Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
The "Q" Source

This is a source used both by Matthew and Luke but not apparently known to, or used by, Mark. About 200 verses come from this source. Some scholars think that there must have been a written document in Greek behind this common material. A German scholar abbreviated quelle (German for "source") to "Q" in 1890. A few think the material was originally oral.

The possibility of the existence of Q has been strengthened by the discovery in 1945 of the Gospel of Thomas, which is also collection of sayings without reference to the "story" of Jesus' life and works. Thomas contains 47 parallels to Mark, 40 to Q, 17 to Matthew, four to Luke and five to John. Some conclude that both documents originated in communities of Jewish Christians in Judea and Galilee between the time of Jesus' death and the writing of the four main gospels. 

The Gospel of Thomas can't be dated for certain as yet. Some think it predates the main gospels. But the consensus so far seems to be that it's date is more likely to be much later. The main point, though, is that it is a collection of sayings without much supporting narrative and no context - exactly similar to what the Q-source is thought to have been.

The community from which Q came was more interested in what Jesus said than what he did. This isn't surprising. Not only were people of that time and place not particularly interested in what we today call history, but there was a tradition of collecting the sayings of famous people. The students of famous philosophers put together their wise and witty sayings in gnomologia or "words of insight". In the Hebrew Scriptures the Book of Proverbs is an example of the logoi sophon or "sayings of the wise" which Hebrew and Persian groups often collected.

There are only two narratives in Q: (1) Jesus' struggle with Satan (Luke 4.2-13; Matthew 4.1-11); and (2) the healing of the centurion's slave (Luke 7.2-3, 6-10; Matthew 8.5-13). But even these two stories focus more on what Jesus said than on the events concerned.

The Q community were, it seems, interested in what they believed would be the coming of the Messiah in power and glory to set things right. As we know from Paul's letters, early Christians believed that God came to them through prophecy. This was in turn evidence that they were God's elect who would triumph when Jesus returned in the last days. 

But care needs to be taken that modern interpretations are not merely projected onto the material. Just because we think in terms of early apocalyptic literature doesn't mean that it actually existed, or that early Christians thought in exactly those terms. The four main gospels seem to think less about Jesus coming again, and more about what they call "the kingdom of God". There is a strong argument for supposing that by "kingdom" they meant "a way of running society" (to use our modern orientation). "The way God does things" might be a better equivalent of the "kingdom of God". 

If this emphasis is given some weight, then  much of Q has a social context, referring to a better way of running the world than the early Christians knew in their own lives.

The apocalyptic nature of Q suggests that it came into being in the first or second generations after Jesus died. As we know from Paul's later letters, by around the year 65 Christians had begun to wonder if Jesus would return as some had thought. This makes a date for Q of later than 65 less likely. Some think that the story of the struggle with Satan in Q refers to an incident in 39 when there was a mass demonstration against the erection of a statue of the Emperor Caligula in Jerusalem [1]. If so, the Q material probably came into being after that date.

Both the high degree of verbal agreement between Luke and Matthew, and some particular word formations, lead many to conclude that Q was a written source now long-lost, rather than an oral tradition. They think it unlikely that two oral traditions, one used by Matthew and one used by Luke, could have sustained such tight verbal similarity. 

The Q material in Matthew and Luke is set in differing contexts, but in roughly the same sequence. This is a strong argument against those who (like Michael Goulder [2]) think that there was no Q source and that Matthew and Luke either derived this material from elsewhere or wrote it themselves. The very similar sequence reinforces the conclusion that Luke and Matthew were not using independent sources, but the same one.

Mark's Gospel contains no Q material but is used as a source by both Luke and Matthew. Strikingly, both Luke and Matthew also use Q versions of the sources used by Mark in his gospel. Two examples are:

[a] Mark 4.25 is used in Matthew 13.12 and Luke 8.18. A similar version from Q also occurs in Matthew 25.29 and Luke 19.26.

[b] So also Mark 8.34-35 is used in Matthew 16.24-25 and Luke 9.23-24. A Q version also occurs in Matthew 10.38-39 and Luke 14.27 & 17.33.

This is another strong confirmation that Q was a single source and that it was used by both Matthew and Luke independently of Mark.

