[The following is the article I wrote for the Lexham Bible Dictionary.]
More works have been written on Q in the last fifteen years than in the entire twentieth century. While some of these works have questioned the existence of Q altogether (see esp. Goodacre, Case Against Q; Goodacre, ed., Questioning Q; Powell, Myth; and Watson, Gospel Writing), the two-document hypothesis is still the majority view among scholarship (for responses to Goodacre, see Kloppenborg, “On Dispensing with Q”; Foster, “Is It Possible?”; Mealand, “Is There Stylometric Evidence?”; for a fresh analysis of the synoptic problem from twenty different angles, see Foster et al., New Studies). This article will not summarize that debate but will discuss critical issues that are raised by those who assume the existence of Q. Not every issue will be addressed, but we will focus on five select issues: the extent of Q, the genre of Q, the date of Q, the relationship between Q and Mark, and the implications of Q research for Christian origins.
Study of the extent of Q examines which verses in Matthew and Luke came from Q. While decisions have been made regarding which verses to include in The Critical Edition of Q, there is still much debate over how much longer Q must have been then the double tradition (verses included in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark) and how other Q passages can be identified.
“[T]he question of the original extent of Q has considerable bearing on the assessment of the character, theology and genre of the document” (Kloppenborg, Formation, 80). At one end of the spectrum, Harry Fleddermann argues that all of Q is in the material shared between Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (the double tradition) (Fleddermann, Q, 74). Others argue that it is likely that Matthew omitted some Q material and that Luke did the same, resulting in some Q material being found only in Matthew (the Matthean Sondergut [special material]) or only in Luke (the Lukan Sondergut) or in neither. Vassiliadis and Kloppenborg give criteria for identifying Q verses in the Sondergut (Vassiliadis, ΛΟΓΟΙ ΙΗΣΟΥ, 54; Kloppenborg, Excavating Q, 95–99), and Kloppenborg argues that “[t]he judicious and rigorous application of [these] principles ... would allow for a very modest expansion of Q from 235 to 264 verses” (Kloppenborg, Excavating Q, 99). The Critical Edition of Q includes a number of these verses (Matt 5:41; Luke 11:27–28; 12:49; 15:8–10; 17:20; 17:28–29), arguments for and against their inclusion being provided in the Documenta Q series that is still in progress.
While the arguments for inclusion of these won over the committee, they have not persuaded all scholars, and some think other verses should be included. For example, Christopher Tuckett argues that Luke 4:16ff is from Q (Q and the History, 221–237). David Catchpole argues for the inclusion of Luke 3:4; 6:24–26; 11:5–8; 15:8–10; 17:28–29; Matt 18:15–17 (Quest). Alan Kirk argues for the inclusion of Luke 3:21–22; 11:5–8; 12:35–38, 57; 15:8–10; 17:5, 28–29; 22:29 (Composition). Koester, who sees a literary relationship between Q and Thomas argues for the inclusion of Luke 10:8; 11:27–28, 34; 12:13–14, 16, 49, 54–56; 17:20–21, 34; 23:29 due to the fact that these verses have parallels in Thomas (“Q and Its Relatives,” 49–63; Ancient Christian Gospels, 137).
Some are convinced that this list should be even longer. Schürmann argues for the addition of 71 Lukan verses to Q (“Sprachliche Reminiszenzen”). Burkett argues for the inclusion of 64 verses from Matthew and Luke (Matt 12:33–37; 13:24–30, 36–52; Luke 3:21–22; 6:24–26; 9:61–62; 11:5–8, 27–28; 12:15–21; 13:31–33; 16:1–12; cf. Rethinking, 69–86). Sloan argues that almost all of the passages normally referred to as M and L are Q passages that were omitted by Luke and Matthew respectively. He urges the use of stylistic criteria for identifying Q passages in “M” and “L” (“Lost Portions”; see also his website, ReconstructingQ.com). MacDonald argues for a slightly different solution to the synoptic problem, which he calls Q+ and in which Q is about twice as long as the double tradition (Two Shipwrecked Gospels). A good introduction to the problems surrounding the extent of Q can be found in Broadhead, “Extent.”
There is a debate over whether Q should be read as a wisdom book, a prophetic book, a narrative, a biography, or a loose collection of sayings. This debate is far from resolution.
