Don’t Hate on Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible, Synoptic Problem

q-redRecently, I’ve been doing a series of blog posts about how the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate to each other.

In biblical studies, this is known as the Synoptic Problem.

Today the most popular solution to this problem is known as the “Two-Source Hypothesis.”

According to this view, Mark was the first Gospel to be written, and it was used by both Matthew and Luke.

In addition, this view holds that Matthew and Luke also used a lost, hypothetical source known as Q.


Q and Me

Personally, I am a Q skeptic. That’s why I’ve written more than once about reasons to doubt the existence of Q.

I think that the data that advocates of Q appeal to likely can be explained in other, better ways.

Before resorting to hypothetical, lost documents to explain the fact that Matthew and Luke have a large number of verses in common, we should give serious consideration to the idea that Luke drew these verses from Matthew or that Matthew drew them from Luke.


Hating on Q

I’ve been surprised, in the comments boxes and on Facebook, at the amount of hostility that some folks have displayed toward the idea of Q.

For example, some have dismissed Q as “the claptrap of modernistic historical criticism” and declaring it “a diversion from the truth” and similar things.

But while disagreement with the Q hypothesis can be justified, outright hostility toward it is uncalled for.


The Basis for the Idea

The idea behind Q is that there was a source—likely a written source—behind the 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This is a large number of verses, and it amounts to more than a fifth of Matthew and Luke.

Given that amount of material in common—and the fact that the material is sometimes presented in the same order—it isn’t unreasonable to propose that there is a source behind this material.

In fact, we’ve already seen two such proposals: Matthew was Luke’s source for this material, or Luke was Matthew’s source for it.

Either of these possibilities would explain both the content of the material and the elements of common order that it displays.


But If . . .

But if one could show that both of these possibilities are unlikely for some reason then it would not be unreasonable to propose that there was a third source that both Matthew and Luke drew upon for the material.

Neither would it be unreasonable to propose that this source was written.

Luke even alludes to previous written accounts of Christ’s ministry (Luke 1:1).

Since he says that he wrote his own Gospel after “having followed all things closely for some time past”—with “all things” seeming to include the previous written accounts—it is very likely that Luke used such written sources.

Indeed, virtually everyone agrees that he either used Matthew or Mark as a source (possibly both), so there is no reason to be hostile to the idea that he used another such source.


A Lost Source?

Since we don’t have any manuscripts of Q today, if it ever existed, it has been lost.

But the idea of a lost source is not intrinsically problematic.

Indeed—all of the sources that the Evangelists used, whether written or oral, seem to have perished, leaving only the Gospels themselves.


An Objection

One could object that many of the people who advocate Q—including some of its earliest advocates—have tried to use the claim to undermine the authority of the Gospels.

This is true, but it does not ultimately matter.

The idea that there is a common source behind the 235 verses Matthew and Luke have in common does not do anything, of itself, to undermine the authority of the Gospels.

The Gospels are based on sources—as Luke acknowledges—and so the idea of sources behind them is not intrinsically threatening.

The proposal that a common source is behind these 235 verses is an idea that needs to be evaluated based on the evidence—not who proposed it or what their motives were.


Ad Hominem Arguments

Indeed, arguments that attack an idea based on who proposed it or what that person’s motives were—rather than evaluating the evidence for and against it—are known as ad hominem arguments (i.e., arguments “to the man” rather than to the evidence).

Such arguments are at high risk of committing a logical fallacy.

More generally, rejecting an idea because of where it came from risks committing the genetic fallacy.


A Better Way

A better way of approaching the question is to set aside these issues and look at the Q proposal objectively, weighing the evidence for and against it.

If you want to go after Q based on the evidence, have at it!

I do that myself!

In fact, here’s a book by Mark Goodacre that can help you do that.

And here’s another.


Faithful Q Scholars

While it may be true that some advocates of Q have an agenda of undermining the authority of the Gospels, they are by no means the only Q advocates out there.

There are also lots of biblical scholars who thoroughly uphold the authority of Scripture and who endorse the Q hypothesis.

Indeed, in a 2003 speech, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) addressed the Pontifical Biblical Commission and noted that the Two-Source Hypothesis (which proposes Q as one of the sources behind Matthew and Luke) is “accepted today by almost everyone” [Relationship Between the Magisterium and Exegetes].

That “almost everyone” includes lots of faithful Catholic biblical scholars, as well as lots of non-Catholic ones who support the authority of the Gospels.


A Present Minority

Actually, the fact that Q-skeptics, such as myself, are a small minority today is something that provides us with another reason to keep the rhetoric cool.

If you want to get people to change their minds about Q, a calm, reasoned approach based on the evidence will get you a lot farther than just dumping on the view of the majority.

And there is another, even more fundamental reason to take this approach . . .


The Golden Rule

Majorities can often ill-treat minorities, and it’s certainly been the case that some advocates of Q have used inflammatory, insulting language regarding those who are skeptical of Q.

Indeed, if you read the books of Q skeptics, they point out the inflammatory language that has been used against them and their proposals.

Naturally, they don’t like being treated that way in print.

Fortunately, many of them—including many of the most effective Q skeptics—have resisted the temptation to answer in kind.

After all, didn’t Jesus say something about treating others the way that you would like to be treated?

That statement is found in Matthew 7:12 and Luke 6:31, but it isn’t found in Mark or John.

Ironically, it’s part of the Q material!

And whether Q was a separate, written source or not—this saying of Christ is authoritative.

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


John Schuh September 29, 2014 at 5:29 am

I have noted that the proponents of “Q” also are believers in the late dating of the Gospels. They reject the predictions of the destruction of the Temple by Our Lord, as allusions to that event by the writers. Apart from the fact that an prophetic voice at the time would have had in mind the greatest disaster ever to befall the people and warn that it might happen again, given the great military power of the “modern” Babylon, one can turn that argument around are say that not making “a big deal” of the event would be like a historian writing a history of Europe in 1938 and not mentioning the Great War.

Bottom line. The real problem of the Biblical Scholars is a dearth of information. I don’t think that the internal information of the Gospels yields a solution to the Synoptic Problem , only hypotheses. This is, I think, Bishop Robinson’s conclusion about the controversy over the dating of the Gospels. I mean, how does one actually disprove his proposal that there was an UR-John that was the oldest Gospel, and which was re-written by disciples/scribes based on its outline, and with the sort of gloss and later additions that we can see in Matthew and Luke. The old tradition of Mark as a transcription of a sermon by Peter certainly explains its relative brevity, as does the alternative of it as being a shortening of Matthew.

Fr. Robert Coogan September 29, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Jimmy Akin, you are certainly right in that the Church promotes respectful dialogue and not mud-slinging. The ancient tradition says that Matthew originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew. There is strong reason to believe that the Gospel of Matthew which we have, written in Greek, as many passages taken directly from Mark. Could it be that the material that we refer to as “Q” is really taken from the Hebrew Matthew document?

Previous post:

Next post: