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Ten Reasons to Question Q

This is an overview of grounds for scepsis about Q. These ten points are intended to function not as self-contained, knock-down objections but rather, when taken together, to encourage some critical questioning of the Q hypothesis.

  1. No-one has ever seen Q
  2. Current literature on Q abounds with editions of Q, investigations into its strata, studies of the communities that were behind it and analyses of their theology. In such circumstances, it is worth allowing ourselves the sober reminder that there is no manuscript of Q in existence. No-one has yet found even a fragment of Q.

  3. No-one had ever heard of Q
  4. No ancient author appears to have been aware of the existence of Q. One will search in vain for a single reference to it in ancient literature. For a while it was thought that 'the logia' to which Papias referred might be Q. Indeed, this was one of the planks on which the Q hypothesis rested in the nineteenth century. But no reputable scholar now believes this.

  5. Narrative Sequence in Q
  6. Q apparently has a narrative sequence 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 narrative is problematic for the Q theory in two ways. First, it contradicts the assertion that Q is a "Sayings Gospel" that parallels Thomas. Second, this sequence makes sense when one notices that it corresponds precisely to the places at which Matthew departs from Mark's basic order (in Matt. 3-11) and where Luke, in parallel, departs from that order. In other words, it makes good sense on the assumption that Luke is following Matthew as well as Mark.

  7. Occam's Razor
  8. The British medieval philosopher Occam suggested a fine working principle: that entities should not be multiplied beyond what is necessary. How then has Q escaped Occam's razor? Luke's independence of Matthew, the thesis that necessitates Q, is thought to be confirmed by Luke's apparent ignorance of Matthew in the passages they both share with Mark (triple tradition passages). But the existence of agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark in these very passages suggests otherwise.

  9. Major Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark
  10. A clear and famous example of major agreement between Matthew and Luke against Mark is provided by the Parable of the Mustard Seed:

    Matt. 13.31-32 Mark 4.30-32 Luke 13.18-19
    He put another parable
    before them, saying: 'The
    kingdom of heaven is

    like a grain of
    mustard seed, which
    a person, having taken it,
    sowed in his field; which,
    though it is the smallest
    of all the seeds,
    it has grown is the
    greatest of the
    vegetables, and it
    becomes a tree,
    so that the birds of
    heaven come and nest
    in its branches.'
    And he was saying,
    'How shall we liken the
    kingdom of God, or in
    what parable shall we put
    it? Like a grain of
    mustard seed, which when

    it is sown upon the earth
    is the smallest
    of all the seeds on the
    earth and when it is sown,
    it grows and becomes the
    greatest of all the
    vegetables, and it
    produces great branches,
    so that the birds of
    heaven are able to nest
    under its shade.'
    Therefore he was saying:
    'What is the
    kingdom of God like,and
    to what shall I liken
    it? It is like a grain of
    mustard seed, which
    a person, having taken it,
    put in his own garden and

    it grew

    and it
    became a tree,
    and the birds of
    heaven nested
    in its branches.'

    The parts shown in red illustrate the agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark. Location is also important: both Matthew and Luke, unlike Mark, pair this parable with The Leaven (Matt. 13.33 // Luke 13.20-21). Since the Q hypothesis is founded on Luke's independence of Matthew, agreement like this, agreement against Mark in both wording and order, should not be present. But the force of such major agreements tends not to be felt because of appeal to the phenomenon of 'Mark-Q overlap', both here and elsewhere (e.g. the Temptation; John the Baptist; Beelzebub). Does this then put the Q-sceptic in a no-win situation? Not quite. The Q hypothesis has a well-known achilles heel, the Minor Agreements.

  11. Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark
  12. There are about a thousand Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark. There is barely a pericope in the triple tradition (Matthew-Mark-Luke) that does not feature any. Among them are some that are so striking that Q begins to look vulnerable. For example:

    Matt. 4.12-13 Mark 1.14, 21 Luke 4.14, 16, 31
    12. AkousaV de oti
    IwannhV paredoqh,

    eiV thn Galilaian. 13. Kai
    katalipwn thn Nazara
    elqwn katwkhsen eiV
    Kafarnaoum . . .
    14. Meta de to
    paradoqhnai ton Iwannhn,
    hlqen o IhsouV

    eiV thn Galilaian . . .

    21. Kai eisporeuontai eiV
    Kafarnaoum . . .
    14. Kai

    upestreyen o IhsouV en
    th dunamei tou pneumatoV
    eiV thn Galilaian . . .
    16. Kai hlqen eiV Nazara
    . . . 31. kai kathlqen eiV
    Kafarnaoum . . .

    For those without knowledge of Greek, there are two key points here. First, Matthew and Luke both agree against Mark in the order of Jesus' itinerary. Jesus visits Nazara before he goes to Capernaum. Further, both Matthew and Luke use a unique spelling here - not Nazaret (Nazaret) or Nazareq (Nazareth) but Nazara (Nazara). This Minor Agreement, so difficult to explain if Luke is independent from Matthew, can only be removed by the suggestion that Nazara could have appeared in Q, a troublesome solution which increases the number of narrative elements in Q (cf. point 3 above) and makes Q look more like Matthew (cf. point 4 above).

