Questioning Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Bible

Q fadeIn a previous post, I looked at the hypothetical document Q, which most contemporary Bible scholars think was used by Matthew and Luke when they composed their Gospels.

The reason they think this is that there are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

The proposal is that there was a document in the early Church that contained (roughly) these 235 verses and that both Matthew and Luke copied from it.

That proposed document is commonly called Q.


Hypothetical vs. Lost

Previously, I pointed out that the Q document is not simply lost.

There are lots of documents from the ancient world that we know existed even though they are now lost. We can be confident that these works existed because the ancients talk about them in their surviving writings.

But Q is not in that category. We don’t have any ancient references to it. It isn’t just a lost document; it’s a hypothetical lost document. That means we must be more cautious about its existence than the lost documents that we know existed.

Here’s another reason we should be cautious . . .


A Unique Document?

If it existed, Q seems to have been a unique document. We are not aware of other documents of the same kind. In other words, Q does not fall into a recognized literary genre.

You will often hear the opposite. Specifically, you will hear that Q belongs to the same genre as the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, which was rediscovered in 1945 in Egypt and published in 1956.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings that are attributed to “the living Jesus.” A few of these involve a brief dialogue with another character, but there is no story—no narrative—to the Gospel of Thomas.

Many have claimed that Q belongs to the same genre as Thomas because a lot of the verses paralleled in Matthew and Luke are sayings of Jesus.

The difficulty is that, unlike the Gospel of Thomas, the hypothetical Q document is not simply a “sayings gospel.”


Narrative in a Sayings Gospel?

If it existed, Q included a large number of narrative elements. These are documented by Mark Goodacre in his book The Case Against Q (pp. 170-185).

There, he shows that the hypothetical Q would go beyond sayings and have a narrative structure as follows:

  1. Q introduces John the Baptist, apparently before it introduces Jesus (Q 3:2), who is located in the region of the Jordan (Q 3:3; note: In contemporary scholarship, citations attributed to Q are based on the verses in Luke, so Q 3:2 is found in Luke 3:2).
  2. There, people come to him to receive his baptism (Q 3:7) and John warns them to bear fruit befitting repentance (Q 3:8).
  3. Then John begins contrasting himself and his baptism with the one who comes after him, who will have a greater baptism (Q 3:16-17).
  4. Jesus is then introduced, there is a reference to the Spirit descending on him, and he is indicated to be God’s Son (Q 3:21-22).
  5. The Spirit then takes Jesus to the wilderness (Q 4:1), where he is tested by the devil with regard to whether he is God’s Son (twice: “if you are the Son of God . . .” Q 4:3, 9).
  6. Then Jesus goes to “Nazara” (Q 4:16).
  7. Jesus then gives a major discourse (Q 6:20-49).
  8. Q then notes that after Jesus finished these sayings he entered Capernaum (Q 7:1). This is a very clear indicator of narrative structure, particularly in an alleged sayings gospel.
  9. We then have the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Q 7:3, 6-10).
  10. Then John the Baptist hears what is going on with Jesus and, apparently unable to come himself, sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one after all. Jesus responds by pointing to the many miracles he has done and his preaching of the good news and urges John not to disbelieve (Q 7:18-23).
  11. When John’s disciples has left, Jesus speaks to the crowd, he reminds them of when they went out to see John (referenced earlier in Q), and he pays tribute to John (Q 7:24-28).
  12. Afterward, Jesus pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for failing to respond to the wonders he did in them (Q 10:13-15).

Goodacre goes into more detail than we can here, but the point is made: This is a narrative; it’s a story. It’s not just a collection of Jesus’ sayings.

It has a geographical progression (Jordan, the wilderness, Nazara, Capernaum); it has elements pointing forward and backward (e.g., the early indication that Jesus is the one to come, followed by the later questioning of whether this is the case); there are narrative transitions between one unit and the next; and it contains at least one miracle account, while referring to many more being done.

It is only after this narrative sequence that Q would have been largely composed of sayings, and that places it in what seems to be a unique category: a work that would start as a narrative and then become a sayings collection.

How does that compare to other ancient sayings collections?


Actual Sayings Collections

There were sayings collections in the ancient world—and not just Thomas. Proverbs and Sirach spring readily to mind.

It is common for such collections to have a brief statement at the beginning about who originated the sayings, but in none of these cases is there a big narrative about that person.

Proverbs does not begin with a biography of Solomon but with the simple statement, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Pr. 1:1).

Sirach does not begin with a biography of Sirach but is prefaced by a brief, non-narrative introduction by his grandson, who translated the book from Hebrew into Greek.

Thomas begins with the statement, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.”

In none of these cases do we have anything like the lengthy, complex narrative that can be reconstructed from the Q material.

Ancient Judeo-Christian sayings collections appear to have been just that: sayings collections, not sayings collections preceded with an extensive narrative about the person from whom the sayings came.


More Caution on Q

If there was a Q document, it does not appear to have belonged to a known genre of Jewish or Christian writing from the time.

This means that we have extra reason to be cautious about whether it existed. Not only are we talking about a document that is lost and hypothetical, it is also of an otherwise unknown, unattested type.

It would be one thing to propose a lost document that fits a known type—which is why Q advocates frequently appeal to the Gospel of Thomas as a parallel, though the comparison does not hold up. It is another thing to propose a lost document that does not have any parallels in the relevant ancient literature.

We thus have another reason to be cautious about the existence of Q and another reason to look at alternative explanations of the 235 verses Matthew and Luke have in common—like the idea that one Evangelist used material from the other.

If you liked this post, you should join Jimmy's Secret Information Club to get more great info!

