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Questioning Q

Jimmy Akin

In a previous post, I looked at the hypothetical document Q, which most contemporary Bible scholars think Matthew and Luke used when they composed their Gospels.

The reason they think this is that there are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

The proposal is that there was a document in the early Church that contained (roughly) these 235 verses and that both Matthew and Luke copied from it.

That proposed document is commonly called Q.

Hypothetical vs. lost

Previously, I pointed out that the Q document is not simply lost.

There are lots of documents from the ancient world that we know existed even though they are now lost. We can be confident that these works existed because the ancients talk about them in their surviving writings.

But Q is not in that category. We don’t have any ancient references to it. It isn’t just a lost document; it’s a hypothetical lost document. That means we must be more cautious about its existence than the lost documents we know existed.

Here’s another reason we should be cautious . . .

A unique document?

If it existed, Q seems to have been a unique document. We are not aware of other documents of the same kind. In other words, Q does not fall into a recognized literary genre.

You will often hear the opposite. Specifically, you will hear that Q belongs to the same genre as the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas, which was rediscovered in 1945 in Egypt and published in 1956.

The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings that are attributed to “the living Jesus.” A few of these involve a brief dialogue with another character, but there is no story—no narrative—to the Gospel of Thomas.

Many have claimed that Q belongs to the same genre as Thomas because many of the parallel verses in Matthew and Luke are sayings of Jesus.

The difficulty is that, unlike the Gospel of Thomas, the hypothetical Q document is not simply a “sayings gospel.”

Narrative in a sayings Gospel?

If it existed, Q included a large number of narrative elements. These are documented by Mark Goodacre in his book The Case Against Q (pp. 170-185).

Goodacre shows that the hypothetical Q would go beyond sayings and have a narrative structure as follows:

  1. Q introduces John the Baptist, apparently before it introduces Jesus (Q 3:2), who is located in the region of the Jordan (Q 3:3; note: In contemporary scholarship, citations attributed to Q are based on the verses in Luke, so Q 3:2 is found in Luke 3:2).
  2. There, people come to him to receive his baptism (Q 3:7), and John warns them to bear fruit befitting repentance (Q 3:8).
  3. Then John begins contrasting himself and his baptism with the one who comes after him, who will have a greater baptism (Q 3:16-17).
  4. Jesus is then introduced, there is a reference to the Spirit descending on him, and he is indicated to be God’s Son (Q 3:21-22).
  5. The Spirit then takes Jesus to the wilderness (Q 4:1), where he is tested by the devil with regard to whether he is God’s Son (twice: “if you are the Son of God . . .” Q 4:3, 9).
  6. Then Jesus goes to “Nazara” (Q 4:16).
  7. Jesus then gives a major discourse (Q 6:20-49).
  8. Q then notes that after Jesus finished these sayings he entered Capernaum (Q 7:1). This is a very clear indicator of narrative structure, particularly in an alleged sayings gospel.
  9. We then have the healing of the Centurion’s servant (Q 7:3, 6-10).
  10. Then John the Baptist hears what is going on with Jesus and, apparently unable to come himself, sends messengers to ask if Jesus is the one after all. Jesus responds by pointing to the many miracles he has done and his preaching of the good news and urges John not to disbelieve (Q 7:18-23).
  11. When John’s disciples have left, Jesus speaks to the crowd, reminding them of when they went out to see John (referenced earlier in Q), and he pays tribute to John (Q 7:24-28).
  12. Afterward, Jesus pronounces woe on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for failing to respond to the wonders he did in them (Q 10:13-15).

Goodacre goes into more detail than we can here, but the point is made: This is a narrative; it’s a story. It’s not just a collection of Jesus’ sayings.

It has a geographical progression (Jordan, the wilderness, Nazara, Capernaum); it has elements pointing forward and backward (e.g., the early indication that Jesus is the one to come, followed by the later questioning of whether this is the case); there are narrative transitions between one unit and the next; and it contains at least one miracle account, while referring to many more being done.

It is only after this narrative sequence that Q would have been largely composed of sayings, and that places it in what seems to be a unique category: a work that would start as a narrative and then become a sayings collection.

How does that compare to other ancient sayings collections?

Actual sayings collections

There were sayings collections in the ancient world—and not just Thomas. Proverbs and Sirach spring readily to mind.

It is common for such collections to have a brief statement at the beginning about who originated the sayings, but in none of these cases is there a big narrative about that person.

Proverbs does not begin with a biography of Solomon but with the simple statement, “The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel” (Prov. 1:1).

Sirach does not begin with a biography of Sirach but is prefaced by a brief, non-narrative introduction by his grandson, who translated the book from Hebrew into Greek.

Thomas begins with the statement, “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.”

In none of these cases do we have anything like the lengthy, complex narrative that can be reconstructed from the Q material.

Ancient Judeo-Christian sayings collections appear to have been just that: sayings collections, not sayings collections preceded with an extensive narrative about the person from whom the sayings came.

More caution on Q

If there was a Q document, it does not appear to have belonged to a known genre of Jewish or Christian writing from the time.

This means that we have extra reason to be cautious about whether it existed. Not only are we talking about a document that is lost and hypothetical, it is also of an otherwise unknown, unattested type.

It would be one thing to propose a lost document that fits a known type—which is why Q advocates frequently appeal to the Gospel of Thomas as a parallel, though the comparison does not hold up. It is another thing to propose a lost document that does not have any parallels in the relevant ancient literature.

We thus have another reason to be cautious about the existence of Q and another reason to look at alternative explanations of the 235 verses Matthew and Luke have in common—like the idea that one Evangelist used material from the other.

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