Mahlon H. Smith
This essay was prepared for a
session of the Westar Institute focused on the question of what texts should
be published in a modern scholars' canon of early Christian sources.
1.1. Clarification of the Issue
(a) A matter of definition.
To a student of the gospels
who has worked for 40 some years with the hypothesis that the
authors of Matthew and Luke derived the bulk of their material from
sources---the gospel of Mark and a sayings
collection of unknown title that modern scholars conventionally
call "Q" ---the question of whether Q
belongs in the canon
of Christian scripture is not a moot issue.
- If Matthew, Mark and Luke
are "canonical" texts, and
- if by definition
"Q" indicates the source of the material common to Matthew and
Luke that is not based on Mark,
- then Q is, also by
definition, already essentially in the canon.
In expressly endorsing a fourfold
gospel, the greater church accepted what later scholars identified as
"Q" material into its canon of scripture.
(b) The consequence of
The only way now to exclude Q
from the New Testament canon would be to expurgate the gospels of
Matthew and Luke of all parallel passages that have no equivalent in
This, in effect, would eliminate from
the church’s scriptures more than half of the lines ascribed to Jesus in the
synoptic gospels, including 54 of the 90 sayings that the majority of the
Jesus Seminar has agreed derive from things that Jesus actually said. While
this would not totally silence the voice of Jesus it would severely muffle it
behind the din of ideologies that early Christians imposed upon him ---a
situation that only the most dogmatic apocalypticist would welcome.
To contemplate a canon without Q, in
effect, confines all but the shadow of Jesus of Nazareth to the grave. For
very little of his own distinctive outlook would have made enough of an
impression on his admirers to have survived him. If that were the case, there
would be good cause to doubt the historicity of claims that this particular
Galilean, who was executed ca. 30 CE, was raised from the dead. While not
every word of Q can be traced to Jesus himself, it is this corpus of sayings
that, more than anything else, challenges people it confronts to consider the
author of its extraordinary perspective on life and social interaction to be
still a vital force in history.
(c) Refocusing the issue.
of Q’s canonical status needs to be refined since there is no
dispute between between proponents and opponents of the Q hypothesis
on two points:
(1) "Q" refers to material
that is already canonical and
(2) this material is such important
evidence of Jesus that its exclusion from a Christian canon is not an
The only issues that still need to be
resolved to recognize Q as a legitimate canonical source are:
- whether the Q hypothesis is
dispensable or not;
- whether a reliable text of Q can
be isolated from material in Matthew and Luke, and
- whether a reconstructed text can
be treated as a canonical source.
(d) A matter of urgency.
publication of several reconstructions of Q has brought these
questions to the center of debate on the development of the Jesus
The first salvos
in a war of myths over Christian origins have already been fired./2/
The 1996 release of the first fascicle of Documenta Q
--- the monumental record of the result of years of collegial Q
scholarship --- insures that the question of Q’s status will be kept
alive in the public press for the next fifteen years or so./3/
The future of Q will
in effect be decided by the current public debate. Since the question of Q’s
canonical status has shifted from classrooms and scholarly journals to the
marketplace, it can no longer be viewed as just an academic theory that is a
matter of private opinion. It is as much a scientific description of phenomena
that confront average people every day as Galileo’s solar system, Newton’s
gravity, Darwin’s evolution or Einstein’s relativity. Whether the Q
hypothesis, like these, comes to be generally accepted as the most plausible
explanation of observable facts or is rejected as arcane speculation depends
on public demonstration
- that it is generally accepted by
most experts, and
- that it works better than other
This task cannot be postponed, since
the fate of objective biblical scholarship is at stake.
(e) The issue of
was founded as a public forum of scholars dedicated to promoting
religious literacy, it has a constitutional responsibility to provide
informed leadership on this issue.
Our responsibility is all the
greater since many of the
most visible proponents of Q were among the earliest active Fellows of
the Jesus Seminar. Critics of the Seminar have tried to discredit its
conclusions by claiming they are based on an unprovable fiction called
Q. Silence or indecision on the Q question, therefore, would only
convince a poorly informed public that this allegation is correct.
In making pronouncements about the
status of Q, however, it must be clear that Westar is acting
as a democratic forum of well-informed research to promote an increased level
of public clarity on Christian origins, rather than as a self-appointed
magisterium dictating what hypotheses scholars must teach in the classroom or
what texts are to be read in church. As educators, we treasure freedom of
debate as much as anybody. We would not accept a syllabus set by somebody
whose authority we did not grant. Yet, as educators, we know the benefit of
bibliographies produced by expert scholars and we ourselves regularly provide
our students with required reading lists. The variety of canons of sacred
scripture that have been published throughout Christian history are just such
lists. The task that faces us here is to identify the primary ancient sources
that we think are essential to know for a clear understanding of the historical
origins of Christianity. Should Q be part of a scholars' canon?
Westar's only authority rests on
public perception of a scholarly consensus reached through an open debate that
allows all opinions a fair hearing. As in the voting on Jesus’ sayings and
deeds, a Westar decision on Q’s place in the canon cannot prevent any Fellow
from expressing personal insights that differ from the majority position, or
from challenging particular reconstructions of Q and interpretations of the
social history that generated it. But a series of votes to test our current
consensus would clarify the substantive issues and could advance the
canonization of Q in the public mind.
