Which Gospel Came First?

Getting as close to the historical Jesus as possible has been a preoccupation with biblical scholars since at least the 18th century. Many questions must be asked. For example, which of the Jesus-traditions (sayings and stories) now appearing in the New Testament and elsewhere are the oldest? Which are most likely historical? Which gospel was the first to be written and was therefore composed closer to the time of Jesus? These are not easy questions. One can simply accept the entire Jesus tradition at face value as being completely historical or undertake to study the various traditions according to their cultural and historical contexts, number of occurrences, overall consistency, and possible date of origin. Naturally, scholars choose the latter approach as do many studious Christian laypeople. It is primarily with the date of the origin of the gospels, however, that this essay is concerned.

Many Christians assume that the gospels were either all written at the same time by Jesus’s closest followers or were placed in the New Testament in the order they were composed. But both of these assumptions are faulty. First of all, we do not know who wrote the gospels—they originally circulated anonymously. Authorship was not attributed to these gospels until sometime in the second century. And while the order of the gospels in the New Testament does at least reflect the ancient belief that Matthew was composed first, there was less certainty about the rest.

Beginning in the 19th century, the New Testament order of gospel composition began to be challenged. It became clear that the authors of the first three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) copied text from one or another. The dominant theory to account for this situation became known as the two-(or four-)source hypothesis. What this hypothesis says is that the Gospel of Mark was composed first and that the authors of Matthew and Luke later independently copied from it. And, after accounting for all the Markan material in Matthew and Luke, a body of text (about 220 verses) remains that appears in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. Scholars suggest that these shared verses came from another written source besides Mark. This is a hypothetical source and was dubbed “Q” (the first letter in the German Quelle, meaning simply, “source”). The “two-source hypothesis” therefore says that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke incorporated the two sources Mark and Q into their own gospels. Any leftover material unique to Matthew or Luke are believed to derive from unrecoverable additional sources referred to simply as “M” for Matthew’s unique material, and “L” for Luke’s unique material. Adding the sources M and L to Mark and Q results in the “four-source hypothesis.” If this relationship among the gospels is accurate, then Q and the Gospel of Mark were composed before Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John, not textually related to the others, is generally dated to about the same time as Matthew and Luke. But is all this correct?

In recent decades some scholars have become increasingly uncomfortable with Q as a solution to the “Synoptic problem,” that is, the problem of accounting for the textual relationship among the first three gospels (they are called Synoptic because they can be studied together side-by-side in a synopsis). The concerns of these scholars are sometimes very technical and need not be addressed here. But one example of a problem yet to be adequately resolved is how Matthew and Luke can sometimes agree in their wording together against Mark. Also, how they can agree in what they omit or add to Mark? This would not seem possible if Matthew and Luke were both using Mark and did not know one another.

One proposed solution to the problem is that an earlier, slightly different, edition of Mark might have existed, one that was used by Matthew and Luke.[1] The earlier version of Mark was later edited into our present version of Mark so that it no longer entirely agrees with Matthew and Luke in some cases. That is certainly possible. But there is another suggested solution that I think deserves more attention than it is getting.

A bit of background is necessary before we proceed. As many of you know, there were more than just the four New Testament gospels written in the first several centuries of the Christian, or Common, era (A.D. or CE). Some of them have come down to us in more or less complete form; many have not. Some are only known from their titles, preserved in the literary record left by the early (gentile) Christian theologians and writers often referred to as the church fathers. Occasionally, the fathers quoted excerpts from gospels that no longer exist today. We are fortunate that they did so for a gospel known as the Gospel of the Hebrews.

The Gospel of the Hebrews is sometimes classified by scholars as “Jewish-Christian,” a term now falling out of favor but meant to refer to Jewish believers in Christ. This designation is increasingly seen as unhelpful since scholars are coming to realize that most of the New Testament is, by this definition, “Jewish Christian.” Within the writings of the fathers there are a variety of references to one or more gospels used by Jewish Christians. These include a “gospel used by the Nazarenes,” that is, the sect of early followers of Jesus according to Acts.[2] There are references to a “Hebrew gospel” written by Matthew.[3] (Our New Testament Gospel of Matthew was not written in Hebrew but in Greek. Scholars assure us that it was not directly translated from Hebrew.) Other references, occurring in several ancient manuscripts of the canonical Gospel of Matthew, mention a “Gospel According to the Jews.” Included in the margins of these manuscripts are alternate forms of certain verses.[4] What are we to make of all these references to “Jewish-Christian” gospels?

