Visualizing Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible

q-narrative-vs-sayings - CopyThere are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This number represents more than a fifth of Matthew and Luke, and so some scholars have proposed that there was a written source—called Q—that both Evangelists drew upon, though it is now lost.

There are, of course, other possibilities. One is that Matthew simply used Luke; another is that Luke used Matthew.

It is possible that they both used a lost written source for this material, but there are reasons to question this.

A while back, I blogged about one such reason.

Now I’d like to use a visual means of making the same point and to advance it further.


The Basic Argument

The argument I made before was based on one posed by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre (see his book The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem, 170-185).

Scholars who advocate the existence of Q frequently state that it was a “sayings gospel,” because the material in it largely consists of sayings of Jesus.

They then place it in the same category as other sayings collections, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

But Goodacre points out that, if it existed, Q would not have been simply a collection of sayings. Instead, it has narrative passages (passages that recount events rather than simply sayings).

Q thus would not parallel Thomas or other ancient sayings collections.


Visualizing the Phenomenon

In my previous post, I listed a number of narrative elements that Goodacre identified in the Q material.

Now I would like to visualize the way that this material shifts back and forth between narrative and sayings.

To do this, I used a copy of The Critical Edition of Q: A Synopsis Including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas With English, German and French Translations of Q and … & Historical Commentary on the Bible), edited by James Robinson, Paul Hoffmann, and John Kloppenborg.

Several years ago, this trio of scholars led an international team that attempted to establish the original text of Q, in its original order, to the extent that this can be done by present scholarship.

The Critical Edition of Q is a useful text for studies of the Synoptic Problem because it is a consensus text that does not rest on the work of any single scholar. As a result, it can be used as a neutral reference point for testing hypotheses about Q, because the question of whether a single scholar has biased the selection of texts in favor of his hypothesis does not arise.

The scholars who produced The Critical Edition of Q identified 92 passages that they think were or likely were in Q.

I typed these passages into a spreadsheet and then classified them based on whether they involved significant narrative elements, sayings, or something that could be regarded either way.

I also counted the number of verses in each passage and assigned a color to the three categories, as follows:

  • Red: Narrative
  • Orange: Mixed
  • Yellow: Saying

For something to classify as more than just a saying, it had to involve more than just a note that Jesus responded to something that someone said. The reason is that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus occasionally responds to things that people said, and I wanted to show that Q involves narrative elements that go beyond those found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Using these classifications, I then created an image consisting of colored bars whose widths are based on the number of verses in these sections.

This is the image that resulted . . .


An Image of Q?


If you want to see the results of my study as an image in spreadsheet form, click here.

Here, in sequence, is what the colored bars represent.

Bar 1 (red): This bar, at the left of the image, represents 24 verses that are all at the beginning of Q and that have narrative elements. This section includes the ministry of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptation, and a reference to Jesus going to “Nazara.”

Bar 2 (yellow): This represents 26 verses of sayings material. The material is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.

Bar 3 (red): This represents 6 verses. It contains the story of the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant.

Bar 4 (orange): This represents 19 verses. It includes the question that John the Baptist sends to Jesus by his disciples, Jesus testimony about John, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ testimony, and Jesus discussion of the present generation in light of the way John and he have been treated. It also includes Jesus’ interactions with several individuals who end up not following him.

I classified this material as “mixed” because you could look at it either as involving significant narrative elements or simply as sayings with minimal narrative elements.

While it consists principally of sayings, the John the Baptist material involves the coming and going of John’s disciples, which can be considered narrative. It also harks back to Jesus’ earlier interaction with John, in which John identified Jesus as a major figure in God’s plan. Now John asks if he was correct in that assessment, making this a continuation of the previous encounter—and thus part of a larger, overarching story about Jesus and John.

Finally, the interactions of Jesus with the people who don’t end up following him could be considered narrative.

I think that there is a good case for classifying this material—or at least the material involving John the Baptist—as narrative, but since it is principally in the form of sayings, I left it orange.

Bar 5 (yellow): This represents 11 verses in which Jesus gives the disciples instructions about a preaching mission that they are to go on—how to conduct themselves, what to bring, etc.

