007 Things About Q

Getting back to the Historical Jesus (although expect a few more detours now and again). Let’s turn to the gospels, specifically to that scholarly gadget known as “Q” and the “synoptic problem” and their relationship to the search for the Historical Jesus. You, the reader, have a license to kill any of the following you find objectionable.

001. First, what’s the “synoptic problem”? Well, when you look at Matthew, Mark and Luke, you notice that they contain a lot of the same material, that they look at Jesus from a similar point of view (i.e., “syn-optic”), sometimes using virtually the same text to describe Jesus’ sayings and follow the chronology of events. So, how does one account for this? My 12 year old responds to this question: “plagiarism?” But that’s not the topic. The question is, what is the literary relationship between them? Why does it matter?

002. Here are some proposed solutions to the synoptic problem:

(a) Any apparent relationship is purely coincidental–there is no “problem.” Let’s call this the “Ostrich Hypothesis.”

(b) Following an obscure early reference by a guy named Papias, echoed by several early Church Fathers, Matthew wrote first, followed by Mark, who relied on Matthew but believed Matthew to be too long winded and edited him, followed by Luke, who relied on both Matthew and Mark and other sources. This has been called the “Augustinian Hypothesis” after Augustine.

(c) Matthew was written first, followed by Luke who used Matthew. Mark, again in this theory, is a man who believes you can cut 10% off of anything without hurting it (cf., tithing, circumcision, federal budgets, etc.), and he combined and reduced both of Matthew and Luke in Mark’s gospel. This has been called the “Griesbach Hypothesis” after its proponent, Johann Jakob Griesbach.

(d) Mark was written first, Matthew used Mark, and Luke used Matthew and Mark. This has been called the “Farrer Hypothesis,” likewise named after a proponent, Austin Farrer.

(e) Mark and “Q” were written first, Q being the abbreviation for the German word for “source” to describe the text Matthew and Luke have in common that is not in Mark. It is a hypothetical ancient source only–no copy of an actual Q papyrus exists. Matthew and Luke independently used Mark as a frame and Q as a source of sayings and other information. This is commonly called the “two source hypothesis,” rather than after the names of its more famous proponents, Christian Hermann Weisse and Heinrich Julius Holtzmann. I’ll call it the “Q Hypothesis.” (for good summaries of these theories see the Anchor Bible Dictionary entries for “Q(Gospel Source)” and “Synoptic Problem”)

003. The Q Hypothesis is the favored solution by most scholars today for a variety of reasons (in spite of some problems I’ll ignore but mention in passing as a nod to the spirit of fairness):

(a) When writers copy sources it is thought that they typically add to or edit those sources, rather than remove large pieces from those sources, possibly discrediting an hypothesis that Mark condensed Matthew or Luke or both.

(b) Mark has a few rough edges to it, some potentially embarassing passages that seem to have been theologically corrected by Matthew and Luke when they copied Mark, suggesting Mark was first, followed by Matthew and Luke.

(c) Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of non-Markan material that is nevertheless very similar, sometimes virtually identical, both in text and chronology, suggesting a second common source in addition to Mark, i.e., Q. Most of this material consists of sayings of Jesus.

(d) The Gospel of Thomas discovered among the Nag Hammadi codices is a sayings gospel reminiscent of the hypothetical Q, confirming that such a sayings gospel was not unknown in early Christian circles.

(e) Matthew and Luke appear to be independent of each other since they change Mark in different ways and contain other different, if not competing, materials, such as their infancy, genealogical, and resurrection materials.

(f) Finally, Q seems to make a lot of sense because it is consistent with and confirms other research about the New Testament and the Historical Jesus.

004. As a result of its popularity, a search for the “historical Q” is under way. Is it any surprise that we now see competing claims regarding a faith Q, an historical Q and the real Q? Not suffering from a lack of confidence, scholars have produced “critical” Q texts and ellucidated the history of its transmission and multiple editions. For instance, in John S. Kloppenborg’s recent Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Gospel, he confidently asserts that Q was composed in three stages, Q1, Q2, and Q3, and he berates those who reject his findings, insisting that his conclusions are based on objective literary grounds, not subjective theological biases. People … we don’t even have an existing document here, merely an hypothesis, mind you a pretty darn good hypothesis, but it’s still an hypothesis. Aren’t we getting a bit carried away?

