Understanding an Argument for Q

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible, Synoptic Problem

q-redThere is a clear literary relationship between three of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

That’s why these three are known as the “synoptic” Gospels—because they offer a “shared view” of Jesus’ life (Greek, sun = “together” + opsis “seeing”).

The question of how they are related is known as the Synoptic Problem, and you can read my discussions of it here.


Which Evangelist Wrote First?

Through much of Church history, the dominant view has been that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to be written and that Mark either abbreviated Matthew or that Mark combined and abbreviated both Matthew and Luke.

After careful study, I would argue that neither of these proposals fits the evidence. Mark did not abbreviate Matthew (see here), nor did he combine and abbreviate Matthew and Luke (see here). Further, the earliest testimony we have—likely from one of the other authors of the New Testament—indicates that Mark wrote first (see here and here).

I therefore conclude that modern scholars are most likely correct when they argue that Mark wrote his Gospel first and Matthew and Luke used it as sources.

I am skeptical, however, of the claim of many modern scholars that Matthew and Luke also used another, now-lost, source known as Q (from the German word Quelle = “source,” though see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, ch. 4, fn. 9).


Kinds of Material Found in the Synoptic Gospels

The fundamental reason that scholars propose the existence of a lost Q source is that the material in Matthew and Luke falls into one of four categories:

a)    Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with Mark

b)   Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with each other and that is not found in Mark.

c)    Material that Matthew alone has.

d)   Material that Luke alone has.

On the view that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, we can assume that both Evangelists derived the category (a) material from Mark.

The category (c) material, which is uniquely found in Matthew, must have come from sources unique to Matthew, and the same would be true for the category (d) material that is uniquely found in Luke.

But what about the category (b) material—the material in both Matthew and Luke that couldn’t have come from Mark, because it isn’t in Mark?


Explanations for the Material in the Synoptic Gospels

Scholars seem capable of proposing a limitless number of complex, convoluted ways that this material can be explained—involving a tangle of hypothetical sources and lost editions of the Gospels—but Occam’s Razor suggests that we not turn to these unless simpler explanations fail.

This makes our job easier because there are four, and only four, simple explanations for the category (b) material:

  1. Matthew and Luke got it from a hodgepodge of different sources, and it happened to end up in both Gospels by chance
  2. Matthew and Luke both got it (or most of it) from a common source, which is now lost
  3. Luke got it from Matthew
  4. Matthew got it from Luke

If the material that Matthew and Luke have uniquely in common amounted to only a few verses—perhaps a few sayings or stories of Jesus—then we might chalk this up to chance.

The difficulty with this view is that there is rather a lot of material in category (b): It amounts to around 235 verses, which is 22% of the verses in Matthew (1071 verses in total) and more than 20% of the verses in Luke (1151 verses in total). In both cases, the category (b) material amounts to more than a fifth of the respective Gospels.

This seems like too much material to attribute to random chance.

That points us to the possibilities that there is a lost source (dubbed Q), that Luke got the material from Matthew, or that Matthew got the material from Luke.

Why do modern scholars prefer the first of these proposals?

To some extent, it may be because of peer pressure. Around a hundred years ago, scholars began to prefer the first proposal—the Q hypothesis—and there was a snowball effect. They saw their peers adopting this proposal, and they naturally adopted it, too.

This tendency is sometimes called the bandwagon effect, and it is a known phenomenon in human psychology. However, that doesn’t mean that it is more likely to lead to the truth. Objectively, one still needs reasons to prefer the proposal favored by the majority to the alternative proposals.

So: Are there reasons to prefer the Q hypothesis to the alternatives that Luke got the material from Matthew or visa versa?


Christ’s Infancy and Resurrection

One way of trying to answer the question is to go through Matthew and Luke in minute detail—looking at the Greek text of individual verses to see what they tell us about the possibility that each of the proposals is correct.

This is an important task, but it requires a close reading of the Greek texts which is not easily accessible to the average reader. Many of the individual data points are also quite technical and debatable.

My preference here is to look at larger elements of the text which are found even in translations of the original language, such as modern English Bibles.

Even if we here put aside the details of individual verses, it is clear that there are certain passages in Matthew and Luke that could serve as tests for how the Synoptic Gospels were written.

These are the Infancy Narratives, which deal with Jesus’ birth and infancy (Matt. 1:8-2:23, Luke 1:5-52) and the Resurrection Narratives (Matt. 28:1-20, Luke 24:1-53).

The argument is that these two sections are so different from each other that Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s Gospels. In other words, if Luke knew Matthew (or visa versa) then he would not have written his Infancy Narrative or his Resurrection Narrative so differently from the other Gospel. They would have been more similar to each other.

