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The Trouble With Q

By Daniel A. Smith
Faculty of Theology
Huron University College, London, Ontario
January 2012

The Synoptic Problem (or as I sometimes say to my students, the “Synoptic Opportunity”), that is, the literary question of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related to one another, given their various agreements and disagreements in wording and order, is still a problem (or better, an opportunity). For well over a hundred years, the majority of scholars have thought that the Two Source Theory (also known as the Two Document Hypothesis; hereafter 2DH) is the best way to account for the literary data, but quite rightly it continues to be challenged and debated.1 Current methodologies and better information about orality, literacy, and scribal activity in antiquity also provide fresh insights into the question of how the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written and used.2 More than this, however, the Synoptic Problem remains an opportunity for exploring how we construct our notions of “Christian origins.”

For despite its widespread acceptance among biblical scholars, one implication of the 2DH is often disputed for reasons which are not always literary and historical. Here I have in mind the lost Sayings Source (or Sayings Gospel) designated as “Q”, and its significance to our views about Christian origins.3 Of course, the Q hypothesis continues to be debated on literary and historical grounds.4 This, in my view, is necessary to the refinement of the hypothesis. Even the staunchest proponents of the 2DH tend to be cautious where its “hypothetical” nature is concerned, acknowledging its limitations and viewing it as a tool for analysis rather than an actual account of the historical “facts” of the gospels’ composition. Sometimes, however, the hypothetical nature of Q is used as a facile reason for rejecting serious descriptions of early Christian theology or social history based on Q.5

Q scholars debate many things among themselves: Q’s genre, for instance; or how, when, and by whom it was composed; or various aspects of its theology and worldview, such as its views about Torah-observance or eschatology.6 The Q Section of the Society of Biblical Literature normally runs three sessions at each SBL Annual Meeting, and in those sessions participants discuss a wide variety of topics related to Q.7 Generally, however, Q scholars typically agree (1) that Q was an actual text; (2) that it can be reconstructed; and (3) that on the basis of this reconstruction we can say something concrete about both the text and its original community. The “trouble with Q” seems to begin at this last stage. As long as it remains only part of the solution to the Synoptic Problem, Q is relatively unproblematic; but what if it turns out that Q’s contents and outlook are distinctive? And what if some scholars argue on this basis that Q represents a “different” kind of Christianity than that which we find in (say) the letters of Paul or the Gospel of Luke? This is when the hypothesis becomes too “hypothetical” for some. In my opinion, this is because it challenges the typical (and canonical) understanding of how Christianity began, and what it was like at the very beginning.

At issue, usually, is the absence from Q (as conventionally reconstructed) of features normally considered to be universally important in early Christianity: a view of Jesus’ death as salvific, predictions of his resurrection, even the title “Christ” or “anointed one” (Greek: christos). What can this mean? One approach – an older one – was to assert that Q functioned as instructions from the teachings of Jesus for people who were already convinced of the fundamental importance of his death and resurrection.8 Another approach, more common nowadays, is to suggest that Q represents the views of a stream in early Christianity for which these features were not important; this introduces considerable diversity and difference into our picture of Christian origins, and on the basis of a purportedly early document.9 A third approach, it seems primarily in reaction to this second approach, is simply to dismiss Q on the grounds that it is too hypothetical to be of any use.10 What about this?

First of all, assuming that the 2DH is the best explanation for the Synoptic relationships, and given our current data, we can reconstruct the Q Source with a considerable degree of certainty.11 This is done, more or less, by comparing how Matthew and Luke present the sayings material that they share in common but which is not found in Mark. Some Q passages, for example the speech on worry and divine provision (Matt 6:25-33; Luke 12:22-31), are so close in their Greek wording in Matthew and Luke that “reconstructing” the original wording of the speech in Q is fairly straightforward.12 This kind of verbatim agreement, in Greek and over many verses, is the primary reason for thinking Q was an actual document, rather than a set of oral traditions. Other Q passages, for example the speech pronouncing woe on the Pharisees (Matt 23:1-36; Luke 11:39-54), show only a basic similarity in wording and structure, and where Matthew and Luke disagree they sometimes vary widely from each other. Yet agreement here and there in a distinctive word or phrase indicates that Matthew and Luke were using a source text; but whether their copies were exactly the same at that point, or what they originally read if they were not, is impossible to determine. Speaking more broadly, a minimal “table of contents” of Q can be reconstructed just by including what Matthew and Luke have in common which is not from Mark. Q may have contained more than what Matthew and Luke agreed in including, but about that we can never be certain.13

