It was easier to discover Q than to describe it,
because it is found only in pieces scattered in other works.
Outside our gospels, no text of Q has yet been recovered. That
is not itself surprising. Most ancient writings have been
lost. Apart from a few fragments and manuscripts found in
excavations, only what was repeatedly copied has survived.
Many major works are known to us only from bits and pieces
quoted by later authors. What we can learn about these sources
has to be reconstructed from the texts we have.
But the Q passages extracted from Matthew and Luke are
so varied that it was not immediately clear how, or even
whether, they fit together. Various proposals had to be
debated to solve the puzzle. While this debate still goes on,
enough research has been done to indicate some consensus on
Signs of oral composition.
Differences in Matthew and Luke's presentation of Q
material raised questions about the form in which they knew it.
Was Q written or oral? A written text is fixed in wording and
sequence regardless of its length. It may be revised. But
unless it is totally rewritten, the various versions share much
of the same wording and structure. By comparing several
editions of a work, experts can locate the earliest draft. The
use of the same rigid patterns in the synoptic gospels convinced
scholars that Matthew and Luke based their gospels on the text
Oral tradition is more flexible. It is passed on in
relatively brief blocks that are complete in themselves. Common
features cause several blocks to be linked in our memories.
But these are easily separated, rearranged and interspersed with
other blocks of material as the occasion demands. Moreover,
oral blocks are like rubber. They may be stretched or
compressed or bent as needed and still keep their basic
Q seems to have been more pliable than Mark. Matthew
and Luke divide the same Q material into different sized
clusters and each inserts it at different points in Mark's
outline. Such passages were obviously not context bound in their
source. Also, in both gospels common threads appear interwoven
with different material, some not found elsewhere.
In comparing such passages, it is not always easy to
determine whether one author has omitted material from Q or the
other has made insertions. Moreover, the sequence of many Q
passages is different in each gospel, more than with those taken
from Mark. And in some cases, Matthew and Luke's wording
differs so much, it is difficult to determine the original shape
of the common core. These are signs of oral composition.
D5. Q was composed of oral units that could be separated.
Oral tradition is a grab-bag, always open ended, with unrelated
pieces able to be put in or taken out in any order. So, if
Q material reached Matthew and Luke only in oral form,
reconstruction of the original source is impossible. For it
would not have been a unified work. Moreover, if Q was
not written down before Matthew and Luke, it is obvious why no
separate manuscripts have survived.
To say Q was an oral source sounds like the simplest
solution to non-Markan parallels in Matthew and Luke. But it is
not the best, since it does not account for close parallels in
Matthew and Luke's outline that are not patterned on Mark.
These are too complex to credit to oral memory or chance.
Compare, for instance, the sequence of common blocks of material
in Matthew's sermon on the mount with those in Luke's sermon on the plain:
|great reward in heaven!
||great reward in heaven!
||Regrets if well off now.
|* Salt sayings
|* Light sayings
|Torah kept, not abolished:
| no anger/ * reconciliation
| no lust / * cut off offender
| * no divorce
| no oaths
| no retaliation
|| no retaliation
| give without return
|| give without return
|Be like Father
||Be like Father
|Beware public piety of phonies:
| alms / prayer
| * Lord's prayer
|* Treasure in heaven
|* Eye & light
|* Serve God not wealth
|* Don't worry about:
| * food / clothing/ tomorrow
| repaid measure
|| repaid measure
||* Blind guides
||* Disciple like teacher
| speck / log in eye
|| speck / log in eye
| Avoid dogs / pigs
|* Response to asking/ seeking
| Golden rule
|* Narrow or wide gate
| Beware false prophets
| fruit like plant / tree
|| fruit like plant / tree
|| * product like store
|Saying & doing
||Saying & doing
| parable of builders
|| parable of builders
Matthew's sermon is almost four times as long as Luke's (111
verses vs. 30) and covers a lot more topics. But the skeleton
of both speeches (bold items) is the same. On the macro
level of common clusters, only three brief sayings (italics)
have been transposed. And only the golden rule has been shifted
more than a few lines. Matthew and Luke each include sayings
that the other omits from this speech. Yet all but one of
Luke's additions and most of Matthew's are at least partly
paralleled (*) somewhere else in the other gospel. The obvious
conclusion is that this is the same speech, which either one or
both writers have edited by inserting other material. Q retained
much of the flexibility of oral tradition. But it also had
enough stability for independent writers like Matthew and Luke
to preserve the same basic patterns.