This material is all sayings, so I left it yellow, but I think it could justifiably be colored orange or even red, because the instructions that Jesus gives the disciples about their mission suggests that they went on such a mission and later returned from it, just as we read in Luke 10:17.

If Q contained material about the departure or return of the disciples then this would create forward movement, narratively speaking, and earn an orange or red classification.

Bar 6 (orange): This represents 3 verses in which Jesus pronounces woe on various towns in Galilee.

I classified this as orange because, although it is in the saying form, it implies visits to the named towns in which Jesus encountered opposition, and Q could have contained prior references to Jesus encountering such opposition.

Even if it didn’t, the references to these towns imply visits and thus situate Jesus’ activities in a geographical way that takes us beyond abstract philosophical/theological sayings.

Bar 7 (yellow): This represents 147 verses that consist of sayings without significant narrative elements.



You may or may not agree with my classifications. Indeed, I think that some of them—particularly some elements in Bars 4-6—could be classified differently.

However, even if we assume the classification most favorable to Q, where everything that is not red should be classified as yellow, something very interesting emerges.

It isn’t only that Q switches between narrative and sayings material, as Goodacre pointed out. It’s that Q switches between them in a very noteworthy way.

If only Bars 1 and 3 are classified as involving significant narrative elements and everything else is classified as sayings then:

  • Q would begin with clearly narrative material (John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry).
  • It would switch to a major sayings collection that is clearly presented as a unit in Matthew and Luke (the Sermon on the Mount/Plain).
  • It would revert to a narrative for a single story (the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant).
  • Then it would switch back to an extremely long series of sayings.
  • Finally, it would end without returning to the kind of narrative framework that it began with.

This is very unlike what we see in ancient sayings collections like Thomas, Proverbs, or Sirach.


Matters Get Worse for Q?

Things get even worse for Q if some of the material is classified differently.

If Bars 4-6 are classified as narrative, if only some parts of them are, or if we allow a mixed “narrative/sayings” classification then we have an even more complex picture that deviates even further from the idea that Q is a “sayings gospel.”



If we attempt to visualize Q in terms of the narrative and sayings elements that it would have included, we find that it switches back and forth between them in a way that is not like other ancient sayings collections.

This gives us more reason to see the hypothetical, lost Q as a unique document and thus as one that was less likely to exist, in view of the fact that we do not have ancient parallels for it.

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William Tarbush September 15, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Great article. I have never seen such a simply method of disputing Q. Normally, it takes reading a book that is longer wherein the theme gets lost a bit.

g.g September 15, 2014 at 10:52 pm

I’m not sure what you have against Q, but your arguments presented against the existence of a unique document are not very coherent – at least to me.
If I understand you correctly, you take issue with the existence of a “sayings Gospel.” Well, according to your general comment on Q advocate scholars, there would only need to be a significant majority of sayings in Q to qualify as a sayings Gospel. Your color coding image establishes that even you have classified a significant majority of sayings in the Q document.
What is most unclear to me, however, is how you take issue with the existence of any narrative elements. In your Implications section, where you give a ‘devils advocate’ classification hypothetical and list the results, your first list item says, “Q would begin with clearly narrative material” and your last list item says, “it would end without returning to the kind of narrative framework that it began with.” which taken together apparently leads you to conclude that, “This is very unlike what we see in ancient sayings collections like Thomas, Proverbs, or Sirach.” This strikes me as a contradiction. Either the first item is unlike what we see in ancient sayings collections or the last item is unlike what we say in ancient sayings collections, but not both. For if the first item mentioning narrative elements in the beginning is unlike sayings collections, then the last item not having closing narrative elements should not be a surprise nor unlike other sayings collections. Only what we know of the proposed Q document does not have closing narrative elements, but we must remember that we don’t have the full document, perhaps if we did then we would find that there are closing narrative elements. Based on your argumentation, I don’t know if the existence of closing narrative elements would be similar or dissimilar to other ancient sayings collections. From what I know of the Gospel of Thomas and Proverbs and Sirach, I am guessing dissimilar. Anyway, having three sayings texts is hardly a genre of literature, which makes your argument on not having parallels less substantial.