It is possible, as Pier Franco Beatrice and others have suggested,[5] that these multiform references to “Jewish” gospels really point to one single gospel, dubbed by some ancients as the Gospel of the Hebrews. Though this gospel was known to have existed until the Middle Ages, no extant copies exist. At minimum we have several quoted passages in the writings of the fathers. The fathers were quite familiar with this gospel and were not afraid to consult it. But of what use to them was this gospel attributed to Jewish believers in Christ, especially since we know that most of the gentile fathers despised Christian Jews who continued practicing their Jewish faith in tandem with belief in Jesus the Messiah? The fathers must have, at least grudgingly, granted a certain authority to Hebrews. Why? I suggest that it was because they knew that it was quite old and they believed it to have originated in the milieu of Jesus’s earliest followers.

We cannot, of course, state categorically that the Gospel of the Hebrews was written by the original disciples of Jesus. But we can suggest that it originated among their followers. In fact, we might add that it was probably written before any of the New Testament gospels. If that is the case, then the authors of Matthew, Mark, and Luke knew and used Hebrews as their primary source of information about Jesus. What are the implications of this suggestion?

First, it makes any relative chronology about the order of the New Testament gospels irrelevant. If Matthew and Luke did not copy Mark, as mainstream scholars suggest they did, but instead copied from the Gospel of the Hebrews, then the so-called Synoptic gospels could have been written at any time relative to one other. If Matthew and Luke used Hebrews, Q becomes unnecessary since the material that some attribute to that hypothetical source would actually have come from the Gospel of the Hebrews, a gospel that is not theoretical—we know it existed.

One question that skeptics might ask is, if Mark used Hebrews, why did he omit so much of it? Yet, one could just as easily ask, if privileging the two/four-source hypothesis, why did Mark omit what was contained in Q? Scholars date Q to the 50s. Are we to believe that the author of Mark, publishing in the 70s, was unaware of the contents of Q? Had Mark never heard of the Lord’s Prayer, for example, which only occurs in Q? With either hypothesis, Mark, for whatever reason, deliberately created an abbreviated gospel. I suggest he had a very specific target audience in mind and selectively chose material from the greater body of Jesus-tradition to make his theological point(s). Scholars continue to try to define Mark’s readership. But whether one accepts the two/four-source hypothesis or the Gospel of the Hebrews hypothesis, one must explain Mark’s abbreviated gospel.

If the Gospel of the Hebrews was such an important source, why did the Church fathers only quote short passages from it? Why did it not survive in toto? I suggest that those short passages quoted by the fathers reflect the few deviations in Hebrews from the more popular Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke which, in one form or another, contained most of the material in Hebrews. The canonical gospel authors chose to omit certain passages from Hebrews and the Church fathers were keen to see which ones. The fathers checked the veracity and reliability of the canonical gospels against the Gospel of the Hebrews and wherever they found differences, they recorded them. There may have been other differences; we cannot know for sure until a copy of Hebrews turns up. But the differences were likely quite limited.

What are some of the passages that the fathers found in Hebrews that were left out of the canonical gospels? Here are a few along with who recorded them:

“The mother of the Lord and his brothers said to him, ‘John the Baptist baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Let’s go and get baptized by him,’ But he said to them, ‘How have I sinned? So why should I go and get baptized by him? Only if I don’t know what I’m talking about.” (Jerome, Against the Pelagians 3; 4th-5th c.)

“And it happened that when the Lord came up out of the water, the whole fountain of the holy spirit came down on him and rested on him. It said to him, ‘My Son, I was waiting for you in all the prophets, waiting for you to come so I could rest in you. For you are my rest; you are my first-begotten Son who rules forever.” (Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah 4 re: Isa 11:2; 4th-5th c.)

[Jesus said:] “Just now my mother, the holy spirit, took me by one of my hairs and brought me to [Mount] Tabor, the great mountain.” (Origen, Commentary on John 2; 3rd c.)

[Jesus said:] “Those who seek should not stop until they find; when they find, they will marvel. When they marvel, they will rule, and when they rule, they will rest.” (Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 5; 2nd-3rd c.)

[Jesus said:] “Never be glad except when you look at your brother or sister with love.” (Jerome Commentary on Ephesians 3 re: Eph 5:4; 4th-5th c.)

Most scholars assume that the Gospel of the Hebrews post-dated the canonical gospels; they then try to characterize the entire gospel from the extracts preserved by the fathers. These scholars presuppose that the author of Hebrews modified one of more of the canonical gospels. This seems unlikely. Instead of assuming the author of Hebrews re-wrote the canonical gospels, why not presume the canonical gospel authors edited Hebrews? If the Gospel of the Hebrews had not been held in such high regard by the fathers, however grudgingly, they would not have continuously consulted it. Had Hebrews been known to be derivative of the canonical gospels, the fathers could easily have written it off as a corruption of the mainstream gospels (as they did with many other gospels). Instead, the fathers consulted Hebrews and felt obliged to report the passages that the canonical gospels omitted from it. And though the fathers do not advocate for the use of the omitted passages, neither do they fault the Gospel of the Hebrews for containing them.

