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Does it exist?
What is its relationship to the canonical gospels?

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Competing Theories about the Synoptic Gospels and Q:

Christians have realized for centuries that the Gospels Luke and Matthew contain many points of similarity. But it was not until 150 years ago that they started to examine these correspondences in detail. It is important to realize that verses from the synoptic gospels are not merely similar. One would expect that three early Christian authors writing about the life of Jesus would be similar. This would be true if the authors:

bulletWere eye-witnesses to Jesus ministry (as religious conservatives believe) or
bulletWrote many decades after Jesus' execution and based their writing on common oral traditions.

However, the correspondences go further than being merely similar. In hundreds of cases, the wording is identical.

"Parallel Gospels" have been published which rearranged the text of Matthew, Mark and Luke so that the same events and sayings in all three Synoptic gospels were shown side by side on the page. 1 For example, Matthew 9:14, Mark 2:18 and Luke 5:33 all begin a criticism of Jesus and his disciples for not fasting as the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist did. The three verses are arranged across the page together so they can be easily compared and contrasted by the reader. 2

Theologians have not reached a consensus about whether the Gospel of Q exists, and about the interdependence of the four canonical gospels. Many theories have been put forth. Some are:

bulletThe Gospel of Q may never have existed; if it did, it is unimportant to faith:

Most conservative theologians believe that the Q Gospel probably did not exist, but is an artificial creation of misguided contemporary theologians. If the Gospel of Q is ever found, it would be on a par with the other 40 or so heretical "Gospels" that were circulated within the early Christian movement.

If it did exist, then it would be of little importance to today's Christian. God did not cause it to be included in the official canon of the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are God's word: the authors were inspired by God to write material that is free of error. "Q" can be of little value to Christians - then or now.

They argue that the similarities among Matthew and Luke are not necessarily because they incorporated material from the Gospel of Q. Rather it is evidence that God inspired all the synoptic Gospel writers to document the sayings of Jesus without error. Even if Matthew and Luke utilized the Gospel of Q, God would have prevented the authors from incorporating any incorrect material. At best, Q is redundant.

bulletThe Two Source Theory:

gosp_2s.bmp (237450 bytes)

The authors of Luke and Matthew worked independently of each other without being aware of the other's writing. Both had borrowed portions from two earlier Gospels. They had added this material to their own writings, sometimes word for word. This would be prohibited today because of copyright restrictions; however, customs were very different during the 1st century CE; copying was quite a common practice and not considered unethical.

In addition, both Matthew and Luke incorporated additional material from their own unique sources. These are generally referred to as "M" and "L."

Further analysis showed that one of the source documents was the edited, public version of the Gospel of Mark. The other source document was an unknown "Sayings Gospel." As the name implies, this would consist primarily of elements from Christ's sermons, along with instructions, parables, witty comments etc. It would contain little accompanying narrative about the activities of Christ and his disciples. A total of about 225 verses of Luke and Matthew come from this source. The German researchers who pioneered in this work called this lost document "Quelle" which means "source". This is usually abbreviated to "Q".

There were some initial criticisms of the "Q" concept. The texts of many Gospels have survived - both the four in the official canon, and dozens more that never made it into the Bible. However, no copy of "Q" had survived intact into the modern era. Also, all known Gospels were written as narratives; no other Sayings Gospel had ever been seen; it was an unknown gospel construct. But after the 1945 discovery of the Sayings Gospel of Thomas at Nag Hummadi in the 1940's, the theory of "Q" became much more believable.

Two groups, the International Q Project and the Q Project of the Society of Biblical Literature were formed to promote research into the lost Gospel.

Many non-conservative theologians conclude that Q was written by unknown authors, starting circa 50 CE. It was widely used by one of the groups who followed the teachings of Jesus. The author of the Gospel of Thomas, a very early Gospel which never made it into the official canon, is believed to have quoted from Q as well.

Many religious liberals believe that Q represents the beliefs of an early group of Jesus' followers, when Jesus was considered a philosopher-teacher. This is before many theological concepts had been developed and incorporated into the Christian belief system: of Jesus being part of the Trinity, of church organizations, salvation, baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc. One author suggests that Q might be "a kind of missing link between the Jewish world of Jesus and the early Christian church." 3

bulletThe Farrer Theory: 4

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Other theologians of various persuasions are not convinced of the existence of Q as an early gospel. After all, no copy of Q has survived. No commentator from the early centuries of the Christian church refers to it. Some postulate that the author of Luke knew of, and copied from, the Gospel of Matthew. This would eliminate the need for Q.

There are some indicators that the authors of Matthew and Luke may not have worked independently. 4,5 For example:

bulletMatthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19 were largely copied from Mark 4:30-32. But Matthew and Luke have several phrases in common that are not seen in Mark. "a person, having taken it," "becomes/became a tree," and "in its branches."
bulletMatthew 4:13 and Luke 4:16-31 both relate that Jesus left Nazara (Nazareth) and went to Capernaum. Mark does not mention Nazareth. Further, of the three spellings for the town, Nazara, Nazaret and Nazareth, Matthew and Luke both use the Nazara spelling.
bulletMatthew 26:67 and Luke 22:63 both have an identical phrase: "Who is the one who smote you?" The sentence is missing in Mark 14:65
bulletIn Luke 1:1, the author says that he/she is aware of other written accounts of Jesus' life. Perhaps Matthew was one..

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Mason West, "Parallel Gospels" at: http://www.eskimo.com/~masonw/Gospel/ 
  2. Burton Throckmorton, Jr., "Gospel Parallels: A Synopsis of the First Three Gospels", 4th edition, Thomas Nelson, Nashville TN (1979)
  3. Robert J. Miller, Ed., "The Complete Gospels", Polebridge Press, Sonoma CA, (1992), P. 249-300. Read reviews and/or order this book
  4. A.M.Farrer, "On dispensing with Q," in D. E. Nineham (ed.), "Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot," Blackwell, (1955), pp. 55-88. Available at: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/q/farrer.htm
  5. Mark Goodacre, "Ten Reasons to Question Q," at: http://www.bham.ac.uk/theology/q/ten.htm

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Copyright © 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Most recent update: 2005-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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