Tim J Leader September 16, 2014 at 4:37 am

As I understand it, the Synoptic Problem is not solved by a mere 4 sources (M, Mk, Q, L), but as a collection of many sources organized in a Venn Diagram: There are sources unique to Mt (the M sources), sources unique to Lk (the L sources, which include a portion shared with Jn), and sources shared by both (Mk being the main one). The Q Gospel would be in the latter category (shared, like Mk), but IMHO it is not a single Gospel, but several different texts, most of which are sayings collections, but probably a couple of small narrative ones too.

Pat Barlow September 16, 2014 at 6:54 am

There are also no ancient parallels for someone being truly raised for the dead. Nor, for bread being turned into the Real Presence of God. Yet both certainly happened. So I am very wary of arguments against the validity of early elements of Christianity based on their uniqueness. Obviously, there is a huge gap between articles of Faith and a scholarly hypothesis. However, we also must be willing to entertain the possibility that Christianity is so beyond the normal that orthodox communities would develop features that are very different from their neighbors – even heretical “Christian” communities.

I believe there were strong (anti-Catholic) political reasons why Protestant German theologians were very willing to adopt the primacy of Mark. In the same way, various scholars may have “political motives” to adopt “Q”. Yet, motive does not necessarily imply fraud. The US certainly had motive to land on the moon by JFK’s deadline. This does not mean the moon landings were faked.

I am also not sure how valid it is to compare “Q” with texts that are in the late stages of development. It is perhaps better to compare it with theoretical reconstructions of the very first written parts of the Pentateuch.

It is far less valid, but we can also make a comparison with the oral traditions about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Both are an eclectic combination of narrative (Washington crossing the Delaware and Lincoln born in a log cabin) with sayings (“I cannot tell a lie.”) Several years ago I found a printed card stuck in my Great-Great-Grandmother’s primer that had narrative “legends” of Washington and Lincoln mixed with a selection of (perhaps apocryphal) quotes. There was no narrative or chronological order. That has almost no value as evidence of literary customs in the early Christian community, but then again, maybe human nature hasn’t changed all that much.

Ross September 16, 2014 at 7:33 am

When I was in Scripture courses in my undergraduate days, I remember learning that the concept of “Q” referred not to one specific written text that Matthew and Luke both used, but to the sum total of oral and written materials shared by both (as against “M”, the sum total of material that Matthew alone had and “L” likewise for Luke). The letters were treated more as shorthand for a corpus of traditions than as sigla for specific putative texts. (Hence, “Q” comes from the German plural “Quellen”, not the singular.) Was this wrong?

David September 16, 2014 at 8:01 am

I have always felt that the arguments for the existance of “Q” were abstracted to fill a void, much like string theory and multi-verse theory. They are extrapolations and thought experiments rather than data directed conclusions. One author called them “the science of gaps” (e.g. the God of gaps). However, your visualization is not necessarily complete since it is not known if the complete “Q” source has been postulated. If it is reality that only 60% of Q has been used in Matthew, Luke or even Mark and the remaining 40% still lost it may indeed mean Q does have historical parrellel.

Br. Alexis Bugnolo September 16, 2014 at 8:10 am

An elegant demonstration.

One thing that I find often forgotten in the debates, is that Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist, was not present at the beginning of Jesus Ministry, but joined afterwards, when Christ found him at the tax tables. If we reckon that he wrote what he saw, his gospel would include only the last year or so of Christ’s public ministry. But John was there from the start, and so writes about a 3 year public ministry. That there ever was a Q document is pure supposition, which neglects the oral culture of the ancient world, in which many narratives which today we would write down, were memorized beginning to end; the potential variety of account would result from the evangelists who traveled town to town to preach the Gospel, perhaps first in the sense of recounting the Gospel of Christ beginning to end; invariably if this did occur there would arise differences in the telling, even when based on all the facts, because one would compress the narrative to the time allowable, and what was omitted in one telling would be included in the other. This seems a much more probable explanation why St. John, St. Matthew, St. Luke and St. Mark have “different” Gospels. We ought not confound the written text for the Gospel Message, or for the spoken version which may have existed before the written form of the same. Thus there is no need to suppose a Q text in any form whatsoever as ever having existed.

