Some Thoughts About Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

greek manuscriptNo, not that annoying guy from Star Trek.

And not the gadget guy from James Bond.

In biblical scholarship, Q is a hypothetical source that both Matthew and Luke supposedly used.

The reason people talk about it is that there are about 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This is a significant number. Matthew has 1071 verses and Luke has 1151. If they both have 235 verses uniquely in common with each other then that’s quite a substantial portion of the two gospels—more than a fifth.

This is a significant enough portion that many have felt it isn’t due to random chance and there must be a reason.

One reason could be that Luke drew upon Matthew for these verses. Alternately, Matthew could have drawn upon Luke for them.

Today most scholars don’t think that either of these was the case, however. Instead, they think that Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, which would suggest a different source for this material.

In the 1800s, this source was dubbed “Q,” allegedly from the German word Quelle (“source”), though this is unclear.

Today the most popular view among biblical scholars is that Matthew and Luke both drew upon two main sources in writing their Gospels—Mark and Q. This is known as the “two-source hypothesis.”

Although the Magisterium of the Church initially prohibited Catholic scholars from advocating this view, this was later changed, and, as Pope Benedict XVI noted, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger and the head of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, the two-source theory is “accepted today by almost everyone” (source).


What should we make of this view?

From one perspective—the perspective of faith—it doesn’t really matter much what the particular sources of the Gospels were. They are all inspired and give us accurate knowledge of Jesus Christ. That’s the important thing.

How they came to be is an interesting question that may shed light on some individual passages of Scripture, but it is not essential to the Christian Faith.

On the other hand, if you don’t share the perspective of faith then the question can be much more important. Some scholars, engaged in the “quest for the historical Jesus” think that the true, original Jesus has been obscured by layers of tradition and transformed into “the Christ of faith.”

For people of that perspective, it matters very much how the Gospels came to be, because all those layers of tradition need to be scraped away so that we can learn about the historical Jesus. For these folks, identifying the earliest possible sources is a matter of prime importance.

Not everybody takes this view, though. There are many advocates of Q who are thoroughly orthodox in their faith and who believe the Gospels as we have them are a reliable guide to the life and teachings of Christ.

In any event, an idea has to be judged by the evidence for or against it, not by how some of its advocates misuse it.

So what about Q?


What kind of source are we talking about?

The first question we need to ask is what kind of source Q is supposed to be.

Nobody doubts that the Evangelists used sources when they composed the Gospels. Two of the Evangelists—Mark and Luke—weren’t regarded, even in the early Church, as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry. They had to use sources, and Luke says as much in the prologue to his Gospel, writing:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed [Luke 1:1-4].

Here Luke indicates that his account is based on the things that “were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”—i.e., those who actually saw the events of Jesus’ life and ministry and those who were authorized bearers of the traditions about Jesus. They were among his sources.

Could Q have been an oral source, derived from one of these eyewitnesses or ministers of the word?

It’s possible, but most scholars today don’t think so. The material in Q is rather extensive—at least the 235 verses paralleled in Matthew and Luke, and possibly more than that (depending on how much of Q each Evangelist left out). What’s more, the material has a narrative structure that proceeds from one event to another. And, if Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, it had to be accessible to both.

That’s a lot to ask of an oral source, and so most Q theorists today think that it was a document.

It is very likely that there were documents among Luke’s sources. Although he doesn’t say that he drew upon any, he notes that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative” of what Jesus did, and it is highly likely that he used one or more such documents.

Historically, most scholars thought that he used Matthew. Today, most scholars think that he used Mark. Some scholars even think that he used both.

It is therefore possible that he used a document like Q.

The question is: Did he?


Hypothetical vs. Lost

It is worth noting that Q is a hypothetical document. This is not the same thing as a lost document.

We know about lots of documents in the ancient world that have been lost. In some cases, we may have a few quotations from them, preserved by other authors, but in other cases the entire work has vanished and all we know about it is the title, or even just the subject, and possibly its author.