005. So, what’s this got to do with the search for the Historical Jesus? Lots. One of the historical criteria used by Jesus scholars is multiple attestation. That is, if a saying or event is found in more than one independent source, it has a higher probability of historical accuracy. So you mean if something is found in Mark, Matthew and Luke it’s attested three times? Not necessarily. If it’s in Mark, and both Matthew and Luke copied that Markan passage, that’s just one attestation that was copied twice, following the Q Hypothesis. If it’s in Mark and in Q (i.e., in Matthew and Luke sections that aren’t copied from Mark), then that’s two attestations. If that same event or saying of Jesus is also attested in Paul, John, Josephus and the Gospel of Thomas, then you have six attestations (assuming that Paul had not been exposed to the four gospels and that John didn’t know the other three gospels, which two assumptions make sense but can be disputed, and, assuming you accept Josephus and Thomas as sources containing trustworthy information).

006. Say you don’t like Historical Jesus research? Then refute the Q Hypothesis, insist that Q “dwells in the temporal parietal lobe” of, say, Christian Hermann Weisse’s brain, and, voila, 90% of it disappears. Mark, as a condensed reader’s digest version, is pretty much worthless as an independent “attestation” source if you choose the Augustinian Hypothesis or the Griesbach Hypothesis. Or, lose Q altogether as a source by choosing the Augustinian Hypothesis, the Griesbach Hypothesis or the Farrer Hypothesis.

007. Finally, if there really was a Q (and I think there was), what happened to it? James Robinson suggests an answer in his new book, The Gospel of Jesus. The two “denominations” of early Christianity, the Jewish and Gentile branches, produced two different gospels circa 70 AD: (i) Q was produced for Jewish Christians and (ii) Mark was produced for Gentile Christians. Later, when the Jewish church “merged” with the Gentile church, says Robinson, “[n]o doubt as an ecumenical gesture,” Matthew and Luke each merge Mark and Q and produce their own “up-dated, new and improved” gospels, Matthew for the Jewish Christians and Luke for the Gentile Christians. Later, when Jewish Christians were all but forgotten, the Gentile church put together their canon including Mark, Matthew and Luke, but not Q. (pp. 3-10).

Comments

  1. I think the Q (and Markan priority) hypothesis make good sense to me, at least that’s what I told my NT class last night. I hadn’t heard #7 before but it sounds intriguing. Again, to bring a BoM angle: when Jesus speaks to the Nephites, is it (partly) Q?

  2. Ronan, interesting question re BoM and Q.

    I think I favor Krister Stendahl’s approach here, that Matthew is the source. In fact, the King James Bible excerpts that show up in the BoM form a similar puzzle–there is a relationship, but how does one resolve it? Which hypothesis? The Osrich Hypothesis, the BH Roberts Hypothesis, the Ostler Hypothesis, the Skousen Hypothesis? (etc.)

    I do recall a few years ago someone made a case that 3 Nephi referred to the “sayings” of Jesus that might tie into an oral Q collection/tradition of sayings. Can’t remember who did that off the top of my head–maybe a series in the Ensign on “How the Bible Came to Be?” A female author I believe. Anyway, nowadays, an oral Q isn’t as favored, so this position seems unlikely.

  3. Actually, Stendahl also notes that the BoM Jesus text, while it follows Matthew, it also goes beyond John in its Christology, so it’s not a Matthew text per se, but uses Matthew like Matthew used Mark, while adding some from John and Joseph Smith’s “own source” (J?). What J was is open for discussion, of course.

  4. Can I impose upon you to give us links to those references, Ed? I think we’d find it useful.

    What J(S) was, is of course, the million Euro question.

  5. Julie M. Smith says:

    “Again, to bring a BoM angle: when Jesus speaks to the Nephites, is it (partly) Q?”