In the early days of Q research, the genre of Q was rarely discussed since the document was viewed as Kleinliteratur, that is, second-rate literature that does not follow the conventions of higher literature. It was a collection of traditions with little literary shaping at a macro-level. This changed in 1964, with the publication of James Robinson’s seminal essay, “LOGOI SOPHON,” in which he argued that Proverbs, m. ’Abot., Gos. Thom., and Q are all examples of logoi sophōn, or “words of the wise.” This identification was taken up by John Kloppenborg, among others, though Kloppenborg sought to address the problem that Q is less homogenous than any of the other examples Robinson gives (Formation, 30–31). Kloppenborg broadened Robinson’s classification and divide it into three subgenres: “the Near Eastern ‘instruction,’ the Hellenistic gnomologium and the chriae collection” (264). Kloppenborg concluded that Q developed in stages, the first looking very much like an “instruction” and the second more like a chriae collection (317–328; for a critique, see Horsley and Draper, Whoever Hears You, 75–82). Alan Kirk accepts Kloppenborg’s genre of “instruction” but argues that the supposed prophetic elements of Q fit naturally within ancient instructional literature and therefore rejects Kloppenborg’s stratification (Composition; “Some Compositional Conventions”; “Upbraiding Wisdom”).
But some argue that Q fits better in the world of prophecy than of wisdom. Eugene Boring argues that Q is a “prophetic document from a charismatic community” that saw itself as revealing new teachings of the risen Jesus (Sayings of the Risen Jesus, 137–182, esp. 180). Migaku Sato argues for a different stratification of Q than Kloppenborg’s and notes that the many prophetic elements of Q suggest that it is a prophetic book (Q und Prophetie; for a critique, see Kloppenborg , Excavating Q, 136–143). Christopher Tuckett does not quite see Q as a prophetic book but argues that the sapiential concerns of Q are in the background and that Q is a “sayings collection ... [that] shows greater affinity with prophetic collections than sapiential ones” (Q and the History, 337–354, esp. 354).
Still other scholars see Q as a narrative or biography. James Williams argues that the tendency in the early church to insert parables into chreiai led to the creation of Q as a “parable-chreia collection that is well on its way toward the form of the narrative gospel” (“Parable and Chreia,” 109). Williams contends that Q “is considerably closer to the canonical narrative gospels, particularly Mark, than to the Gospel of Thomas” (110). Gerald Downing uses Burridge’s description of ancient biography to argue that Q would have been read as a “Life of a Philosopher” (“A Genre for Q”). Both these scholars see Jesus as so central to Q that it is not a book of wisdom or prophecy but a book about the man, Jesus. More recently Harry Fleddermann has argued that “Q contains all the elements of narrative—plot, character, setting, narrative, voice, theme, and tone” (Q, 106; cf. Fleddermann, “Plot of Q”). David Sloan argues that Q contained many more narrative elements than is generally assumed, since Matthew omitted most of them when he relocated the Q material into Markan pericopes (“Lost Portions”).
It is unclear where the majority of scholars will end up on this debate. Some maintain that neither of these genres describes Q and that Q is simply “a grab bag of various sayings on a general topic rather than a carefully thought-out theological system” (Meier, Marginal Jew, 4:556). But studies of the unity, structure, and style of Q are leading most to conclude that Q is a well-written piece of literature for which genre considerations matter (see Kloppenborg, Shape of Q).
Adjacent to this discussion is the debate over whether Q should be called a gospel. American scholarship has generally moved in this direction, for a few reasons (Kloppenborg, Excavating Q, 398–408). First, to call Q a “source” is to deny it its own integrity and independence. Second, Q is closer to the canonical gospels than other documents that have long been referred to as gospels. Third, Matthew himself may be demonstrating that he sees Q as a gospel when he refers to Jesus’ activity, especially in delivering the Sermon on the Mount, as “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 4:23; 9:35). Some, however, especially in Europe, have expressed caution regarding this trend, noting that by continuing to refer to Q as a “sayings source” we remind ourselves of the hypothetical nature of this book (Neirynck, “Q”).
Many have said little about the date of Q, other than that it was composed sometime after the death of Jesus (ca. AD 30) and before Matthew’s and Luke’s composition of their gospels (ca. AD 80–90). While most would probably be inclined to date Q toward the middle of that range (AD 55–70), some scholars have promoted either an earlier (pre-55) or a later (post-70) date for Q.
