We will not repeat what we have stated in our introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis page except to say that the supposed source document Q is a ridiculous idea wrought upon the biblical world by unbelieving scholars who refused to search for the truth and sought their own answers to supposed biblical problems.
#1. Sloan, D. B. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Q Source, Critical Issues. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
The Relationship between Q and Mark
It has long been assumed that Mark’s gospel and Q are independent of one another. A number of scholars have challenged this view, but the majority have not found their arguments convincing.
Mack argues that Mark got a number of his themes from Q and that Mark used ideas in Q as building blocks for his Gospel (Mack, Lost Gospel, 177–180). Catchpole argues that Mark’s introduction is a development of the introduction to Q and that Mark was influenced by Q at other points in writing his Gospel (Catchpole, Quest, 60–78). The most extensive argument for Mark’s use of Q is the book-length study by Fleddermann that examines the 28 Markan passages that overlap Q (Fleddermann, Mark and Q). Fleddermann argues that Q is consistently more original in these passages and that in a number of them Mark displays knowledge not only of the same tradition but also of Q’s redaction of that tradition.
If Mark could be shown to be dependent on Q, there would be a number of implications. The two-document solution to the Synoptic Problem would look significantly different, with Q being a source for all three Synoptic Gospels. The extent of Q would need to be reexamined, as every triple-tradition passage would be potentially from Q (Tuckett, “Mark and Q,” 25). Mark’s omission of many of the sayings in Q would need to be explained. And for those who date Q late, such as Fleddermann himself, Mark would need to be dated even later. So far the majority has not been convinced by Fleddermann and others, and the debate continues.
Q and Christian Origins
Perhaps the largest divide within current Q scholarship is over the implications of Q research for Christian origins. To some scholars, Q’s depiction of Jesus’ death and vindication suggests that Q comes from a tradition that assigns no salvific significance to Jesus’ death and that sees Jesus as assumed into heaven rather than resurrected. Many, however, think this assessment of Q exaggerates the differences between Q and the gospels that made use of it.
Almost all Q scholars agree that the writing lacks a passion narrative. Streeter explains this in two ways: (1) Q, like the Didache, is written to give ethical instruction to those who have already been taught about the passion and its redemptive significance; (2) while Paul focused on the cross, the other apostles focused on the parousia as the center of the gospel and saw the cross as a potential hindrance to accepting the true hope of the gospel (Streeter, Four Gospels, 292). The assumption that Q was intended as a supplement to the passion kerygma remained unquestioned until Tödt wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1956, arguing that Q is not catechetical but is a proclamation of the kingdom that nowhere alludes to the Easter kerygma (Tödt, Son of Man). This led to a number of scholars arguing that Q views Jesus’ death and vindication differently from Mark and Paul.
Jacobson argues that “Mark adapted the tradition[s about the man Jesus] to his Christology and to the passion kerygma,” while Q explained the same traditions within a Deuteronomistic framework that viewed Jesus’ death “not as a salvific act but as evidence of Israel’s continuing impenitence” (Jacobson, “Literary Unity,” 383, 386). Kloppenborg adds that what the resurrection did for Mark and Paul in vindicating Jesus, Jesus’ teachings did for the author of Q; thus, Q had no need for an Easter faith (Kloppenborg, “Easter Faith”).
In each of these studies, it is not only the absence of a passion narrative that suggests that Q views the death of Jesus differently from proto-orthodox Christianity, but the way Jesus’ death and disappearance are spoken of within Q itself. Kloppenborg concludes that “at the numerous points where Q might have borrowed from … the passion kerygma’s salvific construal of Jesus’ death, it consistently fails to do so. It would be hard to imagine that this silence is a matter of Q consciously rejecting such construals of Jesus’ death. Rather, the only plausible solution is that Q simply does not know them” (Kloppenborg, Excavating Q, 374). It is observations such as these that lead Mack and others to conclude that for Q, as for Thomas, Jesus was not a dying and rising savior, but merely a teacher of wisdom. After all, according to the most popular stratification of Q, the document began as a wisdom document and only later was apocalypticized (Mack, “Lord of the Logia,” 9).
There are many components to these arguments, and not all of the scholars surveyed would agree with all of them, but the idea that Q represents a different kerygma than the passion kerygma has failed to convince many for a number of reasons. First, the entire New Testament attests to a diversity of views of Jesus’ death and vindication, even within Paul’s letters, so diversity itself is not problematic (Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 235–239). Matthew and Luke apparently saw no contradiction between Mark’s kerygma and Q’s, as they have included both in their Gospels. The Deuteronomistic understanding of Jesus’ death that is expressed in Q is also the central understanding of His death given in Mark’s parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1–12). And assumption language is used in Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ ascension (Zwiep, Ascension), even though Luke clearly viewed Jesus as resurrected.
