaching the gospel at Rome in the presence of some of Caesar’s knights and uttering many testimonies about Christ, [and] 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 from the things said by Peter.”
On the subject of the authorship and timing of the Gospel of John, there is little to no opposition to John’s authorship and its being last in order. Irenaeus writes, “John the disciple of the Lord, who leaned back on his breast, published the Gospel while he was resident at Ephesus in Asia.”
So, while it is impossible to be certain about the order in which the gospels were written, the prevailing viewpoint seems to be that the order was Matthew, Luke, Mark, John.