Why the gospel of Matthew is not the-oldest?
The age of gospels is not as straight forward as they look!
Virtually all the scholars of Christian antiquity and New Testament now accept that gospel of Mark was the oldest gospel written originally in Greek by Peter’s assistant in Rome – St. Mark. And approximately after a decade and a half, Matthew and Luke penned their gospels. It is also accepted that both Matthew and Luke copied much of their text from Mark’s already available gospel. The information look pretty simple on the face of it but there are a few interesting, if not intriguing, queries to be pondered over:
- Does not it come a little ironic, if not a tad fishy, that it was the disciple of the disciple writing the first gospel (or “receiving” the first gospel from Holy Ghost)! Is not it highly expected that it should be one of Jesus’ (peace be upon him) self chosen apostle to “receive” the first gospel?
- Jesus’ (peace be upon him) very first target audience were the Jews of Palestine. So, should it not be expected that the first gospel be in the local tongue – may be Hebrew, Aramaic – catering to the general mass rather than in Greek – an otherwise alien language for an everyday Jew in Palestine.
In this paper, therefore, we would be concentrating over these concerns and would try to correlate its implication over the age as fixed by Christiandom for the gospels. We would be keenly interested into noting the purpose it served by adjudging gospel of Mark as the oldest gospel.
Why the gospel of Matthew is not the oldest.
Out of the four gospels vetoed as “canonical” by the church, only two are attributed to the “apostles” Jesus (peace be upon him) chose, namely, Matthew – the tax collector in first century Palestine and John, of course, the son of Zebedee. Mark and Luke were disciple and companion of Peter and Paul respectively. They were certainly not the immediate disciples of Jesus (peace be upon him).
Therefore, it makes a lot of sense based on seniority (an immediate apostle of Jesus (p)), knowledge (received preaching from Jesus (p) directly) and social setup (first century Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Palestinian) that if Matthew (or John) was anyhow to write a gospel then it should have been at least before Mark’s and Luke’s.
In fact if we have to pay any respect to the earliest and “orthodox” church fathers then they almost unanimously agree that it was Matthew who wrote his gospel first (!):
“Eusebius in his history (6.25.4) quotes Origen as saying that he had learned that “The first Gospel was written by Matthew, who was once a tax collector, but who afterwards was an Apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for converts from Judaism, and published n the Hebrew language.” (The Qur’an and the Gospels – A comparative Study by Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, pp.85)
A couple of information should be immediately captured. Firstly, Matthew wrote the first gospel. And, secondly, more importantly, that Matthew’s gospel was prepared for Jewish converts from Judaism in Hebrew language.
Origen is not the only early Christian figure, Augustine also concur the same:
Augustine in his work on the agreement of the evangelists (1.2.4.) writes: “Of these four it is certain that only Matthew is regarded as having written in the Hebrew language, while the others wrote in Greek” and he says that Mark “followed closely in his footsteps, as his imitator and epitomizer.” (The Qur’an and the Gospels – A comparative Study by Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, pp.85)
Furthermore, another early “orthodox” church figure Irenaeus writes the following in his famous book “Against Heresies” (3.1.1):
“Matthew also published a book of the Gospel among the Hebrews, in their own dialect, WHILE Peter and Paul were preaching the Gospel in Rome and founding the Church.”
(W.Barclay, op. cit., vol. 1, p. 149; Bar-Hebraeus, p. 4; see also Meyer, The Gospel of Matthew, part 1, vol. 1, p. 6 and Brown, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, (J.B.C.), vol. 2, p. 65.) (1.)
Observe that not merely does Irenaeus re-confirm that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew, but he also substantially alludes to the time period in which it was written. He expressly states that Matthew wrote his gospel “while” Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome! This indicates Matthew’s gospel was contemporary to Paul and traditionally we know that Paul’s books predate every book of the New Testament including the gospels! (That’s another weird phenomenon).
Finally, Bible authority Barclay seals the matter for us:
As we have said, and was we have now seen, the tradition of the early Church is clear, consistent and unanimous. It was believed that Matthew wrote the first Gospel, and he wrote it first of all the gospels and that it was originally written in Hebrew.” (A. Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, p. VIII.) (2.)
Therefore, if Matthew’s gospel was the-oldest then why is Mark’s gospel touted as the most primitive gospel amongst all?!; in the same way if the “early Church” was “unanimous” that Matthew’s gospel was oldest then why was it later “discovered” that Mark’s was the oldest?! And, if Matthew was originally written in Hebrew as the circumstances and earliest testimonies indicate, then why do we have current gospel of Matthew in Greek?