Second, there are reasons that we would not expect Q to explain Jesus’ death. According to Mark, this is something Jesus taught only to the Twelve and only on His way to Jerusalem at the end of His life. If Q focuses on Jesus’ public teaching, it would naturally not include discussions of Jesus’ death and vindication (Meadors, Jesus, 313–314; compare Dunn, New Perspective on Jesus, 27). The few passages that hint at Jesus’ death (Q 11:49–51; 13:34–35; 14:27) come in contexts that teach about judgment or discipleship, where there is no need to discuss the significance of Jesus’ death (Meadors, Jesus, 296–302). In fact, even within the Synoptic Gospels, references to the salvific nature of Jesus’ death are rare (Matt 20:28; 26; 28; Mark 10:45; 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20).
Third, it is unlikely that Q could have viewed Jesus’ death as no more than that of a martyr and His vindication as no more than an assumption. Meadors notes that the martyr image appears in Q in contexts with great christological implications, suggesting that the death of Jesus is more significant than the death of other prophets and sages (Meadors, Jesus, 303). And though Q 13:34–35 echoes the assumption language in 2 Kings 2, there is a key difference between the Elijah of Kings and the Jesus of Q. The former was still alive when he was assumed; the latter had died. How would the “Q community” address this difference? Is there any reason to think they would not have concluded that Jesus was resurrected?
Fourth, we do not know what Q says about Jesus’ death that did not make it into Matthew or Luke, especially if Q is significantly more extensive than the double tradition. Arguments have even been made for a passion narrative in Q (Bundy, Jesus and the First Three Gospels, 48; Franklin, “Passion Narrative”; Sloan, “Passion Narrative”; see also Hultgren, Narrative Elements, 256–309), though they have not convinced many. Even if Q did not have a passion narrative, it is quite possible that there are other brief sayings about Jesus’ death and vindication that either Matthew or Luke dropped, just as Luke dropped Mark’s ransom saying in Mark 10:45 (Goodacre, “Response to Daniel A. Smith”).
Fifth, some have seen in Q 11:22 an allusion to Isa 53:12, “the only verse in the Servant Songs which directly identifies the vicarious suffering and death of the servant” (Meadors, Jesus, 310). So Barnabas Lindars says, “A saying of Jesus has been given messianic application and linked to the ‘plot’ of Isaiah 53. The Passion is not mentioned, but is assumed in the struggle with the strong man” (Lindars, New Testament Apologetic, 85). But even if this allusion is uncertain, Q clearly envisions Jesus as the figure in Isa 61:1 (Q 6:20–21; 7:22), whom readers of Isaiah are likely to view as the same individual as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 (Meadors, Jesus, 312).
#2. Sloan, D. B. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Q Source, Critical Issues. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Q SOURCE, CRITICAL ISSUES Q Source. Scholarship on various issues related to Q, a hypothetical source that Matthew and Luke are postulated to have used in the composition of their Gospel accounts.
Scholarship has produced more works on Q in the last 15 years than in the entire 20th century. While some of these works have questioned the existence of Q altogether (see especially Goodacre, Case Against Q; Goodacre and Perrin, Questioning Q; Powell, Myth; and Watson, Gospel Writing), the two-document hypothesis is still the majority view among scholarship (for responses to Goodacre, see Kloppenborg, “On Dispensing with Q”; Foster, “Is It Possible”; Mealand, “Is There Stylometric Evidence?”; for a fresh analysis of the Synoptic Problem from 20 different angles, see Foster et al., New Studies). This article will not summarize that debate but will discuss critical issues that are raised by those who argue for the existence of Q. Not every issue will be addressed, but we will focus on five select issues: the extent of Q, the genre of Q, the date of Q, the relationship between Q and Mark, and the implications of Q research for Christian origins…
The Date of Q
While most Q scholars are reluctant to assign a date to Q, those who do are widely divided on whether Q is to be dated to the AD 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, or 70s. All that can be said with certainty is that Q was completed by the time Matthew and Luke took it up in their Gospels.
Schnelle tentatively suggests a date in the 40s because: (1) the emphasis on wandering preachers reflects the earliest congregational structures in the Jesus movement; (2) the Palestinian persecution reflected in Q 6:22–23; 11:49–51; 12:4–5, 11–12 reflects the kind referred to in Acts 12:2 (ca. AD 44) and 1 Thess 2:14–16 (ca. AD 50); and (3) the positive references to Gentiles (Q 6:34; 7:1–10; 10:13–15; 11:29–31; 14:16–23) “indicate that the Gentile mission had begun, which is probably to be located in the period between 40 and 50 CE” (Schnelle, History and Theology, 186).
