As it became clear that there was no satisfactory theory explaining how any one gospel could have been derived from any other, scholarly attention turned to the idea that the gospels were instead derived from some form of ‘proto-gospel’. One such theory was of a ‘proto-Mark’; but this didn’t explain why there should be quite a number of passages in Luke (about a fifth) that were very similar to Matthew but either absent from, or significantly different in, Mark.

It was therefore suggested that passages common to Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, had originated from another lost document, known as ‘Q’.

This is a fairly plausible theory. But, bearing in mind Luke’s observation that there were ‘many’ such accounts in existence, it needs to be subject to the following caveats:

  • It is very probable that the same sayings and accounts would have appeared in several different sources. Consequently, it is unreasonable to assume that passages appearing in Mark as well as Matthew and Luke could not also have been in ‘Q’.

  • There is no particular reason why all these passages should be from the same source document. Matthew and Luke could even have had access to different sources, verbal or written, which simply happened to include these common quotations.

  • Similar quotations do not necessarily come from the same original dialogue. As an itinerant teacher in the Jewish oral tradition, Jesus would have restated the same sayings on many different occasions to many different audiences.

In spite of these weaknesses, the theory has gained such popularity that many talk as if the document actually exists; it doesn’t, nor is there any external attestation to it having ever existed. So-called copies of ‘Q’ have been created by the simple technique of taking the above passages from Matthew and Luke, and merging them into a single text. (This entails a measure of value judgement as to the best rendering: but the differences are relatively minor, so it doesn’t matter much which version is cited.)

The purely theoretical nature of ‘Q’, and the above caveats, are very important to keep in mind; because, as we shall see, many modern day critics cite ‘Q’ as if it proves that the gospels were created by a process of adding later myths and dogmas to an earlier source that was free from such supernatural elements. In reality, it proves nothing beyond the possibility that a similar document, or documents, could have existed and been used as a source by the gospel writers.

A Hidden Agenda

The manner in which ‘Q’ is derived means that all ‘Q’ scholars necessarily accept Luke and Matthew as authentic, since without them there is no ‘Q’ text. In any case, from a historical standpoint, the documentary evidence for this is so overwhelming that there is no real alternative.

But many of these scholars still find this unacceptable, for the very simple reason that the gospels contain so many descriptions of supernatural events, plus dramatic claims by Jesus about himself, God and life after death. Irrespective of what the texts say, they cannot accept that Jesus actually did and said these things.

The crux of the problem here is the isssue of documentary authenticity versus content. For example, despite the far weaker evidence for Homer’s Iliad, few scholars would ever question its authenticity, since no-one is expected to take its content too seriously. It doesn’t claim to be an eyewitness account. There is no suggestion that even Homer himself would have staked his life on its veracity; and between the events it describes and its writing there was ample time for myths and legends to evolve.

With the New Testament, the case is very different. If the gospels really are the authentic testimony of the first followers of Jesus, then we are left with a straight choice as to what we are going to make of them: lie, delusion or the truth? As we will see, it is very difficult to square the first two with the given facts. It challenges our entire world view and demands a response; and thousands have given their lives rather than deny its truth, starting with those very first followers.

The easiest way to avoid confronting the content is to continue challenging the document’s authenticity. Scholars are as human as the rest of us; and so, for them, it is necessary to maintain that the only truly authentic portions are those that fit their own preconceptions. We will now go on to to examine how some seek to do this.

The Rejection of Mark

We have already pointed out that, even if we accept that a ‘Q’ document may have existed, this provides no justification for rejecting passages that are also present in Mark. Logically, in the absence of clear evidence to the contrary, any passage that is attested by all three sources should be deemed more, not less, reliable. But these scholars take the opposite view, claiming any such passage (and there are many) is the result of ’embellishment’ by Mark, and dismissing it as ‘unreliable.’

So how do they attempt to justify this position? Basically, the argument runs that Matthew and Luke agree most closely when they follow Mark, hence they must have been copying from Mark (or proto-Mark). Therefore, instead of this being the testimony of three witnesses, it is the testimony of only one; whom, they suggest, adapted or created these passages to support his own doctrinal viewpoint.

In reality, the entire argument is flawed. The degree of agreement between Matthew and Luke is highly variable. Take, for example, Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16-17, which agree fairly well, though by no means exactly; yet these are accepted as ‘Q’ texts despite having a parallel in Mark 1:7. Then compare the two incidents described in Matthew 19:13-22, Mark 10:13-22 and Luke 18:15-23, selected at random from amongst the many passages that are rejected. It is highly debatable which follows which most closely; yet in both incidents Mark describes Jesus’ emotional responses in a manner quite distinct from that of Matthew and Luke, giving the lie to the suggestion that they copied from him. This degree of variation is far more consistent with Luke’s testimony to multiple sources and first hand knowledge than to these theories of documentary evolution.

