Which gospel was written first?There is much debate among biblical scholars about the order in which the gospels were written. All scholars tend to agree that the gospel of John was composed last, probably between AD 60 and AD 90. Most scholars also agree that the gospel of Luke was not first, written between the early AD 60s to as late as the AD 80s. So only the gospels of Mark and Matthew remain as possibly the first gospel written.
The view that promotes Matthew as the gospel written first asserts that people in the church of Jerusalem realized the need for a written record of the life and teachings of Christ, so they appointed Jesus' disciple Matthew to do this task. Proponents of this view believe Matthew completed his account before the church in Jerusalem was scattered by persecution in AD 42 under Herod Agrippa I. Because Matthew's gospel was written for a Jewish audience, when Paul started preaching to the Gentiles, he requested that Luke compose a gospel more suited to Gentile understanding. This view asserts that Luke completed his gospel between AD 58 and AD 60. Then during Paul's imprisonment in Rome, he asked that Peter come to officially authorize Luke's account. While in Rome, Peter preached to this Roman audience about Jesus while Mark recorded his teachings. Mark's work was then published as a gospel after Peter was martyred in AD 66 or AD 67.
Some writings of the early church fathers seem to confirm this view. Origen (AD 185—254) wrote, "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." Eusebius also taught that Clement of Alexandria (AD 150—215) "used to say that the earliest written gospels were those containing the genealogies" (referring to Matthew and Luke). So early church tradition taught this view that Matthew was the first gospel written.
However, other scholars argue that Mark was the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the three synoptic gospels, so scholars believe Matthew and Luke expound upon Mark's gospel. As a story is shared, it tends to get longer and more detailed over time, so these scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Mark's gospel as a source when writing their own longer and more detailed accounts. This view is supported by the fact that ninety-one percent of Mark is contained in Matthew's gospel and fifty-three percent of Mark's gospel is contained in the book of Luke. Matthew and Luke not only added material of substance to their own accounts, but they also reduced Mark's redundancies and consequently both gospels express Mark's meaning more concisely.
Another argument for Mark being the first gospel written is his naming of eyewitnesses. Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46), Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), and Salome (Mark 15:40) are specifically named in the gospel of Mark, but not named in the accounts of Matthew or Luke. Some scholars reason that these eyewitnesses had passed away between the writing of these different gospels; so there was no longer a reason to identify these persons by name in later gospels, thus making Matthew and Luke the later accounts. As for the teachings of the early church fathers, the proponents of the view that Mark was written first point out that those men lived well over 100 years after Jesus walked this earth, so they argue that Clement and Origen are not reliable sources for information about which gospel was written first.
No matter to which view a reader subscribes, all scholars agree that all four of the gospels were completed and published between the AD 40s and AD 90 while plenty of eyewitnesses to the events were still alive. The existence of eyewitnesses lends credibility to the gospel accounts. And we know, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). So the gospels, like all the books in the Bible, can be trusted, as they were originally written, to be God's true Word no matter the order in which they were recorded.
When were the Gospels written?
Why are there four Gospels instead of one?
The Synoptic Gospels — What are they?
Do the four Gospels present a different message of salvation than the rest of the New Testament?
What is the meaning of God-breathed in reference to the Bible?
Truth about the Bible