RaghnMacConchrú September 17, 2014 at 5:54 am

I like the Anglican Greek scholar John Weham’s take on when the Gospels were written and how composed, (he thought Matthew came first, and that all of them came relatively early, a view that’s in the minority but hardly w/o serious supporters) so I’ll relate a thought experiment he had:

Assume both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source and then, somehow or other, Mark’s Gospel became lost forever. So scholars tried to compute what it might have contained and in general, would have been like, and then pow, in the modern day, from some dig or other, a full copy of Mark turns up.

Now, I think this valuable to show us that we really haven’t a clue what “Q”, had it existed, would have been like. Mark’s Gospel is a masterpiece, even in his exotic mixing of verb tenses that makes you present in the “there and then” unlike any of writer in the NT. And the details he puts in! And how “human” Jesus is compared to the other writers. Fantastic. So, I mean, we just simply haven’t a clue what a putative “Q” would have been like, to the point that speculation (while fun for some of us) would be useless.

Secondly, Wenham wrote about how people actually wrote in those days. Writing in Judea and in the Hellenistic East was relatively wide-spread. And a good portion of people were multilingual, with Aramaic being the true lingua franca (even over into Persia, etc.) with Greek also a lingua franca, and on top of that, a growing use of Latin and a good knowledge (by many) of Hebrew (the latter might even have still been a spoken vernacular in some areas). But to actually write, you sat on the ground and propped your writing board on your knee and placed your papyrus (or linen roll or whatever) on that and started writing. NO ONE used writing tables and there WAS NEVER a book or two laid out (scroll unrolled or codex book—these just coming into wider use) for reference, easy or otherwise.

Therefore a Gospel writer “using” another Gospel writer would have had to read it separately, put it down, then write his own (or have someone read a passage to him while he wrote it down). In general, memory was better than today, so the usual MO of writers, historians, etc., was to read from various sources, think a bit, and then, sitting, write out their material. And besides all that, it is quite possible that a large amount of what looks like “borrowing” today was merely material drawn from a common teaching.

Just some points to make to help the discussion. Thanks.


Nick from Detroit September 17, 2014 at 9:09 am

I think it should be pointed out that the main purpose for the invention of the “Q” hypothesis, in the 19th Century, was an attempt to wrongly assert that all four Gospels were written after A.D. 70. In other words, in the post-Temple period. This way, modern scholars could ignore the fact that Christ predicted the Temple’s destruction 40 years (a generation) before it happened.
The invention of “Q” reminds me of the Drake Equation, in that much time and energy is expended defending arguments based on absolutely no data whatsoever. None of the Early Church Fathers mention any other sources besides the four Gospels. Some (e.g., Papias, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius) are very detailed on who wrote in which order, and why.
But, so-called scholars believe they can discover a new source 1,800 hundred years after the events took place. I truly boggles the mind.

felix servidad September 17, 2014 at 12:56 pm

If the Bible was written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit that would be enough for
us, it is flawless because God is perfect. As for me, I have faith that The Gospel is indeed a good news for us, and to all who believed. If we are doubt with it we have nothing to believe.

Neale Lanigan September 17, 2014 at 4:47 pm

Is it possible Q was a person, probably one of the apostles, perhaps James, who gave his recollections to Matthew, Mark and Luke? If it was a person, he would have remembered some things, forgotten other, recollected them again, thus showing how Matthew and Mark might have included somethings which Luke didn’t. Luke included things that Mark didn’t, and so forth.

Javier September 17, 2014 at 5:10 pm

Great job, Jimmy! You just spared us much researching and moved us forward on this very interesting hypothesis of Q. Thank God for our holy mother church sorting it out in the late 2nd century and providing us with the first canon. There’s a reason why the gospel of Thomas didn’t make the cut…

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