    I went through this once and my conclusion is that 3 Nephi is mostly Matthew. I really, really, really wanted 3 Nephi to look like Q, but no dice. :)

  6. Ronan, during lunch, I was able to scrape together these references/links:

    On the topic of the KJV and 3 Nephi, see Krister Stendahl, “The Sermon on the Mount and Third Nephi,” in Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (a BYU publication), as well as Larson, “The Historicity of the Matthean Sermon on the Mount in 3 Nephi,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology and Huggins, “Did the Author of 3 Nephi Know the Gospel of Mattew?” Dialogue, Fall 1997. For opposing views (and views opposing the opposing views) see the reviews in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, vol. 6 (1994) and Thompson’s review of New Approaches and the FARMS Review in Dialogue Winter (1994).

    I found the old Ensign article series in the archives at lds.org: Lenet H. Read, “How the Bible Came to Be: Part 3, A New Word Is Added to the Old,” Ensign, Mar. 1982, 15. Here’s the extended quote I remembered:

    Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that the New Testament began as a record of the sayings of Jesus. This, of course, would come as no great surprise to Latter-day Saints, for in the Book of Mormon, the Lord personally instructed the Nephites more than once to “write these sayings after I am gone.” (3 Ne. 16:4; also 3 Ne. 23:4.) Many scholars think that the writers of the first three Gospels in some way used such a record, or at least part of it, as a source for their accounts of Christ’s life.

    One scholar, for example, shows that some passages of the first three Gospels dealing with direct quotations are so similar that they present strong evidence of dependence upon the same written source. Furthermore, the similarities exist in such “minute and parenthetical identities of language” that these and other considerations make strong the contention that some written document of Christ’s sayings must have been used.
    Substantiating evidence comes from a second century bishop, Papias [cf the Augustinian Hypothesis], who claimed it was Matthew who composed this “Logia” (Christ’s oral utterances) in the Hebrew, and that subsequent writers of Gospels translated their work from it. It is more than interesting that some of the most important recent textual discoveries are writings which claim to be “sayings” of the Savior. Particularly exciting are discoveries of teachings claiming to come from the Lord during that forty-day period after his resurrection—an indication that his teachings may have been recorded then but are yet to be found in their fulness and purity.

    But though there may once have existed a separate record containing the sayings of Jesus, the fact remains that we do not have it. What we do have are four Gospels, or testimonies, each a witness of some of the sayings and events that are associated with Christ.

  7. Julie,
    Matthew was written years after Jesus left the Nephites. What do you do with that? I’d really like your insight!

  8. Let me try the quote again from Read, “How the Bible Came to Be”: (darn block quote buttons)

    Interestingly, there is a growing body of evidence that the New Testament began as a record of the sayings of Jesus. This, of course, would come as no great surprise to Latter-day Saints, for in the Book of Mormon, the Lord personally instructed the Nephites more than once to “write these sayings after I am gone.” (3 Ne. 16:4; also 3 Ne. 23:4.) Many scholars think that the writers of the first three Gospels in some way used such a record, or at least part of it, as a source for their accounts of Christ’s life.

    One scholar, for example, shows that some passages of the first three Gospels dealing with direct quotations are so similar that they present strong evidence of dependence upon the same written source. Furthermore, the similarities exist in such “minute and parenthetical identities of language” that these and other considerations make strong the contention that some written document of Christ’s sayings must have been used.

    Substantiating evidence comes from a second century bishop, Papias [cf the Augustinian Hypothesis], who claimed it was Matthew who composed this “Logia” (Christ’s oral utterances) in the Hebrew, and that subsequent writers of Gospels translated their work from it. It is more than interesting that some of the most important recent textual discoveries are writings which claim to be “sayings” of the Savior. Particularly exciting are discoveries of teachings claiming to come from the Lord during that forty-day period after his resurrection—an indication that his teachings may have been recorded then but are yet to be found in their fulness and purity.