  13. Minor Agreements in the Passion Narrative
  14. If one were to find a Minor Agreement between Matthew and Luke in the Passion narrative (Matt. 26-28 // Mark 14-16 // Luke 22-24), then this would be stronger evidence still against the existence of Q, for no-one thinks that Q has a Passion Narrative. The good news is that there are several Minor Agreements in this material, the most striking of which is this:

    Matt. 26.67-8 Mark 14.65 Luke 22.63-4
    eneptusan eiV

    to proswpon autou
    kai ekolafisan auton,
    oi de errapisan
    profhteuson hmin, Criste,
    tiV estin o paisaV se;
    kai hrxanto tineV
    autw kai
    autou to proswpon
    kai kolafizein auton

    kai legein autw,
    kai oi andreV oi
    suneconteV auton enepaizon
    autw deronteV, kai

    ephrwtwn legonteV,
    tiV estin o paisaV se;

    Or, for those who would prefer to see this in English:

    Matt. 26.67-8 Mark 14.65 Luke 22.63-4
    Then they spat in

    his face, and struck him;
    and some slapped him,
    "Prophesy to us, Christ!
    Who is the one who smote you?"
    And some began to spit on him,

    and to cover his face,
    and to strike him,
    and to say to him,
    And the men who were holding him
    mocked him, beating him,
    and having covered his face,

    they asked him saying,
    Who is the one who smote you?"

    Here, then, we have a five-word verbatim agreement between Matthew and Luke against Mark - tiV estin o paisaV se; (tis estin ho paisas se?) - an agreement that is all the more noticeable for its use of the verb paiw (paiõ, to strike), which occurs only here in Matthew and only here in Luke.

    Michael Goulder (Luke, pp. 6-11) has placed some stress on this Minor Agreement as a key one in the case against Q, and rightly so - the leading defence from Q theorists (Tuckett, Neirynck) proposes that every single manuscript of Matthew has been corrupted at this point to include five words (tiV estin o paisaV se;) not originally there (for details, see my Goulder and the Gospels, pp. 101-7; with a response by Frans Neirynck, 'Goulder and the Minor Agreements, ETL 73 (1997), pp. 84-93 (91-2).).

  15. The Phenomenon of Fatigue
  16. When one writer is copying the work of another, changes are sometimes made at the beginning of an account which are not sustained throughout - the writer lapses into docile reproduction of his / her source. This phenomenon of 'fatigue' is a tell-tale sign of a writer's dependence on a source. Matthew, for example, correctly calls Herod tetraarchV ('tetrarch') in 14.1, only to lapse into calling him the less correct basileuV ('king') in 14.9, apparently reproducing Mark (6.26) who has called him basileuV ('king') throughout. Likewise, Luke re-sets the scene for the Feeding of the Five Thousand in 'a city called Bethsaida' (polin kaloumenhn Bhqsaida, Luke 9.10) only to lapse into the Markan wording later, 'We are here in a deserted place' (wde en erhmw topw esmen, Luke 9.12, cf. Mark 6.35).

    It is revealing that this phenomenon also occurs in double tradition (Q) material, and always in the same direction, in favour of Luke's use of Matthew. Take the Parable of the Talents / Pounds (Matt. 25.14-30 // Luke 19.11-27). Matthew has three servants throughout. Luke, on the other hand, has ten. But as the story progresses, we hear about 'the first' (19.16), 'the second' (19.18) and amazingly, 'the other' (o eteroV, Luke 19.20). Luke has inadvertently betrayed his knowledge of Matthew by drifting into the story-line of his source (see further my 'Fatigue in the Synoptics', NTS 44 (1998), pp. 45-58).

  17. The Legacy of Scissors-and-Paste Scholarship
  18. Q belongs to another age, an age in which scholars solved every problem by postulating another written source. The evangelists were thought of as 'scissors and paste' men, compilers and not composers, who edited together pieces from several documents. Classically, the bookish B. H. Streeter solved the synoptic problem by assigning a written source to each type of material - triple tradition was from Mark; double tradition was from 'Q'; special Matthew was from 'M' and special Luke was from 'L'. Most scholars have since dispensed with written 'M' and 'L' sources. The time has now come to get up-to-date, and to dispense with Q too.

  19. Recognising Luke's Literary Ability
  20. Belief in Q has been an impediment to the proper appreciation of Luke's literary ability, for Luke's order has traditionally been explained on the assumption that he was conservatively following a Q text. But it is not at all inconceivable that Luke should have imaginatively and creatively re-ordered material from Matthew. Take, for example, the ideal placing of the Lord's Prayer (Luke 11.1-4; cf. Matt. 6.7-15), introducing a section on Jesus' teaching on Prayer; or the 'Consider the Lilies' passage (Luke 12.22-34; cf. Matt. 6.25-34), so appropriately following on from the Lukan Rich Fool (Luke 12.13-21). Far from 'unscrambling the egg with a vengeance' (R. H. Fuller), the thesis of Luke's use of Matthew helps us to see how Luke avoided his predecessor's more rigid, thematic approach in order to develop a plausible, sequential narrative, just as he told us he would do (Luke 1.3).

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This file was last updated on 10 January 2003
© 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 Mark Goodacre