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).