What is the Gospel of Q?

Many of you may have at some point, either on the internet or on television, heard of the so called “Gospel of Q”.   In fact many may rightfully ask: What is the Gospel of Q? Therefore, for todays’ post I will pose that very question: What is the Gospel of Q? The short answer is that Q is not a real gospel, but rather a hypothetical one. To learn its origins one must first have some background on the “synoptic gospels” and the “synoptic problem”.

First, what are the synoptic gospels? The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are together called the “synoptic gospels” because they share many of the same stories and generally follow the same order and sequence.  Synoptic means “to be seen together”.   If one was to place them side by side, one would simultaneously note their abundant similarities (and sometimes verbatim agreements) and also unique differences.   This has fascinated the interest of scholars over the centuries, leading to a whole subfield of scholars whose sole purpose is studying the relationship between the synoptic gospels. For many of us this fascination is a bit puzzling, they are after all different accounts of the same story using many of the same witnesses and/or sources in recording their Gospel accounts. Therefore they are going to be similar yet different. Nevertheless, for scholars, working out this relationship between the synoptics has always been a major source of fascination and interest.

Now with the background on the synoptic gospels in mind, let us proceed to the “synoptic problem”. What is the synoptic problem? Before answering that question, first let me provide the dates for the composition of our four Gospel accounts. They are as follows:

Mathew, written between 70-85 AD
Mark, written between 65-75 AD
Luke, written between 70-85 AD
John, written between 90-100 AD

I should note that there are many scholars that argue for much earlier dates, but the dates outlined above represent the broad general scholarly consensus. In either event, it has been advocated by many that Mark was the earliest gospel. Although there are some whom argue for the bridge theory, i.e. that Mark was the third gospel written to harmonize (as recollected by Mark from Peter) the “Jewish Christian” account of Matthew with the “Gentile Christian” account of Luke, and therefore later placed between them. However, most scholars support “Markan Priority” meaning that Mark is the earliest gospel. If true, then both Matthew and Luke could have used Mark’s Gospel (or his sources) as a source for their own gospel accounts.  That 90% of Mark is contained in some shape, form or fashion in Matthew, and 60% in Luke, would help support that hypothesis. However, there is a major problem in that both Matthew and Luke still have a number of other material and sayings of Jesus in common, and that are not found in Mark’s Gospel. Additionally, Matthew and Luke both have several materials unique to their own gospels, meaning that one cannot be using the other as a source. Therefore scholars asked: How can these two independently written Gospel accounts agree with each other and often with the precise wording? This is what is known as the “synoptic problem”. As a person of faith, I of course would not rule out that the agreements are through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, but that is a spiritual argument. In any event, with the information on both the “synoptic gospels” and the “synoptic problem” in mind, we can now proceed to answer the question posed as the title of this post. What is the Gospel of Q?

Starting in the 19th century, scholars from Germany worked out a possible solution to the “synoptic problem” that unfolds as follows: Since the evidence suggests that Matthew did not get these non-Markan agreements from Luke, nor Luke from Matthew, they hypothesized a one-time source, now lost, and called this, “the source”.  Since the German word for “source” is “Quelle”, this hypothetical source document has come to be called “Q” for short. And that is the origins of the “Gospel of Q”. See chart for a visual illustration of the hypothesis below:

Capture

Today most scholars of all stripes accept the “Q” hypothesis as valid, although there are some dissenters. In fact, there are several scholars (mostly from the NS) who are Q enthusiast, and have actually written entire books on what can be “learned” about early Christianity from the “Lost Gospel of Q”, and proceeded to reconstruct entire so called “Q communities” and layers of “Q theology” and “Q beliefs”. Which I might add is nothing more than a reflection of their own feelings, beliefs and attitudes of what they think it should be. To that point, the whole premise of extrapolating such hypothetical notions and trajectories from a source, that is in and of itself nothing more than a hypothetical source to begin with, is very bad scholarship. Once more, even if the hypothesis is correct and Q really did exist: How can anyone really know what it said, much less extrapolate anything further from it? The only access anyone has to it is from the few common Matthew/Luke material not found in Mark. Nonetheless that has not stopped many of the more radical NS scholars from trying to fabricate such imaginative constructs, even though scholars should know better.

So what are we (as believers) to make of the hypothesis concerning the so called “Gospel of Q”? From Luke’s Gospel introduction, he notes that there were many reports of Jesus in circulation prior to deciding to construct his own orderly written account. Therefore, it is possible that both Luke and Matthew did indeed share a common source – either written “Q”, or most likely a common oral tradition, i.e. the same witness/witnesses. However, it is important to always keep in mind that this whole Q premise, while plausible, is still entirely speculative. A hypothesis, even if shared by many experts, is at the end of the day still just a hypothesis.

Below is a brief overview of reasons for doubting Q:

  • Nobody has ever seen it, there is no manuscript nor any fragments, it is completely and entirely hypothetical.
  • Nobody from ancient times had ever heard of it, not one early Church Father nor any other author from antiquity mentions it. There is not one single reference to any ancient document that one can point to as a reference for the alleged “Q” document.
  • The whole hypothesis falls apart if Mark is in fact NOT the earliest gospel account. A small number of scholars maintain that Matthew was the earliest written gospel.

But enough already, time to wrap this post up with some concluding thoughts on “Q”. In my view, too many scholars seem to needlessly fall back on the fallacy that one written source must always be using another written source. While I find the Q hypothesis plausible, and take no objection to it, I have to ask: Is it not also equally plausible that similarities between texts can be accounted for by the common eyewitnesses bearing testimony to the same events? Even verbatim word choice can be accounted for through the strict adherent nature of oral traditions in some cultures. This whole debate, and hypothesis, in my view largely ignores that our Gospel writers were composers of existing truth, and not simply compilers of written sources. Not to mention, this whole discussion is entirely academic, and does not even consider that the Holy Spirit was in control of the writing of these individual Gospels. Which perhaps presents the best solution to the so called “synoptic problem” of all, if it indeed be fair to call it a “problem” to begin with.

That concludes todays post. Thank you for reading. I hope some may have found this post insightful.

JDN

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