The answer to all such queries lays beneath the fact that original gospel of Matthew, the one which was written in Hebrew for Hebrews, has long been lost. And, in the absence of this document, the very next gospel – the gospel of Mark was “prioritized” as the-oldest.
Subsequently, when a concerted effort was made to reconstruct gospel of Matthew, the Greek gospel of Mark was used. No wonder, no less than an egregiously exorbitant 600 verses from Mark were copied into Matthew in the name of reception of “inspirations” from the so-called “Holy Ghost”!
However, such an unscrupulous copying entailed with it that Matthew – the Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jew – was now had to be assumed as an expert level Greek author; notwithstanding the basic premise that he was to write for the first century Palestinian Jews and not Greek speaking Europeans!
On this note, Muslim scholar Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah’s makes very insightful remark:
“Origen, for example, tells us that Matthew’s Gospel was written for believers who had come from Judaism and the same view is held by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius. The above information suggest an Aramaic origin for Matthew’s Gospel which has been generally abandoned on account of theuse of Mark and the LXX version of the O.T.”
According to the principle of the priority of Mark established 200 years ago in biblical criticism, the present Matthew is a Greek, not an Aramaic or Hebrew Gospel, and was composed in Greek, and could not have been composed except in Greek, that is because it has evidently copied 600 verses from the more primitive Gospel of Mark, which is purely Greek.
There is no indication that the Apostle Matthew wrote the existing Gospel; indeed, it is almost impossible, because the present Gospel was authored in Greek and copied 600 verses from Mark. (The Qur’an and the Gospels – A comparative Study by Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, pp.86-88)
The way to refute this critique!
In the following passage we have five queries. If these queries are satisfactorily answered then we think this critique would be falsified:
- Why would “Holy Ghost” go out of its way to bypass Jesus’ (peace be upon him) self chosen “apostle(s)” – Matthew – to first “inspire” Mark?
- On the same logic as above, why would “Holy Ghost” first consider a non Jewish audience for the gospel message. It is because Mark wrote his gospel in Greek which was not the vernacular of Jesus’ (peace be upon him) immediate Hebrew speaking audience in Palestine!
- Why would Matthew go out of his way to write his gospel in Greek for non-Jews when as noted by virtually all early church fathers that Matthew was to write “for believers who had come from Judaism” as a result of Jesus’ (peace be upon him) preaching in Palestine.
- If Matthew was divinely “inspired”, then why did the gospel of Matthew have copied texts from Mark’s gospel (and even ‘Q’ source for that reason)?
- What about the numerous testimonies of multiple early, “orthodox” church fathers? If scholarship deems Mark’s gospel to be the-oldest then were these “orthodox” church fathers shoddy historians to claim Matthew’s gospel as the oldest and in Hebrew language?
It was not gospel of Mark the-oldest “canonical” gospel written; however, there was a definite need under which it needed to be deemed as the oldest of all gospels. We sought out to investigate this need and it turned out as follows:
- The criterion of Matthew’s seniority as an “apostle” and his Palestinian culture strongly indicated that he should have been the person, before Mark, to write his gospel.
- On the foregoing, we found that many important “orthodox” early church “fathers” accepted that Matthew’s gospel was the first gospel written, even before Mark, in Hebrew language!
- Nevertheless, quite strangely, Matthew’s gospel in possession today is neither older than Mark’s nor in Hebrew. It is in Greek!
- Add to the above observation that the original, Hebrew gospel of Matthew is now lost.
- Therefore, when the lost gospel of Matthew was to be reconstructed using Mark’s gospel (and the ‘Q’ source), quite obviously, chronologically Matthew’s gospel had to fall after Mark’s – that’s fundamental calendar arithmetic. This reconstruction also entails that now Matthew’s gospel would not be in Hebrew but in Greek since its source, namely, Mark’s gospel, was in Greek!
Therefore, on one hand where we now have a well devised reason for gospel of Matthew being younger than Mark’s gospel; on the other hand, we also have the bitter truth that original gospel of Matthew is lost. And this embarrassment has ever since been sold as “principle of the priority of Mark” in the markets of biblical criticism amongst the Christians; and then pathetically stamped as “inspired”, “unchanged word of God”!
(1.) As cited in The Qur’an and the Gospels – A comparative Study by Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, p.85)
(2.) As cited in The Qur’an and the Gospels – A comparative Study by Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, p.86)
- Emphasize wherever not matching with original, is ours.