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For 2000 years Christians have accepted that the four Gospels provide reliable historical facts about the life of Jesus. They have also accepted that the ancient historians provided reliable accounts regarding the origins of the Gospels. Borrowing had obviously taken place between the authors of Matthew, Mark and Luke. But who had borrowed from whom was of little academic interest until 1764.

It was then that Henry Owen, an Anglican Vicar, proposed that Mark wrote after Luke. Owen’s idea was ignored in Britain and, although discussed in Germany, conservative scholars rejected the idea. Their main reason was because it contradicted Jerome’s sequence of Matthew-Mark-Luke-John.

Yet Owen had arrived at his theory by critically examining the wording used by the authors, and this prompted others to use the same technique. In 1838 Christian Weisse claimed that as Mark’s Gospel was in poor grammatical Greek, compared to the other two, he must have written prior to them.  His reason was that a ‘borrower’ would not deliberately turn good quality Greek into poor quality. His idea that Mark wrote first became known as: The Markan Priority Theory.

Non-believers in the German Universities, supported by the government, championed this theory because all the ancient historians had said that Matthew wrote first. The acceptance of Markan Priority would mean all the early Christian historians were seriously wrong so very unreliable in all they reported.

They could also argue that as most scholars dated Mark as writing about 64 AD, Matthew and Luke must have been written much later. So both Gospels would have been authored by anonymous individuals who had never met Christ or anyone who had. Their portrayal of the life of Christ and of Christianity would not have been based on historical facts, but on their personal faith. So the Gospels told us of a Christ of Faith not the Jesus of history.

The acceptance of such a view of Scripture could devastate Evangelical Christianity. And also undermine the Catholic Church’s claim to having been historically founded by Jesus.

Christians answered those promoting Markan Priority, by basing their stand on the reliability of Jerome having listed the Gospels as Matthew- Mark- Luke- John. But although they firmly challenged the reliability of the Markan Priority theory, they failed to explain the ‘poor’ Greek of Mark and so win the debate convincingly.

On the other side, Markans found it necessary to rely on an alleged historical document they called Q – although there was not the slightest historical evidence that it ever existed. The two sides fought each other to a stand-still.

Dei Verbum of the Second Vatican Council maintained that eyewitness Apostles and their associates had authored the four Gospels. The Council also allowed freer research which led to a third theory emerging (or rather, Owen’s theory re-emerging in a modern form). This aimed to reconcile modern methods of critical analysis with the historical evidence.


Harold Riley, an Anglican priest had become convinced of the correctness of Henry Owen’s original sequence of Matthew-Luke-Mark. And, about the same time, Bernard Orchard OSB, a Catholic priest, pointed out that many early writers hadn’t used Jerome’s sequence.

In 1987 they co-authored: The Order of the Synoptic. Riley showed how Mark always goes forward when quoting alternatively from Matthew and Luke. For Riley, the way doublets were formed showed conclusively that Luke had written before Mark. Two years later he refuted criticism of his analysis.

In the same book, Orchard listed the authors prior to Jerome who had used the Matthew-Luke-Mark order. He also quoted the words of Clement of Alexandria: “According to the very earliest priests…the first written of the Gospels were those having the genealogies”.

The co-authored book was: ‘A work in progress’. There was still need for further research. But studies in archaeology and linguistics came to the aid of the authors. Archaeologists established that the common speech used at the time of the Apostles was koine Greek, not classical Greek. Mark had not been writing in ‘poor’ classical Greek but in (koine) Greek. In 1991, E. R. Roberts, a Baptist, showed that Greek shorthand was widely used at the time.

Orchard was now in a stronger position to propose his ground-breaking theory. Luke, who had composed his Gospel for the Gentiles, had not known Jesus. So he needed an eyewitness Apostle to endorse his manuscript as being a true Gospel. So, to give his endorsement, Peter gave a talk in which he merged together the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. He spoke in kione Greek and his words were recorded in shorthand by his secretary Mark.

The errors and ‘poor’ quality of Mark’s Gospel were not suddenly discovered in the 19th century. Bishop Papias, who lived when some of those present at the talk would still have been alive, reported that John the Apostle had defended the quality of Mark’s Gospel. Papias wrote: “Mark didn’t err at all when he wrote certain things just as he (Peter) had recalled them. For he had but one intention, not to leave out anything he had heard, nor falsify anything in them”.

If Mark’s document had been edited it would have ceased to be a true report of Peter’s talk. This explains why the scriptural errors in Mark’s Gospel (1: 2 and 2: 26), as well as its poor grammar, were not corrected.

Some years later, Clement of Alexandria was lay head teacher of the diocesan school of Alexandria. This diocese had been established by Mark and had a good library. He reported that a large audience had begged Mark to quickly provide them with copies of Peter’s talk, which he did.

Mark’s Gospel was shorter than Luke’s and, as Peter’s secretary Mark would have had an established team of copyists. So Peter’s talk (i.e. Mark’s Gospel) would have been published before Luke’s Gospel. Today it would be known as a first edition. Clement then reports that when Peter learned of the good it was doing, he approved a second edition for the churches.

So although the Gospels were composed in the Matthew- Luke- Mark- John order, they were published in the Matthew- Mark-Luke-Mark- John order.


This is the reason why all the historians agree that Matthew wrote first and John last, but the sequence of listing the other two varied. When Jerome sent his Latin translation to pope Damasus, he explained that he had adopted the Matthew-Mark-Luke-John order. This indicates it was not the only one in use at the time. For example, Origen’s used a different sequence to that of Clement, who had been his teacher.

Irenaeus and Tertullian used the Matthew-Luke-Mark order, as did Jerome in his book: ‘Illustrious Men’. Jerome also wrote in it: “Mark is he whose Gospel consists of Peter’s narration and Mark’s writing”. 

Augustine, in his first book, mentioned Jerome’s order as being in use. But, when he discussed the Gospels in his fourth book, he wrote that Mark had drawn on ideas provided by Matthew and Luke. Today, many Eastern Church liturgies still use the sequence: Matthew-Luke-Mark- John.

If we accept that the order of composition was Matthew-Luke-Mark, while Jerome utilised the order of publication for his Vulgate, there is no problem.

Once Orchard’s thesis is accepted, answers to other questions suggest themselves. For example – why are the last 12 verses of Mark disjointed from the main text? In 1987 Orchard speculated that these verses may have been notes for a further talk. But he later became interested in the suggestion that they were replies to questions provoked by the new information contained in Luke’s Gospel. When examined as such, they do make sense.

The use of ‘he’ in verse 9 is inexplicable unless we accept that the word “Jesus” was contained in a question.  Matthew mentioned Mary Magdalene, and Luke mentions that a Mary of Magdalene had been possessed by devils. When someone asked if she was the same person, Peter confirms that she was. In the following verses we see Peter confirming details when he was a witness of an incident but otherwise quoting others.

Archaeologists have found two editions of Mark’s Gospel, one including and one without these verses.

Orchard died before he was able to set out his findings in full. As an admirer, I collected much of his work so as to preserve it and make better known. This is contained in the following chapters, together with the addition of supporting evidence and comments added by myself. I hope you will have an interesting read.

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V: 12/11/2013



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