Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Story of Q

Another Question:

Thanks for your answer on the authors of the Gospels. Could you tell us about Q in the NT?

My answer:

Q is the first letter of the German word Quelle which means "Source" is the name given to a supposed source used by both Matthew and Luke in the composition of the Gospels. Again, the Jerome bible commentary, and for that matter any introduction to NT studies, will give a good overview of the 'Synoptic Problem'

The theory that there is such a thing as Q comes about in this way.

From the 19th Century, a little earlier, Biblical scholars began to trace similarities between the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk and Lk) and came to the broad conclusion that Mt was not the first Gospel, but that both Lk and Mt make extensive use of Mark. This analysis was taken from comparing both word for word matches and differences and also the general structure of the Gospels. Of course, this is by no means a closed debate, but as I said before, most scholars would hold that Mark was written first and his Gospel provided a major source for both Mt and Lk.

Now if Mt and Lk did indeed both use Mk, how can we explain other passages which Mt and Lk share, but are not in Mk? As we have virtually no evidence, other than the text itself, the field is open for wide (and wild) speculation, and we can only judge this, based on what seems plausible and what the text itself does not contradict.

It is not impossible that Lk also had Mt to hand when he wrote, or even that Mt used Lk. But for various reasons both seem unlikely. It is very likely (as Lk himself indicates) that all three writers had a number of sources, some of which would include eye witnesses.

However, there is a broad critical consensus for giving the name Q to those passages which Mt and Lk share but are not in Mk. Bear in mind there is no other evidence of the existence of Q from Christian writers, no manuscripts of Q, no hint of an author or compiler. That there was ever such a thing is speculation, based solely on criticism of the text.

Furthermore, just because a text is in Mt and Lk but not in Mk could not be proof that it was in Q even if it existed. And perhaps what we call Q may actually be several different documents, not one Q. Some of the Q texts are almost identical in Mt and Lk, others vary much more widely - compare for example the versions of the Beatitudes and of the Lord's Prayer in Mt and Lk. They are strongly similar - yet have significant differences.

What might be significant, though, is that most of the Q verses are short sayings - no parables or miracles, and no passion or resurrection. If we were to construct Q, then it would not look anything like a Gospel. Some writers claim to discover particular theological themes or trends in the Q material. These observations do perhaps give weight to the idea that Q was a real document, and not just a convenient name for shared material.

So, at the end of this little introduction to Q, you can see that it is far from certain that such a thing ever existed. The idea of Q rests first on the idea of the priority of Mk, which is critical orthodoxy, but not a closed question. And even if that is correct, there are other plausible ways of explaining the Mt-Lk verses. However, Q is an accepted term in NT studies, and can be safely referred to - with suitable caution and explanation - both in academic work and in teaching.

1 comment:

Jackie Parkes said...

Gosh! You've taken me back to the early 80s when i was doing my Divinity degree..