    But though there may once have existed a separate record containing the sayings of Jesus, the fact remains that we do not have it. What we do have are four Gospels, or testimonies, each a witness of some of the sayings and events that are associated with Christ.

  9. Matt Evans says:

    Thanks for the post, Ed, it’s a great introduction to the issue.

  10. There is a similar issue in relation to the presence of apparently Pauline material in the Book of Mormon (e.g. Moroni 7). I know Nibley posited that Mormon and Paul used the same source, but I haven’t seen any real evidence that solves the problem.

  11. Julie M. Smith says:

    Ronan–

    I suppose the possibilities are:

    (1) Matthew is really, really inspired and the same Spirit that told Matthew what to write is responsible for the BoM record.

    (2) Joseph Smith relied on Matthew for the shape of 3 Nephi; the untranslated 3 Nephi may have looked different. (I have never heard anyone actually say this, but I have heard this argument re the Isaiah chapters in the beginning of the BoM.)

    Are there other possibilities?

  12. J. Watkins says:

    This really is a good summary of the Synoptic Problem. However, I’m not really in favor of the popular opinion (the one favored here) for several reasons, not the least of which is no one has never seen hide nor hair of “Q”. The Gospel of Thomas is Gnostic and it’s late by a couple hundred years so there is still no good reason to think that there was a “sayings” Gospel before hand. It can be weird because Gnostics were weird.

    I have two other beefs with this idea too. First, it is very popular today to almost completely ignore the early Fathers in everything they say by coming up with creative ways to circumvent them. They didn’t just think Matthew was first, they cited and quoted Matthew far more than they ever used Mark. If Mark was really first, why did he fall out of favor so fast? And you can’t say that Matthew was better or Apostolic because Luke has him beat hands down by the Fathers too.

    Second, every Gospel’s Jesus has a distinct personality. Mark gets the early nod here because his Jesus seems the most fallible, most human if you like. Matt’s and Luke’s is more knowledgeable, powerful, better. John’s thinks he’s already resurrected. This could be seen as a progression that fits the 2-source/Q-hypothesis theory. But it doesn’t have to. Imposing our logic on history doesn’t always work; history has a tendancy of progressing in ways that seem illogical to us in retrospect. Besides that, isn’t it weird that every Gospel gives Jesus a different personality? If you pick one to be the “real” Jesus’ personality are you saying that the rest of them were lying? Probably not. You’d say that they were each trying to portray Jesus in a certain light for a certain reason. So if Mark is intentionally showing a weaker, more human Jesus, why couldn’t he have conciously done it after Matthew wrote his Gospel? Plus, I’m of the opinion that Mark is writing with a clear purpose in mind and that purpose didn’t include the long ending.
    I don’t have an answer for every point for that supports the Q-hypothesis but there are serious questions about it that I think should be laid out before we turn the Bloggernacle into Q-ers.

  13. Julie in Austin says:

    “If Mark was really first, why did he fall out of favor so fast?”

    If Mark was first, the only reason there are other gospels* is because someone thought Mark was in some way inadequate. Hence, the fact that any other gospels were written is evidence itself that Mark was falling out of favor.

    “So if Mark is intentionally showing a weaker, more human Jesus, why couldn’t he have conciously done it after Matthew wrote his Gospel?”

    This is possible; but if you sit down with the texts and look at things like grammar and word choice, it appears far more likely that Mt sat down with Mk than that Mk sat down with Mt.

    That said, I think that your general point holds: it does pay to have some caution about Q. People get a little silly about Q, specualting on the composition of its community, its theology, etc. It is also possible that Q was an oral source. We just don’t know.

    *Unless you think their writers were unaware of Mark, which is possible for John but not possible for Mt or Lk unless you think there has been h-e-a-v-y editing.

  14. Jonathan Green says:

    Julie, concerning Matthew in 3 Nephi and similar problems: my take is that the Lord had many purposes in bringing forth the Book of Mormon, but solving problems in textual criticism was not among them. Same with Isaiah in 2 Nephi and the JST–I think they give us correct principles, not Urtext. For that, we’re left to our own devices, if we decide that it’s worth the effort. I think it is, so, Ed, thanks for the post, which clearly summarizes a complicated problem. (But I wouldn’t mind at all if you’d expand a bit on 003[f].)

