The Synoptic Gospels-Matthew, Mark, and Luke-contain a significant number of similarities in wording and order of events as they relate the life of Jesus Christ. Some of those similarities are rather distant, but other parallels are so significant that it appears that the authors borrowed from one another when they wrote. The challenge that has faced scholars has been to unravel the direction of borrowing; and no easy solution exists that would explain which gospel was written first, second, or third.
Faced with this challenge, scholars have concluded that the Gospel of Mark was written first. That conclusion is based on the fact that Matthew and Luke often correct difficulties in Mark’s grammar and geography as well as reordering the events as he recorded them. Building on this conclusion, scholars then noticed that Matthew and Luke share a significant number of stories that are not found in Mark but that are shared only between them. To explain the origin of these stories, or more properly sayings, scholars hypothesized that another gospel existed alongside the Gospel of Mark that Matthew and Luke used as a source when composing their gospels.
Remnants of that hypothetical source are preserved in roughly sixty-five sayings of Jesus Christ that Matthew and Luke used when composing their gospel accounts. Scholars have dubbed this source Q, an abbreviation for the German word for “source” (quelle). Unfortunately for the theory, no ancient author ever referred to this source, nor have any fragments of it ever turned up in archaeological digs or in ancient libraries. The purportedly lost gospel Q is a scholarly construct that helps explain how the gospels are genetically related through the sources they used when they wrote. Other theorists dispense with Q altogether, instead arguing that Mark was first, but then Luke borrowed from Mark and eventually Matthew borrowed from Mark and Luke. Both hypotheses face the issue of internal consistency and sometimes contradictory evidence.
The need to explain the gospels in their current forms as a result of ancient authors combining earlier sources is an outgrowth of the scholarly enterprise to examine Christianity as a disjointed conglomerate of fractured communities. Each document-the hypothetical Q, Mark, Matthew, and Luke-represents one of these disparate communities of ancient Christians. In other words, scholars today see the quest to find or establish the hypothetical Q source as a way to find the real Jesus Christ behind the sources as they are recorded in the New Testament.
Interestingly, ancient authors did not see the origin of the gospels in the same way; and, in fact, they believed that Christianity was a literal descendant of the kingdom established by Jesus Christ when he lived on the earth. The gospels record his teachings as they were given to the Apostles and reveal how they should direct the kingdom after his death.
John Kloppenborg has expressed his own views on the importance of Q for understanding Jesus and why the quest to “discover” Q has been so carefully pursued.
“From the standpoint of drawing the map of the theological landscape of the Jesus movement, it is clear that Q represents an important and distinctive moment in early Christian theologizing-in particular, because there is no evidence that Q had developed a view that found particular meaning in the death of Jesus himself.”
John Kloppenborg-Verbin, Excavating Q: The History and Setting of the Sayings Source, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000),164
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