For those of you who have a life and thus probably don’t know what the title refers to, Q (or the Two Source Hypothesis) is the love child of nineteenth century German exegetes and liberalism.
If you pick up your Bible (Christian canon implied) and leaf through the four Gospels, you will soon come to the unsettling realization that not only do the four narratives contradict each other on some very important points (like the chronological placement of the cleansing of the temple, see Mark 11:15-19, Matt 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, and John 2:13-25 or Jesus’ last words on the cross, see John 19:30, Mark 15:34 with synoptic parallels). Attempts to “harmonize” these four narratives have been made throughout the history of Christendom, since for many people it is a theological problem that the life of Jesus is told in such different ways – indeed, scholars today often speak of the “Matthean Jesus” or the “Lukan Jesus” in order to emphasize that he often takes a different role in the different Gospels (of course, all Gospels unite on the fact that he is the Messiah, but just how he is related to God, why he came, and, perhaps most importantly, who he came for is often not agreed upon between the evangelists). However, Mark, Matthew, and Luke are strikingly more similar than John, both in chronology, diction, content, and theology. Therefore, these three are often called the Synoptic Gospels. Sometimes the similarity between the three is so close that it’s almost verbatim, as you saw when you looked up the cleansing of the temple (so if you didn’t look it up before, now is your chance). This begs the question: who copied who? Most scholars agree that Mark was written first (around 95% of Mark can be found in Matthew and Luke), but where Matthew and Luke are concerned, the whole thing gets a bit messy.
The German exegetes who, from the depths of their nineteenth century liberalism brought forth the monster that is Q, were attempting to solve this question (called the Synoptic Problem by those in the know – which you can now classify yourself as). Except instead of using the sources available to them, like any other normal historian would, they decided to make everyone’s life a little more complicated by introducing (or perhaps inventing is a better verb here) a new source – the mythical Q.
Q serves the convenience purpose of explaining why there is significant overlap between Matthew and Luke that does not come from Mark. Now, anyone who is unfamiliar with the Synoptic Problem would look at me with a quizzical look and say “why has this occupied scholars for over a century? Can’t they just say that Matthew copied both Luke and Mark, or the other way around?” And if you said this, you would have a point. For some inexplicable reason, the midwives of Q and their colleagues had decided that Luke and Matthew were too different from each other to allow the possibility that they may have had access to each other. Yes, Luke and Matthew are sometimes like day and night, but this should not have to mean that one could not have copied the other. After all, we have many example of ancient authors writing to correct other writers, perhaps the most relevant example here is Josephus, who states that he is writing the history of the Jews to correct Roman misunderstanding and misinformation. Does this sound familiar? If you’ve read the beginning of Luke, it should, because it’s pretty much exactly how the author introduces his gospel – he even openly states that his aim is to organize all the Jesus traditions/narratives into its correct chronology, indicating that he has access to more than one other source about Jesus (of course, this does not at all have to Matthew, but it’s a point worth noting). Indeed, there are a plethora of arguments as to why Q is completely superfluous. If you’re interested in finding out more about the specifics , I suggest you read Mark Goodacre’s excellent book “The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze” (which you can find here : http://www.markgoodacre.org/maze/).
But I do not wish to bore you with the specific exegetical arguments against Q, which can get very complicated and confusing (ergo, let Mark Goodacre lead you through the maze). Instead, I wish to leave the more exegetical tone of this post and venture into a more theological discussion. If we allow ourselves to think hermeneutically for a moment (and I think it’s important that we do), the following question makes itself known: why was it so unthinkable for the nineteenth century German exegetes that Luke should have copied Matthew? Perhaps one may go out on a limb and suggest that it had something to do with their understanding of the Christian faith and its origins. If Luke had access to Matthew, that would mean that he purposefully changed a variety of things (including Matthew’s drool-worthy chronological organization, which is a thing of pure beauty). If the Gospels are divinely inspired, Luke purposefully removing or changing parts of the Matthean narrative becomes problematic. Of course, this applies to the Markan narrative as well, but the changes there are not as extreme, and Luke and Mark are in a higher level of agreement than Luke and Matthew.
Q then, solves this problem by serving as a sort or “ur-gospel” (and thus, according to the linear manner in which we unfortunately often think, the most authentic representation of Jesus). It should then come as no surprise that the parts of Matthew and Luke that were supposedly copied from Q (the beatitudes being the most relevant example) fit very well with a liberalistic, nineteenth century European evaluation of religion. If one were to read Q on its own (and one can, because scholars have attempted to piece it together and have published it as an independent document), Jesus appears as an ethical teacher who roams around the Galilee on a sort of ‘holy’ road trip with his Jewish-yet-not-so-Jewish friends. Q does away with any “uncomfortable” mention of temple theology, cultic activity, or eschatological references. Indeed, there isn’t even a passion narrative, meaning that most of what Paul says about Jesus is seen as not authentic, since it almost exclusively revolves around Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins. Thus, everything that has to do with Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection is seen as later,”un-authentic” additions to the Jesus tradition which are “Christian” in nature rather than Jewish. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As Daniel Boyarin as argues in his brilliant book “The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ” (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in Christian origins – it’s easy to read and very thought-provoking), the Gospels’ portrayal of Jesus as a messianic figure who absolves his people from their sins through his death and begins a new era with his resurrection is a thoroughly Jewish thought with which we can find many textual parallels, both in the Hebrew Bible and in non-canonical texts from the Second Temple period (such as the book of Enoch). Indeed, Boyarin argues convincingly that the idea that the Messiah is the son of God, something which the theology of Q alone does not allow as authentic, and something which is often all too hastily labelled as non-Jewish, is in fact a thoroughly Jewish idea which was blossoming during the time of the Gospels’ composition. Ergo, the Two Source Hypothesis is based on an inadequate understanding of Second Temple Judaism(s), and as such should be labelled as anachronistic.
So, what can Christians take away from this (because let’s face it, this is more of an issue if you believe in the holiness of the Gospels than if you don’t)? The Gospels are not perfect in the way that we are usually taught in Sunday School, and Q, despite trying so hard, does not solve this problem. But is it really a problem? I think that one should view the Gospels as the treasure put into clay jars (2 Cor 4:7). We have been given this amazing and wonderful treasure – the life of Jesus – and God has stored it in clay jars that are cracked and sometimes not as neat and pretty as we would like to think. But, as Leonard Cohen sings in Anthem, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”. The fact that our canon contains such varied and diverse traditions about Jesus is not a disadvantage. If we choose to accept it, it can be our greatest strength.