Most scholars have accepted Mark's gospel to be the earliest written, which then became the source, along with another missing gospel named "Q" for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. From what research I have done in the gospels so far however, this opinion seems flawed. Evidence points to the fact that Matthew was the first gospel to be written. Here are some reasons why I believe this to be the case
- Matthews gospel was not written, as some suppose at the end of the first century. It was written before the fall of Jerusalem. Matthew, who was so quick to point out when Old Testament prophecies had been fulfilled, would surely have noted, after Jesus prediction of the fall of Jerusalem, that it had indeed come to be.
- Many support a late dating of the gospel of Matthew due to the fact that it contains much liturgy that was to developed to have been so early, such as the trinitarian formulation in the great comission. This is only accepted based upon the idea of the evolution of theology over time. The developed theology of Matthew could not possibly have arisen so soon after the resurrection. This idea is supported by the fact that, for example, Mark is written so simply that the writer must have been ignorant of the more complex doctrines taught in Romans or Hebrews. This is easily explainable because Mark was written for an audience that was not yet informed in the faith. Hebrews was written for the more mature believer. One way that we know a developed theology did arise fairly early is through the writings of the apostle Paul. Even in Paul's undisputed epistles, he contains statements that most recognize to be traditions of earlier Christian origin. This places a developed theology all the way back to possibly the 40s AD.
- It is often supposed that ideas about Christ as pre-existent only appear in the later Johannine writings and somewhat in Paul due to helenistic influence, only later to be more dogmatized in the non-Pauline epistle to the Colossians. This idea is said to be foreign to the gospel writers. If this were the case, and the gospels were written so late in the first century, would not Paul's influence have effected their theology by that point? Thus, their own assumptions contradict themselves. I of course do not agree that this is the case, as I believe Matthew has a very high Christology. The fact that Matthew calls Jesus "Immanuel" is enough to testify to this.
-The consensus of the early church was that Matthew's gospel was written first. This should not be quickly dismissed. In the second century Matthew's gospel is quoted far more often then Mark. In fact Mark was barely referenced, as Luke was also more common. If Mark at one time was the only written gospel, would it not have been circulated much faster and in greater numbers? It is also interesting to note, that from the earliest times, the gospels, particularly Matthew were the center of church worship. This would suggest that Matthew had actually been written before the Pauline epistles. If Paul's epistles were the only existing document of church doctrine, it would have been natural for the church to have given them the central place in worship.
- The Pauline epistles themselves do not contain much information about the actual life of Jesus apart from his death and resurrection. They simply assume that those he is writing to already have knowledge of these events, as is obvious in the creedal formulations he quotes. Even when discussing the crucifixion, he gives no information about how that crucifixion actually took place. How did these early Christians have this knowledge that is presupposed? It is unlikely that oral tradition alone would have provided this knowledge between the years of Jesus' resurrection and the supposed late date of the gospels. Early Christianity was permeated in Jewish culture, thus one would expect aspects of early worship to be similar. At the center of synagogue worship was the reading of the Torah. Most likely the Christian community would have likewise centered its worship on readings from a text about the life of their Messiah. This explains how written documents are necessary, even when the majority of people are illiterate. While the Christians did value the Old Testament as inspired, a simple reading of the Torah during a worship service would not have caused the persecution that arose.
-While oral traditions about the life of Jesus were most likely present in the early church and would have been helpful to an extent, they hardly would have been sufficient for the widespread acceptance of the message. It would have been difficult for mere oral traditions to sustains churches over a wide geographic area.
-The didache is clearly dependent upon the gospel of Matthew, and some even see it as a commentary on Matthew. The dating of this document is anywhere from 50-150 AD. If an early date is accepted, then Matthew had clearly been written early, and not only that, but also had gained wide acceptance.
- It is also worth noting that Matthew wrote at a point when the church had a much larger Jewish membership, which would account for an earlier date. Luke then based his gospel on that of Matthew, making it more accesible to gentile readers.