What is the Secret Information Club?I value your email privacy


Mary August 12, 2014 at 5:51 pm

They could hypothesize TWO – a sayings collection and a narrative.

Jennifer August 13, 2014 at 6:11 am

Jimmy, I still wonder if Mary, Jesus’ mother, was Luke’s source.

George August 13, 2014 at 6:24 am

If Q should exist, could sections likely be regarded as sacred scripture?

Fr. Robert Coogan August 13, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Originally, the “Q” hypothesis did not mention a necessarily written source, merely referring to a COMMON source possessed by Matthew and Luke but not by Mark. “Q” comes from quelle, which merely means “source”. There was obviously a source for this material, perhaps verbal. It is not unreasonable to assume that it was the same source for both authors, although variations, like the “Our Father”, argue in favor of an oral tradition. It would be surprising if Mark knew the Our Father and decided it was not important enough to put in his Gospel (then again, if he had a copy of the Didache, he might not have thought it was necessary to repeat something so readilly available). What else was in this source that neither Matthew nor Luke used? We will never know, since we do not have access to Q. Maybe an apostle or early disciple related a full gospel, but both Matthew and Luke preferred the Marcan structure, and only selected from the apostle’s account what seemed most unique and valuable. There are other common sources, not as famous as Q. Both Luke and John have stories about Martha and Mary, and not the same stories, but they preserve the personalities of these two sisters. Both have the story of the miraculous catch of fish, but they use it in different places. Both Luke and John put an emphasis during the Last Supper on the teaching of being servant to the others. Both Luke and John have stories about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and not the same stories. There seems to be, in other words, material to which Luke and John had access, but not Matthew and Mark. So there seem to have been bodies of information, probably oral, that were regional and not universally known, and only the parts that were used in the four canonical Gospels have come down to us. John’s Gospel, in chapter 20, says as much. It is the quantity of material, and the sometimes word-for-word similarity, that makes Q so intriguing and makes for the speculation that maybe there was a written document. Some point to the tradition of a Gospel in Hebrew, written by Matthew, as the original Q document. If that were so, then it is not a hypothetical document with no mention in antiquity, but a very real document with apostolic credentials. It is definitely on my list of things to explore when I get to heaven.

felix servidad August 15, 2014 at 1:58 am

As for me, the four gospel is enough, because I have faith that I am save through these gospel. The Q document has nothing to do and cannot convince me to believe in it, actually It’s the first time I heard this so called Q document and I’m not
really aware of this.

The Deuce September 1, 2014 at 7:40 am

Another reason for questioning Q is that nobody ever heard of it. The argument for its existence just doesn’t add up. For the theory behind Q to work, the document must have been quite well-known and had wide circulation, since the theory holds that Matthew and Luke had no knowledge of each other and were writing from widely different areas. And yet, there is no mention or hint of the supposed document’s existence anywhere in early Christianity, including the earliest accounts of the Gospels’ origins.

Mighty Joe Young September 10, 2014 at 7:01 am

Cornelius a Lapide: Listen to S. Jerome in his Preface to S. Matthew: “First of all is Matthew the publican, surnamed Levi, who published a Gospel in Judæa in the Hebrew language, chiefly for the sake of those from among the Jews who had believed in Jesus, but who still observed the shadow of the Old Law, after the truth of the Gospel had come in its place. The second is Mark, the interpreter of the Apostle Peter, and first Bishop of the Church of Alexandria, who had not indeed himself seen the Lord, the Saviour; but related the things which he had heard his master preach, rather according to the truth of what was done, than the order. The third is Luke the Physician, a Syrian by nation, an Antiochene, whose praise is in the Gospel. He was a disciple of the Apostle Paul; and composed his work in the parts of Achaia and Bœotia. He aimed somewhat loftily; and as he himself confesses in his Preface, narrated what he had heard rather than what he had seen. The last is John, the Apostle and Evangelist, who loved Jesus very greatly, and who, lying upon the Lord’s bosom, drank of the very purest streams of doctrine, and who alone was privileged to hear from the Cross, ‘Behold thy Mother.’ ”
These four so appropriately wrote the words and deeds of Christ, that they seem to make a kind of musical harmony of four chords; for what each one writes is different in style from the others, but agrees with them in meaning and in facts. What one is silent about, another supplies: what one gives concisely, another relates more at large: what one obscurely hints at, another gives at length. As S. Augustine says, “Although each seems to have preserved his own order in writing, yet they are not found to have written as though any one were ignorant of what had been said by him who preceded; but as each was inspired, he added the not superfluous co-operation of his own labour.”
Lastly, the discrepancies of the Evangelists are the greatest possible testimony to their truthfulness. As S. Chrysostom says in his Preface to S. Matthew, “If altogether and in every respect they exactly corresponded, and with the utmost precision with respect to times and places were in perfect verbal agreement, there is not one of our enemies but would believe, that they were engaged in a common design to deceive, and that they had framed the Gospels by human understanding, for they would not judge that this supposed harmony arose from simple sincerity, but was the result of contrivance.” And again, he says, “If any one whatsoever had related everything, the others would have been superfluous: or if again, on the other hand, each had written nothing which was found in the others, there could have been no proof of their agreement. Wherefore they have written many things in common, and yet each hath related something specially and peculiarly his own. And thus they have escaped the charge of writing for writing’s sake, merely to add to the number of the Gospels, as well as the opposite danger of bringing discredit upon everything, by each giving entirely different events.”

Q is the claptrap of modernistic historical criticism and it have no part of Catholic Tradition and, thus it is but a diversion form the truth.

O, and Dear Father; how is it you know you are going to Heaven?

Previous post:

Next post: