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Frequently Asked Questions on
the Case Against Q

Q: Why question the Q hypothesis? Is it not one of the assured findings of New Testament research?

Q: What, then, are the grounds for re-opening the case against Q?

Q: If Luke knew Matthew, why are their Genealogies so different?

    The Genealogies (Matt. 1.1-17 // Luke 3.23- 38) are indeed quite distinct. But Luke's difference from Matthew here does not rule out Luke's knowledge of Matthew elsewhere. It is out-dated nonsense to assume that Luke would have used everything unchanged from his sources. Matthew's very Jewish looking Genealogy, schematized so meticulously into three periods of fourteen generations, beginning with Abraham and revolving around David, was probably not to Luke's taste, and so Jesus' lineage is traced back to 'Adam, son of God' (3.38).

Q: What about the Birth Narratives? Don't the differences demonstrate Luke's ignorance of Matthew?

    Knowledge of a source is not the same as use of a source. And there are signs of Luke's knowledge of Matthew - they agree on Bethlehem, Joseph and, most importantly, the Virgin Birth. But Luke may have thought that he could improve on Matthew's account. If so, both subsequent history and the liturgy have agreed with him: it is from Luke that we get our shepherds, angels and manger, and from Luke that we take our Benedictus, Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis.

Q: If Luke knew Matthew, why does he never use Matthew's additions to Mark in triple tradition material?

    He does. Luke prefers Matthew to Mark in several triple tradition incidents - the Temptation (Matt. 4.1-11 // Mark 1.12-13 // Luke 4.1-13), Beelzebub (Matt. 12.22-30 // Mark 3.20-27 // Luke 11.14-23) and the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13.18-19 // Mark 4.30-32 // Luke 13.18-19) among them. The challenge which such accounts pose to the Q Hypothesis goes unnoticed because they are placed in a separate (and problematic) category of their own called 'Mark-Q overlap'.

Q: What is the problem with Mark-Q overlaps?

    One of the standard arguments for the existence of Q is that Matthew and Luke never agree with each other against Mark in order and (substantial amounts of) wording. This argument is false: Matthew and Luke do have major agreements between each other against Mark, in both wording and order. The theory of an overlapping between Mark and Q obscures this observation, leaving the standard argument unchallenged. It is because of recourse to Mark-Q overlaps that those sceptical about Q have to lay stress instead on the Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark.

Q: Why are the Minor Agreements problematic for the Q Hypothesis?

    The Q Hypothesis is founded on the supposed impossibility of Luke's dependence on Matthew. One way of testing this is to look for signs of Luke's knowledge of Matthew in the triple tradition material (= material common to all three synoptics). Among the thousand or so Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark are some which are very difficult to explain if Luke and Matthew were independent. Among the most striking are Matt. 4.12-13 // Mark 1.14 // Luke 4.16 (Nazara) and Matt. 26.67-8 // Mark 14.65 // Luke 22.63-4 ('Who is the one who smote you?').

Q: The case from the Minor Agreements has been answered by Q Theorists, hasn't it?

    For many years the matter seemed to have been settled by B. H. Streeter's The Four Gospels: A Study of Origins (London: Macmillan, 1924) and J. Schmid's Matthäus und Lukas (Freiburg: Herder, 1930). More recently, confidence in Streeter's and Schmid's 'divide and conquer' approach to the Minor Agreements has wavered, and Frans Neirynck has led the defence of Luke's independence from Matthew. The issue is certainly not a closed one.

Q: Surely the problem for the case against Q is that the Minor Agreements are just that, so minor?

    Not really. Let me quote from Goulder and the Gospels (p. 126): If Luke has reconciled Mark and Matthew, this will have resulted in 'a sliding scale of Matthean influence on Luke, from pure triple tradition passages which feature Minor Agreements, to Mark-Q overlap passages which feature more Mattheanisms, to double tradition passages where Luke is dependent solely on Matthew'. The Minor Agreements are only part of a broader spectrum.

Q: At best, the Minor Agreements can only show Luke's subsidiary dependence on Matthew in triple tradition passages. Surely, by analogy, they can at best only show Luke's subsidiary dependence on Matthew in Q material?

    This argument has been put forward by Tuckett, Friedrichsen and especially Neirynck. It needs to be remembered, in response, why it is that one stresses the Minor Agreements. It is because several of them represent the clearest and most obvious threat to the hypothesis of Matthew's and Luke's independence from each other, the hypothesis that necessitates belief in Q. If the Minor Agreements indeed betray Luke's knowledge of Matthew, then the main reason for belief in Q has disappeared.

Q: Surely the Minor Agreements can be explained by appeal to the notion of an earlier edition of Mark. Could not Matthew and Luke have used this "Ur-Marcus" rather than our Mark?

    The difficulty with this notion is that the Minor Agreements seem, on the whole, to be secondary to Mark. In other words, it is much easier to explain the difficult Minor Agreements as resulting from Luke's use of Matthew than it is to explain them as witnessing to an earlier version of Mark. Although the idea of an "Ur-Marcus" was once commonplace, it now has few defenders.

Q: What then of a deutero-Markus? Could the idea that Matthew and Luke used a revised edition of Mark explain the Minor Agreements?

    This position is currently defended with vigour by the Austrian scholar Albert Fuchs. Deutero-Markus, an attempt to save the hypothetical Q by the invention of a second hypothetical document, is valuable in that it takes the Minor Agreements seriously and acknowledges that they cause a problem for the classic form of the Two-Source Theory. However, one has to point to the implausibility that this deutero-Markus, though influential enough to have found its way independently to both Matthew and Luke, was not apparently influential enough to supplant our Mark. Our only witness to its existence is the phenomenon of the minor and major agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark, and these are more simply and plausibly explained by the theory of Luke's knowledge of Matthew. But Fuchs's theory is half-right. Deutero-Markus was used by Luke, and we are able to give it a name: the Gospel According to St Matthew.

Q: If Luke used Matthew, how do you explain his spoiling Matthew's order?

    'Matthew's order' is precisely that, Matthew's order and it is straightforward to see why Luke would have wanted to alter it. Whereas Matthew's order is more wooden, with its five great edifices (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25), Luke has a plausible, sequential narrative. In the words of Luke Johnson, his narrative is 'essentially linear, moving the reader from one event to another . . . Instead of inserting great blocks of discourse into the narrative, Luke more subtly interweaves deeds and sayings' (Anchor Bible Dictionary IV, 405- 6). The more that scholars appreciate Luke's literary ability, the less necessary Q will become.

Q: How can you explain Luke's having spoilt Matthew's wonderful Sermon on the Mount?

    Luke does not like excessively long discourses, and he cuts them down by omitting some parts and redistributing the rest. One can see this clearly from Luke's treatment of Mark 4.1-34, some of which remains (Sower; Lamp, Luke 8); some of which is omitted (Seed Growing Secretly) and some of which is redistributed (Mustard Seed, Luke 13.18-19). In the Sermon Luke cuts much of the uncongenial, specifically Jewish material (on oaths, almsgiving and fasting, for example) and he redistributes other parts to ideal locations. 'Ask, Seek, Knock' (Matt. 7.7-12 // Luke 11.9-13) reappears most appropriately in a section on prayer (Luke 11.1-13) and 'Consider the Lilies' (Matt. 6.25-34 // Luke 12.22-34) follows perfectly from the Rich Fool (Luke 12.13-21).

Q: How do you explain the fact that sometimes it is Matthew and sometimes it is Luke who preserves the more original form of Q sayings?

    Stated like this, the question is of course circular. What is meant is: why is it that it is sometimes Matthew and sometimes Luke who appears to have the more original form of a Q saying? This is an important question and here is a summary of the most important things to consider in response to it:

    1. There is no problem for the Farrer Hypothesis in occasions where the Matthean wording of a Q saying is thought to be more original than the Lukan wording. Here, the verdict of scholarship will be congenial to the thesis of Luke's use of Matthew.

    2. The calculation that the Lucan form of certain Q sayings is prior to the Matthean form is based partly on recognising distinctively Matthean language among such sayings. But this logic only works once the Q hypothesis has been assumed. For if Luke used Matthew, one will expect to see Luke re-wording the Matthean original and, in the process, eliminating some of the distinctively Matthean language. This can have the knock-on effect of making the Lukan version look more 'original'. This matter is dubbed the Matthean vocabulary fallacy by Michael Goulder, expounded in Luke , pp. 11-15, modified by me in Goulder and the Gospels, pp. 83-85.

    3. The calculation that Lukan forms of Q sayings are sometimes more original than their Matthean counterparts is also based on a feature of Luke's style. Luke is a subtle and versatile writer with a large vocabulary and a tendency to vary his synonyms. Matthew, on the other hand, has a more pronounced, easily recognisable style and not such a rich vocabulary. It is consequently much less straightforward to judge Lukan redactoral activity than it is to pick out where Matthew has edited sources, and it is correspondingly easy to jump to the conclusion that an apparently 'un-Lukan' form is a 'pre-Lukan', Q form. This matter is dubbed the Lukan priority fallacy by Michael Goulder (Luke, pp. 15-17).

    4. The issue is further complicated by the likelihood that on occasions Luke does preserve different (or earlier) versions of Jesus' sayings. Oral traditions of Jesus' sayings did not die out as soon as Matthew (or Mark) committed them to papyrus. Luke will have creatively interacted with such oral traditions in the composition of his Gospel and this may have meant, on occasion, that he bears witness to a different, or more original form of a Jesus saying.

Q: The Gospel of Thomas proves the existence of Q, doesn't it?

    No. The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas apparently helps the Q theorist to dispense with one of Farrer's arguments against Q, that "there is no independent evidence for anything like Q". Fitzmyer was one of the first to see this. However, we cannot go beyond that to the notion that Thomas somehow proves the existence of Q, particularly when we bear in mind the following:

    1. The existence of Thomas does not help us with the key question of whether or not Matthew and Luke are independent, the essential presupposition of the Q theory.