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    Personally, I favor the existence of Q and Marcan priority.

    I’m working on a book for the LDS market on the NT. We have a general introduction to textual studies (it remains to be seen whether this material will even make the final cut; we’re going to have to slash pages mercilessly), which had a brief description of the Synoptic Problem.

    The text was reviewed at one point by a BYU Religion professor (who is also a friend of mine), who told me that there is a *lot* of suspicion of Q among his colleagues. So we added a bit of a disclaimer to our little treatment, to address those with (what in my view is an overly defensive) attitude towards Q. Here is what we added:

    It is not our intention to take any dogmatic stance with respsect to this question either way in our notes, although we occasionally refer to such-and-such a passage as deriving from Q as a convenient shorthand identifying it as common to both Matthew and Luke. A full consideration of the Synoptic Problem is beyond the scope of this book. The issues are complex and likely irrelevant to the interests of most of the readers of this book, and they can be pursued more fully in any of the general introductions of the New Testament listed above. Although some scholars have made elaborate claims based on the posited existence of Q, and although some modern “Historical Jesus” research attempts to use Q to portray Jesus as nothing but a wandering philosopher, such claims go far beyond the evidence and cannot be substantiated. At its base, Q is simply a hypothetical source posited to answer some perplexing questions about the relationship among the Gospels. The existence or nonexistence of Q has no bearing on the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    LDS scholars generally assume that the Gospels derive from a combination of written sources (such as Luke mentions in Luke 1:1-4), and eyewitness accounts (such as John’s Gospel). In such a context, one may take Q as merely being a source (written or oral) available to both Matthew and Luke. The Q hypothesis in and of itself should not be taken as undermining the historical or spiritual accuracy of the Gospel records, despite some of the nonsense published in its name.

  16. A couple of comments:

    1. J. Watkins (#12) Elaine Pagels has recently made a strong case, I think, that John actually responds to and critiques Thomas, or at least the Thomas school which produced the work, which leads me to believe Thomas was earlier than a couple of hundred years after Jesus. Certainly Thomas has gnostic elements in it, but the gnostic myth in all its splendor is missing. To me it looks like it’s been tampered with by gnostics. More on this later.

    I actually think that Papias might have been referring to Q rather than our Matthew, and that the Matthew in the form we have it isn’t by Matthew the tax-collector at all. Perhaps more on that later as well.

    2. Jonathan (#14) I might be able to elaborate on 003(f) later when I make a more definitive stab at my preferred Historical Jesus.

  17. I’m always amazed by people who can not bring themselves to believe in oral texts, even in peoples with strong oral traditions.

    A Quel text that was oral and adopted by various communities, and then reduced to writing around 70 AD or so, could easily morph from Mark to John, though many oral texts are surprisingly resistent to change.

    Really enjoyed this conversation, it has been a while.

  18. There is a lot of interesting discussion here.

    My personal opinion is that there is a Q author and that Mark gets priority. That said, once you admit Q as an additional source, you basically jettison single authorship of the gospels and introduce at least one role of editor/redactor. And if we’re going to have multiple authors, then why not multiple editors/redactors?

    To me, the gospels that have come down through tradition as canonized make the most sense when they are conceived of documents that started their use among very small groups of people and went through multiple revisions as they gained influence. This allows for successive cross-influences among the gospels, rather than a simple Matthew used Mark and Luke used Matthew and Mark type of relationship. This also explains why the synoptic gospels had almost no influence at all until a very late date (mid to late 2nd century) and why they reached that stage of influence in somewhat uniform condition (they’re not the Masoretic Text by any means, but in spite of the conflict between mormons/evangelicals and scholars over the preference for the Byzantine vs the Alexandrian texts, the differences don’t really amount to that much and (if I recall correctly) there aren’t any early texts that are entirely one or the other anyway).

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