Likewise Theissen dates Q “between 40 and 55 AD” because: (1) the temptation narrative is modeled after an event in AD 41 in which the emperor Gaius Caligula sought to be worshiped; (2) the expectation of peace before Jesus’ return in Q 17:27–28, 34–35 reflects the mood of 1 Thess 5:3 (ca. AD 52) rather than the mood we see during and after the Jewish War; (3) Q’s attitude toward Israel reflects a time when the 12 apostles were focused on a mission to Israel, and Q may even be reflected in Romans 11; (4) Q is ambivalent toward Gentiles; and (5) Q’s animosity toward the Pharisees reflects the strained relationship between Palestinian Christians and Pharisees in the 40s and early 50s (this relationship improved by the end of the 50s; Theissen, Gospels in Context, 203–34).
#3. Geisler, N. L. (1999). In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (p. 618). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
Q Document. The Gospel of Q or Q Document is a hypothetical collection of Jesus’ sayings that supposedly antedates the four Gospels. The Q hypothesis comes from the German word Quelle, meaning “sources.” Q was used heavily by the Jesus Seminar to arrive at their radical conclusions. Since Q allegedly contains sayings, not works or miracles of Jesus, it is used as a basis for denying the resurrection. Since the earliest Q contained no references to Jesus’ deity, this too is held to be a later mythological invention. If true, this would undermine the historic apologetic for Christianity (see APOLOGETICS, HISTORICAL; NEW TESTAMENT, HISTORICITY OF).
Supposed States and Dates of Q. According to Q proponent Burton Mack, there were really four successive states of Q: proto-Q1, Q1, proto-Q2, and Q2. The gospel(s) of Q supposedly developed between 30 and 65, before any canonical Gospels appeared. Thus, Q is supposed to provide, along with the Gospel of Thomas (see NAG HAMMADI GOSPELS), the earliest view of Jesus’ followers.
Some scholars distinguish between Q1 (ca. 50), consisting of short sayings of Jesus, and Q2 (50–60), which may have been against the original Jesus group as evidenced by the judgmental tone of Q2. This includes apocalyptic pronouncements of doom on those who refused their kingdom program. After the Jewish War (70), they upgraded their mythology (Q3) to include statements about Jesus being divine (Mack, 53). On this breakdown, Q1 presents Jesus as a sage, a wise teacher; Q2 portrays him as prophetic and apocalyptic; and Q3 as superhuman, embodying the wisdom of God and divine authority (Boyd, 121).
History of the Q Hypothesis. Judging from its widespread acceptance today, one would expect that the Q hypothesis had been around since the early church. The truth is that Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of modern liberalism, gave impetus to the idea when he reinterpreted a statement by Papias (ca. 110) about Matthew compiling “the oracles” of Jesus (Gk. ta logia). This, Schleiermacher decided, was a document consisting only of Jesus’ “sayings,” rather than both “what the Lord said or did” (see Linnemann, Is There a Synoptic Problem? 20). Later, Christian Hermann Weisse (1801–1866) claimed that this saying-source was used by Luke in compiling his Gospel, thus giving rise to the concept of Q. Others added that Mark was used by both Matthew and Luke. Thus, Q is posited to account for the material used by Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark, their common source.
However, in spite of its popularity, Q has been rejected by many biblical scholars from the time it was first proposed. B. F. Westcott (1825–1901), Theodore Zahn (1838–1933), and Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938) are examples of older scholars. Eta Linnemann, John Wenham, and William Farmer are examples of contemporary scholars.
#4. Geisler, N. L. (1999). In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (pp. 620–621). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
The Q Assumptions. Obviously, though most Q advocates would be reluctant to admit it, there is an antisupernatural bias behind their view. Following the naturalistic approach to the Gospels that began with David Strauss in 1835–1836) they assume the miraculous does not occur. Thus, all records of miraculous events are categorized as later results of mythmaking (see MYTHOLOGY AND THE NEW TESTAMENT). The haste at which they jump to this conclusion when, even granting an early “sayings” source, betrays a desire to eliminate the supernatural. The confidence with which critics come to an antisupernatural conclusion on such speculative and hypothetical grounds supports the thesis that they really begin with a naturalistic presupposition. Compare the words of one Q advocate: “The narrative canonical gospels can no longer be viewed as the trustworthy accounts of unique and stupendous historical events at the foundation of the Christian faith.” Instead, “the gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking” (Patterson, “The Lost Gospel,” 40).
Beginning with a disbelief in miracles, it comes as no surprise that their imaginary reconstruction of Q in the early time period is devoid of miracle stories, including the resurrection.