Overall, many suggest that Luke's version of Q preserves the original better than Matthew's. A complete version of Q can be read by putting all the following sections together (from Luke) [3]:

3.7-9, 16b-17 
7.2-3, 6-10
11.39-40; 42-43
11.46-48, 52
19.12-13; 15-26
John's preaching
Struggle with Satan
Promised reward
Rewards: discipleship
Parables: morality
Testing discipleship
Centurion: healing
John's question
John's place
Leaving home & family
Cities: doom
Disciples: rejection
God's wisdom a gift
Beatitude: wisdom
Prayer for kingdom
God answers prayers
Defeating demons a sign
Unclean spirit returns
Sign of Jonah
Light & darkness
Woe to Pharisees
Woe to lawyers
Martyrdom predicted
What is hidden
Do not fear
God's care
Confessing the Messiah
God is with the persecuted
Freedom from over-anxiety
Freedom from possessions
Parable: Be prepared
The faithful steward
Bringing conflict & division
Coming judgement
Parable of the leaven
The narrow door
Killing prophets
Parable: Great feast
Cost of discipleship
Lost sheep
Two masters: a choice
A new age dawns
The Law remains
Forgiving each other
The last days
Parable: the talents
Rewards in heaven

The conclusion that Q existed as a now-lost written source of some sayings of Jesus has withstood more than a century of testing with remarkable resilience. Scholars still emerge from the woodwork with reasons why it should be discounted. But their reasons are generally weak to the point of being fanciful and are soon relegated to the graveyard of discarded theories.

Some reasons why the discovery of Q is so important bear summarizing in the light both of continuing skepticism about the authenticity of the information we have about Jesus, and of fundamentalist assertions that everything in the Bible really happened just as it is recorded there. 

If one accepts that Q is a now-lost written record of "what Jesus really said"

  • the form critical method of analysing the gospel texts must also be accepted. We know about Q precisely because many hundreds of scholars have torn the gospels apart down to their bare bones. The details can and must be argued. But the overall approach has lasted and has born fruit. The Q material can be validly separated from the gospel text.

  • Many have discounted the possibility that we can know what Jesus really said. The gap between his life and the first of the gospels (probably Mark) is, they say, too long for oral material to keep its shape and accuracy. The distortions through time and distance of what Jesus really said would be considerable - perhaps fatally so if we're searching for a Jesus of history. The origins of Q are, in contrast, almost certainly quite early. There would have been a time during which what Jesus actually said would have been remembered and passed on by word of mouth. But written material was assembled much sooner than the sceptics suppose.

  • Some propose that the gospels contain the verbatim words of Jesus. The nature of Q renders this unlikely. First, it shows clear signs of having been restructured into a written version from the loose way people usually speak. Since the invention of tape recorders we can demonstrate that people don't speak grammatically unless they are reading a written script. Second, the gospel writers have inserted the Q material into their own theological and liturgical schemes. There is no way of showing that the writer or editor of Q did not do the same. We must suppose he did.

In similar vein, a number of further assumptions can be validly drawn from the evidence [4]:

  1. Not only was Q originally a written source but it was written in Greek. Attempts to find Aramaic in the text have failed.

  2. The content of Q indicates that it had considerable status in the early Jewish-Christian communities centred around northern Galilee. They looked to it for guidance in life-issues.

  3. Q wasn't a once-off document, written as a single piece. Rather, it was a collection which was added to from time to time. Some changes may have been made by later, non-Galilean sources - though the evidence for this is not that strong.

  4. Each of the four gospels (excluding Thomas, that is) is designed to get across a particular theological theme. Q is not like that. It is a collection without coherence, although there are some connections through catchwords. It lacks literary design and is fundamentally un-edited.

  5. Because Q is a collection, any signs we can pick up from it about the conditions and concerns of the community which gave birth to it are likely to closely reflect the social map of the Q community. That is, there will be fewer confusions produced by a themed and edited method of writing.

Those who are not familiar with the scholarship of the past 20 years may react to Q with some dismay. This is understandable. But I prefer to regard it positively. We have in the gospels not a magically-created hand-me-down from God via a mysterious process of revelation, but a truly human impression (rather than a record) compiled in a normal way for those times. 

What we know today about Jesus is therefore subject to all the strengths of weaknesses of ordinary human processes by which knowledge is conveyed from person to person.
[1] The Historical Jesus,  G Theissen & A Merz, SCM Press, 1998
[2] Midrash and Lection in Matthew, SPCK, 1974.
[3] The New Testament, N Perrin & D C Duling, Harcourt, 1974
[4] After Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, J L Reed, Trinity Press, 2002

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