What is the Problem with Q?

In order to account for this common material, scholars have conjectured a document they call Q (from the German word Quelle, source). This hypothetical document is used to explain the many sayings of Jesus that appear in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. In this theory, both Matthew and Luke used two documents, hence the name “two source theory.” Some scholars assume that this document must have existed in one form or another. For example, G. N. Stanton says that “we can be reasonably certain that Q existed as a written document” (650). Yet scholars such as Thomas Edgar vehemently deny its existence. Edgar states that “Q has never been seen nor is there any evidence that such a document ever existed” (147). The recent book Gospel Writing by Francis Watson makes a compelling case for some sort of Sayings Source, but he does not particularly like the implication of a multi-layered Q document sometimes described int he literature.

On QBut the existence of a “sayings” gospel is a possibility in the light of two pieces of circumstantial evidence. The statement of Papias can be taken quite easily as a collection of sayings of Jesus were collected by Matthew first, rather than the gospel of Matthew. A problem night be then that Papias does not know the Gospel of Matthew.  Second, the Gospel of Thomas, while not a particularly help source for historical studies, does show that the genre of a sayings gospel existed. Circumstantial evidence is, however, just that. Thomas is not Q and dates well after the first century. What Papias says may be explained in several different ways which do not imply the existence of a Q-like source document.

There is something about the idea of a source document which makes evangelicals uneasy. We do not want to accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were scholars and editors, assembling their gospels from sources. Most conservatives would dismiss Q immediately because it is the product of Historical Criticism (as the essays in The Jesus Crisis do). Did God inspire Matthew and Luke to edit their sources, or write their gospels? For the conservative scholar, Q simply is not helpful since their emphasis is on the text as it appears in the Bible.

This unease is felt over a broad spectrum of scholarship as well. The essays in Questioning Q, for example, wonder if relying on the existence of a Sayings source has short-circuited the idea of the Gospel writers as creative writers who should be treated as authors, not editors of their books.

Both of these warnings are well intended. It is true that documents which “count” are the synoptic Gospels as they appear on the page of the Bible. If the writers used sources, that may not matter much for our interpretation of the words in Matthew, Mark and Luke. I have always tried to get students to “stay within the world of the story” and read Matthew as Matthew, not as a parallel book to Luke.

Yet the evidence is there, and as I read it Matthew used Mark and a sayings source of some kind. Luke likely also used Mark and a sayings source, although he could have also used Matthew. For me, it is not correct to mis-characterize Matthew as cut and pasting sources together to create his gospel. Rather, if Matthew used courses, he was a scholar marshaling all of his resources to create a theological document which answered some questions about the person and nature of Jesus and the idea of discipleship after the resurrection. There is nothing wrong with the idea that Matthew (or Mark) used sources, but too much emphasis on the sources will obscure the goal – a clear reading of the Gospels.


Bibliography: Thomas Edgar. “Source Criticism: The Two Source Theory,” pages 132-157 in The Jesus Crisis (ed. Robert Thomas and F. David Farnell; Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998); Mark Goodacre, editor. Questioning Q: A Multidimensional Critique (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 2004); G. Stanton. “Q”, pages 644-650 in The Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1992).

13 thoughts on “What is the Problem with Q?

  1. Still enjoying your series, Phillip. You show an educator’s mind, building one thing on another. I hope it’s getting broad readership. I don’t recall that when I took undergrad Bible and theology courses in the late 60s to 70s that these subjects were raised, at least in any depth… of course the field as a whole has developed a lot. But the “Evangelical” world (which I’m mostly an interacting observer of now) is also in much more flux. And I view the movement and reflection as healthy, although I know it continues the kinds of conflicts that have always been present in “The Church” (including both Catholic and Protestant since the Reformation… and Orthodox, of course).

    As to what Q may be and what it represents, whether or not there was an actual document (I lean to there having been), the matter of sources or “borrowing” from other works is undeniable… it’s heavy in the synoptics. I see the four Gospel writers as openly, without need for apology or explanation, using what fit their agendas (or message) yet also creating a unique work… with a nuanced “point” (or set of points) about who Jesus was and came to do. I don’t see the synoptics, for example, being clear (or sure?) about Jesus as “God the Son”… Significantly, John has no doubt and pounds the point clearly. This is more than a matter of emphasis and probably more than different theological strains… also belief-development over time, related to Jewish-Christian developments and other factors.

    The “no need for apology or explanation” factor pushes us back to your posts about genre. We often overlook trying to understand how the original audiences would have seen the works of a given genre. Here, somewhat unique and inventive as the Gospels appear to have been, but not totally unfamiliar. Readers (and hearers, significantly… few could read) expected claims of miracles for great men, “god-men”, heroes, etc. — some probably real (healings, exorcism, e.g.) and some fantastical — typical of other similar literature. They probably weren’t as concerned as we tend to be to sort out the difference and to get the “history” right.

    • Thanks once again for a detailed and challenging response. Maybe evangelicals (with a little e, I do that on purpose) like Q or at least a Sayings Source because it cuts the time between Jesus and Gospel Writing down to a single generation or less. This means less legend making than the classic 19th century protestant liberals imagined. While I am impressed with the latest spate of oral-tradition studies and memory theory applied to the oral period, I ultimately am satisfied with the two-source theory as it was originally conceived. It seems to solve the most problems without causing too many others. (and I think the newer studies do not necessary cancel out the need for Q, like Goodacre et al have).

      I am not sure a sayings source was appreciated a “scholarly generation ago” among even vaguely conservative scholars. But remember the people who taught you were educated another generation before that, so perhaps it was really left-of-center then!