The Q hypothesis is based on an incredible number of assumptions (see Boyd, 122–24):
1. Mark was the earliest Gospel and Matthew and Luke followed its form and content. The same data can be explained by positing an oral tradition or putting Matthew first.
2. Q existed as a written document. There is no proof for this.
3. A Q can be reconstructed from what Matthew and Luke have in common that is not found in Mark. But if Q existed there is no objective way to know how much of it was used.
4. Q was composed to express everything early Christians believed about Jesus. Why could it not have been simply a collection of sayings?
5. It is also assumed that a community of people created Q. There is no proof of this. One person could just as easily have collected Jesus’ sayings.
6. Q can be accurately understood by discerning its various literary stages. No objective criteria are offered by which this can be done.
7. These alleged states reflect various stages of the thinking of Jesus’ followers. The various views could as easily have been concurrent.
8. The views of Christ are incompatible with one another. Jesus could have been teacher, prophet, and divine authority. If these elements are together at the end, why could they not have all been there at the beginning?
Boyd summarizes: “We see, then, that the liberal revision of the picture of Jesus and of early church history on the basis of Q amounts to nothing more than a pile of arbitrary assumptions built on other arbitrary assumptions” (Boyd, 24).
Conclusion. The argument for the Q hypothesis, particularly in its naturalistic form, are without historical, documentary, or literary foundations. As Boyd noted, “among other things, the entire scheme is completely conjectural. These scholars ask us to trade the reliable Gospel portrait of Christ for a hypothetical reconstruction of history based on a hypothetical reconstruction of a hypothetical document” (Boyd, 121–22). There is nothing in the canonical Gospels that cannot be accounted for by positing that the authors were eyewitnesses and/or contemporaries of the events and that they provided an accurate account of what they reported just as Luke claims (Luke 1:1–4).
#5. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 11:05.
Eta Linnemann’s article on the Q hypothesis* takes Burton Mack and me to task not only for our scholarship, but also for what she takes to be our attack on traditional Christian beliefs. It’s a clever exercise in apologetics. However, this attempt to undergird her own very conservative understanding of Christian faith by discrediting the Q hypothesis (and anyone who dares discuss it) is misleading, misinformed and misguided.
Her case against Q is misleading. Take, for example, the point that since Paul does not mention Q, we should assume that it did not exist in his day. Aside from the obvious problem that we do not know what Q was called by early Christians (hence, the modern designation “Q”), Paul never refers to his sources by name. This is understandable. Many ancient documents carry no title; if they were referred to at all, it was by recalling the first few words in the document. In short, we do not know whether Paul ever refers to Q.
More egregious, however, is Linnemann’s assertion that since Paul had no conflict with James and Peter, ostensible Q folk, we cannot assume that there were different understandings of the significance of Jesus’ life and death among early Christians. But there were decisive differences in the way early Christians understood Jesus, precisely between Paul, on the one hand, and Peter and James, on the other. The basic split between Petrine and Pauline Christianity belongs to the very rudiments of New Testament scholarship. The dimensions of this difference occupy tomes of research, well known to Linnemann, who, prior to her conversion to Christian fundamentalism a decade ago, was well versed in the history of New Testament scholarship.
Some of that knowledge emerges in her discussion of the history of the Q hypothesis. Here again, however, her remarks are misleading. She must surely know that the case for the existence of Q is not grounded on verbal agreements between Matthew and Luke, nor on residual cases of common order in these gospels. Rather, the Q hypothesis arose as a necessary corollary to another, widely accepted hypothesis used to explain the peculiar relationship of Matthew and Luke to Mark (an issue mentioned only in passing by Linnemann). Hermann Christian Weisse and others noticed that Matthew and Luke agree in their sequence of events in the life of Jesus only when they also agree with Mark. This peculiar pattern has led almost all scholars of the New Testament to the conclusion that Matthew and Luke must have made use of Mark as a kind of outline for their respective works, but quite independently of one another.
This hypothesis of “Marcan priority,” however, leaves a good deal of material shared by Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark, unaccounted for. How could Matthew and Luke have included these several sayings, parables and occasional stories—sometimes offering versions that are very close in wording—independently of one another? The Q hypothesis arose as a way of accounting for the material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark.
As with most complicated historical problems, the persuasiveness of the hypothesis lies in the way it can account for the details. The Q hypothesis, together with Marcan priority, is the most efficient way of accounting for the myriad details in the relationship of these three texts to one another. Over the years, various solutions to this problem have had their champions: Matthean priority, Lukan priority, proto-Marcan hypotheses, proto-Lukan hypotheses, and the list goes on. But, in the judgment of most New Testament scholars, none can account for the details as well as the hypothesis of Marcan priority together with the Q hypothesis. But the reader should not accept this appeal to authority as the final word. He or she should find a synopsis of the first three gospels and make a comparison of these texts for him or herself.