Udo Schnelle tentatively suggests a date in the forties, because (1) the emphasis on wandering preachers reflects the earliest congregational structures in the Jesus movement; (2) the Palestinian persecution reflected in Q 6:22–23; 11:49–51; 12:4–5, 11–12 reflects that referred to in Acts 12:2 (ca. AD 44) and 1 Thess 2:14–16 (ca. AD 50); and (3) the positive references to Gentiles (Q 6:34; 7:1–10; 10:13–15; 11:29–31; 14:16–23) “indicate that the Gentile mission had begun, which is probably to be located in the period between 40 and 50 CE” (History and Theology, 186).
Likewise Gerd Theissen dates Q “between 40 and 55 C.E.” because (1) the Temptation narrative is modeled after an event in AD 41 where the emperor Gaius Caligula sought to be worshiped; (2) the expectation of peace before Jesus’ return in Q 17:27–28, 34–35 reflects the mood of 1 Thess 5:3 (ca. AD 52) rather than the mood we see during and after the Jewish War; (3) Q’s attitude toward Israel reflects a time when the twelve apostles were focused on a mission to Israel, and Q may even be reflected in Romans 11; (4) Q is ambivalent toward Gentiles; and (5) Q’s animosity toward the Pharisees reflects relationship between Palestinian Christians and Pharisees in the forties and early fifties, which became improved by the end of the fifties (Gospels in Context, 203–234).
Even some who argue for a stratified compositional history have dated Q early. William Arnal argues for a “lapse of several years” between Q1 and Q2 and between Q2 and Q3 (Jesus and the Village Scribes, 166). He argues (1) that none of the layers reflect the Jewish War; (2) that Q2 shares a number of features with 1 Thessalonians, including a Deuteronomistic condemnation of Israel that is not seen in Paul’s later letters; (3) that the portrayal of John the Baptist in Q2 suggests an early date; and (4) that Q1 portrays Jesus more as a sage than as a significant person of the past. While Arnal does not assign actual dates it appears that he wants to place Q1 near the time of Jesus’ death, Q2 in the forties, and Q3 before the Jewish War. Dale C. Allison Jr. likewise argues for three stages in Q’s development and places Q1 in the thirties, Q3 in the forties or fifties, and Q2 somewhere between them (Jesus Tradition, 49–54).
For a responseto these early dates from those who date Q pre-70 but not this early, see Catchpole, “Question of Q”; Lührman, “Q in the History,” 60–62.
While most have dated Q before 70, there are a few advocates of a post-70 date. Paul Hoffmann argues that Q is to be dated in the final stages of the Jewish War based on the facts (1) that the Son of Man concept is the leading Christological idea of Q’s redaction; (2) that this Son of Man conceptualization is closely related to Mark 13, which is composed around the time of the War; and (3) that Q 13:34–35 expects the imminent judgment of Jerusalem (“Redaction of Q”; but on Q 13:35 see Allison, “Matt 23:39 = Luke 13:35b”).
Matti Myllykoski exposes problems with both the early date of Theissen and the later date of Hoffmann and argues that Q reflects an even later date, around AD 75, since Q seems to reflect a period of calm after a period of violence and since the period of violence in Q 17 seems to be the same as that in Mark 13. In his view, then, Q was written after Mark (“Social History”). Harry Fleddermann rejects Myllykoski’s argument, “[s]ince Q does not clearly refer to any historical event,” but agrees with Myllykoski’s date on the basis that the theology of Q – particularly the delay of the parousia – reflects views that emerged later in Christian history (Q, 157–159).
Thus while most Q scholars are reluctant to assign a date to Q, those who do are widely divided on whether Q is to be dated to the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, or seventies. All that can be said with certainty is that Q was completed by the time Matthew and Luke took it up in their gospels.
It has long been assumed that Mark’s gospel and Q are independent of one another. A number of scholars have challenged this view, but the majority have not found their arguments convincing.
Burton Mack argues that Mark got a number of his themes from Q and that Mark used ideas in Q as building blocks for his own presentation of the gospel (Lost Gospel, 177–180). David Catchpole argues that Mark’s introduction is a development of the introduction to Q and that Mark was influenced by Q at other points in writing his gospel (Quest, 60–78). The most extensive argument for Mark’s use of Q, however, is the book-length study by Harry Fleddermann that examines the twenty-eight Markan passages that overlap Q (Mark and Q). Fleddermann argues that Q is consistently more original in these passages and that in a number of them Mark displays knowledge not only of the same tradition but also of Q’s redaction of that tradition.