      • Thanks, Phillip. I appreciate your thoughts. I haven’t read much of the “spate of oral tradition studies and memory theory” that I AM quite aware of… have read snatches and online summaries, discussions, some. I perused Bauckham’s “Eyewitnesses” book and didn’t see much that seemed significant to me… but maybe I wasn’t thorough enough. (I may have been biased having heard him speak to seminary students on the NT and post NT era noncanonical texts, and didn’t feel he treated that fairly or well.)

        Anyway, what I HAVE heard re. memory studies recently (not all related to ancient history or mostly illiterate societies), added to prior knowledge from anthropology, hasn’t seemed to impact my views about how the Gospels were created and what is most likely NOT historical, along with the knowledge that much of the “sayings” aspect probably does have a memory and historical base (esp. in the synoptics… not so much in John).

        I’m wondering what has particularly been interesting or beneficial to you in these recent oral tradition and memory studies?

  2. Interesting article today, Phil. Just a couple of observations: First, it seems to me more and more scholars are downplaying and moving away from Q. I am finding more and more statements like that of R.T. France: “I am among the growing number of scholars who find it an improbably simple hypothesis….” ( NICNT: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2007), 21). Eta Linnemann, who at one time strongly held to the view, says, “It’s claimed to be a source for Matthew and Luke, but it may be nothing more than a figment of liberal scholars’ imaginations.” (“The Gospel of Q,” BIBLE REVIEW, August 1995, 19).
    Second, there is more of a move by scholars toward oral tradition as the source of the correlations. . France again displays this in some comments in his work on Mark. He says of the pattern of the account of the hemorrhage healing within the account of the raising of Jairus’s daughter: “In such a case it is at least arguable, particularly if one does not assume a rigid pattern of Matthean and Lukan ‘copying’ from Mark, that the linking of the two stories derives not from Mark’s creativity but from the tradition, simply because that is the way it happened and was remembered.” (NIGTC: THE GOSPEL OF MARK, (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2002), 18. He seems to be saying that oral tradition may play an more important part than most believer. It seems what Q has done is to undermined and devalued both oral tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers.

    • I think you are correct on both points Jim. I did cite Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing (and linked to an earlier review). As you read that book you can almost hear Q fading into insignificance. While I am not be correct about this, but I think there is a general reaction against the more complex Q theories (Kloppenberg’s multi-layered Q, the Critical Edition of Q in the Hermenia series, or even the scholarly practice to refer to passages in Luke as “Q 6:30-35.”

      Rather than several layers of written documents that grew into a sayings source for Matthew/Luke to use, more recent scholars are willing to just say “sayings source” without trying to tease out various communities which may or may not have contributed to a coherent theology of Q. IMHO, that was what Q was supposed to be, a shorthand for the shared material.

      I think Oral Tradition and “memory” are the buzz words for now, even if there was a written sayings source.

  3. Many New Testament scholars “hold the view that Matthew and Luke both used (1) The Gospel of Mark, (2) A source of sources which Matthew and Luke had in common, conveniently referred to as Q, (3) unique material which each had in hand, conveniently designated as M and L” according to Strauss (53). The material that is common between Matthew and Luke is known as “Q”; it is debated whether or not Q was a real source document that Matthew and Luke used to write their books of the Bible. It seems that it is likely that the writers did gain some information from another source, whether that is Q or different source. It is important to look at the different arguments on whether or not they used sources when writing, so that we are able to better understand how the authors write and where they received their information. However, it is important to not get too caught up in whether or not the authors had sources, because then the text loses its value for the teachings we can gain from it.

  4. It seems to me that “Q” can represent two different significant concepts, the first being that a distinct source (other than Mark’s gospel) existed from which both Matthew and Luke drew when writing their gospels. The second perspective on “Q” is that it is “simply a convenient designation for the material common to Matthew and Luke” (Strauss, p. 52).

    There are pros and cons to both sides of this discussion. “Arguments for a single written source include frequent exact verbal agreements, common order of material between Matthew and Luke, and the existence of ‘doublets'” (Strauss, p. 52). While it is certainly possible that a specific, unique source did exist which Matthew and Luke both used independently, it seems more likely to me that “Q” refers to a collection of many sources, whether written or through oral tradition, which assisted the gospel writers.

    The introduction of Luke’s gospel seems like it would support this idea. Luke refers to “many” who have undertaken the project of writing an account of the events recorded in the gospels, but states that his purpose, after investigating “everything,” was to write an “orderly account.” This seems to reinforce the idea that there were many sources which Luke could have used in his writing, and that his work intended to marry them all into a cohesive unit. His goal was not to contradict the teachings that were already present, but rather, “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4 NIV).

    As we seek to better understand the way the gospel authors wrote, we should strive to keep the same goal in mind – to understand with greater certainty the things which we believe by faith.

    • Lindsey, re. your last paragraph just above: Indeed, the Evangelists seem to have such a goal – bolstering faith. But at least one aspect of faith is also that which is built upon evidences (reverse order – existing BECAUSE of evidences).

      For example, with both in use: they tried to find evidences that Jesus fulfilled certain expectations (faith-based) of what Messiah would be and that Messiah was indeed coming. Now, A reason, if not the MAIN reason most Jews of Jesus’ time or within several after, did not see him being the fulfillment of messiah expectations may well have been (what I lean to) that he didn’t meet some of the common and important expectations (e.g., where he was born). Related to that is the issue that it seems there was quite a variation in messianic views (or specific expectations), with no clear “orthodox” position (Judaism was quite varied, with no clarity on any one group or viewpoint being the “faithful remnant”). By roughly 4 decades (and more) after Jesus’ death, the need appeared stronger to build a case for Jesus fulfilling Scriptures that either had been or could now be brought in as “messianic”. But herein lies a serious problem.

      • Sorry… just above: I just noticed there should be “years” inserted at “… Jesus’ time or within several [years] after.”

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