Q or No Q: What Difference Does it Make?

The numerous instances of editorial fatigue in the synoptic gospels provide strong evidence that Mark wrote first, Matthew wrote after Mark and used Mark as a source, and Luke wrote after both of them and used both of them as sources.  To summarize:

  • Instances of fatigue that involve Luke and Mark always point toward Luke copying from Mark.
  • Instances of fatigue that involve Matthew and Mark always point toward Matthew copying from Mark.
  • Instances of fatigue that involve Luke and Matthew always point toward Luke copying from Matthew.
  • No one has been able to find instances of fatigue that involve Matthew and Luke, which point toward Matthew copying from Luke.

The last of these points is especially problematic for Q.  If there really was a Q, Matthew should have gotten fatigued while copying from Q as well as while copying from Mark.  But he doesn’t.

But what is really at stake whether we opt for Q or reject it?  Is Q versus non-Q just an ivory tower exercise that academics indulge in to display their erudition, without any real consequences for interpreting what the gospels mean?  Who cares whether Luke copied from Mark and Matthew or from Mark and Q if the Good Samaritan parable means the same thing either way?

Well, it might not make a big difference in how you interpret some of the gospel stories or parables, but it does make a big difference in what you think of early Christianity and how the New Testament as a whole came together. The fundamental principle behind the Q theory is the idea that Luke and Matthew had no knowledge of each other. They were working in separate Christian communities so isolated that each of them had no access to the most important work of scripture created by the other for many years.  And yet somehow both did have copies of Mark and Q. And somehow both were so lax about their own scriptures that both managed to lose Q.

The Q theory paints a picture of disorganized and fragmented Christian communities that haphazardly produced the New Testament. Such disparate groups as a Pauline community, a Matthean community, a Marcan community, a Lucan community, and a Johannine community were independently producing their own scriptures.  Only after centuries did a unified orthodoxy develop along with a hierarchical structure, and this enabled the church writ large to cobble together all these books with competing visions of Christianity into the New Testament that we know today.

Pull Q out of the picture and you have a radically different picture.  Now the community that produced the gospels is (or at least could be) one extended and well-organized community from the very beginning.  Historically speaking, there were in fact competing Christian groups — we know that already from the controversies recorded in the earliest Pauline epistles — but only one of them produced the New Testament.  In Mark, Canonizer of Paul, I present the evidence for concluding that the same community that produced the Pauline epistles also produced Mark, the earliest gospel. In later books I’ll argue that the same community produced the other gospels. Ultimately, then, the entire New Testament was produced, edited, organized, assembled, and preserved all by a single community of church leaders in less than a century. The centuries-long canonization debates involved not gathering independent books into one but gradual acceptance by more and more Christians of something originally presented as authoritative by its publishers. 

A similar picture of the New Testament’s origins is proposed by David Trobisch on the basis of evidence he found in the surviving manuscripts of the New Testament.  On that thesis, see my article, David Trobisch and David Parker on the Origin of the New Testament, the Historical Jesus, and How Manuscripts Can Reveal What Texts Conceal and Trobisch’s book, The First Edition of the New Testament. In this blog series I am presenting some of the internal textual evidence that leads to much the same conclusion that Trobisch reached on the basis of external evidence.

If there was no Q and no independent communities producing the gospels, the search for the historical Jesus turns out to be on shakier grounds than it otherwise might appear to be. That search depends on our ability to compare and contrast independent sources within the New Testament.  But there aren’t multiple independent sources if one and the same cartel of church leaders produced the entire New Testament.  Nor is the appeal to oral tradition as an independent source a convincing argument, as I show in Mark, Canonizer of Paul. In effect, there is no historical Jesus. There is only the New Testament Jesus, a literary character created for us by the authors and editors of the New Testament. 

Which brings me back to Lucan muddles. Evidence of editorial fatigue in Luke that points toward his copying from Matthew militates against Q when you take into account the lack of anything pointing in the reverse direction. And that undermines any effort to discover a historical Jesus. With that in mind, I’ll continue to review some of the Lucan muddles that Michael Goulder and Mark Goodacre recount in Luke: A New Paradigm and Fatigue in the Synoptics.


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