At the end of Fleddermann’s book is a forty-page critical assessment by Frans Neirynck, in which Neirynck argues that Fleddermann has established neither that Q is consistently more original than Mark nor that Mark shows awareness of Q’s redaction of his tradition. Mack, Catchpole, and Fleddermann have received similar responses in other studies. In a series of articles Timothy Friedrichsen has addressed the key passages Fleddermann uses to make his case (“Mustard Seed,” “Lamp Saying,” “What Is Hidden,” “The Measure,” “To One Who Has”). One of the difficulties in a study like Fleddermann’s is demonstrating that an element of the Q text is clearly redactional. Christopher Tuckett has written his own response to the idea that Mark used Q, demonstrating that the elements of the Q passages that are most clearly redactional are not in the Markan parallels (Tuckett, “Mark and Q,” 23–50).
If Mark could be shown to be dependent upon Q, there would be a number of implications. The two-document solution to the synoptic problem would look significantly different, with Q being a source for all three synoptic gospels. The extent of Q would need to be reexamined, as every triple tradition passage would now be potentially from Q (Tuckett, “Mark and Q,” 25). Mark’s omission of many of the sayings in Q would need to be explained. And for those who date Q late, such as Fleddermann himself, Mark would need to be dated even later. So far the majority has not been convinced by Fleddermann and others, but the debate continues.
Perhaps the largest current divide within Q scholarship is over the implications of Q research for Christian origins. To some, Q’s depiction of Jesus’ death and vindication suggests that Q comes from a tradition that assigns no salvific significance to Jesus’ death and that sees Jesus as assumed into heaven rather than resurrected. Many, however, think this assessment of Q over-exaggerates the differences between Q and the gospels that made use of it.
Almost all Q scholars have agreed that there is no passion narrative in Q. B. H. Streeter explained this in two ways: (1) Q, like the Didache, is written to give ethical instruction to those who have already been taught about the passion and its redemptive significance; (2) while Paul focused on the cross, the other apostles focused on the parousia as the center of the gospel and saw the cross as a potential hindrance to accepting the true hope of the gospel (Four Gospels, 292). The assumption that Q was intended as a supplement to the passion kerygma remained unquestioned until Heinz Tödt wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1956, arguing that Q is not catechetical but is a proclamation of the kingdom that nowhere alludes to the Easter kerygma (Son of Man). This led to a number of scholars arguing that Q views Jesus’ death and vindication differently from Mark and Paul.
Arland Jacobson argues that “Mark adapted the tradition[s about the man Jesus] to his Christology and to the passion kerygma” while Q explained the same traditions within a Deuteronomistic framework that viewed Jesus’ death “not as a salvific act but as evidence of Israel’s continuing impenitence” (“Literary Unity,” 383, 386). John Kloppenborg adds that what the resurrection did for Mark and Paul in vindicating Jesus, Jesus’ teachings did for the author of Q; thus, Q had no need for an Easter faith (“‘Easter Faith’”). David Seeley argues that a number of interpretations of Jesus’ death can be seen in Q. At the earliest stage, Jesus’ death was interpreted as the noble death of a philosopher (Q 14:27). Then Q 6:23c represents a transitional phrase toward the later, Deuteronomistic view of Jesus’ death evidenced in Q 7:31–35; 11:47–51; 13:34–35 (“Blessings and Boundaries”). Dieter Zeller and Daniel Smith argue that Q uses assumption language to speak of Jesus’ vindication and that Q did not view Jesus as resurrected but as assumed into heaven (Zeller, “Entrückung zur Ankunft,” Smith, “Revisiting the Empty Tomb”).
Thus in each of these studies it is not only the absence of a passion narrative that suggests that Q views the death of Jesus differently than proto-orthodox Christianity, but the way Jesus’ death and disappearance are spoken of within Q itself. Kloppenborg concludes that “at the numerous points where Q might have borrowed from ... the passion kerygma’s salvific construal of Jesus’ death, it consistently fails to do so. It would be hard to imagine that this silence is a matter of Q consciously rejecting such construals of Jesus’ death. Rather, the only plausible solution is that Q simply does not know them” (Excavating Q, 374). It is observations such as these that lead Burton Mack and others to conclude that for Q, as for Thomas, Jesus was not a dying and rising savior, but a teacher of wisdom. After all, on the most popular stratification of Q the document began as a wisdom document and only later was apocalypticized (Mack, “Lord of the Logia,” 9).
