Monday, May 01, 2006

The Gospel of "Q"

These days there's a lot of hubbub about various Gnostic gospels, specifically the newly-released "Gospel of Judas". Given that they were all written 150+ years after Christ's death, it's pretty easy to understand their unreliability in terms of representing Christ's life and teaching. (For all your Gospel of Judas-rebutting needs, here's a good start.)

There is, however, a different "fifth" Gospel out there. It's one that you may never have even heard of. But you can buy it on Amazon. (If you can buy it on Amazon, it must exist, right?)

What is the Gospel of "Q"? Well, scripture scholars have long understood that the Gospel of John is the only gospel of the 4 that was written totally independently of the others. Which means that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, & Luke, (also called the "Synoptic" Gospels) which contain significant similarities, also contain some order of literary dependency between them (meaning that to some extent they were copying one another).

Of the three, Mark is the shortest. Matthew and Luke are longer, and contain nearly all the events in Mark's gospel, plus a very similar list of "sayings" of Jesus, interspersed throughout the narrative.

Traditionally it was understood that Matthew was written first, then Luke and Mark. Evidence for this is found even in the church fathers, where Clement of Alexandria noted that "those Gospels were written first which include the genealogies." (Matthew & Luke both contain a genealogy; Mark does not.) This view, known as the "Two-Gospel Hypothesis", assumed that 1) Luke used Matthew as the source for much of his material, and 2)Mark did as well, but merely cut out information from Matthew that he didn't deem important for his audience.

In the nineteenth century, a differing view began to arise (due to a great extent, to a political crisis that pitted the authority of the state against the authority of the Church - see this book by William Farmer if this topic interests you) in Germany, then spreading throughout the academic world to become the "consensus" opinion. This view saw the Gospel of Mark as having primacy (being written first). Then, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, being written later, simply added material to it to include extra "sayings" of Jesus. Because Matthew & Luke contain very nearly identical lists of the sayings, however (including the same usage of the original Greek), it became necessary to posit a second "source" from which both Matthew and Luke must have copied. This separate source is known as the "Gospel of Q", and this theory which contradicts the Two Gospel Hypothesis is thus known as the "Two-Source Theory".

Now, it should be noted that there is no evidence that such a second source actually exists. There have been no discoveries of papyrus or other archaeological finds that would corroborate this theory. Nevertheless, many scholars are so convinced that it must exist, that they have gone to the lengths of pulling out the "sayings" of Jesus that they think would have been in it, and cobbling them together in book form, and selling it as the "Lost Gospel of Q" (see book above).

So, what difference does it make, except to a bunch of eggheads in tweed sportcoats sitting in a library?

Well, it makes a fair amount of difference, actually. If this Gospel of "Q" in fact, exists, and if, as is theorized, it was the very first gospel in existence, then it becomes mighty important, and in fact the interpretive key to understanding the other Gospels. It happens to be the case that the material in this "gospel" - due to its lack of much of the narrative of Christ's life, and in particular, his passion and death - skews, by its ommissions, the record of Christ's life and gives a very different impression of him. Consider the following statement by Harvard professor Helmut Koester, regarding the way in which the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Q are used, hand in hand, to diminish the importance of Christ's death and resurrection:
One of the most striking features of the Gospel of Thomas is its silence on the matter of Jesus' death and resurrection - the keystone of Paul's missionary proclamation. But Thomas is not alone in this silence. The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q), used by Matthew and Luke, also does not consider Jesus' death a part of the Christian message. And it likewise is not interested in stories and reports about the resurrection and subsequent appearances of the risen lord. The Gospel of Thomas and Q challenge the assumption that the early church was unanimous in making Jesus' death and resurrection the fulcrum of Christian faith. Both documents presuppose that Jesus' significance lay in his words, and in his words alone.
So, in a nutshell, it does matter very much whether or not this Two-Source theory is legit.

But the fact is, as noted before, there's no evidence for the existence of the Gospel of "Q". And in fact, there is plenty of evidence that Matthew was written first, and thus the Two-Gospel theory is the correct theory.

In short, don't believe the hype. There is no "Gospel of Q".

-----Addendum: I should note that, while there is substantial debate in the scholarly community over the existence of the "Gospel of Q", one thing that is generally not even considered up for debate is which Gospel was written first (thus categorizing my above comments on the primacy of Matthew and the Two-Gospel theory as a "minority view"). The vast majority of scholars today, even Catholic scholars, proceed from the assumption that Mark was written first. By simply following along with the "consensus view", however, they overlook much evidence and disregard the Pontifical Biblical Commission's 1911 exhortation to continue ascribing primacy to the Gospel of Matthew. More information on this topic is available in this article or in the William Farmer book linked to above.


At 5/01/2006 8:21 PM, Blogger Mike P. said...

Is the "Gospel of Q" typically followed by a "Gospel of U"?

At 5/02/2006 8:16 AM, Blogger Daniel said...

Nope. But you could probably make a lucrative career by constructing some such theory and writing a book about it...!

At 7/03/2006 9:34 PM, Anonymous Nate Clyde said...


Good post. I think you would find an interesting perspective on the biases in modern scripture scholarship in (Professor) Warren H. Carrolls series of six books on Christendom - particularly the first volume "The Founding of Christendom". He critiques both the "Q" hypothesis and a similar theoretical concept for the book of Genesis (the "P", "E" & "D" hypothesis). His logic is only exceeded by his wit and sarcasm. Many a good chuckle. He also does a great analysis of modern scholarly fallacies regarding how the prophetic books came together (e.g. duetero-Isaiah, etc.) and shows that some of these theories require larger leaps of faith than to just accept them at face value. It's sad that so much of this can be found in the footnotes of the "official" New American Bible. Carroll's is a great book and I haven't been able to put it down. Available from Christendom press or at Leaflet.


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