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
(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
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
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
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
- 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
- an exorcism leading to
debate over the source of Jesus' authority
- oracles against Jerusalem & cities
- prayer instructions
- oracles against scribes
- 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
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.]
Other On-line Resources:
11 January 2019