Where did the stories about Jesus that we find in the gospels come from?
Q is a hypothetical document said to be a collection of Jesus’ sayings. It was first hypothesised in the late 19th century and developed by minister B. H. Streeter in 1924. it was intended to explain why Matthew and Luke’s gospels shared material that wasn’t plagiarised from Mark. Streeter speculated they must both have had access to an alternative source that he christened Q (after the German for source, Quelle.)
While the idea caught on and is still assumed by many scholars (including Bart Ehrman) there are numerous problems with it:
Q doesn’t exist and has never existed. There is absolutely no evidence for it, aside from the duplication of material in Matthew and Luke, the very context it was designed to explain. There are no surviving copies, nor even fragments of any written collection of Jesus’ sayings (unsurprisingly for a non-existent document.) Nor is a book of Jesus’ sayings referred to in any form by any New Testament writer (again, unsurprisingly.)
Q is unnecessary. As other scholars, including M. A. Farrer, Mark Goodacre and Richard Carrier, have pointed out, there is a far simpler explanation for Matthew and Luke’s sharing of material they didn’t get from Mark. Either Matthew or Luke had access to the other. It is generally accepted that Matthew’s gospel predated Luke’s by a few years. It is likely therefore that Luke took certain stories from Matthew, as he had others from Mark, and made them his own. Doesn’t he say at the start of his gospel that he intends to collate material about Jesus that was already in circulation? Occam’s Razor also leads to the conclusion that this is a far better explanation of the duplication than a hypothetical third document.
Q doesn’t answer the question of where the stories came from in the first place. Arguably, it moves the solution back a stage but that’s all. If for the sake of argument we assume Q did exist, we still don’t necessarily know where it got its material from. Q really gets us no further forward.
Q is conjectured to be a collection of sayings. They are not set in any context; Q lacks a narrative structure so cannot be where Matthew derived his accounts, for example, of the Temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11), the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-12) or the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13) that Luke would later copy and adapt. These are stories, not mere sayings. Even if Matthew got the sayings they include from some now lost written source from where did he get their context? Eyewitnesses? Unlikely, given he was writing 50 years after the purported events when most eyewitnesses would be dead. He was certainly not an eyewitness himself; he would not have needed to copy large swathes of Mark if he was. Nor does Matthew claim to be using eyewitness testimony. Like all the gospel writers he comes nowhere close to citing his sources.
Matthew is, however, notorious at making up stories he thinks make Jesus fit prophecy. He invents still others to make theological points. It’s quite possible he invented these particular accounts too.
Or perhaps, as apologists like to claim, Matthew and the other gospel writers got at least some of their stories from the so-called oral tradition, a grand name for the tales about Jesus that circulated for the 40-70 years before the gospels were written.
We’ll take a look next time.
To quote / paraphrase from Life of Brian:
“They made it up as they went along.”
Q … Sorry, I mean cue derisive comments from Christians?
They sure did. It’s the only reasonable explanation. God dunnit is not.
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It does seem a strange thing though for the author of Luke to use g-Matthew, and copy his gospel verbatim on the saying of Jesus, yet ignore virtually everything else that is unique to g-Matthew.
I don’t know what to think of the Q-hypothesis. It has some explanatory power, and NT scholarship tends to embrace it, but yet seems to have so little else going for it
In the end I’m not even sure how much it matters, given what else we know how the gospels were written.