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Red Letter Edition

Mahlon H Smith,
Rutgers University







Since Matthew and Luke inserted the contents of Q into a narrative framework taken from Mark, Q's original opening cannot be reconstructed with any precision. Most likely it began with some formula identifying its contents as sayings of Jesus.  Early Christian writers refer to the "words" (λόγοι) or "oracles" (λόγια) of "the Lord" (i.e., Jesus).  These may be indirect references to this collection.  But as the first identifiable Q passages in Matthew and Luke are sayings ascribed to John the Baptist, it is possible that Q's opening identified John as well, like Mark 1:4 or John 1:6.


The common details in the synoptic descriptions of John and the baptism of Jesus are traceable to Mark. Matthew and Luke echo and expound upon elements of Mark's wording.  The most information about John shared by Matthew and Luke that cannot be traced to Mark is their location of him in "the region of the Jordan" (see Luke 3:3//Matt 3:5 below), that is: the Roman province of Perea. Other than that their narratives contain no clear evidence that they knew any account of John's activity except Mark's.

Matt 3:1-5 Luke 3:2-3 Mark 1:4-6
1 In due course 2 ...the word of God came 4 So,
John the Baptizer appears to John, son of Zechariah, John the Baptist appeared
in the Judean desert, in the desert. in the desert
  3 And he went into  
[see Matt 3:5 below] all the region around the Jordan,  
2 calling out, calling calling
  for baptism for baptism
"Change your ways because and a change of heart and a change of heart
the empire of Heaven that lead to that lead to
is arriving!"... forgiveness of sins... forgiveness of sins.
4 Now this same John   [see Mark 1:6 below]
wore clothes    
made of camel hair    
and had a leather belt    
around his waist;    
he lived on grasshoppers    
and wild honey    
5 Then   5 And everyone
    from the Jordan countryside
    and all the residents
Jerusalem   of Jerusalem
and all Judea    
all the region around the Jordan [see Luke 3:3 above]  
streamed out to him,   streamed out to him
and got baptized   and got baptized by him
in the Jordan River by him,   in the Jordan River,
admitting their sins.   admitting their sins.
[see Matt 3:4 above]   6 And John wore a mantle
    made of camel hair
    and a leather belt
    around his waist
    and lived on grasshoppers
    and wild honey.

The lack of a detailed description of John or the baptism of Jesus in Q is understandable.  The gospels of Mark and John show that early Christians had more interest in the Baptist's message than in his activity.  Q shows even less interest in story-telling than these gospels. Q generally describes a setting only where it is necessary to provide some context for a saying of Jesus.  Since Jesus is not the speaker in any baptism scene, Q did not have to include such a passage.


The first clear evidence that Matthew and Luke used a common source other than Mark is the substitution of the same summary of John's preaching for Mark's much briefer account.

Matt 3:7-12 Luke 3:7-9, 16-17 Mark 1:7-8
7 When he saw that   7 And he began
    his proclamation
many of the Pharisees    
and Sadducees    
were coming for baptism,    
John said to them, 7 So John would say by saying,
  to the crowds  
  that came out  
  to get baptized by him,  
"You spawn of Satan! "You spawn of Satan!  
Who warned you to flee Who warned you to flee  
from the impending doom? from the impending doom?  
8 Well then, 8 Well then,  
start producing fruit start producing fruits  
suitable for a change of heart, suitable for a change of heart,  
9 and don't even think and don't even start  
of saying to yourselves, saying to yourselves,  
'We have Abraham 'We have Abraham  
for our father.' for our father.'  
Let me tell you, Let me tell you,  
God can raise up God can raise up  
children for Abraham children for Abraham  
right out of these rocks! right out of these rocks!  
10 Even now the axe is aimed 9 Even now the axe is aimed  
at the root of the trees. at the root of the trees.  
So every tree So every tree  
not producing fruit not producing choice fruit  
gets cut down gets cut down  
and tossed into the fire. and tossed into the fire...  
11 I baptize you with water 16 I baptize you with water;  
for a change of heart,    
but someone but someone "Someone
more powerful than I more powerful than I more powerful than me
will succeed me. is coming will succeed me,
I'm not fit I'm not fit  
to take off his sandals. to untie his sandal straps. whose sandal straps
    I am not fit to bend down
    and untie.
    8 I've been baptizing you
    with water,
He'll baptize you He'll baptize you but he'll baptize you
with holy spirit with holy spirit with holy spirit."
and fire. and fire.  
12 His pitchfork 17 His pitchfork  
is in his hand, is in his hand,  
and he'll make a clean sweep to make a clean sweep  
of his threshing floor, of his threshing floor,  
and gather the wheat and to gather the wheat  
into his granary, into his granary,  
but the chaff he'll burn but the chaff he'll burn  
in a fire in a fire  
that can't be put out." that can't be put out."  