A version of this argument is implicitly offered by Robert H. Stein, who writes:

One final argument that can be listed against the theory that Luke used the Gospel of Matthew as a source is the lack of M [i.e., category (c)] material in Luke. (The same type of argument can also be made for Matthew’s not having used Luke, i.e., the lack of any L [i.e., category (d)] material in Matthew.) . . . Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12)? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? Why would he have omitted the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth (Matt. 2:13-23); the story of the guards at the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66) and their report (Matt. 28:11-15); the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection (Matt. 28:9-10, 16-20); and so on? Added to this is the observation that if Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version (The Synoptic Problem, 102).

I say that Stein’s version of the argument is implicit, because he does not note that each of his examples is drawn from either the Infancy Narratives or the Resurrection Narratives (a point made by Mark Goodacre; The Case Against Q, 55).

An argument from the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives is legitimate in principle. If one Evangelist used the other then we would expect there to be traces of that in his presentation of Christ’s infancy and resurrection. If we find no such traces then that suggests Matthew and Luke wrote independently. And, in that case, the material they have in common would most probably be attributed to a lost source (Q).

However, before adopting this conclusion, we need to ask whether the two narratives are really so different from each other, whether they can be explained by Luke using Matthew or Matthew using Luke, or whether there are reasons why one Evangelist would avoid using the other in these parts of his Gospel.

This we will do in the next two posts.

Up next . . .

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John Rayner January 12, 2016 at 6:02 am

This matter was brought up in the 1930s and the then Pontifical Biblical Commision declared that Matthew wrote the first gospel in Aramaic and that the Faithful should accept this as being the complete truth.
I have held to the argument that the Apostles were teachers. All teachers have one problem and that is that they all like nothing better than talking about teaching.
Now, the first Council of the Church took place in Jerusalem when Paul took Peter to task over the matter of circumcision. Here we have the Apostles, gathered together for the first time in ages and what did they talk about?
Each asked each other about what miracles they talked about, about which were the salient points which Jesus raised, about what parables Jesus used, about which legal issues Jesus raised etc., etc, and as a result they formulated a teaching programme as being the most effective way of giving the gospel. They all spoke Aramaic! They came up with a teaching programme called the gospel of Matthew and it was necessarily in Aramaic. From that teaching programme, Peter preached his gospel which Mark wrote down and Luke treid to bring more to the scenario after speaking with Mary.
Hence, the Synoptic gospels came to be so similar!!!!
This solves the problem of the similarity of the synoptic gospels and also the Church’s teaching that Matthew wrote the first gospel in Aramaic.
End of story!!!

John Schuh January 12, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Yes, I think you have to consider the assertion by Tresmontant that Matthew was written in Hebrew/Aramaic. Further, it ought to be considered that among the disciples were literate men who would have taken down the words of the master as they heard them. Certainly some of the prophets’ words were taken down by their disciples.

John Rayner January 12, 2016 at 8:22 pm

It is more than probable that the Gospel of Matthew (as I have explained above), arising out of the Council of Jerusalem, first existed only in the form of oral tradition and hence was in Aramaic. The Pontifical Biblical Commission declared that Matthew was the first gospel and that it was in Aramaic and it insisted that this is the tradtion of the Church and that Catholics must bow to the tradition of the Church. There does not exist, anywhere, so far as we know, a copy of Matthew written in Aramaic. Hence, someone MUST have translated it into Greek because the earliest copies that we have are in Greek. Now, it may be, and I emphasise MAY BE, that the gospel of Mark (which is DEPENDENT on Matthew) was actually WRITTEN before the gospel of Matthew was translated and written into Geek. It could then be that the translator of the Aramaic Matthew turned to the written copy of Mark in order to HELP with the translation of Matthew into Greek. This possibility would then account for the written copies of Mark preceeding the written copies of Matthew in Greek but they do not in any way negate the fact that Matthew was “composed” first in Aramaic and existed before Mark’s gospel.

Barbara January 13, 2016 at 12:26 pm

Irenaeus records that “Matthew produced his Gospel when Peter and Paul were evangelizing and founding the Church of Rome”, while Eusebius records that Matthew wrote his Gospel when he left Israel, and that the Apostles separated 12 years after the Ascension, hence around in the early 40’s.
Irenaeus also records that Mark was written after the death of Peter, while Eusebius states that it was before his death.
Also, Luke wrote both his Gospel and the book of Acts. The book ends with Paul’s house arrest in Rome in the early 60’s. Since he was subsequently released, the two books may have been written as a legal defense of Paul. What is currently referred to as a ‘friend of the court brief’.
So Luke and Mark were written around the same time. Mark may have been placed first because he was Peter’s assistant, and was considered to be Peter’s account, and therefore more of an eyewitness.

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