There are many components to these arguments, and not all of the scholars surveyed would agree with all of them, but the idea that Q represents a different kerygma than the passion kerygma has failed to convince many for a number of reasons. First, the entire New Testament attests to a diversity of views of Jesus’ death and vindication, even within Paul’s letters, so diversity itself is not problematic (Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ, 235–239). Matthew and Luke apparently saw no contradiction between Mark’s kerygma and Q’s, as they have included both in their gospels. The Deuteronomistic understanding of Jesus’ death that is expressed in Q is also the central understanding of His death given in Mark’s parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1–12). And assumption language is used in Luke’s depiction of Jesus’ ascension (Zwiep, Ascension), even though Luke clearly viewed Jesus as resurrected.
Second, there are reasons that we would not expect Q to explain Jesus’ death. According to Mark, this is something Jesus taught only to the twelve and only on his way to Jerusalem at the end of his life. If Q focuses on Jesus’ public teaching, it would naturally not include discussions of Jesus death and vindication (Meadors, Jesus, 313–314; cf. Dunn, New Perspective on Jesus, 27). The few passages that hint at Jesus’ death (Q 11:49–51; 13:34–35; 14:27) come in contexts that teach about judgment or discipleship, where there is no need to discuss the significance of Jesus’ death (Meadors, Jesus, 296–302). In fact, even within the synoptic gospels references to the salvific nature of Jesus’ death are rare (Matt 20:28; 26;28; Mark 10:45; 14:22–24; Luke 22:19–20). Had Luke, like Q, not included the Last Supper, we would have no indication in his gospel that he was aware of the salvific implications of Jesus’ death (Meadors, Jesus, 295–296).
Third, it is unlikely that Q could have viewed Jesus’ death as no more than that of a martyr and His vindication as no more than an assumption. Meadors notes that the martyr image appears in Q in contexts with great Christological implications, suggesting that the death of Jesus is more significant than the death of other prophets and sages (Jesus, 303). And though Q 13:34–35 echoes the assumption language in 2 Kgs 2, there is a key difference between the Elijah of Kings and the Jesus of Q. The former was still alive when he was assumed; the latter had died. How would the “Q community” address this difference? Is there any reason to think they would not have concluded that Jesus was resurrected?
Fourth, we do not know what Q says about Jesus’ death that did not make it into Matthew or Luke, especially if Q is significantly more extensive than the double tradition. Arguments have even been made for a passion narrative in Q (Bundy, Jesus and the First Three Gospels), though they have not persuaded many. But even if Q did not have a passion narrative, it is quite possible that there are other brief sayings about Jesus’ death and vindication that either Matthew or Luke dropped, just as Luke dropped Mark’s ransom saying in Mark 10:45 (Goodacre, “Response to Daniel A. Smith”).
Fifth, some have seen in Q 11:22 an allusion to Isa 53:12, “the only verse in the Servant Songs which directly identifies the vicarious suffering and death of the servant” (Meadors, Jesus, 310). So Barnabas Lindars says, “A saying of Jesus has been given messianic application and linked to the ‘plot’ of Isa. 53. The Passion is not mentioned, but is assumed in the struggle with the strong man” (New Testament Apologetic, 85). But even if this allusion is uncertain, Q clearly envisions Jesus as the figure in Isa 61:1 (Q 6:20–21; 7:22), whom readers of Isaiah are likely to view as the same individual as the Suffering Servant of Isa 53 (Meadors, Jesus, 312).
Finally, Q’s use of resurrection language in Q 7:22; 11:31–32 shows that Q expects a resurrection of the dead. The fact that Q 7:22 makes the dead being raised to be the “culminating eschatological sign” of the kingdom’s presence in Jesus, suggests that if Jesus himself has overcome death He has done so by resurrection (Fleddermann, “Plot of Q,” 48). Furthermore, Harry Fleddermann argues that the second temptation is written as a “flashforward” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, when God does command His angels concerning Jesus (52–57). Fleddermann argues that the author of Q can do this “because Jesus’ story is so well known” (52). Likewise, Larry Hurtado argues that there is too much interaction between different Christian groups for the doctrine of the resurrection to be unknown to the Q community (“Interactive Diversity”).
According to some, Q and Thomas have forced us to entirely rethink Christian origins. Many, however, think that Q does no such thing. This debate, however, is sure to continue for quite some time.
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— David B. Sloan