Matthew and Luke's quotation of John's warnings of imminent destruction and call for repentance have no parallel in Mark. Mark had no apparent reason to omit such preaching here, since later he makes similar themes central to Jesus' message (see Mark 1:15, 8:38-9:1, 13:24-31).  Thus any claim that Mark knew Q or Matthew or Luke is questionable.

Matthew and Luke present the Baptist's oracle with only two slight differences in wording (see Luke 3:8//Matt 3:8-9).  This indicates that they got it from a common Greek source circulating probably in written form. The care with which Matthew and Luke repeat this oracle, practically word for word, contrasts sharply with the freedom with which each reworks Mark's description of the Baptist, which they certainly both knew as a written text. This is a clear sign of their high regard for the sayings material in Q.


Q apparently opened with a warning of doom and call for repentance addressed to those who were proud to be descendants of Abraham. John's provocative epithet (lit: "spawn of snakes") doubled as an insult to both his audience and their ancestors. In Jewish tradition serpents symbolized forces that did not obey God.

The graphic language of the oracle is similar to that used by Hebrew prophets, but is based on everyday agricultural imagery rather than apocalyptic visions or particular OT texts.  The references to fruit trees (Luke 3:8-9//Matt 3:8-10) anticipate images used in a string of sayings near the conclusion of Jesus' opening sermon (Luke 6:43-45//Matt 7:15-20).  In fact, there Matthew (7:19) credits  Jesus with echoing the observation that unproductive trees are turned into firewood that here is credited to John.  Matthew was more inclined than other evangelists to draw a close parallel  between the messages of John and Jesus (e.g., Matt 3:2 and 4:17).

The Q oracle concluded with another agricultural fire image: the burning of the inedible refuse from a grain harvest (Luke 3:17//Matt 3:12).  The harvest image reoccurs at the beginning of Jesus' mission instructions (Luke 10:2//Matt 9:37) but there without reference to burning.

These warnings of destruction frame John's prediction of a stronger successor (Luke 3:16//Matt 3:11), which is the only part of John's message quoted by Mark.  Mark's version, however, differs in sequence.  It is composed of a pair of contrasts between John and the one to come:

  • He is mighty / I am an unworthy servant;

  • I baptize with water / he baptizes with spirit.

Q's version splits Mark's second balanced statement and inserts the whole first contrast between the parts. Most scholars consider Mark to have the simpler and earlier version of this oracle.  The more polished longer version in Matthew and Luke shows that Q did not simply collect sayings, but edited them. So, sometimes Mark preserves a more primitive tradition than Q.

The purpose of Q's revision here is clear. Unlike Mark, who contrasts John and his successor, Q stresses continuity in their mission.  John's message is presented as prologue to that of Jesus, which is precisely how Q uses this quote.  Q opened with John warning Israel of judgment; it apparently concluded with Jesus nominating his disciples to serve as its judges (Luke 22:28-30//Matt 19:28).


copyright by author 2019-2022
all rights reserved

  • This report was composed in 1991 to introduce lay readers to the results of the Jesus' Seminar's voting on the probable authenticity of sayings ascribed to Jesus in Q.  That projected volume was abandoned when the author's notes on Q were incorporated into the Jesus Seminar report on all Five Gospels (1993).  These pages are published here for the first time.

  • All gospel quotations are from the new Scholars Version Translation.

  • Hypertext links to this web page are welcome. But the contents may not be reproduced or posted elsewhere without the express written consent of the author.

- last revised 26 November 2021 -

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