Such rejection also flies in the face of the available external evidence. The early church Fathers testify that Mark based his gospel directly on the testimony of Peter, who was appointed as leader of the church by Jesus himself, and for whom Mark worked as an interpreter. So not only are there no valid historical or textual grounds here for rejecting Mark, but to do so indicates a severe loss of objectivity.

General Rejection of First-hand Testimony

Such scholars do not only reject Mark’s testimony, however; they also reject Luke’s own testimony that there were many sources and that he had direct access to actual eyewitnesses. So here already, in spite of their need to accept the authenticity of Luke, they are effectively calling him false.

On what grounds? Roman scholars now acknowledge Luke as one of the best historians of his time: so there is no justification here. The arguments for a late dating of Luke’s writings have been generally discredited, and most scholars now accept that they date from before the fall of Jerusalem, when he would indeed have had access to first-hand testimony. And, as noted above, the degree of variation between the gospels lends itself more to a view of multiple sources than to just one or two.

To put it simply, the argument is not based on evidence; rather it ignores the evidence, because it is necessary to have it so in order to justify what now follows.

‘Q1’, ‘Q2’ and ‘Q3’

Having arrived at what is commonly referred to as ‘Q’; a drastically-reduced version of the gospels, from which huge portions have now been discarded, the process continues. It is next conjectured that what remains is not an accurate record either; but the result of earlier doctoring of the texts.

Now, if some of Jesus’ sayings were gathered into collections by earlier writers, evidence of such editing may well be found in the resultant texts, either in the choice of material or the accompanying narrative; just as Matthew, Mark and Luke exhibit their own distinctive styles and emphases. But what is being claimed here is that the writers deliberately invented stories and sayings which they attributed to Jesus in order to further their own doctrinal viewpoints.

So there now begins a process of attempting to decide who, allegedly, wrote what. Interestingly, bearing in mind the claims made for objectivity in this process, there has been much debate even amongst scholars of this persuasion as to what criteria they should use. For example Jacobson assumes that quotations from the Septuagint, and references to John the Baptist are evidence of later additions, whereas Schultz assumes any theological ideas that have parallels in hellenistic thought are proof of this.

Probably the nearest to an objective basis for such an analysis is that of Kloppenborg. He endeavours to use a redaction-oriented technique based upon the major literary themes in ‘Q’. He identifies three of these: Q1 (which criticises the Jew’s rejection of Jesus and John the Baptist), Q2 (which mainly focuses on the principle of reliance upon God) and Q3 (the account of Jesus’ temptation). He also cites additional support based upon linguistic forms used, noting that Q2 uses forms akin to Biblical ‘wisdom’ sayings, whereas Q1 uses narrative forms known as ‘chreia.’

So is Kloppenborg being truly objective, or is he also making unjustified assumptions? Firstly, as with Jacobson, Schultz, et al., he begins with the assumption that the ‘Q’ texts come from a single document that has been subjected to a succession of alterations, and then looks for criteria by which he can separate the various supposed elements. Secondly, the reality of the situation is again nowhere near as simple as this. The existence of themes allegedly belonging to Q1 in parts of Q2 necessitates the theory that Q2 has been glossed over by the person responsible for Q1. Similarly passages are assigned to one or other group on the basis of very tenuous arguments.

And what of the forms-based evidence? Here again, Kloppenborg has fallen into one of the commonest errors of literary criticism – assuming that linguistic style is unaffected by content. It is only to be expected that Jesus’ main public teaching sessions (‘Q2’) would have been conducted in traditional ‘wisdom’ styles. But the passages concerned with Jesus’ dealings with the Jewish leaders (‘Q1’) are clearly not ‘teaching’ but narrative, combined with plain, very blunt, speaking. If these had been in ‘wisdom’ style, that would have been suspicious, whereas narrative ‘chreia’ are entirely appropriate. Similarly, Jesus’ temptation (‘Q3’) should differ in style; for this is an account of a very private event (he was alone) that could only have come through confidences to his followers, and was clearly not part of his public teaching.

But what of Luke’s perfectly reasonable claim that Jesus’ ministry included all these elements? And if, as Luke implies, these quotations do not come from a single source document then it is far from surprising if the resultant text exhibits a variety of interwoven themes. Just look a little more closely for a moment at Q3 (Mt 4:1-11 and Lk 4:1-13), and see how Matthew and Luke, whilst agreeing in substance, differ over not only the details of what was said, but even the sequence of the temptations. This strongly suggests they were not referring to a common source document, as the ‘Q’ theory presupposes, but rather were citing independent oral or textual sources. Moreover, although Mark does not describe the event, he does confirm that it happened (Mk 1:12-13).

