The Case Against Q

The Case Against QI was listening to a Robert Price and Frank Zindler on Point of Inquiry recently. Price mentioned that the existence of Q had come into doubt and he referenced Mark Goodacre’s The Case Against Q. That was surprising to me, because I thought that Q was an established fact. But I suspect that you are scratching your head wondering what the hell I’m talking about.

Q is a theoretical document that was supposedly filled with the sayings of Jesus. If it ever existed, it is now lost to us. It’s existence is inferred based upon the Synoptic Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and Luke. And it is really interesting. What you need to know is that Mark was the first Gospel written, at around 40 years after Jesus is thought to have died. Matthew and Luke came about ten years later. They are based largely on Mark, as you can see from this great figure from Wikipedia:

<%image(20120410-synopticgospels.png|350|455|Synoptic Gospels)%>

The first thing to note here is that roughly half of Matthew and Luke come from Mark. In saying this, I really mean it: plagiarized. Looking at the original Greek text, it is often copied word for word in the later Gospels. This really does destroy the idea that many Christians have that God was speaking through these men[1]. Would he really have created this kind of overlapping text? Again, we aren’t talking overlapping story; we are talking overlapping words, phrases, and sentences.[2]

The existence of Q comes out of the “double tradition” overlap between Matthew and Luke. This material is almost all Jesus’ sayings, like the parables and the Sermon on the Mount. Again, much of this is word for word. Thus: just like with Mark, they plagiarized Q. Or so the theory goes.

A question obviously comes to mind: why not assume that Luke just used Mark and Matthew, given that it was written after both of them. As far as I can tell, proponents of Q claim that if Luke were based upon Matthew, there would be more agreement between the two Gospels in the material from Mark. Critics, Mark Goodacre for example, claim that there are such “minor agreements.” Having seen these minor agreements, I must say that I’m not convinced. Just the same, I’m not that convinced by the primary arguments in favor of Q.

Goodacre spends a good deal of time going over all of this material. If you really want to know this stuff, The Case Against Q is a good place to look. Personally, I found his arguments kind of thin. But the book was really helpful in demonstrating that the arguments on both sides are kind of thin. There are lots of alternatives that just aren’t discussed. On top of this, my belief in entropy convinces me that with such old documents and the incentives of the early Christians to redact the texts for individual and Church purposes it, there is no truly satisfying resolution. These documents are what the Church is based upon. Anyway, there is most likely no there there.


Mark Goodacre has a nice website supporting The Case Against Q. In particular, for those wanting to know more but not interested in reading what is a pretty technical book, he provides Ten Reasons to Question Q. I’ve provided the points below; if you go to this site, he gives a paragraph or so explanation of each.

  1. No-one has ever seen Q
  2. No-one had ever heard of Q
  3. Narrative Sequence in Q
  4. Occam’s Razor [This one is very compelling. -FM]
  5. Major Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark
  6. Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark
  7. Minor Agreements in the Passion Narrative
  8. The Phenomenon of Fatigue
  9. The Legacy of Scissors-and-Paste Scholarship
  10. Recognising Luke’s Literary Ability

[1] Just so you know, these books were not written by any of the 12 Apostles. For one thing, these men were almost certainly dead by the time Mark was written. For another, it is hard to imagine that illiterate fishermen and carpenters would suddenly learn to write what all experts agree is sophisticated Greek.

[2] Again from Wikipedia, here is a comparison of a verse from Matthew and Luke with the text in red being identical:

<%image(20120410-matthewluke.png|350|339|Matthew and Luke Comparison)%>
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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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