Mark, Q, and Narrative Gospels

Forgive me for a moment, but I want to strike while the iron is hot.

At the end of my last post, summing up the story of Legion, for We Are Many, I asked a rhetorical (or not) question about how much of this story came down to Mark, and how much of it was “his” creation.  (“His” because there is no certainty that this is the work of a single individual, let alone one man named “Mark”.) This ties in with what I said when we left Paul’s letters and started Mark.

In that introduction, I suggested that Mark’s genius was the tying together of the various strands of tradition that came down to him. These various traditions, perhaps, did not always fit together very well, which is why we run into what feel like seams; places where the different traditions don’t quite present the same story, so there is a rough spot where Mark had to add some plaster.

Now, I believe it may be more than that.

One of the staples of biblical scholarship for the past 100 (don’t hang me if that’s not quite right) is the belief in something called “Q”. It is to be noted that Matthew and Luke follow much of Mark’s narrative, but that they both have what seems like another layer. Mostly, these are things that Jesus said. The most famous example is the Sermon on the Mount, but that is only one of many. More, Matthew and Luke, when they differ from Mark, tend to differ in the same way. From these sorts of observations, scholars have suggested another source. Rather than a narrative, like the four canonical gospels, the idea was that this other gospel was actually a collection of Jesus’ sayings. So Matthew and Luke had another source than Mark. The German word for “source” is “Quelle”. This has been shortened to “Q”. So Q is this hypothetical second source of the sayings of Jesus.

The doctrine of Q has become one of those “everybody knows” facts that has never actually been proven to exist. Since starting this project, I’ve changed my mind several times about Q’s existence; I was really skeptical of it at the end of last year, but I’m sort of thinking that it’s likely to be true. One reason I think this is the existence of the so-called Gospel of Thomas. This document was found in the Nag Hammadi scrolls found in the middle of the last century. Long story short, the Gospel of Thomas is a collection of Jesus’ sayings, without any sort of narrative context. At the moment, I don’t want to get into either Q or the Gospel of Thomas; if I do, I will save these for another time and place when they seem more appropriate.

The reason I bring this up is the possible date for the Gospel of Thomas. It has been suggested that it was written anywhere from between 50 and 140 CE. The early date would make it contemporary to Paul, and the earliest “gospel” written. And here is the crux of my point: given Thomas, Q becomes much more likely. And, given the way things work, it makes a lot of sense that the earliest documents would have been collections of sayings. After all, if Jesus was a teacher, the important thing to remember would have been what he taught.

So my point is, not only did “Mark” weave together, very skillfully, all the diverse traditions–and the Gospel of Thomas is a very different tradition. My point is that the genius of Mark is that he created the narrative setting of the gospels.

That is a huge development. If it’s obvious to everyone but me, my apologies for being so slow on the uptake.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 14, 2013, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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