A New Paradigm for Understanding Q

Q Cover

By Lee Karl Palo

© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


          What is “Q,” you may ask? Well, being the geek that I am, the first thing that comes to my mind is the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation portrayed by John de Lancie (especially as I saw him at a Star Trek convention in Boise, Idaho on June 2, 1996, and got his autograph on a game card).


In this case however, it refers to a concept in Biblical studies. In brief, it is thought that the respective authors of Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a framework for writing their own gospels as well as material from a couple of other sources, one of which we call “Q” (short for the German word Quelle, that means “source”). There is some material in Matthew and Luke, not found in Mark, that is very similar, and some material that is unique to their respective gospels. “Q” represents material common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in Mark. Among other things, the Lord’s Prayer is one such example of material that is in both Matthew and Luke, but not Mark. Given the high degree of similar wording between the common material, it is conjectured that Q was a written source (in Greek).

The Q hypothesis supposes that this early written source originally just contained sayings of Jesus with perhaps an expanded temptation narrative from what is found in Mark. What has colored many interpretations and understandings of Q has been the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas among the Nag Hammadi library. The Gospel of Thomas has no narrative, and is just a collection of sayings of Jesus, some in the context of conversations with others, typically the Disciples. There are a number of similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Gospels (including John). For a variety of reasons the majority of scholars would not assume that the Gospel of Thomas was written prior to the Gospels we have in the Bible. The Gospel of Thomas and other works found among the Nag Hammadi library have helped to provide a much broader perspective on the diversity of early Christianity (which might better be called “Christianities” in the plural). Clearly there were early forms of Christianity that had little value for narrative details about Jesus’ life, instead prioritizing Jesus’ teaching. Was Q the product of an early Christian community that valued Jesus’ teachings over the narrative details of his life?

Ludwig Feuerbach’s insight that we make God in our own image holds true for a variety of religious and scholarly phenomena. It isn’t merely our concept of God that we craft in ways we find personally comfortable or appealing. At times this holds true for sacred texts as well. Thomas Jefferson rewrote the gospels in order to leave out the parts he didn’t like, and emphasize the teachings of Jesus that he admired. That is hardly the act of a proto-evangelical Christian conservative, despite what David Barton might want you to believe. This Jeffersonian type of tradition where people craft portraits of Jesus into what is more comfortable to them has been around for a long time, and is still very much alive today.

Due to the standard methods of historical inquiry, subjects like miraculous deeds fall outside the scope of the discipline. As a consequence, historians can’t talk about whether Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead or whether Jesus himself rose from the dead in bodily form. This isn’t some insidious conspiracy to marginalize the beliefs of devout Christians, but an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the discipline. The difference shows up in cases like, for example, someone who has a religious experience and talks about it as “God touched my soul.” Such a statement cannot be verified. It would be easier just to say that the person understood herself to have had a religious experience, but that whether or not it had divine involvement is a subject for theologians, not historians. Thus historians are comfortable saying that the majority of the early Christians believed that God raised Jesus from the dead. What that looked like, and how the early Christians came to attribute Jesus’ resurrection to divine intervention, is beyond the scope of historical inquiry. How could you design an objective experiment to detect divine causation?

There are some historians who may be uncomfortable with religious experience in any case, and perhaps not only find the ethical content of Jesus’ message easier to deal with, but also ascribe to it paramount importance. There are criteria that scholars of history use by which sayings attributed to a historical figure can be said to have varying degrees of probability to have come from that historical figure. All this is to say that a theory of Q which holds that the author’s only interest is in the sayings of Jesus may reflect the scholar’s own level of comfort, and, or preference with regard to various aspects of religious materials. The bare-bones of the theory of Q is just that it was a document that contained material common to Matthew and Luke, but not also in Mark. That this material is predominantly sayings of Jesus is merely a fact. Surely the claim that those who produced the Q document had no interest in details about Jesus’ life, including his birth, death, and resurrection, is overstating the matter. What can reasonably be said is that Q likely did not contain very much, if any, narrative details, but that the motives for the lack of inclusion for such details remain a mystery. It would be an argument from silence that makes the leap to impute a motive behind an omission (talking about this particular logical fallacy sounds funny since Q itself is a hypothesis—we don’t have a single written copy of it). Is it plausible that one explanation for the absence of narrative material in Q represents a lack of interest in such materials by the author? Yes, of course, but there is no way to prove this.