We know about these things because the book is mentioned by one or more ancient authors. For example, several early Church Fathers mention a work called An Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord that was written by Papias, a bishop of Hierapolis who lived in the first and second centuries.

Scholars would love to have a complete copy of this work, but all we have are a few quotations from it preserved by later authors.

We see lost books referred to in the Bible. For example, St. Paul appears to mention several letters that have not survived (see 1 Cor. 5:9, 2:4, 7:8-9, Col. 4:16). Though the matter is debated, these letters appear to be lost, at least in their original forms.

But there is a difference between a lost document and a hypothetical document.

A lost document is one that we know existed. We have definite references to it.

A hypothetical document is one that we don’t know existed. It’s a document that has been proposed even though we don’t have references to it.

Q falls in the latter category, and so its existence is less certain than the various lost documents we know to have existed.

As we’ll see in a future post, there are further reasons to be skeptical that there ever was a Q document.

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The Deuce July 18, 2014 at 8:05 am

Hey, Jimmy, are you familiar with “the Clementine Tradition” theory? By my lights, it accounts for all the evidence cited in support of Q, makes sense of a number of details that are difficult or impossible to make sense of under Q, makes sense of all the Patristic testimony regarding how the various Gospels came about, makes sense of the “breathless style” you described regarding Mark, and does it all without unnecessarily multiplying hypothetical entities.

Jack July 18, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Rather than found in one document, any chance that the 235 verses could have been sayings that “went viral” in a frontlet/phylacteries form of “social media”?

Jimmy Akin July 20, 2014 at 10:11 am

Deuce: Yes, I am familiar with it–as well as other alternatives to Q.

R.C. July 30, 2014 at 5:23 pm


A sentence early in your piece kinda jumped out at me:

“Although the Magisterium of the Church initially prohibited Catholic scholars from advocating this view, this was later changed.”

Can you, at some point, clarify in what way “the Magisterium of the Church initially prohibited Catholic scholars from advocating this view?”

I ask because, well, I’m a reasonably recent Catholic convert, and in dialogue with some other folks who’re considering the claims of the Catholic Church.

My impression is that, under certain conditions, IF the Magisterium makes a statement that such-and-such is either factually false (on a matter of faith) or illicit (on a matter of morals), THEN, that statement is infallible: The Magisterium cannot change its mind without admitting having erred, which would of course falsify Catholic ecclesiology.

Clearly, this instruction from the Magisterium telling Catholics that they could not hold the “Q” theory must not have fulfilled the “under certain conditions” clause; otherwise the Magisterium could not reverse itself in this fashion.

Now the knowledge that certain theological and moral doctrines are rock-solid-not-gonna-change is what makes Catholic epistemology unique in the world. When the Magisterium has spoken infallibly, you can know, and know that you know, that the Church will, fifty-thousand years hence if the Lord tarries, still be teaching the same faith.

This is a huge blessing, but to make use of it one must be able to distinguish the irreformable stuff from the stuff that ISN’T rock-solid unchangeable.

If I had been a Catholic Bible Scholar, and I’d heard the Magisterium telling me, “You cannot, as a Catholic, hold the view that Matthew and Luke referred to some earlier Q document,” I would be confused about what to think.

It isn’t a discipline, like Meatless Fridays. And it’s not a matter of morals. Is it a matter of faith?

It seems as if it must be a matter of faith. This kind of statement from the Magisterium sounds similar in form to the Magisterium’s statement against polygenism: “You cannot, as a Catholic, hold the view that Adam and Eve are merely representative of a large population of early humans.”

But if such forbiddings can be classified as matters of faith, then they fulfill one of the criteria for Magisterial infallibility. What, then, prevented the prohibition on Q from being infallible? Some other criteria?

What other criteria are there, which a Catholic can identify being applied to a particular teaching, which will “flag” that teaching as changeable?

And which of these criteria was the one which savvy Catholic Bible Scholars knew (at the time) made the Magisterial prohibition on the Q theory a possibly-changeable prohibition?

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