Summary Luke Chapter 6

Supposedly, this chapter is about Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, which takes up nearly the entire chapter. In actual fact, however, the theme of this chapter is Q. So much of the Q debate is taken up by the sheer brilliance of the Sermon on the Mount, that we are forced to compare Luke’s Sermon on the Plain to that other masterpiece. It has been decreed that this version of the Q material preserves a more primitive version of Q, and that this version is decidedly inferior. Those statements are not to be gainsaid if one wishes to be included in polite company of NT scholars. Well, the problem is that I’m not an NT scholar (or, I suppose, a scholar of any sort, except maybe a wannabe…), so I’ll likely never be invited into polite company, anyway, so I can throw a few bricks, or, with luck, start a food fight. It’s time we talked about the content of the two gospels.

Let’s start at the very beginning. Matthew says they went up the mountain. Luke says they went up the mountain, but came back down, and then he stresses that he began speaking on a plain. Luke does not sort of drift off, leaving it vague; he very specifically says “a level place”. So which is the original? Remember, Luke supposedly preserves the more primitive version of Q, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Oh, right, alternating primitivity. Either way, if this came from Q, Luke had to decide to bring Jesus down from the mountain and stand in a level place. Why does he do this? Why not leave him on the mountain? Or did Luke make the change exactly because Matthew had Jesus on the mountain? Is this the emergence of the puckish humor of Luke? That he’s sort of tweaking Matthew a bit? We mentioned that in the penultimate section, in which Luke launched into a stream of unusual words that are not found in Matthew, and very few other places as far as that goes.

But there’s even a more basic question. The Gospel of Thomas is a sayings gospel. Its discovery was hailed as a vindication of the Q thesis, demonstrating that sayings gospels were, indeed, written. Since it was a sayings gospel, it was immediately declared to be very early, tracing back to Jesus himself (perhaps), and proving that Q could exist, which basically meant Thomas was taken to prove that Q did exist. But Thomas has one striking dissimilarity to Q, as reconstructed. Thomas has no physical descriptions of place or action. Pretty much everything starts with “Jesus said…” And yet, the reconstructed Q is full of all sorts of physical descriptions and settings in place such as the “up/down the mountain”. Thomas does not have stuff from the Baptist. It doesn’t talk about centurions. It is, truly, what we would expect of a “sayings” gospel. Reconstructed Q, on the other hand, simply is not. There is stuff from the Baptist, and physical description. And there is so much of this that those doing the reconstructing were more or less forced to say that it all came from Q. Otherwise, how to explain the overlaps? It’s impossible to do so without either putting this extraneous stuff in Q, or admitting that Luke read Matthew. Since the latter has to be rejected on ideological grounds, the former is the only choice.

The upshot, right from the start, we have a pretty good indication that Luke was, indeed, aware of Matthew. He was aware that Matthew’s sermon was on a mountain, so Luke put his on a level place. Why? The Q people say I have to explain every deviation from Matthew in a manner that is supported by a consistent editorial attitude. So I posit mine to be puckish humor. That suggestion comes with a guarantee of originality, that you will not find that in the, ahem, serious literature. And I don’t mean to be flippant or facetious. My suggestion is entirely serious, if only to show the range of interpretation that is possible in these situations. “Deadly serious” is not the only setting for discussion, just because it’s the default setting. I’m going to continue to look for this humourous edge throughout the gospel. Let’s see how that stands up to scrutiny.

So Matthew has the primitive “up the mountain”, but Luke has the primitive version of the first Beatitude. Matthew’s poor are poor in spirit; Luke’s are just poor. This is not a matter of primitive vs developed. It’s a situation in which each evangelist is saying a very different thing. Puckish humor again? Perhaps a bit more wry this time, with a bit of an edge. “Poor in spirit” is all very fine and good, but what about those who are just poor? And not only do they hunger and thirst for justice, they’re just damn hungry. Yes, this is more primitive, if by that you mean the more pointedly addressing fundamental needs. Why do they hunger for justice? Because they’re poor, really poor, and not just “poor in spirit”. Being poor in spirit almost implies that they are not poor in actuality, that we are not discussing physical privation, but sort of a moral discomfort. So yes, it is quite easy to say that Luke is more primitive, but he’s also more righteous.