#6. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 11:04.
Try to imagine flying to a non-existent island on an airplane that has not yet been invented. Even if this impossible trip were to take place during the thirteenth month of the year, it would not be as fantastic as the tale, recently christened as scientific certainty by some New Testament scholars, concerning the “Lost Gospel” of Q.
The story of Q (short for the German Quelle, meaning “source”) is not exactly hot off the press. It began over a century and a half ago. At that time it was part of the two-source theory of gospel origins. In the wake of Enlightenment allegations that the Gospels were historically unreliable, some suggested that their origins were primarily literary. Matthew and Luke, the theory went, composed their Gospels not based on historical recollection but by using Mark and a hypothetical document called Q as dual sources.
The theory was not without its difficulties, and it is no wonder that many Anglo-Saxon scholars—B.F. Westcott (1825–1901) would be a good example1—as well as formidable German-speaking authorities like Theodor Zahn (1838–1933) and Adolf Schlatter (1852–1938) declined to embrace it. But it gained ascendancy in Germany, and to this day enjoys a virtual monopoly there and widespread support in many other countries.
The much-publicized Jesus Seminar has pushed Q into popular headlines of late.* But behind the Jesus Seminar’s exalted claims for Q lies an interesting history. Key players in the Q revival include Siegfried Schulz, with his 1972 study, The Sayings Source of the Evangelists.2 Schulz speaks of a Q-church in Syria that hammered out Q’s final form in the A.D. 30–65 era.3 The “gospel” they produced, later absorbed into the canonical Matthew and Luke, lacked Christ’s passion, atoning death and resurrection. Q, it was alleged, contained only a series of sayings. The upshot of Schulz’s work: A primitive “Christian” community produced a “gospel” lacking the central foci of the four canonical versions, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Q was suddenly no longer an amorphous source, but a discrete witness vying for recognition with its canonical counterparts.
In some ways Schulz had been scooped by the slightly earlier study of James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester.4 But it is only recently that a phalanx of studies by Robinson, Koester, John Kloppenborg, Arland Jacobsen and Burton Mack have in effect expanded on Schulz’s work.5 Mack breaks Q down into four stages: proto-Q1, Q1, proto-Q2 and Q2—asserted in detail without the slightest attempt to furnish proof. To save this house of cards from collapse, the so-called Gospel of Thomas is being pressed into service today to give Q ostensible support.
The cumulative weight of these studies is captured in Stephen J. Patterson’s statement in BR that “the importance of Q for understanding Christian beginnings should not be underestimated. Mack is surely right in asserting that a better understanding of Q will require a major rethinking of how Christianity came to be. Together with the Gospel of Thomas, Q tells us that not all Christians chose Jesus’ death and resurrection as the focal point of their theological reflection. They also show that not all early Christians thought apocalyptically.”6
Patterson is enamored enough of Mack to quote him favorably on a further point that Patterson (wrongly7) claims most New Testament scholars share: “‘Q demonstrates that factors other than the belief that Jesus was divine played a role in the generation of early Jesus and Christ movements…[As a result] the narrative canonical gospels can no longer be viewed as the trustworthy accounts of unique and stupendous historical events at the foundation of the Christian faith. The gospels must now be seen as the result of early Christian mythmaking. Q forces the issue, for it documents an earlier history that does not agree with the narrative gospel accounts.’”8
Now we discover the truth: Q, the hypothetical sayings gospel, is the lever needed to pry the Christian faith out of its biblical moorings. Not the Gospels but Q must be faith’s new anchor, inasmuch as Q is earlier than the Gospels and does not agree with them. Q settles the matter.
Poor Christianity. Are sackcloth and ashes in order because we have followed the wrong gospels, overlooking the real sole authority—Q? Or is it rather time to bar the enthronement of a false gospel, following Paul’s counsel and God’s Word: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9)?
Just what is Q, anyway?
The rhetoric used by Patterson and Mack is telling: “Q originally played a critical role”; “Q demonstrates”; “Q forces the issue”; “Q calls into question”; “Q tells us.”9 Assuming Q ever existed in the first place, isn’t it just a hypothetical source, a lost piece of papyrus, an inanimate object? But Patterson and Mack’s language make a dead thing into a commanding personal authority. This is the stuff of fairy tales.