1.2. Formulation of the argument.
(a) Type of question.
status of Q is quite different than deciding the fate of the gospels
of Thomas or Peter or Egerton. In these cases there was discovery of a
physical document that had not previously been considered canonical.
These texts were apparently regarded
as marginal by the Christian majority in antiquity, ceased to be copied and,
thus, influenced no one until a few surviving fragments were unearthed in
recent years. Ironically, it is relatively easy to convince the modern public
of the importance of this type of material evidence, witness the almost
universal acceptance of the explicitly esoteric Dead Sea Scrolls in current
reconstructions of the social history of the second Jewish Commonwealth.
The status of Q is, rather, a matter
of the state of scientific excavation of texts that have long been canonized.
Here public recognition of progress in interpreting the facts is bound to be
much slower. For there is an inherent intellectual inertia that resists
altering customary patterns of viewing and handling familiar tools, which is
magnified when the tools are considered sacred rather than utilitarian
(witness: the reluctance of many to accept any English translation of the
Bible other than the King James Version).
Here, as in the case of Darwin’s
theory of evolution, the canonicity of a discovery needs to be measured by its
ability to convince a smaller sampling of specialists and educated laity
rather than by the popular opinions of those who fail to do their homework. It
took 138 years for a pope to recognize that there is enough evidence to show
that evolution is "more than just a hypothesis." Since pious
opinions about sacred scripture are often confused with infallible dogma, it
will take somewhat longer for the average Christian to come to the same
conclusion about Q. There will always be those who regard the earth as flat on
the basis of casual personal observation. When closer scientific examination
with more precise instruments establishes evidence that it is not, the prior
opinion cannot be considered authoritative, no matter how ancient or
widespread or obvious it may seem.
(b) Scientific method.
question of what is canonical for well-informed modern scriptural
research cannot be resolved by the criterion of universal consensus,
a second criterion invoked to set the boundaries of the New Testament
---antiquity- -- can.
As in any scientific investigation,
here it is the age of the material itself rather than the theory that is
important. The antiquity of any matter is not established by common opinion or
its current superficial appearance but by repeatable tests that
indicate its probable position relative to other datable objects. The naked
eye of an untrained reader probably will not immediately discern the residue
of an ancient collection of Jesus sayings (Q) in a casual reading of Matthew
and Luke; but that does not mean it is not there. If tests demonstrating the
relationship of the synoptic texts can continue to convince skeptics that two
authors had independent access to a collection of sayings that was not
utilized by the third, then the existence of Q can be held to have been
scientifically established, regardless of what people who disregard those
(c) The burden of proof.
In cases of
scientific judgment there is always room for re-analysis and
adjustment of conclusions on the basis of more comprehensive or more
in research the demonstrable results of one set of tests are generally
accepted until further investigation proves that they are flawed.
In any area of scientific
investigation, a hypothesis does not have to be established beyond all
question to be considered the norm. It merely has to prove more workable than
other available options. Once a theory is established as the dominant working
hypothesis among experts the burden of proof shifts to those who challenge it.
Thus, if Q has become the normative theory among trained synoptic
specialists -- as claimed by proponents and critics alike ---, then it has
already been canonized and it is the dissenters who are in the position of
challenging the current canon of scholarship./4/
regular and frequent reference to Q in standard NT textbooks,
professional journals, monographs on the gospels and international
academic forums it is easy to declare the canonization of Q a fait
that would neither dispense with the objections of skeptics nor settle
the issue of whether a current reconstruction of the Q text could
claim canonical status. Fortunately, since it is plain that the
contents of Q are canonical and it has been an established
element of the dominant working hypothesis among synoptic scholars for
more than a century, it is not necessary to rehearse the case for the
existence of Q here nor to dispense with every conceivable objection.
All one has to do is demonstrate that skeptics and critics of the Q
hypothesis have not yet presented a strong enough case to eliminate Q
from the scholarly canon.
To respond to challenges to a long
established academic doctrine like Q, the dialectical format of the medieval
scholastic disputed question is more efficient than the modern pattern of
arguing a thesis. Instead of constructing an intellectual position that
invites attack, the quaestio format effectively puts skeptics on the
defensive by opening with their line of objections and then exposing the
weakness of each. One refinement on the traditional quaestio is in
order here, however. Rather than counter-balance lists of objections and
rebuttals, objections will be dispensed with one by one, somewhat like the
catalog of antitheses in Matthew 5. This method is adopted here with a bit of
deliberate historical irony, since J. J. Griesbach used the antithetical
scheme of objection/reply in his Commentatio of 1790 to respond to
critics of his suggestion that the synoptic problem could be solved by what
was then an almost totally novel hypothesis: that Mark had edited Matthew and
Critics argue that Q cannot be
considered canonical since at least two other hypotheses --- the
Augustinian and Griesbach --- are older and better supported by early
external testimony about the composition of the gospels./6/
theories of Augustine and Griesbach were proposed prior to the Two
Source hypothesis, their authors accepted without question the
patristic tradition that Matthew, as eyewitness testimony, was written
dismissed the then novel (1786) insight of his student Gottlob
Christian Storr that Matthew and Luke had edited Mark with this
argument: "Now it is inconceivable that Matthew, an eyewitness (testem
oculatum), chose as his guide for handing on the story of Christ a
writer who had not been present at the events themselves."/7/
Griesbach, however, never bothered to show that the extant Greek
gospel of Matthew actually represented "eye-witness"
testimony of an author who had personally seen and heard Jesus.
He simply echoed a tradition traceable to Greek Christian
writers of the 2nd c. CE. Such an uncritical blind spot was uncharacteristic of
this historically sophisticated scholar who just a few paragraphs
earlier claimed the unanimous patristic witness of Papias, Justin,
Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Jerome, etc. that
Mark transcribed the words of Peter -- not Matthew -- "has to be a
guess." (habendas esse coniecturis)./8/
Well before the end
of the nineteenth century, the theories of Augustine and Griesbach had been
abandoned by most western synoptic scholars in favor of Markan priority
precisely because Matthean priority did not account for the internal
evidence of the gospels as well. J. J. Griesbach’s views were resurrected in
revised form only in 1964 in Wm. Farmer’s critique of Markan priority. The
Augustinian position, while still favored by evangelical bible schools and
other conservatives, has had little support among critically trained
scholars since 1783 when Griesbach effectively created the synoptic problem by
pointing out that the traditional position did not adequately account for Mark’s
relation to Luke./9/ Griesbach himself did not
pretend to justify his own hypothesis on the basis of patristic tradition. But
later disciples have sought to justify his alternate "solution"
against the ascendant Markan hypothesis with an even less critical acceptance
of the opinion of Clement of Alexandria that the gospels with genealogies were
written first./10/ Current support for
the Griesbach or Augustinian hypotheses comes primarily from scholars
concerned to validate patristic testimony as reliable historical reminiscence
and not --- as Griesbach himself held --- pious speculations "which are
today rejected by most scholars."/11/
Yet, the antiquity
and reliability of these patristic reports need to be proven before
they can be accepted as historical evidence of anything more than the beliefs
of those who reported them./12/ Second-hand
testimony, which is weak historical evidence at best, is diminished when found
only in documents composed a century or more after the events reported, and is
almost totally worthless when it can be easily falsified by primary texts ---
as is the case here.
(1) Was Luke composed
Far from being an ancient
tradition, the notion that the gospels with genealogies and birth
accounts were composed before those without is an isolated statement
in a single text that had no widespread currency before the late
"testimony" credited to Clement of Alexandria (before 215
CE) is actually an indirect allusion by Eusebius of Caesarea
(ca. 350 CE) to a passage in a no longer extant work that
is alleged --- by whom is uncertain --- to be "a tradition of
the original elders." /13/ Which
elders at the origin of what is not specified. Also, Eusebius’
language leaves the nature of this "insertion" unclear
(quotation from a lost source? parenthetical aside? popular rumor?).
Even if one assumes
- that Eusebius was himself
accurately citing a written text and
- that its ascription to Clement was
authentic (neither of which can be proven, of course),
there is, in fact, no external
evidence that this off-hand allegation of the priority of Matthew and Luke
was actually known by anybody before Clement wrote it or endorsed by any
ancient author after he did. Moreover,
since this passage does not specify the order of composition of Matthew
and Luke and expressly claims that Mark copied the words of Peter rather
than either of the other synoptics, much less both, it hardly supports the the
weight of the Griesbach-Farmer hypothesis./14/
Griesbach was the
first to claim explicitly that Luke wrote second. But this sequence is
undermined by Luke’s own assertion (1:1) that "many" (polloi)
had written before him, unless one assumes that Luke knew at least two
sources that are now lost. Since Luke’s testimony is internal to
the gospels it must be accorded historical priority over Clement’s isolated
opinion, which apparently no one except Eusebius valued until Griesbach’s
disciples resurrected it more than fifteen centuries later.
(2) Was Matthew
Testimony that Matthew was
written first is more widespread in patristic sources and was
certainly well-known by the third century. Yet records of this claim
are neither as universal nor as ancient or clear as generally
The only patristic
voice before 180 CE to record a claim of Matthean priority was Papias
of Hieropolis (d. ca. 138 CE) --- according to Eusebius of Caesarea,
that is, who quotes (ca. 350 CE) this vague one-line assertion from
Papias’ no longer extant five volume exegesis of the sayings
(logia) of Jesus: "So Matthew arranged the sayings
(logia) in the Hebrew dialect, and each translated (or
interpreted) them as he could."/15/ Papias
did not claim that Matthew wrote any story of Jesus’
birth, baptism, miracles, passion or resurrection; on the contrary,
his choice of words describes the act of compiling a sayings
collection like Q rather than composing a narrative gospel like
As far as we can tell, Irenaeus of
Lyons (ca. 190) was the first to equate Papias' testimony with a
"gospel" of Matthew./16/ Yet
the nature of this "gospel" is uncertain, since (a) it is presented
as a parallel to the oral "preaching" of Peter and Paul and (b) the
contents are left unspecified. In antiquity a written "gospel" could
be anything from a sayings collection (like Thomas) to a compilation of
independent anecdotes (like Signs) to a connected biographical narrative (like
Luke) to a theological treatise (like the Valentinian "Gospel of
Truth"). So it cannot be taken for granted that the "gospel"
Irenaeus refers to was coextensive with the contents of canonical Matthew.
Origen’s Commentary on Matthew (ca.
250) is the first patristic text that clearly identifies this primitive
Matthean composition with the contents of the canonical gospel of the same
name by identifying the author as a toll collector./17/ Yet
neither these authors nor Eusebius equate this reputedly first apostolic
composition with the extant Greek text of canonical Matthew, since all
of them insist that that author wrote in a Hebraic dialect./18/
one takes this evidence at face value, then canonical Matthew is at best a
translation or---given the priority of Papias --- a completely revised
Hellenistic version of this "Hebrew" source. For it is virtually inconceivable
that the Matthean stories of Jesus’ conception and temptation were composed
in any language other than Greek. /19/If
there ever was a primordial Semitic text ascribed to Matthew---as these
four Greek fathers claim---it was not identical with our
canonical gospel text and it was lost. Thus, far from confirming the
priority of canonical Matthew, these citations are solid evidence that
many texts known to early
Christians were lost;
the Greek text of Matthew
is a derivative work; and
there was a primitive
gospel source that is no longer extant.
2.2. Non-extant sources.
Skeptics argue that Q cannot
be regarded as "canonical" since there is no need to posit a
hypothetical lost sayings source. Competent synoptic scholars can
better resolve the synoptic problem by hypotheses based only on extant
non-existent sources is certainly unwarranted when extant documents
and normal redactional tendencies can explain all the features of a
text or texts. But that is not the case with the synoptic gospels.
Augustinian tradition that Mark got his material from Matthew and Luke
got his material from both accounted for the details of those texts
Griesbach would never have thought to propose a revised sequence.
Likewise, if Griesbach’s hypothesis provided a
satisfactory explanation of textual data, that hypothesis would have
become dominant and the theory of Markan priority, which cannot appeal
to any ancient tradition, would never have attracted wide support.
In fact, however, proponents of
almost all synoptic hypotheses from Papias to followers of William Farmer have
found it necessary to posit the existence of proto-texts that are no longer
extant. Whether it is a Hebrew logia collection (Papias) or Greek Q (most 20th
c. scholars), an Ur-gospel (Lessing) or proto-Mark (Holtzmann) or proto-Luke
(Streeter) or proto-Matthew (Parker, Sanders, etc.) is not relevant here.
Scholars on all sides of the synoptic problem repeatedly have found that the
extant Greek texts of the synoptics are not mutually self-explanatory but
indicate some source(s) for which there is no surviving unredacted exemplar.
Even William Farmer, who spearheaded
the current assault on the two-source hypothesis by rejecting any appeal to a
hypothetical document eventually admitted:
"There is nothing wrong with
hypothecating the existence of an otherwise unknown source or sources if
there exists evidence that is best explained thereby." /20/
reluctant recognition that Luke’s form of a saying is sometimes more
pristine than Matthew’s led him to admit "the necessity of positing the
existence of collections of ‘sayings material’ behind Matthew and
Luke."/21/ Eventually, he went so
far as to posit the existence of lost written sources behind every
"The Two-Gospel Hypothesis
does not require the critic to deny the existence of earlier sources used by
the evangelists, written and/or oral...Thus, according to the
Two-Gospel Hypothesis, Matthew wrote first, making extensive use of existing
sources (oral and written). Luke wrote second, making extensive use
of both Matthew and extensive use of other source material (oral and
written). Mark composed his Gospel making extensive use of both Matthew
and Luke with a limited use of other source material (oral and
This passage shows
that, contrary to proponents’ claims, the Griesbach-Farmer
hypothesis---the chief rival of the Q hypothesis in current American
scholarship---is not simpler but far more complex. Instead of positing a single
missing written source containing all the passages common to Matthew and
Luke but absent in Mark, proponents of this self-styled Two Gospel hypothesis
have to posit at least two "extensive" lost written sources (one for
Matthew and one for non-Matthean parts of Luke) and a third more
"limited" one (to account for material unique to Mark). In admitting
that Matthew used a written source that is no longer extant, Farmer conceded
the indispensability of the Q hypothesis in form if not in detail. The major
difference between his theory and the prevailing view is that Q can be objectively
reconstructed from passages common to two extant texts, while the
contours of Farmer’s hypothetical missing sources --- like those in other
theories --- are defined largely by the individual scholar’s speculations
about the redactional history of each gospel. The litmus test that determines
whether such a theory is really superior to Q is this: would it receive wide
interest or support from scholars, if there were no ancient tradition of
Matthean primacy that a conservative audience was eager to defend?
2.3. Overlaps and minor agreements.
Q cannot be considered canonical because there is ample evidence that
Luke knew and used the text of canonical Matthew. If this is the
case, then the Q hypothesis is indeed dispensable. To support
this claim they point to:
- overlaps between Markan and
"Q" material and
- identical wording in the Matthean
and Lukan versions of a triple tradition passage not paralleled in Mark.
of a hypothesis depends on its ability to predict the preponderance
of evidence. In a world of concrete material phenomena one can find
exceptions to any rule or definition proposed by the human mind, if
one looks deep enough.
