The Order and Codification of the Gospels

Long before the atom was split, time was split; fissioned so sharply that it cut history in two. B.C. and A.D.. Nothing that will ever happen again will have so much importance. What happened temporally and spatially since is a reaction for or against that event.

~ Ven. Fulton J. SheenImage

The four Gospels of the Bible have arguably had more of an influence on Western Civilization in the last 2,000 years than any other writings from antiquity.  There are various theories about when they were written.  But all do agree that they were composed somewhere between the middle and end of the first century. Out of the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as the Synoptic Gospels.  They share this distinction because they include many of the same stories, usually in the same order, using similar phrasing. There are three main schools of thought toward the order in which the Gospel’s were written; the Jerome Tradition (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), the Markan priority theory (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), and the Clementine Tradition (Matthew, Luke, Mark, John), all of which are based on a particular theory as to who wrote first.

The order in which the Gospels are laid out in our Bible’s today is of the Jerome Tradition. The Jerome Tradition places each Gospel in the Bible in the order it was understood to have been written.  Not many have contested that John’s Gospel was the last to be composed.  According to the recent Ignatius Catholic Study Bible published in 2010, John’s Gospel was composed by at least A.D. 100, and that most scholars date it somewhere in the 90’s of the first century (157). According to Kenneth Baker in his book Inside the Bible, “Most place it about A.D. 90, when John was an old man, but there are also persuasive arguments that St. John’s Gospel was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70” (253).

Some have contested that the Gospel of Mark may have been the first Gospel to be written. Those people hold to the Markan priority theory, claiming that Mark was the first of the three Synoptic Gospels, and that the other two synoptic writers, Matthew and Luke, used Mark’s Gospel as one of their sources. Their theory is based on the fact that Mark’s Gospel was written in “poor Greek”, whereas Matthew and Luke are not.  They believe that the other two authors cleaned up the language and form in their Gospels.  Kenneth Baker disagrees with this theory and believes that Matthew was more than likely to have been the first Gospel written, “Scholars of the past hundred years have tended to place Matthew late in the first century, after the fall of Jerusalem.”  In fact, the majority of scholars are in agreement that all of the Gospels were written in the first century.  Baker continues, “A good case can be made from ancient tradition and from the language and ideas in the Gospel that it is early and indeed the first of the four Gospels” (235).

Dennis Barton in his work, The Authors of the Gospels, is in favor of the Clementine Tradition, (Matthew, Luke, Mark, John), “Every ancient historical source says the Apostle Matthew wrote the first Gospel and most of them record that it was in Hebrew or at least in a Semitic language or style” (V: 27/5/12).

And those sources include the Early Church Fathers, Papias (c. 60-130), Irenaeus (c. 130-200), Origen (c. 185-254), Eusebius (c. 260-340) Jerome (c. 340-420), and Augustine of Hippo (c. 354-430).  Barton also claims that it is unlikely that Matthew, an eyewitness and actual Apostle would have borrowed anything from a non-apostle or actual eyewitness like himself.

Baker believes that the Gospel of Mark was composed close to the year A.D. 60 (242).  Several scholars believe that Mark was written around 70 A.D. before the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem, and that this can be found in the Gospel itself.  According to the new Ignatius Catholic Study Bible we read, “In MK 13, Jesus prophesies the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.  This was fulfilled in A.D. 70, when the Romans violently destroyed the Holy City.”  They go on to describe Mark’s lack of reference to this historical fact, “Mark, however, makes no mention of this as a past event, nor does he give detailed information about the catastrophe that would indicate he was writing after the fact” (61).  This is an interesting point worth considering.