The practitioners of this New Testament “science”—despising God’s Word in the Gospels as “the result of early Christian mythmaking”—have created a new myth, not only the enchanted figure of Q but also Q’s storied people: “‘The remarkable thing about the people of Q is that they were not Christians. They did not think of Jesus as a messiah or the Christ. They did not take his teachings as an indictment of Judaism. They did not regard his death as a divine, tragic or saving event. And they did not imagine that he had been raised from the dead to rule over a transformed world. Instead, they thought of him as a teacher whose teaching made it possible to live with verve in troubled times. Thus they did not gather to worship in his name, honor him as a god, or cultivate his memory through hymns, prayers and rituals. They did not form a cult of the Christ such as the one that emerged among the Christian communities familiar to readers of the letters of Paul. The people of Q were Jesus people, not Christians.’”10
#7. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 11:04.
What can we know for sure about Q?
Ancient sources give no hint that such a source ever existed. Among the early Church fathers, there is not even a rumor of some lost gospel. Far less is there a hint that any of the gospels were produced by the use of written sources. And there is not the slightest textual evidence that some lost sayings gospel Q ever existed, although it is claimed today that Q was so widespread that Matthew and Luke (and maybe even Mark) each had copies of it independently.
Paul never mentions Q. Yet, if it existed, he could hardly have been ignorant of such a virulent influence, so contrary to the faith he championed. Paul would not have known the four Gospels (they had not yet appeared), but there is no reason why he should not have known Q if it really existed in the decades before the appearance of the Gospels.
Q allegedly developed between the years 30 and 65 and still existed when Matthew and Luke wrote, commonly regarded as the last quarter of the first century, else it could not be copied by them. Three decades would have given Paul ample time to encounter Q. If the Q-people were the earliest “Jesus movement,” they must have founded a church in Jerusalem. Peter and Barnabas, coming from there, would have known Q and would have introduced Paul to it in Antioch in the early 40s. Paul would have encountered it and the “Jesus people” of Q at the latest around A.D. 49 at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Are we to believe that this Council was content to quibble over the interpretation of Jewish law, as Luke reports, when Paul was “mythologizing” the gospel, claiming Jesus to be God’s son, while the Q people held him to be no more than a sage?
If “the people of Q were Jesus people, not Christians,” conflicts would have been inevitable. How could these conflicts have left no trace in Acts or in any of Paul’s letters? How could Paul have written to the Corinthians that he delivered to them what he had received—that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3)—if the atonement at the cross was only a brand-new, mythological idea, not accepted by the earlier followers of Jesus, who “did not regard his death as a divine, tragic or saving event”?11
Either Paul, “called as an apostle by Jesus Christ by the will of God” (1 Corinthians 1:1), is a liar or the current crop of Q theorists is spinning yarns. We have to choose.
In fact, Q’s existence cannot be corroborated from manuscript evidence, Paul’s letters or the known history of the early church. Q and the Q people are a historical fiction, no more real than the man in the moon. It would be intellectually irresponsible to rethink Christian faith based on such a tale.
Q was unheard of until the 19th century. It has never been anything but a hypothesis, a supposition that Matthew and Luke might have taken their common material from a single written source.
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) got the modern ball rolling by twisting a statement of Papias (c. A.D. 110), in which the church father says that Matthew compiled t ὰ λόγια, “the oracles.” Schleiermacher wrongly took Papias to be claiming that Matthew wrote a document consisting of Jesus-sayings, and that later someone else composed a gospel that incorporated this sayings document.12 Unfortunately for Schleiermacher, here t ὰ λόγια means “what the Lord said or did,” not just “sayings.”13
Schleiermacher proposed that Matthew wrote only the sayings, not the gospel itself, a view lacking support in both ancient church tradition and in Matthew’s Gospel. If one were to sort out all “sayings” from Matthew, the result does not resemble what is called Q today. Q, as proposed by the Q-theorists, does not contain all the “sayings” found in Matthew’s Gospel, nor does the Gospel consist merely of “sayings.”
Christian Hermann Weisse (1801–1866), wanting to account for the sayings in Luke, built on Schleiermacher’s error.14 Weisse claimed that this sayings-source was used as a source by Luke too. This misused Schleiermacher’s theory for Weisse’s own purposes.15 And so the infamous Q made its debut in the theological world.
We likewise have Weisse to thank for the invention of the Lachmann fallacy,16 which wrongly asserts that Karl Lachmann proved that Mark was also used as a source by Matthew and Luke; in fact Lachmann argued just the opposite—that Mark was not the source for Matthew and Luke.
The world-renowned two-source theory—the notion that Matthew and Luke were based on Mark and Q, the basis for perhaps 40% of so-called New Testament science today—was therefore founded on both (Schleiermacher’s) error and (Weisse’s) lie.
Let us look closely at the alleged Q to see if we can find its presence in Matthew and Luke.17
We concede the obvious at the outset that, besides the pericopes that Matthew and Luke have in common with Mark, there is a good deal of material that Matthew and Luke share. Siegfried Schulz lists 65 pairs of passages that are parallel in Matthew and Luke. But similarity in content is in itself no proof of literary dependence. It could also be caused by the same event: a saying of Jesus, for instance, reported independently by several different persons who heard it. In other words, similarities might have been historically, and not exclusively literarily, transmitted.