But the law of
gravity was not repealed simply because it did not explain all the
behavior of matter at the submicroscopic level; nor were the
definitions of mammal and bird discarded with the discovery of a
platypus. Nor are rules of spelling and grammar abandoned even though
abnormalities are easy to find in everyday speech or writing. Rules
and definitions remain in force when they provide the most practical
description of the normal behavior of phenomena.
Such is the case with Q. While
critics can call attention to several passages in Greek manuscripts where the
text of Matthew and Luke contains some identical wording that is not
found in any extant copy of Mark, it remains true that there is no general
pattern of verbal agreement between Matthew and Luke against Mark in the
triple tradition. It is a demonstrable fact in passage after passage that the
Greek text of Mark is the mediating term in verbal agreements with
either or both of the other synoptics. The converse is also demonstrable:
where Matthew and Luke differ from the wording of Mark in the triple tradition
they also usually differ from each other.
The fact that these clear patterns
represent the norm in pericope after pericope is what continues to persuade
the majority of each generation of synoptic scholars that
- Matthew and Luke depend on Mark
rather than vice versa and
- Luke does not depend on
material in Matthew (or vice-versa).
The latter conclusion is confirmed by
- the sheer amount of non-Markan
material in Matthew that is not contained in Luke (and vice versa),
- the number of instances in which
shared non-Markan material is presented in a different place in the
It is this preponderance of
differences between Matthew and Luke in substance as well as style that is
decisive here. If there is direct literary dependence between the
synoptic gospels -- as most scholars concede --, the only way to dispense with
Q is to demonstrate that Luke is better explained as an edited
version of Matthew./23/ Yet providing a
detailed coherent explanation of why Luke deleted, rearranged and
generally rewrote Matthew is a Herculean task that no rival hypothesis has yet
accomplished to the satisfaction of the majority of synoptic scholars./24/
The theory of
Austin Farrer, now championed by Michael Goulder --- that Luke also knew and
valued the text of Mark ---, would account for Luke’s general pattern of
abandoning Matthean constructions in most of the triple tradition. But it does
not provide a cogent explanation of Luke’s retention of an occasional
inconsequential Matthean word or phrase in a passage that otherwise is closer
to Mark. It may explain the handful of pericopes where the substance of Luke’s
text is closer to Matthew than to Mark./25/ But
the Farrer-Goulder thesis does not provide a convincing explanation of
- Luke regularly departs from
Matthew where Mark has no parallel and
- Luke dismantles Matthew’s
speeches of Jesus only to record many of the excised fragments in one lump
--- the so-called "great insertion" --- with no discernable
If Luke knew Matthew, then in
most cases he thought Matthean material needed to be reworked. If,
as he alleges (1:1-2), he was trying "to compose an orderly account"
(anataxthai diegesin) based on the "tradition" (paradosis)
of those who were "the original eye-witnesses" (ap’ arches
autoptai), and "ministers of the word," then his reasons for
replacing the monumental monologues in Matthew --- of all sources ---
with a thematically chaotic travelogue of his own design remain inscrutable.
Indeed, one need only consult a standard synopsis outline to recognize that
the mechanics of composing the core of Luke (ch. 10-18) without any prior
template, out of original material and random bits the author deletes from
Matthean passages --- both before and after this point in the narrative ---
are mind-boggling, even in the age of modern computerized word processors.
Even skeptics grant that the real
strength of the Q hypothesis lies in its ability to account for this section
of Luke, and the sequence of double-tradition passages in general, more simply
than any other redactional theory./26/ Compared
with the problems other hypotheses have in accounting for the literary
differences between Matthew and Luke, the instances of their agreement against
Mark are minor indeed. The few substantive parallels are most simply viewed as
evidence of Markan and Q versions of a common oral tradition similar to the
occasional overlaps between John and the synoptics. Incidental verbal
coincidences are easily explained by any of four facts:
- as the least polished and most
problematic of the synoptics, Mark invited emendation by later scribes in
matters of grammar, style and content;
- rhetorical patterns of a living
oral tradition influenced ancient scribes’ reproduction of texts;
- later scribes tended to harmonize
synoptic texts; and
- the original manuscripts of all
the synoptics probably differed from modern reconstructions in some
Only if it could be
demonstrated that the prototypes of Matthew and Luke displayed
extensive substantial agreement against Mark would there be good grounds for
rejecting the Q hypothesis. But that is virtually impossible. Moreover, as
Christopher Tuckett has pointed out, the non-Markan minor agreements and
overlaps in Matthew and Luke represent a two-edged sword that is more lethal
to the Griesbach hypothesis than it is to Q./27/ For
if Mark epitomized Matthew and Luke by concentrating on reproducing
only their common material, then it is inexplicable why he would have
altered or eliminated passages and phrasing that are identical in both.
Thus, far from being twin
"Achilles heels" of Q, as E. P. Sanders has suggested, the minor agreements
and few overlaps are actually a Trojan horse that subverts rival
hypotheses./28/ More than a century after
they were first noted consensus on the Q hypothesis is greater than ever,
while remaining skeptics are divided and in disarray, launching alternate
solutions to the synoptic problem, not one of which, Sanders concludes is
3.1. Verbal disagreement.
that Q cannot be considered a canonical text since there is not
enough verbal agreement between parallel non-Markan passages in
Matthew and Luke to prove that these sayings ever existed in written
form before these two authors recorded them.
skepticism about invisible objects has kept many scholars who
were convinced by concrete evidence that Mark was the first of the
synoptics from immediately accepting the hypothesis that Q was
a written document---myself included.
