Considering Q

When I first started reading books on Q, I would get to the part where the author started talking about the various textual similarities and differences between Matthew and Luke. My eyes would start to glaze over with all the citing of chapter and verse, so I’d more or less skim that part, in order to get to the actual argument to support Q’s existence. Then, I’d get to the end, and I’d stop and scratch my head, because, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what the argument for Q was. Somehow, I’d managed to miss the building of the case. Then, finally, it struck me.

The textual comparisons were it. They were the entire argument for Q. There was nothing else.

As someone trained in history, this is absolutely appalling. How can you base the argument for a document as important as Q on textual comparison? Where was the real evidence? The cite by one of the Church Fathers. The allusion in some other writing. Some hint dropped by…someone, at some time, somewhere before, oh, 1800. Guess what? There are no cites; there are no allusions; there are no hints. Nothing. Zilch. Nada. Nichts. Rien. Zero. The entire case for Q rests on value judgements.

In a piece I’ve read, John Kloppenborg, the University of Toronto scholar who appears to be the pointman of the pro-Q camp, says that he is reluctant to state that the case for Q boils down to nothing more than subjective value judgements about aesthetics. Whose gospel is better written? Matthew’s? In which case Luke would never have spoiled the stylistic beauty, the majesty of Matthew’s tour de force. Since Matthew is so brilliantly, so coherently written, no sane person would possibly entertain the notion of changing the order, the structure of Matthew. Since Luke does exactly that, well, it obviously proves that Luke had never read Matthew. So why does Luke agree with Matthew on so many points? Well, because of Q. They were both working from a combination of Mark and Q. So yes, there would be overlaps, but yes, there would be stylistic and organizational differences, too, since each would draw his own conclusions about how best to arrange the material in the two sources.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that there are reasons to suppose that Luke may not have read Matthew. I will concede this because these stylistic arguments are lost on me. What Kloppenborg and the Q-people say isn’t wholly without merit. I m not trained in textual analysis; were I, no doubt much of what they say would make even more sense. But basing their case on the hypothetical existence of a hypothetical document for which there is no evidence aside from the inference that it must exist seems a very slender reed to use to support the superstructure of ther argument. The historian in me simply rebels. Come on now. There is no evidence for this document. What’s worse is that the pro-Q camp is so bloody smug about it. Well, of course there was a Q. What kind of a plebeian are you? Can’t you tell that Luke didn’t use Matthew? Can’t you just tell?

And the other really neat trick they’ve pulled off is that they have entrenched Q so solidly in the thought-world of NT academia that, somehow, it has become incumbent on the non-Q people to prove that Q didn’t exist. In any nomal world of historical analysis, if you suggest that something existed, you had darn well better be able to make a case to show that there is some, you know, evidence that it did exist. But not here. The burden of proof has been put on the shoulders of the non-Q people, and that is just bizarre. Think of it this way. If I want to purchase something large, like a house, I can’t walk into a bank to take out a mortgage, and expect to get said mortgage unless I can prove that I have some assets. I don’t say: “Prove that I don’t have a job, or 100k saved, or whatever”. A fundamental rule of argumentation is that it’s really hard to prove that something doesn’t–or didn’t–exist. I suppose this could be similar to the sort of inferential argument in evolution: we have form A and form C of a given species, so we can infer form B without any actual proof. But this is history; in science a certan line of development can be assumed based on certain physical laws and probabilities, but history has no such rules. Things can progress alonng a certain path and then, suddenly, go off at 90 degrees without a whole lot of warning.