Mark was a traveling companion of Peter, and it is believed that Peter dictated to him this Gospel from his memories and experiences living with Jesus all during His three year ministry. Mark’s Gospel is known for its poor grammar when compared to the other two Synoptic Gospels.  Dennis Barton quotes scripture scholar Dom Bernard Orchard who believed that the reason for Mark’s roughness of language is due to dictation and his desire to capture the story and its details quickly from a live speech, “The Gospel of Mark is in no way the smooth product of a skilled author sitting at a desk, but has all the vividness, the inconsistencies, and the peculiar turns of speech, that one finds in actual transcripts of live speeches, for example, sudden breaks, asides, anacolutha [incoherence within a sentence] and so forth” ((RO 273)) (V:28/3/12). Unlike the other Gospels, the Gospel of Luke is the only Gospel where the nativity story is contained.

It is in the Gospel of Luke that we learn of Jesus’ birth in a stable, His circumcision as an infant, and the finding of Him in the Temple at the age of twelve.  Many scholars believe that Luke could only have been given such details from Mary the Mother of Jesus herself.  Again, there is a division among scholars as to when Luke’s Gospel was written.  Some believe that it could have been composed as early as the 60’s, while others suggest the 90’s. Kenneth Baker explains from Inside the Bible, “The book was written about 64 A.D., before the date of St. Paul.  The literary form and the theology of the book clearly show that it is the work of a Gentile Christian written for Gentile Christians” (248).  One thing they are certain of is that Luke was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul.  Luke is also known to have written the Book of Acts contained in the New Testament, which describes the birth of the Church, and the adventures of the remaining apostles.

The proponents of the Clementine Tradition base their theory on the writings of Clement of Alexandria (c 150-215), which were preserved by the historian Eusebius who quoted from Clement’s book: The Outlines, “And again in the same books, Clement states a tradition of the earliest presbyters about the order of the gospels; and it has this form. He used to say that the earlier-written of the gospels were those having the genealogies” ((EH 6:14, 5-7 and RO 166r)) (V: 24/5/12). With this statement, Clement referred to the Gospels which contained the genealogies of Jesus as having been written first, meaning Matthew and Luke’s Gospel.  According to Dennis Barton’s work, Clement is the only early historian to actually mention the sequence of the writing of the Gospels. He was also the bishop of the diocese founded by Mark.  All of Mark’s possessions would have been housed somewhere in that diocese, and most likely under the watchful care of Clement of Alexandria.

Another interesting bit of information in regards to the Clementine Tradition comes from a quote by an anonymous author of the late fourth century by the name of Ambrosiaster.  There is a passage in one of his writings which alludes to a fascinating and theological arrangement of the Gospels that is based more on its contents rather than order in which they were written:

The gospel is arranged according to the order [of their contents] rather than in chronological order. Therefore, Matthew is put in the first place because he begins from the promise, that is, from Abraham to whom was made the promise of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Next comes Luke, because he relates how this incarnation took place. Third comes Mark, who witnesses that the gospel preached by Christ has been promised in the Law. Fourthly, John … ((AS and RO 201-2)) (V: 24/5/12).

Regardless of which Synoptic Gospel came first, one thing we know for certain is that they were written in the first century, twenty-forty years after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  The other certainty we have from scholars and theologians is that two of the four Gospels are eyewitness accounts.  The Gospel of John and Matthew were written by two of the original apostles, men who lived with Jesus and heard Him teach and speak.  Another interesting tidbit is that John’s Gospel is the only one where we have Christ’s final words from the cross, “It is finished.”  This is interesting because according to scripture and tradition, John was the only Apostle who witnessed the crucifixion.

Award winning journalist Lee Strobel interviewed Dr. Craig Blomberg, professor of New Testament studies at Aberdeen University in Scotland, in his book The Case for Christ on the eyewitnesses to Synoptic Gospel history.  Dr. Bloomberg states,

“It’s important to acknowledge that strictly speaking, the Gospels are anonymous.”  Which they are, however Bloomberg acknowledges the traditional understanding of who those authors are, “But the uniform testimony of the early Church was that Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector and one of the twelve apostles, was the author of the first Gospel in the New Testament; that John Mark, a companion of Peter, was the author of the Gospel we call Mark; and that Luke, known as Paul’s ‘beloved physician,’ wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostle” (22-23).