These patterns extend beyond the outline of individual speeches
to the sequence of major non-Markan speeches in each gospel.
|Sermon (on Mount)
||Sermon (on Plain)
|On John the Baptist
||On John the Baptist
|Critique of Pharisees
||Critique of Pharisees
Apart from the transposition of the second and third segments,
Matthew and Luke share the same general outline of Jesus'
speeches. Such structural similarity is especially striking,
when one sees that these blocks of sayings have different
narrative settings and internal details in each gospel. It
indicates that both writers were using a relatively stable
series of speeches.
This reduces the possibility that Q was only an oral
source. A speaker can repeat the same series of speeches
without cue cards, providing he delivers it often. But a member
of his audience is not likely to deliver that string of
performances without written notes. Two people are even less
apt to duplicate the feat, especially if both did not personally
attend the same lecture series. To claim that Q was only
oral Jesus tradition, you must first imagine a setting in which
Jesus trained disciples to repeat his speeches. Then you have
to picture this first generation of performers apprenticing
others to take the show on the road. And finally you must
explain why neither Paul nor Mark echo this oral material, while
two later writers do.
D6. Q preserved speeches in fixed sequences.
Written sayings collections.
The boundary between oral and written composition is not
absolute. Words are primarily oral expression, whether they are
spoken or written. And much memorable speech is eventually
written down. Many written works retain features of material
that was formed for oral circulation. This is true of Mark and
even truer of most books in the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly
those that record the sayings of Jewish sages and prophets. Q is
primarily speech material and, so, was probably most like
Most Q passages are clusters of sayings ascribed to Jesus. But
the current narrative frames have been molded by Matthew and
Luke. Differences between them obscure any introduction in Q.
Yet, it is clear from the speeches in both gospels that most of
Q's sayings were simply strung together without any attempt to
provide transition. Jesus is identified as the speaker only at
the beginning of long clusters. This is a feature of written
rather than oral composition.
Compare the book of Proverbs. Here one finds long lists of wise
sayings that are traced to a particular sage only at five
points. Ecclesiastes, like most wisdom literature, identifies the
spokesman only once. The books of the Hebrew prophets are similar.
Oracles spoken on different occasions are often separated by a stock
formula, like "Thus says the LORD." But the book names the
particular spokesman only at the head of the collection (e.g., Hosea
and Micah) or at major seams (Isaiah, Amos, Habakkuk). The bulk of
these works was formed orally. But the strings of unrelated proverbs
and oracles without mention of setting or speaker are the product of a
A speaker does not need to introduce his own sayings. So all
settings are secondary. But speech is not bound to one setting.
A well-formed remark is remembered long after the
moment that forged it has been forgotten. A saying has a life
of its own. We do well if we can remember who originally said
it. And if we are not sure, we tend to credit a good saying to
someone whom we know said that sort of thing. Or else we simply
use it, without ascription.
So in oral tradition Jesus sayings could survive only if clearly
distinguished from the voice of the current speaker. Words can
be orally credited to someone else only in small clusters,
with the speaker specified. This is what we find in the gospel
of Thomas, where individual sayings are punctuated by the
monotonous formula: "Jesus said." Since Matthew and Luke
quote long strings of Q sayings without ascription, they
probably were dependent on the same written collection.
D7. Q was a collection of sayings without setting.
D8. Matthew and Luke knew Q in written form.
Bits and pieces.
Q was the written source of many Jesus sayings for Matthew and
Luke. There are similar works ascribed to prophets and sages in
the Hebrew scriptures and other ancient literature. And the
discovery of the gospel of Thomas confirms that collections of
Jesus sayings did circulate in early Christian communities.
But Matthew and Luke share more non-Markan material than just
strings of sayings ascribed to Jesus. Other common passages
|(1) Oracles of John the Baptist
|(2) Jesus tested by the devil
|(3) Jesus heals a Roman centurion's slave
|(4) John's disciples question Jesus
|(5) Jesus challenges prospective disciples
|(6) Jesus casts out a mute spirit
Passages (2)-(6) contain the only non-Markan narrative
common to Matthew and Luke. So, they appear out of place in a
collection of sayings with little or no hint of setting.
It also seems odd to find a work devoted to recording Jesus
sayings opening with pronouncements by someone else (1). All
four canonical gospels preface Jesus' public appearance with
oracles of John. But each clearly separates the message of John
from that of Jesus. Matthew and Luke, however, integrate these
non-Markan sayings of John so well into their revisions of
Mark's story of Jesus' baptism that it is not at all evident how
they were introduced previously.