Other Possible Interpretations of Q

          Leaving behind the theory, based on an argument from silence, that the author of Q had little to no interest in narrative materials to explain the absence of such materials, we can now look at other possibilities. First of all, it is important to note that Q was employed by the proto-orthodox writers of the New Testament Gospels, Matthew and Luke. Clearly the Q source was in wide enough circulation among proto-orthodox Christian communities that both Matthew and Luke were able to use it in the construction of their respective gospels. It may be likely that Q was also produced by a proto-orthodox author. Why would they use it if it was known to have been produced by a community with questionable beliefs? Debates about correct belief were already raging in some of our earliest New Testament writings (in Paul’s letters), so the authors of Matthew and Luke may have been understandably reluctant to employ a source known to have come from outside the emerging proto-orthodoxy. The logical alternative to this would be that the authors of Matthew and Luke may not have known who or what community produced Q, but that Q was not seen to have any questionable theological content, nor have ties to deviant groups (deviant from a proto-orthodox perspective). For two independent Gospel authors to both come to the same conclusion that Q fit within their respective proto-orthodox worldviews is strong evidence that Q was not perceived to be problematic to their theology.

Given the prominent place the proto-orthodox placed on certain narrative details of Jesus life, particularly his crucifixion, it would be reasonable to assume that the author of Q (assuming the author of Q to be proto-orthodox) also had an interest in such materials. We can look to Paul’s early summation of the Christian message for evidence of the importance of certain narrative details of Jesus’ life. One memorable way Paul puts it is, “I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul here makes no claim that this basic message originated with him, quite the contrary, he asserts that others passed it on to him, and that this is the widespread understanding. How then can the lack of certain narrative details in Q be explained?

It may be helpful to consider the nature of writing in antiquity. In the post-literate society of today, most everyone can read, and it is hard for people to function in society if they cannot. In the first century, literacy was not common. Evangelism was not done by passing out tracts. People heard the Christian message, they didn’t read it. The spoken word was the primary means of communication in early Christianity. The written word had other functions, like letter writing. Even there it was presumed in many cases, like most of the letters of Paul, that the letter would be read aloud to the community to which it was addressed. It was not passed around for everyone to read for themselves.

Q may not have had to contain any kind of crucifixion narrative because this was already the basic Christian message that everyone knew. Consider that by the time Q would have likely been composed, there would have been a large percentage of Gentile Christians for whom access to Aramaic oral traditions of the sayings of Jesus may not have been accessible. As time went on, those who were companions of Jesus, prior to his crucifixion, died themselves. The function of Q, it seems to me, is that it preserved in written form the sayings of Jesus that did not get the same high degree of oral circulation that some variation on the crucifixion and resurrection “creed” did. It may be that the Q document was for the purpose of educating new converts (particularly Greek-speaking Gentiles), and so would not need to rehash a basic, oft-repeated, liturgical message like, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

It is plausible that Q was produced by proto-orthodox Christians who had a great deal of value for the narrative details of Jesus’ life, like his crucifixion and resurrection, but that the function of Q was to address other needs not being met by the predominant oral traditions of the proto-orthodox. Paul, being our earliest Biblical author, is rather blunt in describing the universality of the basic Christian message amongst the various early Christian missionaries, “So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed” (1 Corinthians 15:11). There may simply have been more need for a written compilation of Jesus’ teachings earlier than a written compilation of narratives about Jesus.

A Narrative Q?