Another question sometimes arises when discussing the Gospels and that is this; how was it that the Gospels were placed in the Bible and by whose authority?  To answer this question we go to Rev. Henry Graham in his book, Where We Got the Bible, “The Church existed before the Bible; she made the Bible; she selected its books, and she preserved it.  She handed it down; through her we know what is the Word of God, and what the word of man” (40).

The Catholic Church convened the Council of Carthage in the year 397 A.D. in order to fix the Canon of Scripture once and for all, and in the process, compiled the bestselling book of all time, the Bible.  The main criterion came down to this, the oldest writings that were used in Christian worship, and the ones that came from an original Apostle, or one that traveled with one in the first century, were the only ones considered worthy of being included in the Bible.

There was an abundance of writings scattered about for the last four centuries, all vying for a place of authenticity.  And there was no shortage of poorly translated text that were in conflict with each other.  The Church had to wade through these various writings to determine which were the most accurately translated from the original sources.  The Church had three sources at their disposal to help guide them.  The first source used came from Greek manuscripts that contained the writings in its original language. There were over four thousand original Greek sources used in this process, the oldest dated back to 125 A.D. The second source used came from translations of those original sources that were checked for accuracy by comparing the two.  The third source that was used came from referencing the ancient Church Fathers writings who quoted these Scripture passages often in their own writings (25). And by so doing, they were able to gain an understanding as to what text were highly used and trusted most by the Church in worship services and private study.

Setting the Canon at the Council was no easy task.  The writings were broken up into three classes. According to Rev. Graham, “These classes were (1) the books “acknowledged” as Canonical, (2) books “disputed” or “controverted”, (3) books declared “spurious” or false” (34). The majority of the disputed books were forgeries from the second, third, and fourth century.  Those books claimed as an author an apostle who was long dead before its writing.  Others were questionable only slightly, but in the name of prudence and caution they were excluded, not for their content, but its authenticity.

It has to be noted that the majority of inaccuracies in the text were of a trivial matter, and had to do with the order of the words and the spelling of them.  According to Dr. Homer Kent Jr., Dean of Grace Theological Seminary, “With the wealth of documentary evidence at our disposal for determining the true text, biblical scholars are in much better position than are textual scholars of any other ancient literature” (26).

One thing we know for certain is the aftermath of the writings of those Gospels. The world was dramatically changed. Art, architecture, Universities, Western Law, modern science, and the idea of free market economics were all effected and developed due to their having been written.  To illustrate that point here’s a quote from the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen:

Long before the atom was split, time was split; fissioned so sharply that it cut history in two. B.C. and A.D.. Nothing that will ever happen again will have so much importance. What happened temporally and spatially since is a reaction for or against that event (16).

How the Gospels were written, by whom, and when they were written has fascinated scholars and Christians for almost two thousand years.  Their influence is unquestionable.  The only thing questionable for some is its contents and its Catalyst.  For those with faith this is a non-issue, but for those without faith it is everything.


~ John Andrew Dorsey


Baker S.J, Kenneth. Inside the Bible. San Francisco: Ignatius,

1998. Print.

Barton, Dennis. The Authors of the Gospel (According to the                                                                                                                                                       Clementine Tradition). Church in History, 2012. Web. 16 April. 2012.

Graham, Rt. Rev. Henry G. Where We Got the Bible. North

Carolina: Tan, 2010. Print.

Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament Ed. Curtis Mitch

and Scott Hahn. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2010. Print. Rev.

Standard Vers.

Kent Jr., Homer A. “How We Got Our New Testament.” Grace

Theological 8.2 (1967): 22-26. Print.

Sheen, Bishop Fulton. “A Conviction Need by the Mind.” Toledo

     Blade 4 Feb. 1962, Ohio ed.: 16. Print

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1998. Print.

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