But in fact, this sort of “fill in the blanks” argumentation is a big part of historical thinking, especially for periods of time like early Greece (or most of Greek history), for which we have but scanty evidence. A classic example is the question “where were the horses?” when talking about the Battle of Marathon in 490. Herodotus goes to great pains to talk about the Persian cavalry; how expert they were, how they built special horse-transports to bring them on the expedition, etc. And yet, he never mentions them in the description of the battle. Did they participate? If so, why didn’t he mention them? Did he feel that it wasn’t necessary? Did Herodotus just assume it could be taken as given that the Persian horse were involved? Or did they not participate? If not, why not? In 1899, Professor Munro of Oxford suggested that the Persians had started to load the horses into the transports to make a sea-borne run on Athens, thinking that they could make the trip more quickly than the Athenian army, thus enabling the Persians to attack while Athens was undefended. This was such an ingenius solution that the “dash on Phaleron” became accepted as fact. And when I reported it as such in my first Greek history essay, Prof Cole put a big red circle around it and informed me that this was only a theory. And, in fact, the theoretical “dash on Phaleron” came under increasing attack, and now is little more than an academic footnote. Sic transit gloria academiae.

That was a very long digression, so my apologies. But I believe it is relevant. It was a great theory; it held the field for upwards of 60 years. But, ultimately, it couldn’t be defended for lack of evidence. Hence, it fell back into the pack, just one of many theories. Q has held the field for almost 200 years, all the time without any real evidence. I believe it’s time that it be recognized for what it is: one theory among many.

Another aspect of this that I find hard to believe is that the idea of Luke using Matthew doesn’t have more proponents. It really is the simplest theory; it explains the status quo, even if it does not present a coherent explanation of why Luke seems to differ so much from Matthew. That is simple, too. It’s different because Luke was writing his own gospel. To think that one theory explains Luke’s editorial choices better than another is interesting, and probably valuable, but it is, ultimately, speculation based on aesthetic criteria. Sorry, but that is the simple fact of it, and even Kloppenborg acknowledged this, even if he stopped short of admitting the full array of implications of this.

Besides, there are a number of things that the pro-Q camp never does. First, no one, as far as I can tell, has ever attempted to explain why Mark was wholly unaware of, or unconcerned with, the existence of Q. Mark is writing about Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord. And yet, Mark is pretty much completely silent of what it was that Jesus was teaching. Does he not know about Q, and the content of what Jesus taught? If he know about Q, then he made a deliberate choice to leave out the Q material. Think about that. Jesus was a teacher; Mark said that all who heard him were astounded by Jesus’ teaching, and that he taught with authority, unlike the scribes. And yet, Mark omits pretty much all of the most important stuff. Like most of the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount, which is the epitome of Christian teaching. How is this even posssible?

OK, yes, it’s possible. But what is the likelihood of this? And more, how did happen? Any theory that accepts Q has to explain that. The pro-Q camp insists to the point of vehemence that any theory that doesn’t accept Q has to have a full-blown explanation for every place where Luke changes Matthew’s narrative. And yet, they do not even acknowledge that explaining how Mark didn’t know about/didn’t us Q is even an issue, let alone attempt to explain it. Sorry, that’s just wrong as an attempted historical thesis of the situation. A valid theory cannot simply ignore the problem of why Mark didn’t use Q material.

When I first started doing this, I blandly assumed Q because it’s so deeply ingrained in the scholarship. It’s just taken as given. Over time I came to understand the problems with the theory. There are others who are aware of this; Goodacre suggests that it should always be referred to as “the hypothetical document Q” as a reminder. I mean, we are at the point where we have reconstructed Q. Think about that: we have reconstructed a document that probably never existed. How slick is that? And even Goodacre acknowledges that Q is “coherent” in the thoughts expressed. More, we have identified the different layers of Q. That is the degree to which Q is simply believed. It’s an astonishing act of faith, really.

Of course this identification of Q strata does not explain where these later strata came from. Where were they when the original Q was written? Which raises questions. The whole point of Q is that it is a very early document, predating possibly even Paul, recording Jesus’ words shortly after his death. And yet, there’s this stuff that was added later. Do we not see a problem with this? This is what is called “internally inconsistent”. It does not work in the terms of its own internal logic.