The resulting picture, secondly, is actually fairly coherent. Q evidently – and I mean on the basis of the literary evidence – began with material about John the Baptist, then contained a series of speeches of Jesus. Q is mainly ethical instruction, in parables and other rhetorical forms, and using the metaphor of the kingdom of God; but Q also contains apocalyptic material and speeches announcing judgment. The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4) and the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-6, 11-12; Luke 6:20-23) come from Q. Narrative (story) material is also present, but there is not much of it (e.g., Matt 8:5-13; Luke 7:1- 10). Jesus is very important in Q, not only as the speaker of this instruction, but also as an emissary of God (or of Wisdom: see Matt 11:18-19; Luke 7:33-35) whose instructions his disciples must obey, for he is also the coming Son of Man (Matt 24:43-51; Luke 12:39-40, 42-46). There is nothing specific in Q about Jesus’ death and resurrection, but his fate apparently was understood as similar to the rejection other prophets and emissaries experienced (Matt 23:37-39; Luke 13:34-35). A discipleship saying about “carrying one’s cross” (Matt 10:38; Luke 14:27) implies that in this Jesus was viewed as a pattern to be followed.

The third issue, then, is what to do with Q once its contents have been reconstructed and described. The reconstructed text is hypothetical, of course, but the hypothesis rests on good data and provides a good explanation of the Synoptic relationships. We could compare this text with the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s author is unknown, its intended audience is unknown, and whether the author wrote anything else (such as letters) is also unknown. Yet scholars regularly describe Matthew’s theology, and draw inferences about its author, original audience, and community setting, without having secure answers to those basic questions. With Q, we have a text, based on a sound hypothesis; it does not seem unreasonable to attempt the same sort of descriptions when it comes to Q.

What about the things we do not find in Q? A collection which is primarily sayings material probably would not contain narratives about Jesus’ death and resurrection; but where Mark includes several sayings that predict Jesus’ death and resurrection (e.g., Mark 8:31-33), or interpret it in a particular way (Mark 10:45), Q has nothing of the sort. Arguments based on silence are always tricky, so one must proceed with caution. To conclude from the cross saying mentioned above (Matt 10:38; Luke 14:27) that for Q Jesus’ death was only a pattern to be followed, and not a death that secured divine salvation (as Paul and other early Christians taught), is perhaps too much. Q does show evidence of interpreting Jesus’ death, but rather than receiving a sacrificial interpretation, it is aligned with the rejection of prophets, as noted above. Minimally we should conclude that if the people responsible for Q understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, this view did not influence how they transmitted the sayings in Q as we are able to reconstruct the text. But perhaps Q’s silence means more than this.

Could there have been a group that organized their community life and missionary endeavours after Jesus and his teachings, but did not take the passion and resurrection proclamation as foundational? Other early Christian documents, such as James and the Didache, are similarly silent, suggesting that the passion and resurrection proclamation may not have been as important in all early Christian groups as it was for Paul and his congregations. This, then, is the trouble with Q: it troubles conventional notions about how Christianity began, with a single movement sponsored by twelve apostles sent out from Jerusalem with the gospel about Jesus’ saving death and victorious resurrection (see Luke 24:44-53). How does a group such as the original audience of (or community behind) Q fit into this picture? Only as an aberration. But let us not forget that the conventional picture is hypothetical as well, based mainly on a text – Luke-Acts – with its own interests and agendas, and based on presuppositions about how canonical texts record and report history. How we treat the literary evidence for the beginnings of Christianity is important not only because we “reconstruct” that history on the basis of that evidence, but also because it helps us unearth the core presuppositions about how we find (or make) meaning in it all.


1 This theory states that Matthew and Luke used Mark, the earliest gospel, independently of one another, and also a collection of Jesus’ sayings (which scholars have designated Q, which is short for the German word Quelle, meaning “source”). Though traditionally called the Two Source Theory ( or Hypothesis), I prefer “Two Document Hypothesis,” because this wording implies that the Q material (the sayings material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark) comes not from oral traditions but from an actual Greek text that can be reconstructed with some measure of confidence.