There is one more aspect of “primitivity” that sorely needs to be addressed. The idea that one version or the other is more primitive completely begs the question. It assumes that there is a total of three versions; one is original, and the other two are derivative. Ergo, one of the derivatives is more primitive than the other. But if there is no third version, to say that Matthew or Luke is more primitive becomes meaningless. In all cases, Matthew is the more “primitive” because it was written most of a generation earlier. So discussing primitivity is meaningless absent Q; discussing primitivity assumes the existence of Q, which is what we’re trying to determine, whether Q existed or not. By shifting the battleground to discussions of primitivity, the Q people have already won the debate since we’re now taking Q as given. This is admittedly deft rhetoric, but it’s also bad logic.

There’s another aspect of Q that never gets discussed. This has to do with the actual content of the sayings. Do they truly seem appropriate to the time in which they were, supposedly, uttered? Or do they make more sense to a later time and place? If the latter, what does that do to the idea of Q? Especially if these anachronisms are repeated in both Matthew and Luke? That really puts a crimp into the supporting pillars of the Q position. I keep coming back to what Q is supposed to be: a collection of sayings that predate Mark and presumably Paul and trace back to Jesus, usually by way of one of his close associates. The list of eligible associates is probably limited to Peter, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee. They perhaps did not write the sayings themselves, but they remembered them and dictated them to a scribe. From this list we can strike Peter, because he was John Mark’s source for the first gospel to be written. According to church tradition, Mark the Evangelist was John Mark, the associate of Paul. Mark went to Rome and became part of Peter’s community, and Peter provided the information for Mark’s gospel. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: Mark’s gospel does not include any of the so-called Q material. This means one of several things, the most likely of which is that the entire tradition is a later fabrication. Either John Mark was not Mark the Evangelist, or Peter never went to Rome or whatever, but wherever Mark got his material for the gospel, it likely did not come from an eyewitness to Jesus because the source, or sources, were completely ignorant of most of the really important stuff that Jesus said. This ignorance, in turn, is predicated on the data that Q existed and that it is an accurate record of what Jesus actually said. The result is that there is a gaping hole in the explanation provided; it then becomes a question of figuring out the most likely location of that hole.

This leaves us with a couple of choices: either Mark’s gospel did not derive from an eyewitness account, or Jesus didn’t say the things in Q. There are others, such as that Mark chose not to include Jesus’ teachings; however, that strikes me as a bit unlikely. Why on earth would Mark’s source not tell Mark what Jesus taught, or why would Mark deliberately choose to leave this stuff out of the gospel?  I would really like to hear someone try to explain that one.

Another consideration is whether the things Q says Jesus said make sense for Jesus’ time. We touched on this in the commentary, in verses 22 & 23, in which they are blessed who are reviled for Jesus’ sake. These seem to be references to some sort of “persecution” of the followers of Jesus. As pointed out, there is no indication in any of the gospel accounts that Jesus or his followers really suffered any kind of persecution during his lifetime. Yes, we have the account of Paul, but that came later. So we are faced with the situation in which something that Jesus said is likely due to circumstances that only came about after Jesus’ death. And we know that Jesus said this because it’s part of the Q material, and we know that it’s part of the Q material because it’s included in both Matthew and Luke. But if it is unlikely that Jesus said this, that makes the Q hypothesis rather untenable because it, apparently, includes material from after the time of Jesus’ death.

Which leads us to one of the more annoying aspects of the Q hypothesis. In order to cover some of these embarrassing moments, it is posited that Q exists in strata, in layers, that accumulated through time. The implication of this is that some of the material obviously does not trace back to Jesus. This is an eminently convenient suggestion, because it means that Q can include whatever those reconstructing it say it includes. In this way it has all sorts of stuff that a true sayings gospel does not have. We also mentioned this in the commentary: Thomas is a true sayings gospel. Virtually all the passages begin with “Jesus said”. This is how a true sayings gospel should be set up. Much of the hullaballoo about Thomas was that it vindicated the Q theory by being a sayings gospel. Well, Q is not a true sayings gospel. It includes too much extraneous information about John the Baptist, the set-up for the Centurion’s son/servant, the setting of Jesus going up the mountain. All this points to a Q thesis that is not internally consistent, which makes the construction of the entire story suspect.

The point of all this is simple. When the Q debate is taken from the safe environs the Q people have created for it, the conclusions are not nearly so secure. The implication of this is that a legitimate Q debate needs to happen.


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 July 16, 2017, in Chapter 6, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel, Q, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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