But it has not, in the long run, prevented the persistence of that
judgment as the eventual conclusion of most synoptic specialists.
The fact that Matthew and Luke do not
generally preserve extensive verbatim parallels should neither be ignored nor
obscured in any description of Q. But this is even more a problem for
champions of the Griesbach hypothesis, who claim Luke copied Matthew, than it
is for proponents of Q, who can demonstrate in the triple tradition that where
Matthew is not verbally dependent on Mark, Luke is, and vice-versa.
Before the invention of mechanical
means of reproducing documents, complete word for word agreement between any
two texts is the exception rather than the rule, and where it occurs it is
rarely sustained for more than a few lines. Hand copying invites alteration,
whether it be accidental errors or conscious emendation. For to be reproduced
one written text had to pass through the womb of a human mind other than that
of the author. Thus, variant wording is the
norm at all levels of the transmission of gospel manuscripts. And
verbal variation is inevitably greater when the second scribe is not just a
clerk but an author intent on publishing his own version of the evidence ---
as is the case in the gospels.
So, verbal variation
is no proof that Q was not a text. The wording of Matthew and Luke’s
versions of triple tradition passages diverges enough to obscure a literary
relationship, unless compared to Mark. In fact, it is harder to use Matthew
and Luke to reconstruct the text of Mark than Q. If Mark is indisputably a
text, Q is even more so./30/ For these
gospels have greater agreement in their presentation of the double tradition
-- in both wording and structure --than in their treatment of the triple
Q was obviously composed of small
blocks of material that originally circulated orally. But the lack of
sustained oral mnemonic devices to combine these blocks of Q tradition in
Matthew and Luke indicates that it reached them in written form./31/
Q cannot be considered a canonical text since even Q specialists
disagree about what materials this hypothetical source originally
Today there is
greater consensus than ever among synoptic scholars about the contours
of Q. Its general boundaries are defined objectively by non-Markan
parallels in Matthew and Luke, with additions limited to
- six triple tradition passages in
which Matthew and Luke’s wording displays substantial agreement against
- single tradition passages framed
by or next to Q material in one of the gospels.
Single-tradition pericopes beyond the
border of the double tradition are few and generally restricted to units with
obvious stylistic and/or thematic echoes of the adjacent section of Q.
Scholarly debate about the internal tradition history of the Q material does
not disturb this consensus, since Q is by definition the version of the text
known to Matthew and Luke. Current scholarly debate about the contours of this
document Q is no greater than disagreement about the original ending of Mark.
Uncertainty about whether Mark originally ended at 16:8 or 16:20 or somewhere
else has not kept it out of the canon, so questions about Q’s contours
should present no obstacle to canonizing it.
3.3. Arbitrary contents.
that a reconstructed text of Q cannot be considered canonical since it
depends upon modern scholars' arbitrary preferences for one reading or
another in determining the original text.
Bible is a mammoth reconstruction from variant manuscripts by trained
scholars. It always was; it always will be.
The task of reconstructing Q from
existing texts of Matthew and Q is not qualitatively different from that of
producing the text of any gospel from the extant manuscript tradition.
Determining whether Matthew or Luke better represents the original is no more
arbitrary than deciding whether the Egyptian, Byzantine or Western recension
represents the oldest version of a particular passage. In each case objective
criteria are employed to determine the version that is most likely to be
There is no claim to historical
infallibility in determining the contents of the canonical text. Alternate
versions can and do favor variant readings of the same passage. A verse or
phrase or word that was excluded from one version may be reintroduced in a
revision; an element that had long been included may be later suppressed as a
corruption. Yet each version is equally canonical, tentative passages and all.
In other words, the concept of canon
was never meant to define a single immutable text that can claim to be
identical with the original autograph. Rather, it has always been a functional
concept defining what is recognized as the textus receptus at this
point in time. It is a fact that every current canonical gospel is a
reconstruction that is not identical with any single ancient manuscript./32/
If a modern reconstruction of Matthew, Mark and Luke can
claim to be canonical, so can a modern reconstruction of Q.
Thus, Q should be included in any
scholars' canon of early Christian sources. Even those people who continue to
doubt that such a text circulated prior to the composition of Matthew and Luke
should find it a useful tool for identifying elements of the synoptic
tradition that were not included in Mark. Whatever hypothesis
one adopts to explain the literary relationship of the synoptic gospels, Q
remains an essential source of information about the historical development of
the Jesus tradition.
English editions of Q include those by J. Kloppenborg (Q Parallels,
Q-Thomas Reader), A. Jacobson (The First Gospel), B. Mack (The
Lost Gospel, pp. 71-102), M.Borg (The Lost Gospel Q, pp. 33-118)
and Westar Institute’s Scholars Bible translation panel (The Complete
Gospels, pp. 249-300). Earlier J. D. Crossan outlined a skeletal sequence
of Q passages in an appendix to his study of Jesus’ aphorisms (In
Fragments, pp. 342-345). .
Anyone who doubts what is at stake should read the counter-alarms sounded in
the epilogues of recent books by B.L. Mack (Lost Gospel, pp. 245-258)
and W.R. Farmer (The Gospel of Jesus, pp. 197-201). .