Also, apart from the recurrence of John in passages (1) and (4),
there is no clear relation between these passages. At first
glance, they are a hodge-podge of unrelated material: a few
prophetic predictions (1), a mythic account of a hero's tests
(2), a story of a Jew curing a gentile (3), a string of
pronouncement stories about "following" (5), and a brief
allusion to an exorcism (6). These hardly seem to have come
from the same background, much less belong in Q.
One cannot rule out the possibility that Q had more stories that
we can no longer recover. But there is no evidence that it had
an extensive narrative framework. Matthew and Luke's dependence
on Mark pretty much rules this out. Each follows Mark's
story-line and revises it randomly. Their only extended
agreement in wording or sequence of narrative is
traceable to Mark. So, the source of Jesus sayings that both
insert into different places in Mark's outline could
hardly have had much narrative context of its own.
On the other hand, it is just as unlikely that Matthew and Luke
got these six passages from some source other than Q. The fact
that both writers use practically the same Greek wording and
arrange these passages in almost the same sequence shows that
their source was probably not oral. On the other hand, each item is so different that
they certainly were not part of a second unknown written
Thus, these passages are best seen as isolated pieces of
tradition that were inserted into Q at various stages in its
development. As a compilation of sayings, Q could easily be
expanded by insertions at almost any point. And the first item
is, after all, a string of unsituated sayings. The fact that
they are ascribed to John and not Jesus presents no problem.
Many ancient sayings collections were expanded periodically by
adding sayings from other sages or prophets (e.g., Proverbs and
Isaiah). And the gospels of Mark and John also open with
proclamations by John the Baptist.
Passages (2)-(5) are basically dialogues with minimal settings.
And (6) introduces sayings about demons. So, like the bulk of
Q, all are basically speech material. Dialogues are not
uncommon in collections of pronouncements. The book of Job
provides precedent for introducing the words of a Semitic sage
with a dialogue between God and Satan. And several prophetic
books insert occasional bits of dialogue and narrative between
long strings of oracles (e.g., Isaiah 6-8, Amos 7, Hosea 1-3).
Even the gospel of Thomas, which has no narrative interest,
includes several dialogues of various lengths (e.g., Thom 6,
13, 61, 99) and three pronouncement stories (Thom 22, 60, 100).
So, despite first impressions, none of the non-Markan passages
common to Matthew and Luke is really out of place in a
collection of Jesus sayings.
D9. Q had no sustained narrative.
D10. Q contained material other than Jesus sayings.
D11. Q resembled ancient wisdom and prophetic collections.
D12. Q was probably compiled in stages.
Overlaps and duplications.
The recognition of Q as a collection composed over a period of
time helps to solve the puzzle about sections common to Matthew
and Luke that overlap but go beyond Mark. The major passages
|(1) Preaching of John the Baptist
|(2) Jesus tested by the devil
|(3) Jesus accused of having a demon
|(4) Mission instructions
|(5) Jesus asked for a sign
In each passage Luke's wording is closer to Matthew than to
Mark. And in (2)-(5) Matthew and Luke present many of the same
sayings, not found in Mark. Such passages have prevented some
scholars from recognizing the existence of Q. For they seem to
contradict the general pattern of Matthew and Luke revising Mark
independently. Here Matthew and Luke share material they could
not have gotten from Mark. And their wording and logical
structure is too similar to dismiss as a chance oral or
But these passages do not prove that either Mark or Luke knew
Matthew. For the omissions and differences in Mark's version
are too great to indicate his dependence on the text of
Matthew. Luke's version shares more of Matthew's wording. But
his arrangement of the sayings in all passages except (1) is not
the same. And Luke locates (3)-(5) at different points than in
The pattern of similarities and differences between Matthew and
Luke indicates that they got these passages from Q. But the
question remains as to where Mark got his versions. Some
scholars have suggested that Mark may have known Q. But this
creates the problem of explaining why he omitted so much Q
material and gave a partial paraphrase of the rest. The
greatest obstacle to claiming Mark used Q is that his version of
Q passages is often simpler and, thus, probably more original.
The problem is solved, however, by recognizing Q and Mark as
independent records of oral tradition. Both knew some
of the same sayings, but not all. Mark's version is generally
shorter or rougher and, therefore, closer to oral form. Q's
clusters are more literary, being longer and often more
polished. Matthew and Luke had access to both sources in
written form and, so, tended to prefer Q's version of a passage
in their attempts to polish Mark. Sometimes this meant
replacing Mark's lines (1), other times supplementing them (2).
