Q   Synoptic Sayings Source       

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Conventional symbol for the source of material in both Matthew and Luke that differs significantly from the text of Mark. This symbol was coined in an 1890 essay by Johannes Weiss, who used it as shorthand for the German word "source" (Quelle). But the Q hypothesis itself is credited to C. H. Weisse (1838), who was the first to maintain that Matthew & Luke independently edited Mark and the same "sayings source" (Redenquelle).

The idea that the Greek gospels are based on some primitive collection of sayings (Greek: logia) goes back to the very first commentary on the gospels. Early in the 2nd c. CE, Papias reported that Matthew compiled the logia of Jesus which others interpreted as best they could. Here already was the kernel of the hypothesis that more than one gospel was based on the same collection of sayings. Later writers assumed that Papias was referring to the canonical gospel ascribed to Matthew until 1832, when F. Schleiermacher pointed out that Papias did not call this sayings collection a gospel. Schleiermacher concluded that the gospel of Matthew was a later composition that must have used this early sayings collection. Six years later Weisse showed that Luke must have used it too. H. J. Holtzmann's 1863 study of the historical origins of the synoptic gospels made the theory that Matthew & Luke had independently edited the same Greek collection of Jesus' sayings the dominant working hypothesis among NT scholars.

Four factors have contributed to scholarly controversy over Q:

  • Lack of a separate text: The discovery of Q did not involve the unearthing of a previously unknown ms. (like the Dead Sea Scrolls or the gospel of Thomas) but rather the meticulous analysis of the composition of the synoptic gospels. The text of Q is embedded in the gospels of Matthew & Luke. Thus, Q is a hypothetical source. Recognition of its existence is a scientific corollary of two other conclusions about the relation of the synoptic texts:
    • the priority of Mark as the prime literary source for Matthew & Luke; &
    • the independence of Matthew & Luke as editors of Mark.

    Once one recognizes the evidence for a literary relationship between the synoptic gospels, the only logical alternative to Q is a rival source hypothesis that maintains Luke edited Matthew. There are three major variations of this position, formulated first by Augustine, J. J. Griesbach, & A. M. Farrer. Yet, for the past century, none of these hypotheses has been able to muster enough support from gospel scholars to dispense with the Q hypothesis.

  • Lack of reference: The absence of a ms. of Q is not a major problem, since most Christian literature written before the Constantinian era (4th c. CE) is no longer in existence. A stronger objection against Q is the fact that early Christian writers do not mention it. We know of lost gospels, letters, commentaries, etc. because some ancient writers referred to them. The only evidence for Q's existence is the presence of parallel non-Markan material in Matthew & Luke. Q is not the sayings source referred to by Papias, since that was allegedly written in Hebrew, while Q was clearly composed in Greek.

    Yet this objection is not as serious as first appears, since (except for Papias) Christian writers before 150 CE do not generally refer to any document (including the canonical gospels) as their source for Jesus' sayings. First century Christianity was, after all, still primarily an oral culture. There are, in fact, several references to the "words of the Lord Jesus" & even more unacknowledged echoes of Jesus sayings in 1st c. Christian writings. Thus, early collections of Jesus sayings are more than likely. The gospel of Thomas, which was discovered less than a century ago is evidence that such collections did exist.

    Paradoxically, lack of reference to Q was probably a consequence of its influence on canonical gospels. Once Matthew & Luke had incorporated the contents of Q into their works there was no need to copy it as a separate document. For the copying of mss. was expensive & time-consuming. Uncopied mss. wear out & disappear. If Q disappeared by 110 CE, the silence of later writers is to be expected.

  • Questions of literary unity: A bigger problem for advocates of the Q hypothesis is explaining how & why the variety of non-Markan parallels in Matthew & Luke came to be part of the same work. Q contained sayings with no connecting narrative & only minimal prefaces to some clusters. But as a written composition, it can be expected to show some coherence. Unlike the gospel of Thomas, Q was comprised primarily of sayings clusters. But these are quite diverse. In addition to many small blocks of related Jesus sayings, Q contained:

    • oracles of John the Baptist
    • a dialogue between Jesus & the devil
    • a well-organized sermon encouraging the oppressed
    • a healing story with dialogue between Jesus & a Roman centurion
    • sayings about Jesus' relationship to John
    • a list of instructions to missionaries
    • an exorcism leading to debate over the source of Jesus' authority
    • oracles against Jerusalem & cities in Galilee 
    • prayer instructions
    • oracles against scribes & Pharisees
    • several parables
    • predictions of the appearance of the son of man.

    The links between these blocks of material are sometimes puzzling. Several Q sayings are prophetic in tone, with dire warnings directed against opponents. Others are wisdom sayings designed to encourage people in adverse circumstances.

    Analysis of Q's structure leads many scholars to think that Q was revised more than once. For sayings collections are easily expanded by later scribes. Several books in the Hebrew Bible containing prophetic oracles or wisdom sayings had later insertions of various types of material. So questions about the coherence of Q material concern the tradition history of the text, rather than its existence.

  • Redactional problems: The text of Q has to be reconstructed from the texts of Matthew & Luke. These writers did not simply copy Jesus' sayings, they edited & paraphrased them. Since we have the text of Mark their revisions of Mark are clear, as in the pericope on Jesus' true kin. The shape of Q & the original wording of Q sayings is often less certain, since we do not have a separate ms.

    Experts on Q sometimes debate the reconstruction of particular sayings or whether a certain passage came from Q or another source. But this is no different than the debates over the reconstruction of the Dead Sea scrolls or any fragmentary ms.

The primary reason most scholars resist tracing Q material to separate hypothetical sources is the philosophical principle called Ockham's razor: "Do not multiply unnecessary imaginary objects." If Mark is the primary source of Matthew & Luke, then Q is necessary to account for the non-Markan parallels in Matthew & Luke unless Luke also used Matthew. Fragmentation of Q material into smaller sources only increases speculation & compounds the problems of reconstruction.

[A handy edition of parallel Q passages in Luke & Matthew is found in The Complete Gospels (revised edition; R.J. Miller, ed., San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994), pp. 248-300.]

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last revised 11 January 2019


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