The Synoptic Gospels In The Ancient Church: The Testimony To The Priority Of Matthew’s Gospel -- By: F. David Farnell

Journal: Masters Seminary Journal
Volume: TMSJ 10:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: The Synoptic Gospels In The Ancient Church: The Testimony To The Priority Of Matthew’s Gospel
Author: F. David Farnell


The Synoptic Gospels
In The Ancient Church:
The Testimony To The Priority
Of Matthew’s Gospel1

F. David Farnell, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of New Testament
The Master’s Seminary

Modern historical criticism has systematically ignored the writings of the early church fathers regarding their viewpoints on the Gospels. This article examines pertinent writings of several significant early fathers (Papias, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Eusebius, and Augustine) regarding any information that they can impart regarding the chronological order of the Gospels. Their writings reveal that the unanimous and unquestioned consensus of the early church was that Matthew was the first gospel written. They also reveal that, while they considered John as written last, Luke was predominately considered second and Mark third (although admittedly Mark, at times, appears in second place). Since the church fathers lived much closer to the time of the composition of the gospels and were scholars in their own right, their testimony must be given serious consideration in any hypothesis regarding chronological order. Such early testimony stands in direct contradiction to the predominant contention of source criticism that concludes for the Two- or Four-Document Hypothesis (i.e. priority of Mark and Q), especially since the latter is not a product of objective historical analysis but a late-blooming conjecture spawned by Enlightenment ideologies.

* * * * *

The Gospel of Matthew was the church’s most popular Gospel in the decades up to the time of Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180). After an extensive analysis of Matthew’s influence on early Christianity, Massaux relates,

Of all the New Testament Writings, the Gospel of Mt. was the one whose literary influence was the most widespread and the most profound in Christian literature that extended into the last decades of the second century…

Until the end of the second century, the first gospel remained the gospel par excellence … .

The Gospel was, therefore, the normative fact of Christian life. It created the background for ordinary Christianity.2

Moreover, the unanimous and unquestioned consensus of the church fathers was that Matthew was the first gospel written and, almost without exception, the early church placed the Gospel of Matthew first in the canon of the New Testament. Petrie observes, “Until the latter half of the eighteenth century, the apostolic authorship of ‘the Gospel according to Matthew’ seems to have been ...

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