And occasionally Matthew or Luke used both versions, especially
with sayings recorded at different places in Mark and Q (3-5).
This accounts for the fact that Matthew or Luke sometimes
present two slightly different versions of the same saying.
Beside the clusters listed above, these gospels contain many
doublets of individual sayings. One version is
clearly dependent on Mark, while the other is probably based on
Q. This pattern of using Q material to improve or supplement
passages in Mark shows that both Matthew and Luke regarded it as
an important source of Jesus tradition.
D13. Q and Mark preserve variants of some of the same material.
D14. Q and Mark are independent witnesses to earlier oral tradition.
D15. Q is sometimes preferred to Mark.
Order and Edges.
The fact that Q and Mark sometimes present different versions of
the same sayings yields a lot more bits of Q material than found
simply by subtracting all Markan parallels from passages
common to Matthew and Luke. But it also presents a major
problem for trying to reconstruct the text of Q. For these
sayings often appear in quite different contexts in Matthew and
Luke. The question is: where did they originally belong in Q?
Did Matthew or Luke rearrange this Q material? Or did both?
This is not easy to answer on the basis of only two texts.
A closely related problem is the internal variation in clusters
of sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common. Often the
difference is simply a matter of sequence: one writer inverts
the order of material in the other (for instance, in
dialogue with the devil). At other points, one includes
material the other omits (see the comparison of Jesus' sermons,
before D6 above). Here the question is: was material added to Q
by one writer or omitted by the other? Or did both reshape Q by
adding here, cutting there, and transposing sayings to emphasize
Scholars generally grant that Matthew and Luke both remolded
the contents of Q to fit their own needs. So, before Q could be
reassembled the original order and extent of each Q saying had
to be determined case by case. The difficulty of discovering
the exact edges of the pieces of Q and how the whole jigsaw
puzzle fit together prevented scholars from venturing to publish
reconstructed texts until quite recently.
Fortunately, a general outline of Q is clear where Matthew and
Luke present common clusters in the same sequence.
Clarification of the fine points has been guided by research
into the way in which Matthew and Luke edit Mark. For an editor
probably treats two texts in much the same way.
Matthew generally follows Mark's wording and sequence but often
inserts material with the same theme to supplement or clarify
Mark's text. Sometimes he even rearranges sections of Mark to
create larger thematic clusters (see comparison of outlines of
parallels to Matt 7:28-9:26 above, before D2). This indicates
that Matthew gave priority to Mark's order but an even greater
priority to grouping material by topic. In some cases Matthew
weaves Q sayings into Mark's outline (e.g., the parables of the
mustard and leaven). In other cases Matthew presents a doublet:
one version of a saying based on Mark and the other on Q (see
the examples before D13). Since Matthew rearranged and
supplemented Mark in this way, he probably did the same to Q.
Luke, on the other hand, is often closer to Mark's wording and
sequence (see examples before D2 and
D4). At several points,
however, he omits passages from Mark. Some of these (the
parable of the mustard, for instance) are found in Luke's only
long digression from Mark's outline, classically dubbed the
"great insertion" (Luke 9:51-18:14). This block of material
intersperses strings of Q sayings with stories found only in
Luke (e.g., the parables of the Good Samaritan and Prodigal
Son). When Luke presents a Q parallel to a Markan saying in this
section, he does not use Mark's wording. On the contrary, he
often omits a Markan saying, if he has a parallel in Q.
Moreover, in the great insertion he does not try to weave
Q material into Mark's outline but presents it in a block. This
pattern of editing indicates that, as much as Luke respected the
text of Mark, he favored Q.
This has led current scholars to regard Luke's wording and
sequence as generally closer to Q than Matthew. There are some
exceptions, where Matthew's version of a passage is obviously
more original. And there are other passages where it is equally
obvious that both authors have reworked a Q saying, sometimes so
much that the original form is unclear. In a few places
scholars are still divided over whether a couple of verses
belong to Q or not. But these are the types of problems that
confront anyone who tries to reassemble fragments of any ancient
text. Research and debate on Q is bound to go on. But enough
consensus has been reached to present the public with a text
that two gospel writers considered a prime source for the
sayings of Jesus.
D16. Matthew and Luke adapt Q for their own use.
D17. Matthew tends to integrate Q with Mark.
D18. Luke tends to replace Mark with Q.
D19. Luke is generally closer to Q than Matthew.
D20. The complete text of Q is still uncertain.