What Is Q And Why Is Q Important?

By Garrett Best

This is the third post in a series of posts on why it is that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are so similar. In the first post, I presented a brief summary of the evidence that has led scholars to conclude that there is literary relationship between the three Synoptic Gospels. Someone is copying someone. In the second post, I laid out the dominant scholarly position that Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke both used Mark in order to write their own Gospels.

In this post, I’d like to talk about the Q document. Most of the material that Matthew and Luke share can be explained by their use of Mark. Since they were both copying from Mark, it makes sense they would have much in common. However, Matthew and Luke have about 235 verses in common which are not found in Mark. That’s close to 20% of the material in Matthew and Luke. How do you explain this phenomenon?

Since most of the material Matthew and Luke share can be explained in terms of their copying a written Mark, how do you think scholars explain these shared 235 verses? As you might expect, scholars believe there was another document which Matthew and Luke both used in addition to Mark which helps explain this 20% of shared material. Since this document no longer exists, scholars refer to it as “Q”. Scholars use the letter “Q” from the German word Quelle which means “source” to designate this hypothetical source.

A few are so convinced that Q existed as a written document, there have been commentaries produced on the Q document. Commentaries! That means these scholars believe they can actually go verse-by-verse and tell you what was originally in Q. For example, in 2005, HT Fleddermann authored Q. A Reconstruction and Commentary. John Kloppenborg Verbin wrote a book entitled Excavating Q which goes so far as to posit that Q was mostly likely written in the 50s and 60s in lower Galilee by a group of village scribes in low social standing who were iconoclastic against the Galileean religious scene and saw themselves as a renewal movement. Wow! That’s a lot to say about a hypothetical community behind a hypothetical document. John Meier said it best, “Q is a hypothetical document whose exact extension, wording, originating community, strata, and stages of redaction cannot be known.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2001, 2:178)

With that qualification in mind, many scholars are convinced that there was some kind of source lying behind the 235 verses shared by Matthew and Luke. Although they believe Q existed as a written document, they are not as positive as scholars like Fleddermann or Kloppenborg Verbin that it is possible to reconstruct it. Nonetheless, I will briefly summarize the two main reasons why scholars believe Matthew and Luke used Q.

Evidence for the Existence of Q:

  1. The Argument from Wording- Many verses in Matthew and Luke are extremely similar. They share almost exact wording. For example, in Mt. 6:24 and Lk. 16:13, twenty-seven of the twenty-eight Greek words are the same. In Mt. 7:7-8 and Lk. 11:9-10, all twenty-four words are identical and in the same order. In Matthew 11:21-23 and Lk. 10:12-15, forty-three of the forty-nine words are parallel. This is beyond coincidence if we remember that Jesus was mostly likely speaking in Aramaic and the Gospels are the Greek translations of his original teachings. The similarity of word order is also impressive given that there are multiple ways to express the same thought in Greek. Identical translations into Greek and identical sentence structures are unlikely and point to the need for a theory of literary dependence.
  2. The Argument from Doublets- In my opinion, this is the strongest argument in favor of Luke and Matthew using both Mark, and another source, Q. Consider these examples:
  3. In Mark 8:34 Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” This is parallel in Matt. 16:24 and Lk. 9:23. Given what we already have seen, this makes sense if Matthew and Luke are using Mark to write their Gospels, especially since the saying is connected to the confession of Peter in all three Gospels. Matthew is copying Mark in Matt. 16:24 and Luke is copying Mark in Lk. 9:23. However, the same saying occurs again in Matt. 10:38 and Lk. 14:27 that has no parallel in Mark. This means that Q also had the same saying of Jesus. Thus, Matthew was copying Mark in Matt. 16:24 and Q in Matt. 10:38. Luke was copying Mark in Lk. 9:23 and Q in Lk. 14:27. This is what is referred to as a doublet. Doublets are two forms of the same saying, one which appears in Mark and the other which occurs in Q.
    • In addition to the doublets shared by both Matthew and Luke, there are also unique doublets that only appear in Matthew or Luke. For example, the accusation against Jesus which occurs in Mark 3:22 that “by the prince of demons he casts out demons” is used by Matthew in Matt. 9:34. However, the same accusation occurs in another story that is not in Mark. The same accusation is made in a different context in Matt. 12:24 and Lk. 11:15. We would then explain the saying in Matt. 9:34 because Matthew is copying from Mark 3:22. However, the saying occurs again in Matt. 12:24 and is paralleled in Lk. 11:15. Thus, this would be an instance of the same saying occurring twice in Matthew, one from Mark (Matt. 9:34) and the other from Q (Matt. 12:24).
    • There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon. If Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q, then one can see why these doublets exist. A doublet occurs because one of the sayings comes from Mark and the other from Q. The doublets are examples of where Mark and Q contain similar material. Since Matthew and Luke used both Mark and Q, sometimes the similarity of material shows up as doublets in their respective Gospels.