Nor can the existence of Q be inferred from literary sequence. The differences in the order of the alleged Q-material in Matthew and Luke are enormous. Only 24 of Schulz’s 65 pairs of parallels, or 36.9%, occur within a distance of no more than one chapter of each other. Only five of them (7.69%) occur in the same point of the narrative flow in Matthew as in Luke (or vice versa). It takes a robust imagination to suppose that, despite such differences, the pericopes claimed for Q based on similarities in literary sequence owe their origin to a common source. But imagination is no substitute for evidence, and guesses as to whether Matthew here or Luke there diverged from Q’s sequence do not prove that Q existed.
The main test for the existence of Q, and “the only safe test for literary dependence,”18 is identity in actual wording. In Q’s 65 pairs of parallels between Matthew and Luke, the number of words in Q’s Matthean form amount to 4319, in Luke’s 4253. The number of identical words in these parallel verses is 1792, or 41% of Matthew’s Q portion and 42% of Luke’s. This parallel material consists mainly of sayings of Jesus, which in the Synoptic Gospels do not vary much. For example, sayings of Jesus found in two of the three Synoptic Gospels have about 80% identical words. Based on my earlier research, this led me to expect that the percentage of identical words in the alleged Q material in Matthew and Luke might be 80% as well. But (as shown in the chart) the percentage of identical words turns out to be only about 42%.
In 17 of the 65 parallel pairs alleged to have come from Q—fully one quarter of Q—the number of identical words in parallel passages is less than 25%.19
In 26* of the 65 parallel passages—41% of Q—the number of identical words in parallel passages is between 25% and 49.9%.
In 15 passages of the 65—or 22% of Q—the number of identical words in parallel passages is between 50% and 74.9%. In 7 passages of the 65—or 11% of Q—the number of identical words in parallel verses is between 75% and 100%.
Of the 65 parallel passages in Matthew and Luke, one half (53%) contain fewer than 50 words. For comparison, the easily memorized Psalm 143 has 43 words.19 About 30% of Q’s passages contain 50–99 words; Psalm 23, also easily memorized, has 115 words. That is to say, 82% of Q consists of blocks of fewer than 100 words in length.
Is it preposterous to suggest that Jesus’ disciples, who sat at his feet and were sent out in his name for three years’ time, could have preserved such reminiscences, which assumed varied shapes in the telling, by memory? Is a hypothetical written document needed, or even reasonable, to account for the overlap in Matthew and Luke in these sayings passages?
I have counted all the rest of the Q passages, too. Five contain 100–149 words, and six contain 150–199 words. Just one contains 250–300 words.
If Q were a written source relied on by Matthew and Luke, then we would expect little variation between pairs of long sayings and pairs of short sayings. But if the saying was passed along orally, based on memory, we would expect that the longer passages would differ more than the shorter passages. What does the evidence show?
In the longest alleged Q passage, the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30), only 20% of its words (60 out of 291) are identical with the Lucan parallel (Luke 19:11–27). Out of these 60 identical words, nine are the word “and,” seven are articles and six are pronouns scattered throughout the pericope. This leaves only 38 words out of 291 that Q-theorists must rely on to establish literary dependence. Most of the identical words (47 of 60, or 78%) occur in direct speech.
The differences between Matthew and Luke in this passage far outnumber the 60 identical words. In fact these differences total 310, which is 107% of Matthew’s 291 words!
The one passage in which all of Matthew’s words are also in Luke (Matthew 6:24 and Luke 16:13), consists of only 27 words. This is the same as the tiny Psalm 117 and not even half as much as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18b–20, which many know by heart. Thus the similarity is easily accounted for by a historically reliable memory that reached both Matthew and Luke.
The longest passage in the 75%–100% agreement category contains just 78% identical words. The whole passage is about the length of Psalm 1, again a text that many know by heart. It is not difficult to imagine accounts of this length being committed to memory in the oral culture of Jesus’ day.20
What can we conclude from these statistics? Simply that there is no convincing evidence for the alleged Q in Matthew and Luke. There is not even any persuasive evidence in favor of such a hypothesis. Rather, the difficulties of the hypothesis are legion. The differences in order, and the percentages of identical wording, argue against literary dependence, since the differences are much higher than the similarities. The Q-hypothesis does not solve a problem but rather creates problems—which then require additional hypotheses to remedy.
#8. Shanks, H. (Ed.). (2004). BR 11:04.
But what about Thomas?