What does this analysis really tell us? Given the criteria used, even if we had three totally different sources, all containing some or all of these three elements, merged them together and analysed them in this manner, we would still get a similar result. So this does not show us the composition of the immediate sources used by the gospel writers. All it really proves is that, underlying the gospel accounts are wisdom style teachings, exchanges condemning the intransigence of the Jews, and an account of acute personal temptation. Considering most historians accept that Jesus was one of the greatest teachers of all time, that he was rejected by his own people yet allowed himself to die at their hands, that is entirely unsurprising.

So, based once more on distinctly questionable assumptions, we now have the even more hypothetical documents Q1, Q2 and Q3.

The Gospel of Sayings.

Some scholars now proceed to reject Q3, because it is ‘mythical’, etc., and Q1, because they claim it was invented by a later author critical of the Jews’ refusal to obey God. This leaves us with Q2 – sayings concerning reliance on God, etc..

But even this is not acceptable to some, so they continue removing anything else they deem to be ‘mythical’ (i.e. supernatural) or, in their judgement, theologically too advanced to be attributable to Jesus. They then claim that what remains is the original ‘Gospel of Sayings’ – the only ‘true’ record of the teachings of Jesus.

A TV documentary (not an expose: rather, it appeared sympathetic) filmed some of these deliberations. A group of scholars sat around a table discussing their opinions as to the validity of one of Jesus’ sayings. They each had a set of coloured tokens, represented opinions of the text ranging from spurious to genuine. One would say, ‘That doesn’t sound to me like something Jesus would have said,’ another that it reminded him of a similar saying of Jesus, etc.. After discussing it for a while, they voted by displaying their tokens, and moved on. But the criteria they were applying were essentially subjective opinions based on their personal views of Jesus. Actual discussion of textual evidence was almost non-existent.

Such theories are, of course, very popular with sceptics, and their controversial nature guarantees best-seller status. Their proponents often speak as if these were scientifically-proven facts, accepted by all but a reactionary few. But, as this outline shows, that is far from the case. Perhaps the following comment from the 1995 Encyclopaedia Britannica Year Book’s review of the year’s events under the heading, ‘Religion,’ (page 266) will help put this back in context:

“The Jesus Seminar, an organisation of 74 biblical scholars formed in 1985 to see the historical Jesus through scholarly means, stirred a controversy with the publication of ‘The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus.’ The volume concluded that 82% of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Bible are inauthentic. Other Scholarly works that differed with the scriptural accounts that drew attention during the year included ‘Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography’ by John Dominic Crossan (see BIOGRAPHIES), ‘The Lost Gospel’ by Burton L. Mack, ‘Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time’ by Marcus J. Borg, and ‘The Religion of Jesus the Jew’ by Geza Vermes. These works relied heavily on the Book of Q, a collection of sayings and aphorisms attributed to Jesus that the scholars in question believe were used as sources by Matthew and Luke. In June a conference on “Reclaiming the Bible for the Church,” held in Northfield, Minn., drew theologians who charged that scholarly groups such as the Jesus Seminar were misinterpreting the Bible by removing it from its setting in the church community.”

False Conclusions from False Premises.

Some claim that the Gospel of Sayings is a text of great power: but many others find it rather dull, and are left wondering why Jesus should have attained such worldwide renown for teachings such as these. They may well ask: for most of what remains is essentially little different from the pronouncements of many sages, both before and since. But what else would you expect, when most of the distinctives of Jesus’ teachings have been edited out?

It is even claimed that, as the Gospel of Sayings contains no references to heaven, resurrection, miracles, etc., this proves that they are concepts added later. But, as we have seen, that is simply because the Gospel of Sayings has been synthesised on the basis of that assumption by editing out the many emphatic statements to the contrary.

Another common error is the frequent confusion between the Gospel of Sayings and ‘Q’. The former is a very restricted subset of ‘Q’: but proponents often speak as if the two were synonymous.

It is also often claimed that an early sectarian document, the Gospel of Thomas, contains many extracts from the Gospel of Sayings. This is improbable: all that can really be said is that it appears to have used an early collection of Jesus’ sayings as one of its sources: other parts are clearly spurious.


All that can reasonably be said concerning the ‘Q’ theory is that a similar source or sources, written or oral, may have existed and been used by the gospel writers. But attempting to use this conjectural document as a basis for further extrapolations – and then citing these as ‘evidence’ for conclusions which clearly contradict the two prime source documents and external historical testimony – tells us little except that some people desperately need a reason to reject the testimony of the gospels.

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