The recent article by Charlotte Allen "The
Search for a No-Frills Jesus" [Atlantic Monthly 278,6 (Dec
1996) pp. 51-68] is an example of public coverage of scholarly debate over Q
that should be required reading for journalists and lay people alike.
"In one form or another, this hypothesis has been accepted by most
scholars" (H. Koester Ancient Christian Gospels, p. 129).
"The dominant theory in the scholarly community" (S.C. Carlson
Problem Home Page: Synoptic Theories, Hypotheses and Models ---
despite his own preference for a proto-Matthew rather than Q).
Commentatio qua Marci Evangelium totum e Matthaei et Lucae commentariis
decerptum esse monstratur 3 (Orchard & Longstaff, ed. Griesbach
Studies, pp. 83-100; ET pp. 114-133 by J. B. Orchard). Griesbach did not
acknowledge the similarity of his position to earlier proposals of Henry Owen
(1766); these were first pointed out in 1826 by his former student, W. M. L. de
Wette (B. Reicke, "Griesbach’s answer to the Synoptic Question,"
p. 61 in Griesbach Studies).
For a comprehensive outline of various solutions to the synoptic problem with
lists of scholarly support visit Stephen C. Carlson’s
Problem Home Page.
Commentatio 3.5 (p. 88 in Griesbach Studies; ET by J. B. Orchard,
Commentatio 3.1 (p. 86 in Griesbach Studies; ET by J. B. Orchard,
Kummel, W. G. NT: History of Investigation, p. 75. Only three 20th c.
critics are on record as endorsing the Augustinian position without
qualification: Jameson (1923), Butler (1951) and J. Wehnam (1992). See,
Problem Home Page: Theories.
W. M. L. de Wette appears to be the first to have alluded to Clement to
support Griesbach in his Introduction to the NT (6th ed., 1860):
"According to ecclesiastical traditions, Mark wrote his book later than
the other two" (cited by B. Reicke, "Griesbach’s answer to the
Synoptic Question," in Griesbach Studies [ed. Orchard &
Longstaff], p. 62). But W.R. Farmer is largely responsible for invoking
"the tradition of the church" and Clement in particular to win
conservative Christian support for his championship of Griesbach (compare the
brief passing notices to Clement in The Synoptic Problem [1964; pp. 1,
8, 282] with the priority given this evidence in "The Two Gospel
Hypothesis" [1990; pp. 125-130 in D. L. Dungan, ed., Interrelations of
the Gospels] and The Gospel of Jesus [1994; pp. 15-18].
3.1 (Griesbach Studies, p. 84; ET 115). W. B. Farmer defends his
preference for the Griesbach hypothesis thus: "advocates of the
Two-Gospel hypothesis are prepared to argue that this hypothesis affords theologians
and preachers a more adequate avenue to the earliest layer of the synoptic
tradition, a more adequate avenue to New Testament christology, and a more
adequate avenue to Church history." ("Two Document Hypothesis"
in D. L.Dungan, ed., Interrelations of the Gospels, p. 147; italics
Contrary to W. R. Farmer who claims "the burden of proof in this matter,
in any case, rests upon the critic who would discount this tradition as having
no historical value" ("The Two Gospel Hypothesis," p.
"And in the same books [Hypotyposeis 6] Clement has inserted (tetheitai)
a tradition of the original (anekathen) elders regarding the order of
the gospels in this fashion: he said that those gospels that contain
genealogies were written first." (Church History 6.14.5). [Cited
as Farmer’s introduction to "The Two Gospel Hypothesis," in Dungan,
Interrelations, p. 125 and misrepresented as Clement’s own words]. .
Eusebius contrasts Clement’s vague suggestion about Matthew and Luke’s
composition with a detailed quotation of his testimony about Mark "...but
[he said] that the gospel of Mark was arranged (oikonomia) thus: ‘When
Peter preached the word to the people in Rome...those who were present called
upon Mark, as someone who followed him for a long time and remembered the
things (he) said, to record (his) sayings...’ So much for
Clement." (Church History 6.14.6-7). The Greek syntax of this
sentence implies the parenthetical pronouns not required by the passive
participial construction of the last two verbs. .
Church History 3.39.16.
"Now Matthew also published a written gospel among the Hebrews in
their own tongue" [quoted by Eusebius (Church History 5.8.2)].
"That according to Matthew ---who was once a tax-collector and later an
apostle of Christ --- was written first. As it was composed in the Hebrew
language, he published it for those from Judaism who became believers."
(again cited by Eusebius Church History 3.31.6). The subject of the
synoptic story of a tax-collector turned disciple is called
"Matthew" only in Matt. 9.9.
"Matthew, who first preached to the Hebrews; as he was going to go to
others transmitted in writing in his native language the gospel
according to himself" (Eusebius Church History 3.24.6).
The underlying logic of Mtt 1:18-23 that demonstrates Jesus’ birth literally
fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) of the child born of a "virgin"
presupposes the LXX translation of the Hebrew alma as parthenos Also,
Jesus’ responses to the tempter (Matt 4:4,6,10) are virtually verbatim
excerpts from the LXX version of Deuteronomy; and it is Mark who uses
the Hebraic ha Satan in this and other scenes, while Matthew
regularly prefers the Greek diabolos. .