Is there any other evidence that the Gospel of the Hebrews preceded the canonical gospels? There is a second century tradition (though available to us only from a fourth century reproduction of the text) that the disciple Matthew wrote down the logia (“words,” “sayings,” “story”) of Jesus in the Hebrew dialect and that everyone interpreted them/it as best he could.[6] Does this tradition refer to our New Testament Gospel of Matthew? Could Jesus’s disciple, the tax collector Matthew, have written it? Our Gospel of Matthew does not read as an eyewitness account. The author does not identify himself and there are no first-person narratives within the text. Remember, most modern scholars accept that the author of our Matthew copied Mark; no direct disciple of Jesus would copy his story from someone who did not know Jesus, if the author of Mark is supposed to be the John Mark of the New Testament (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37). Not only that, our Matthew was composed in Greek and according to linguists was not translated from Hebrew.

Could the Gospel of the Hebrews have been written by Jesus’s disciple Matthew? Given the early date we suggest here, it is not entirely impossible. However, since none of the Synoptic gospels appear to have been translated from Hebrew (or any Syriac dialect), and if they did all use the Gospel of the Hebrews as their primary source, then Hebrews must have been written in Greek. But what about Papias’s notice that “Matthew” wrote in Hebrew. It remains possible, of course, that the Gospel of the Hebrews was concurrently, or at some point, (re)written in Hebrew or some Syriac dialect such as Aramaic for the benefit of certain followers of Jesus who spoke that language. Papias’s testimony could then be true though the bishop lacked full awareness of the original circumstances of Matthew’s composition. Or Papias may have meant that the Hebrew disciple Matthew wrote the logia. Eusebius, who quoted Papias, was not all that impressed with Papias’s intellect calling him “small-minded.”[7] Nevertheless, Papias noted that “everyone” interpreted, that is, re-wrote, and even expounded upon, Matthew’s work.

The theory that the Gospel of the Hebrews was the original narrative gospel of Jesus Christ requires more analysis and research but it elegantly solves the riddle of the verbatim similarity found among the Synoptic gospels without requiring a hypothetical gospel (Q or Proto-Mark). We already know that the Gospel of the Hebrews existed; we have references to it from those who read it and have quotations of passages from it. And we need no longer be concerned with chronologically sequencing the Synoptic gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke could have been composed at any time after Hebrews. Each succeeding author took material from Hebrews and shaped it according to their own skills, theology, and community needs.

Do any of the Synoptic gospels more accurately reflect the Gospel of the Hebrews than the others in terms of outline and content? My vote would go to the Gospel of Matthew as more accurately preserving the order and general thrust of Hebrews: it is very pro-Torah and better reflects the Jewish followers of Jesus and their continuing conflicts with the Pharisees, a group that was only of importance in Palestine and only until the year 70. As Hebrews became known and used, especially in Syria, churches desiring their own gospel account reworked Hebrews either adding to it (Luke), abbreviating it (Mark), or leaving it substantially the same (Matthew). Other gospel accounts would follow, some perhaps depending on Hebrews or the later Synoptic gospels (John, Peter, later editions of Hebrews) while some deviated entirely from them (Thomas, Judas, Mary). It remains for scholars to try to reconstruct the Gospel of the Hebrews at least until a manuscript copy can be found which should, given the reaction to other recently discovered gospels, shake up the biblical world.

[1] See, for example, Delbert Burkett, Rethinking the Gospel Sources: From Proto-Mark to Mark (New York: T&T Clark, 2004).

[2] Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel 6 re: Ezek 18:7. Acts 24:5.

[3] Epiphanius, Heresies (Panarion = “Medicine Chest”) 30.3.7, 30.13.2.

[4] There are at least five Greek manuscripts involved: nos. 4, 273, 566, 899, and 1424.

[5] Beatrice, Pier Franco, “The ‘Gospel According to the Hebrews’ in the Apostolic Fathers.” Novum Testamentum 48.2, 2006, pgs. 147-195.

[6] Found in Eusebius, Church History 3.39.16 as related by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis. The Greek hermēneus can be rendered in English as “interpreted,” “expounded,” or “translated.” A more recent edition of Eusebius prefers “translated” (Schott, Jeremy M., Eusebius of Caesarea: The History of the Church: A New Translation [Oakland: University of California Press, 2019], 167). But it was not always so (see, for example ANF 1.155; LCL 1.297; Maier, Paul L., Eusebius: The Church History [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999], 130). Earlier editions preferred “interpreted.” Interestingly, Papias/Eusebius use the same Greek word earlier in 3.39.3 and all the above editions opt for the English “interpreted,” not “translated.”

[7] Eusebius, Church History 3.39.13.

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