So with time, I became convinced that the situation was this: Most of what distinguishes Matthew from Mark–e.g., the Sermon on the Mount–had actually been written by Matthew, and then Luke wrote his gospel using both Mark and Matthew. I still believe that Luke used Matthew. All one has to do is compare the “brood of vipers” speech in Matthew and Luke. They are more or less verbatim. The obvious conclusion is that Luke copied Matthew here. Now, the Q people will say that they both copied directly from Q, but the simpler solution is that Luke used Matthew. This doesn’t require the introduction of any hypothetical documents. And note one other thing: Q is supposedly the teachings of Jesus. But it’s the Baptist who utters the “brood of vipers” speech. When did Q become concerned with John? Think about that. Once again, the “coherent” document of Q is internally inconsistent. Well, the riposte would be, this comes from a later stratum, one that wasn’t part of the original. Translated from Q-speak, this means someone made it up afterwards. Who? Well, someone. But not Mark. Well, maybe it was Matthew. Someone made it up. We don’t know who. So we can attribute it to an unknown author of a possibly non-existent text, or we can attribute it to Matthew. While technically, the author of Matthew is just as unknown as the author of Q, at least with “Matthew” we know that the text did actually exist. That’s a big step forward over the possibly non-existent document Q.

One thing needs to be made very clear. Luke wrote a gospel because he felt he could add to the overall story of Jesus. Indeed, that’s why Matthew wrote his gospel. Matthew did not set out to repeat what Mark said, and only what Mark said. What would be the point of that? Matthew added material because he felt he had more to add. The same with Luke. Why did he change Matthew’s inviolable order? Because he was Luke, and not Matthew. Whether the changes that Luke made make sense to us is more or less irrelevant; they made sense to Luke. I know that violates the sensibilities of a lot of biblical scholars, and possibly a lot of Christians. But if we’re going to read this as an ancient text, then we have to throw away an awful lot of prejudices, preconceived notions, and sacred cows. We have to look at the text, and we have to look at the historical process. Luke changed Matthew because he wanted to, because it felt like the best way to tell his story. And Luke wanted to tell his own story. He did not want simply to repeat Matthew; what is the point of that?

It’s perhaps similar to the way a movie changes the book; fans of the book invariably ask, “why did they change it?” Answer: because they wanted to, they wanted to put their own stamp and interpretation on the work, to tell the story in a slightly (or significantly) different manner because it made artistic sense to the director to do so. Luke had his own story to tell. If it meant changing ’round some of the stuff in Matthew, then so be it. This wasn’t Matthew’s story any longer, after all. Luke added so much to the Christian vocabulary and thought world, images that are woven into the fabric of Western thought: the Good Shepherd; the Prodigal Son: the Good Samaritan. These are bywords in the English language. So if he changed the order of Matthew, then that’s really a small price to pay for this enormous addition of new ideas.

And here’s one other thing. Both Matthew and Luke start their gospels with an entirely fictitious historical event. Matthew invented the Slaughter of the Innocents. Luke invented the idea of a census in which you had to return to your ancestral home town. Both of these are grossly ahistorical. Neither of them happened. And yet, given this, we wonder that Luke would scruple to change some of the stuff, the context, the order, of Matthew? He was willing to invent this enormous event that his readers would have known to be less-than-factual; why would he then be unwilling to mess with Matthew’s content?

But the point is, I still firmly believe that Luke knew Matthew’s gospel, and used it to compose his own. I do not see the need to explain every little variation between Luke and Matthew, any more than the Q people feel the need to explain why Matthew chose to change pieces of Mark. Like pretty much everything up through Chapter 7 of Matthew is very different from the opening of Mark. Why don’t the Q people feel it necessary to explain that, and then turn around and demand an explanation for Luke’s changes to Matthew. The discussion, as currently occurring, is being fought entirely on ground chosen by the Q camp. It needs to be shifted onto neutral turf, where the Q argument has none of the inherent advantages that it currently has.

But I am no longer so certain that Matthew wrote all of the new stuff on his own. My new thesis is that much of this came from James, brother of Jesus (why does that seem so familiar?). The plan was to adress that topic in this discussion, but this has already ballooned well beyond a workable post. That will have to be saved for another. In the meantime, let’s hope that I’ve gotten a lot of this Q stuff out of my system. It’s been showing up much too prominently in the commentary. So now maybe, having gotten this down on paper, I can focus on the actual gospel once again.

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 9, 2015, in General / Overview, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew, Matthew's Gospel, Q, Special topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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