The Gospel of Thomas plays a large role in the new debate about Q. Patterson writes: “Scholars took a long time deciding just what Q was. The sheer fact of its nonexistence was no small problem—and an obvious opening for Q skeptics. In recent years, however, resistance to the idea of Q has largely disappeared as the result of another amazing discovery: a nearly complete copy of the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas.”22 “The gospel of Thomas is a recollection of sayings of Jesus. The Gospel of Thomas shows that a gospel without a passion narrative is quite possible. A theology grounded on Jesus’ words, without any particular interest in his death, is no longer unthinkable. The Gospel of Thomas, which also has little interest in Jesus’ death and resurrection, in effect forced this reevaluation.”23 “Together with the Gospel of Thomas, Q tells that not all Christians chose Jesus’ death and resurrection as the focal point of their theological reflection.”24
Does the Gospel of Thomas indeed prove how the oldest gospel, the alleged Q, was shaped—consisting mainly of sayings, with no passion or Easter reports? That would be like saying that a young man who leads a rock-and-roll band must have had someone in his grandfather’s generation who played rock music as well.
The Gospel of Thomas is mentioned or quoted by some Church fathers in the first decades of the third century. Recent scholarship dates its earliest possible composition to about A.D. 140 (though the only complete manuscript is a Coptic translation dating to around A.D. 400). Even if this hypothetical dating is correct, that is more than 70 years after our canonical Gospels. By that time the true Gospels and the very expression evangelion (gospel) were well established; understandably a new creation like Thomas would try to traffic in this good name by claiming the Gospel title. But nothing here supports the theory that Thomas was a model for Q in the A.D. 35–65 time span. The Gospel of Thomas is not just “noncanonical.” Every Church father who ever mentioned it called it heretical or gnostic. From a gnostic document we cannot expect interest in Jesus’ death and resurrection, since gnosticism repudiates both as the early church understood them. So how can a heretical writing rightly be taken as the prototype for constructing canonical ones?
It is important to recall here that an actual “Q gospel” sans passion and Easter narratives does not exist. It is rather extracted from Matthew and Luke—which in every form known to us do contain the passion and Easter material.
William R. Farmer has recently suggested why the heretical Gospel of Thomas is being pushed to play so large a role in reconstructing early Christianity: “Because Thomas is a late-second to fourth-century document, by itself it could never be successfully used to lever the significance of Jesus off its New Testament foundation. Similarly, the sayings source Q, allegedly used by Matthew and Luke, by itself could never be successfully used to achieve this result. But used together, as they are by a significant number of scholars, Thomas and Q appear to reinforce one another.”25
You cannot erect a house of cards with a single card. You might lean two cards together as long as no wind blows. But can you live in such a house of cards?
Let us return to our original question: Is the Lost Gospel of Q fact or fantasy? The answer is now clear.
As a modest hypothesis undergirding the two-source theory, Q turns out to be based on an error. It has been promoted without thorough examination. Put to the test, it proves untenable.
As co-conspirator with the Gospel of Thomas to undermine the whole of Christian faith, Q is nothing but fantasy. The same goes for the literary shuffling used to discern various layers in it. So why are earnest scholars willing to indulge in such fantasies?
“At issue today is whether the death of Jesus should be regarded as an unnecessary or an essential part of the Christian message. The trend among New Testament scholars who follow the Thomas-Q line is to represent Jesus as one whose disciples had no interest in any redemptive consequence of his death and no interest in his resurrection.”26
This critical assessment is borne out in Stephen J. Patterson’s essay in BR, particularly in its closing sentences: “Together with the Gospel of Thomas, Q tells us that not all Christians chose Jesus’ death and resurrection as a focal point of their theological reflection…The followers of Jesus were very diverse and drew on a plethora of traditions to interpret and explain what they were doing. With the discovery of the Lost Gospel, perhaps some of the diversity will again thrive, as we rediscover that theological diversity is not a weakness, but a strength.”27
The motive is clear. Q (with Thomas’ aid) gives a biblical basis for those who do not accept Jesus as the Son of God, reject his atoning death on the cross and deny his resurrection. Then, these same scholars combine their newly minted biblical basis with early Church diversity to justify calling themselves “Christians” despite their aberrant convictions.
By trumpeting the claim that today’s new Q-Christians are in sync with earliest historical origins while traditional Bible believers hallow “the result of early Christian mythmaking,” they lay down an effective smoke screen that enables them to keep their posts as ostensible professors of Christian origins and leaders of the church.
But we are not obliged to follow “cleverly devised tales” (2 Peter 1:16). The canonical Gospels exist. Q does not. The heretical, second-century Gospel of Thomas is not binding except on gnostics! On both historical and theological grounds, there is no reason to give up the canonical Gospels as the original and divinely inspired foundation for our faith.