Alpha Christianity

The Letter Q (Tissot, 1836-1902)

"Q" (short for Gm Cell, "source") is the name for a conjectural text, thought to be older than both Matthew and Luke and to have been drawn on by both as a source. Its primary definition is those passages which appear in both Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. It has more recently been claimed that "Q" can be expanded beyond that narrow compass, and that "Q" was not only a source for Matthew and Luke, but that it also antedates Mark, and was drawn on by Mark, making Q the oldest Gospel.

The arguments for "Q" which are presently considered most cogent are two: (1) Passages common to Matthew and Luke but not in Mark are bidirectional; sometimes the Matthean version of a passage is older, and sometimes the Lukan one. The material thus cannot be accounted for on a hypothesis of Mt > Lk borrowing or Lk > MT borrowing; both models occur. The attempt of Goulder to demonstrate a uniform MT> Lk directionality fails in certain high-profile cases, among them the Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, and the Parable of the Feast. (2) There are several doublets in Matthew, one member of which is close to Mark and probably derived from Mark, and the other of which is (a) close to Luke, and (b) typologically older than the Markan parallel. This implies not only a separate "Q" source for the member which is close to Luke, but also that the separate "Q" source is typologically older than Mark, and thus earlier than Mark.

The "Q" theory solves the bidirectionality problem by transferring what we may call the Major Agreements in the MT/Lk common material to the conjectural "Q" text, leaving behind the hundreds of Minor Agreements (words or phrases where MT and Lk agree as against Mark; see the list of Neirynck) as the unsolved part of the MT/Lk problem. "Q" is thus not a complete solution to all the anomalies in the Matthew/Luke relation, though it has seemed to some to be the best available. But the Q solution depends on the assumption that Matthew and Luke are both integral texts. This assumption seems to hold for Matthew, but not Luke, for which (as also for the associated Acts) there is internal evidence of more than one stage of composition. If those indications are correct, and if one stage of Luke preceded Matthew (with Matthew free to borrow from it, whence the Matthean remake of the spartan Lukan Beatitudes) and another followed Matthew (allowing Luke or his successor to borrow, or in the case of the Birth Narrative, to be inspired by, Matthew), then the bidirectionality situation in the common material is after all accounted for. As an additional advantage, the Minor Agreements are included in the solution, and no longer present an unresolved difficulty. This is the solution we recommend.

There is a brief version of the argument for more than one stage in Acts-Luke; for more extended treatment, see the Luke and Matthew pages. The latter section contains detailed notes on all the Matthean Doublets. We feel that these arguments eliminate "Q" as a text. There remains a small question of nomenclature. It has become conventional to refer to passages present only in Matthew as M (whether or not we think there was a text M), and those unique to Luke as L. If we are abandoning the letter "Q," and we are, we then need a label for the common MT/Lk material, We suggest C for "common."

If there were a Gospel earlier than Mark, it would be the oldest, and thus most authoritative, source for Jesus. Some have pursued this possibility, calling "Q" the original Galilean Gospel. One of the notable features of that supposed Gospel is that it never mentions the Resurrection. It would thus seem to qualify as an Alpha document. But the expansion of Matthew and Luke which resulted in the common or C material was undertaken in large part to supply the conspicuous lack of ethical teaching in Mark. It is thus natural that these common or C passages (which are drawn from this ethical expansion in Matthew and Luke) present an exclusively ethicized Jesus: a mere harmless teacher of wisdom, and nothing else. That picture is welcome to a number of modern persons, and for quite understandable reasons, but it comes about by eliminating everything from all the Synoptics which portrays Jesus as something more than wandering philosopher. Relying on "Q" as the sole authentic picture of Jesus leaves unanswered, and indeed renders unanswerable, the question of why Jesus attracted the opposition of the Temple establishment, and the condemnation of the Roman occupation forces. It presents an entirely dehistoricized Jesus.

Those in search of Jesus as he actually was in real life will thus need to continue searching, preferably in other places.

Back to Alpha Index Page

12 Jan 2012 / Contact The Project / Exit to Alpha Index Page