Students of the Gospels will know that there has been a long-standing discussion among scholars about the relationship between the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These three Gospels are so similar at so many points (often word for word), that it raises a number of intriguing questions. Did they know each other? Did they use each other?
For generations, the dominant answer to this question has been the so-called “Two Source” hypothesis. In brief, that hypothesis argues that Mark wrote first, and then Matthew and Luke independently used Mark. Since Matthew and Luke did not know each other (so the argument goes), then the common material they share that is not found in Mark (about 235 verses) supposedly came from a hypothetical source scholars have dubbed “Q.”
If your eyes are glazed over by now, and you’re feeling confused, don’t feel bad. My students often have the same reaction! There are few topics in Gospels studies as convoluted and mind-spinning as the Synoptic Problem.
In the midst of the brain fog, don’t miss the big issue at hand. If Q existed (and can be reliably reconstructed) then we have access to one of the earliest strata of Gospel material—earlier than any extant Gospel we possess. And certainly that explains why scholars are so interested in this question.
However, it seems the Q theory has fallen on hard times of late. While Q arguably enjoyed its heyday in the 20th century, it seems that more and more scholars are raising questions about it. And, perhaps even more curiously, those concerns come from both sides of the theological “aisle.”
Evangelical Push Back Against Q
First, it should be noted that there are many evangelical scholars who affirm the Q theory. In principle, there is nothing “un-evangelical” about Q. Luke himself indicates that “many” other gospels were written before his own (Luke 1:1), some of which may have presumably been used as a source.
At the same time, however, evangelicals have been typically squeamish about Q. And there a couple of reasons why. First, some critical scholars have insisted that Q proves that the earliest versions of Christianity were unconcerned with the details of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Since Q consists primarily of sayings, and does not include these details of Jesus’s life, some scholars think that means the focus on the death/resurrection must have been a later add-on. Understandably, evangelicals have balked at this sort of interpretation.
Second, some critical scholars have used Q has a reason to date the Gospel of Thomas to the first century. If Q is our earliest gospel source, and is in the format of a “sayings gospel,” then this is taken as evidence that sayings gospels were the earliest type of gospel. And since Thomas is a sayings gospel, so the argument goes, then this must mean Thomas is one of our earliest gospels.
Of course, there are numerous problems with this line of reasoning, not the least of which is that Thomas is most likely a second-century gospel (see the work of Mark Goodacre and Simon Gathercole on this question).
Scholarly Push Back Against Q
But it is not just evangelicals who have pushed back against the Q theory. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of scholarly support for other solutions to the Synoptic problem, particularly the Farrer hypothesis. On this scenario, Mark was first, and Matthew used Mark as a source. In addition, Luke drew upon both Matthew and Mark.
The key point for the Farrer hypothesis is that Luke knew and used Matthew—something that the two-source hypothesis denies. And if Luke knew Matthew then there’s no reason to posit some hypothetical source to explain their common material. Hence, no need for Q.
Particularly helpful defenses of the Farrer hypothesis have come from Mark Goodacre and Francis Watson. Over the last month, I’ve been working through Watson’s latest volume, What is a Gospel? (Eerdmans, 2022), where he devotes a good bit of space to these sorts of issues.
It is worth noting one of Watson’s more intriguing observations. While recounting the early history of the debate over Q, Watson points out that it was originally viewed as the more “conservative hypothesis” (101). While Watson acknowledges that radical conclusions are sometimes drawn from Q by modern scholars, he reminds us that “there is nothing in the hypothesized Q that was not first in Matthew and Luke” (100).
In other words—and here’s he punch line—Q is essentially a canonical text.
Such an observation makes me wonder whether some evangelicals might ever change their minds about Q. Once they realize it essentially contains canonical content, would the objections dissipate? Could Q ever become viewed as the more “conservative” position?
Such is the topsy-turvy world of biblical scholarship. Views that in one generation are viewed as conservative can be viewed as radical in the next. And vice versa.
What’s My View of Q?
So, where do I land in this whole discussion? In short, I think there were probably documents like Q in circulation within the early Christian movement. Not only do we have the testimony of Luke mentioned above, but I have written elsewhere about the likelihood that the earliest Christians might have recorded words/sayings of Jesus in “notebooks,” or primitive codices. Such a possibility is explored at length in Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, as well as Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript.
But just because there may have been documents like Q, doesn’t mean the Q hypothesis itself is persuasive. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s persuasive enough to warrant the level of certainty often attributed to it, and the level of precision in reconstructing it. And if you consider the role of oral tradition in the solution to the Synoptic Problem, as James D.G. Dunn has done, then precise reconstructions of Q become even more problematic.
In the end, however, my view of Q is similar to Origen’s view about the authorship of Hebrews: “God only knows”!