          There is another possibility that Q did in fact contain narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, crucifixion, and resurrection, albeit greatly abbreviated. This could explain the divergences in Matthew and Luke where each of them have greatly expanded narratives from what is found in Mark. It will be recalled that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark was deemed by many later scribes to be unsatisfactory, thus longer endings of Mark were added later. If Q had some narrative details about Jesus, beyond the temptation narratives, it is likely they were not very substantive. If they were, we would have expected to see more agreement between Matthew and Luke as regarding the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, for example. It is interesting to note that both Matthew and Luke mention Jesus’ virgin birth as well as Jesus having been born in Bethlehem. Could Q have had a simple statement affirming both of those points without providing the sort of details later Christians desired? Perhaps something like “Jesus was born of the virgin, according to the scriptures, in the town of Bethlehem, according to the scriptures.” A statement like that would put it more in line with the character of the basic gospel message already cited above (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). We know of apocryphal Infancy Gospels that were written to expand on what little details Matthew and Luke provide us. Perhaps Q had a bare-bones literate preservation of the earliest oral proclamations about Jesus’ birth. This stoked a desire for more details that evolved into Matthew and Luke’s respective infancy narratives, and much later culminated in the production of Infancy Gospels.

If the expanded temptation narratives of Matthew and Luke came from Q, then it would seem a little odd not to have also had some sort of narrative about the immediately preceding stories of Jesus’ baptism and the ministry of John the Baptist. Again, one can speculate that a possible baptism narrative in Q may have been deemed by the authors of Matthew and Luke to be inadequate when compared to Mark. It may also be that Q had some brief information about John the Baptist’s message (see for example: Luke 3:7; Matthew 3:7). Perhaps there was also something of an abbreviated crucifixion and resurrection narrative in Q. Both Matthew and Luke mention some disciples having doubt about Jesus’ resurrection despite Jesus appearing to them (Matthew leaves this doubt unresolved, whereas Luke takes great pains to resolve the doubt). Once again, it may be that Q simply did not have much of a satisfactory post-Easter narrative, which prompted the authors of Matthew and Luke to rectify that.

In any case it is likely that if Q contained any narrative details about Jesus, they were for the most part not terribly substantive (the obvious exception being the temptation narrative). Thus it would still seem appropriate to assert that the teachings of Jesus were the primary focus of Q, even if there were some narratives about Jesus.


          What is it that I have endeavored to do with this article? It is not my intention to prove that these ways of looking at Q are certain. Q itself is still just a hypothesis. Rather, I hope that by providing alternative ways of looking at Q, this can undermine any kind of easy certainty for the notion that the author of Q only valued the sayings of Jesus. It may be that the function of Q, operating in proto-orthodox communities that were saturated with the basic gospel message, filled a need for deepening the communities’ understanding of Jesus’ own teachings. Alternatively, it is also plausible that there may have been more biographical material in Q that, over time, was found to be unsatisfactory. Could Q have represented an expansion of the gospel message from good news about Jesus to include messages by Jesus himself?

What then can be said? For reasons unknown, Q likely did not contain much, if any, narrative details of Jesus life. Any assertion that the author of Q had no interest in such details is unwarranted. It is possible that the author of Q didn’t value narrative details, but it is far from certain, as I hope to have demonstrated here. The reverse may actually be more likely. Such statements asserting that the author of Q did not value the narrative details of Jesus life are overreaching what little evidence we have for the existence of Q. They further strike me as an example of creating a theory of Q that fits better what some scholars are more comfortable with—creating a gospel that better reflects the biases of scholars who are uncomfortable with miracle stories. I myself am a self-avowed, practicing, United Methodist. I don’t have a problem with the Christ of faith, even as I endeavor to understand Jesus better through the methods of literary and historical-critical inquiry. If Q existed as a written source for both Matthew and Luke, it makes the most sense that it wasn’t copied for ever if, after the composition of the four canonical gospels, there just wasn’t any substantive unique material left in Q. I think it best to see Q as a type of proto-orthodox stepping stone toward the evolution of the canonical Gospels, and not as representing any kind of alternative early Christianity that was devoid of focus on beliefs like Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.


© 2015 Lee Karl Palo


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One Response to A New Paradigm for Understanding Q

  1. Pingback: A Q Footnote (Trash-Talkin’ Elaine Pagels) | Paradigm One by Lee Karl Palo

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