2 For example, see Paul Foster et al. (eds.), New Studies in the Synoptic Problem: Oxford Conference, April 2008: Essays in Honour of Christopher M. Tuckett (BETL 239; Leuven: Peeters, 2011). The table of contents can be seen at

3 See the explanation of the 2DH in note 1, above. For a handy introduction to Q, including an English translation of Q, see John S. Kloppenborg, Q, The Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008). One can find the Google Books preview at

4 For instance, Terence C. Mournet, Oral Tradition and Literary Dependency: Variability and Stability in the Synoptic Tradition and Q (WUNT 2.195; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005). In this book, Mournet disputes the hypothesis of a fixed text for all the Q material, hypothesizing instead that when Matthew and Luke vary from each other (rather than agree closely in wording) they depend on oral tradition.

5 See, for instance, Stephen Finamore’s recent review of my book Revisiting the Empty Tomb: The Early History of Easter (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010) in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33/5 (2011): 24-25: “Much of the argument depends on the idea that Q was a discrete text. This makes some of the discussion seem rather speculative” (p. 25). Granted, a book review is not the place for an extended argument based on literary evidence; but this sort of outright dismissal of work on Q is all too common. See, for example, N. T. Wright, “Resurrection in Q?” in David G. Horrell and Christopher M. Tuckett (eds.), Christology, Controversy and Community: New Testament Essays in Honour of David R. Catchpole (NovTSup 99; Leiden: Brill, 2000), 85-97: “It [Q] only appears, one might argue, to those who believe in it, and perhaps it takes a special literary-critical grace to have that sort of faith or experience” (88). For a brief treatment of the central ideas in Revisiting the Empty Tomb, see my Bible and Interpretation article “The Evolution of the Easter Story,” at

6 For a recent conference volume illustrating the broad range of topics Q scholars debate, see Andreas Dettwiler and Daniel Marguerat (eds.), La source des paroles de Jésus (Q): Aux origines du christianisme (La Monde de la Bible 62; Geneva: Labor et Fides, 2008).

7 The SBL Q Section’s website may be found at

8 See T. W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus (London: SCM, 1937), 16: “There is no Passion-story because none is required, Q being a book of instruction for people who are already Christians and know the story of the Cross by heart.”

9 The earliest to argue this was Heinz Eduard Tödt, The Son of Man in the Synoptic Tradition (London: SCM, 1965), 268: “There are two spheres of tradition, distinguished both by their concepts and by their history. The centre of one sphere is the passion kerygma [i.e., proclamation]; the centre of the other is the intention to take up again the teaching of what Jesus had taught. The Q material belongs to the second sphere.”

10 See Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 214: “We must always keep in mind that Q is a hypothetical source, which, given our current data, we cannot know much about, much less be certain of a hypothetical community that produced it.” Licona (correctly) says that Q does not provide any information about the resurrection of Jesus (215), but is clearly concerned to eliminate Q as an early source that does not refer to the resurrection of Jesus (213-14). To do so he supplies “a number of explanations ranging in plausibility” (but no “current data,” literary or otherwise) why Q does not refer to the resurrection: perhaps Luke used Matthew, or vice versa; perhaps the genre of Q prevented the inclusion of a resurrection narrative; perhaps Q contained a resurrection narrative, but Matthew and Luke preferred their own sources, or maybe Mark used it but it was lost with his original ending (213-14).

11 See James M. Robinson, Paul Hoffmann, and John S. Kloppenborg (eds.), The Critical Edition of Q (Hermeneia Supplements; Minneapolis: Fortress; Leuven: Peeters, 2001). Kloppenborg, Q The Earliest Gospel (see above n. 3) includes a handy English translation of the reconstructed Q text of The Critical Edition of Q. Peeters Press (Leuven) also publishes the series Documenta Q, which compiles and evaluates arguments about the reconstruction of Q.

12 Conventionally, Q passages are given according to their Lukan location, so “Q 12:22-31” represents the Q passage originally behind Matt 6:25-33 and Luke 12:22-31. In this essay, I give both the Matthean and the Lukan locations for Q material for ease of reference.

13 For example, Luke contains three episodes about would-be disciples (Luke 9:57-62) but Matthew has only two (Matt 8:18-22). Was Luke’s third episode from Q? Possibly, but scholars debate whether Matthew may have had reasons for not including the third, and whether Luke himself may have composed the third to round out the unit.