    2. The degree of formal similarity between Q and Thomas should not be exaggerated. One (alleged Q) is made up of discourses, sometimes lengthy, often linked by theme, usually carefully structured. The other (Thomas) is made up of disparate sayings, rarely lengthy, with no easily discernible order.

    3. There is overlap between the contents of Thomas and the contents of Q (i.e. the double tradition material), but there is overlap also between Thomas and Mark, Thomas and "M" and Thomas and "L". In other words, Q apparently has no unique or special relationship with Thomas.

    4. Unlike Thomas, Q apparently has a blatant narrative exordium in which the progress of Jesus' ministry is carefully plotted. In outline this is John the Baptist's appearance in the Jordan, his preaching, Jesus' baptism, temptations in the wilderness, Nazara, a great Sermon, Capernaum where the Centurion's Boy is healed, messengers from John the Baptist. This sequence makes good sense when one sees that these are places where Luke parallels the non-Markan elements in Matt. 3-11.

Q: Doesn't dispensing with Q mean dispensing also with all other sources?

    Not necessarily. Michael Goulder is famous for coupling his elimination of Q with the attempted elimination of any other sources behind Matthew and Luke. However, my research suggests that this was unwise, and that we will make the best sense of Luke on the assumption that he has creatively interacted not only with Matthew and Mark but also with oral traditions (Goulder and the Gospels, Part Two, pp. 132-291).

Q: Doesn't dispensing with Q mean dispensing also with Markan Priority?

    No. The Griesbach Hypothesis, the most popular alternative to the Two Source Theory in North America, dispenses with both Q and Markan Priority. The Griesbachians are right in perceiving that something is wrong with the standard solution to the synoptic problem, but it is unlikely, in the long run, that they will convince people that Matthew was the first Gospel. In order to go 'beyond the Q impasse', one needs to walk hand-in-hand with Markan Priority.

Q: Doesn't dispensing with Q mean the acceptance of some sort of dubious lectionary hypothesis?

    No. One of the reasons that Farrer's seminal article has been frowned upon by some is that he mixed some ground-breaking suggestions with some highly dubious and unconvincing speculation about a hexateuchal structure behind Luke. Likewise, Michael Goulder greatly over-stressed his lectionary hypothesis in the 1970s in his attempt to overturn Q. But if the case against Q has sometimes been tainted by association with these theories, it is healthier now that it is allowed to stand alone.

Q: If the Q Theory is a mistake, why does Q remain so popular?

  1. Many scholars are ignorant of the Farrer Theory. Practically every introduction to the synoptic problem tells us that for all its weaknesses, the Two-Source Theory explains the evidence better than any of its rivals. But here lies the problem: many scholars (especially outside the UK) are unaware of the most plausible alternative, the Farrer Theory. Let me illustrate:

    • One will struggle to find reviews or citations of works by Q sceptics in German literature. One might infer from this that few German scholars have read (for example) the works of Michael Goulder. This is a striking phenomenon, for Goulder makes some important criticisms of leading German Q theorists.

    • An example of the same thing on the American side is provided by Raymond Brown's recent Introduction to the New Testament (ABRL; Garden City: Doubleday, 1997) which discusses the Synoptic Probem in twelve pages (pp. 111-22) without mentioning the Farrer Theory, or any proponent of it. Neither Farrer, Goulder nor Sanders are mentioned in the bibliography of the synoptic problem (pp. 123-4).

  2. Markan Priority and Q are thought to be sisters. And they are sisters who seem fond of each other for they are seldom seen apart. It is therefore often taken that an attack on Q must be an attack also on Markan Priority, an impression apparently confirmed by the writings of Griesbachians with whom people like Goulder are often confused.

  3. Michael Goulder's ideas seem unpalatable. Far and away the most important Q sceptic is Michael Goulder. His writings constitute a weighty challenge to the Q hypothesis. However, many are deterred from taking Goulder's arguments against Q seriously because they are mixed with two less palatable ideas, a). the lectionary theory and b). the idea (as it is perceived) that Matthew and Luke "made it all up". But the lectionary theory and dispensing with oral traditions play no part in my own case against Q. What then of my case against Q? I am still preparing it; this web site represents a beginning point.

  4. A Laissez-Faire attitude. Q is taken for granted by most who write on the Synoptics, many of whom, when challenged, simply make a vague appeal to discredited arguments by Streeter, while ignorant of plausible arguments in favour of Luke's use of Matthew. Yet every time that Q is assumed, it appears to gain ground, for a working hypothesis can look like a plausible hypothesis. So everyone marches merrily on, little realising that they are going in the wrong direction.

    In summary: Q remains popular because the alternatives are either unfamiliar (Farrer), unacceptable (Griesbach) or unpalatable (Goulder). Q, on the other hand, keeps good company (Markan Priority) and enjoys the luxury of being taken for granted by a majority that has not, as Luke would have said, investigated the matter carefully from the beginning.

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This file was last updated on 4 March 2002
© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Mark Goodacre