"A Fresh Approach to Q," in J. Neusner, ed. Christianity, Judaism
and Other Greco-Roman Cults,p. 46n4 (cited by A.D. Jacobson, First
Gospel, p. 17n38).
"A Fresh Approach to Q," p. 46n4 (cited by A.D. Jacobson, First
Gospel, p. 18). .
"Two Gospel Hypothesis," p. 132 (italics mine).
Luke’s explicit claim to be writing to set the record straight in the face
of other reports (1:1-4) makes the hypothesis that Matthew edited Luke
Graham Stanton notes (Gospel Truth?, pp. 70-71): "scholars who
claim that Luke has used Matthew must accept that it is always Luke
who has changed Matthew's earlier form of the tradition. Their attempts to
defend this view often look like special pleading." Michael Goulder's Luke:
a New Paradigm (1989) has not yet converted many synoptic scholars to the
view that Luke's version of the double tradition is an edited version of
Matthew's. It is still too early to assess the achievement of the recently
published volume Beyond the Q Impasse - Luke's Use of Matthew (ed. by
A. J. McNicol et al, Valley Forge PA: Trinity Press International,
1996). Future editions of this essay will take that selection of studies and
Mark Goodacre's recent Goulder & the Gospels: An Examination of the
New Paradigm (JSNT Supplement 133; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,
1996) into account.
In only six passages is Luke substantially closer to Matthew than Mark: the
message of John the baptizer, the testing of Jesus in the wilderness, the
Beelzebul controversy, Jesus’ mission instructions to his disciples, the
sign of Jonah and the parable of the mustard seed. In doublets, where either
Matthew or Luke present two versions of the same material one is usually
closer to Mark. .
E.g., E. P. Sanders and Margaret Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels,
pp. 66, 114. .
The Revival of the Griesbach Hypothesis, pp. 64-75. .
Studying the Synoptic Gospels, p. 79. .
Studying the Synoptic Gospels, p. 112. For an on-line analysis of
problems raised by leading source hypotheses (Augustinian, Griesbach,
Farrer-Goulder, and Two Source) in accounting for literary details of the
texts of Matthew, Mark and Luke see my Synoptic
J. S. Kloppenborg (Formation of Q, pp. 43-44) cites Carlston and Norlin’s
cautious conclusion from their extensive statistical comparison of Q and
Markan passages in Matthew and Luke: "[Our samplings] are surely large
enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that Matthew and Luke used Q, as
far as wording of their material is concerned, at least as conservatively as
they used Mark. There seems to be no reasonable explanation of this phenomenon
except a second written source for Matthew and Luke."
J. S. Kloppenborg, Formation of Q, p. 44-51.
See R. W. Funk, Honest to Jesus, pp. 94-120 for a recent survey of
the process and problems of producing a canonical text.
Allen, Charlotte. "The
Search for a No-Frills Jesus" The Atlantic Monthly 278,6 (Dec
1996) pp. 51-68.
Bellinzoni, Arthur J. The Two
Source Hypothesis: A Critical Appraisal. Mercer University Press, 1985..
Borg, Marcus. The Lost Gospel Q:
The Original Sayings of Jesus. Berkeley CA: Ulysses Press, 1996.
Dungan, David L., The
Interrelations of the Gospels: A Symposium. Mercer University Press, 1990.
Eusebius. The Ecclesiastical
History (Loeb Classical Library) . vol. 1. (ET by K. Lake) & 2 (ET by
J. E. L. Oulton). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1926, 1932.
Farmer, William R. The Gospel of
Jesus: the Pastoral Relevance of the Synoptic Problem. Louisville, KY:
Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
_____, The Synoptic Problem:
a Critical Analysis. New York: Macmillan Company, 1964.
Funk, Robert W. Honest to Jesus:
Jesus for a New Millennium. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.
Jacobson, Arland D. The First
Gospel: An Introduction to Q. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1992.
Kloppenborg, John S. The Formation
of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Philadelphia: Fortress
Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian
Gospels: Their History and Development. Philadelphia: Trinity Press
Kummel, Werner G. The New
Testament: The History of the Investigation of its Problems. Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1972.
Mack, Burton L. The Lost Gospel:
the Book of Q & Christian Origins. San Francisco: Harper Collins,
Orchard, Bernard & Thomas R. W.
Longstaff, ed. J. J. Griesbach: Synoptic and Text-Critical Studies
1776-1976. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Sanders, E. P. and Margaret Davies. Studying
the Synoptic Gospels. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1989.
Stanton, Graham. Gospel Truth?
New Light on Jesus and the Gospels. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press
Tuckett, C. M. The Revival of the
Griesbach Hypothesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Carlson, Stephen C.
Synoptic Problem Home Page.
Case Against Q.
Smith, Mahlon H. A
Synoptic Gospels Primer.
copyright © 1997-2022 by Mahlon H.
This is a revised edition of a paper
presented at the Spring 1997 meeting of the Westar Institute & posted
on this site in March 1997. Special thanks are due to Westar Fellows
& friendly critics like S. C. Carlson & Mark Goodacre for calling
attention to points that needed correction or clarification. Second
revision 12 April 1998.
Hypertext links to this web page and brief
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