This is just a brief snapshot of a very detailed discussion. The priority of Mark is as close to certainty as we can get to knowing anything about the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels to one another. If Mark was written first, and Matthew and Luke used Mark to write their Gospels, it becomes easy to explain why the material shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke is so similar.

You still have not explained the over 200 verses that only Matthew and Luke have in common. If they both used Mark to write their Gospels, why is it difficult to think they used another document available at the time? If you compare the material in these 200 verses, the majority of its content is sayings and teachings of Jesus. We know that there were collections of sayings of Jesus that existed in the first century like the Gospel of Thomas. It is not at all unreasonable that Matthew and Luke both used a collection of sayings like this in addition to using Mark.

At the end of the day, unless Q were to be discovered in an arid desert somewhere, all discussions of Q are hypothetical. All we can say is that there most likely was another source used by Matthew and Luke in addition to Mark that consisted of a collection of sayings and teachings of Jesus which we now refer to as Q.

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7 comments

  1. The reasons to believe in Q lack the two most important types of evidence (manuscripts, history). All the arguments listed here from scholars are all conjecture. I’m glad you point out that this discussion is hypothetical. I would like to share some reason why there was never a document called Q.

    1. Again, there is no manuscript evidence for Q. The Christians were huge on keeping their written Scriptures safe. Based on how the Christians were devoted to not letting Matthew, Mark, Luke, the Septuagint, the letter of the apostles, etc. be lost, why would the Christians allow a Q document which was written in Greek be completely lost within 2 or 3 generations? If there was a Q document, the Christians would have allowed it to survive, just as they did with Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

    2) There is no historical evidence for Q. You think that the early Christians would have told us if Matthew and Luke used another document. But they did not. The early Christians (Papias) said that Matthew wrote his gospel in Aramaic, and then it was carefully translated into Greek. So according to the early Christians, Matthew did not use Q (written in Greek) to write his Aramaic gospel. In short, it is foolish to believe both things: that Matthew took the Greek Q to write his Aramaic gospel which when then translated back into Greek. One must choose the historical writings of the early Christians or the hypothetical patterns found by modern scholars. Or, one could discount both and simply believe Matthew wrote an original work, being an apostle and an eyewitness.

    3) There is no need for Q’s witness. Matthew was an apostle. He didn’t need Q (unless his Aramaic gospel was Q). Matthew witnessed all the events of Jesus. Why would Matthew use a document written by a non-apostle when he is a better witness, being an apostle himself? (Unless Q was written by an apostle.) Secondly, there is Luke 1:1. Luke tells us where he got his gospel from. He didn’t say he got it from some Q document. Instead, he said he talked to original eyewitnesses and servants who passed down the word. Luke consulted two sources. If there was a Q document, why would Luke even want to write another gospel? The only reason would be that it had not been written down before. Therefore, if Q existed, it did not exist in written form. It would have been the verbal sayings passed down from those who saw Jesus and heard Him say those things. Now, Let’s say Luke used Mark as a source, then if Mark was a source that survived to the second century, then Q would have also being a genuine written gospel.

    1. You’ve been reading too much Papias.

      Luke acknowledges that there were “many” who had undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which had taken place which means there were certainly more documents written than we have available to us. If it were not for the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library recently then we wouldn’t have known about the Gospel of Thomas which dates very early and is an example of a “logia” of the teachings of Christ. Clearly, we do not expect there to be surviving manuscript evidence for every piece of Jesus tradition written in the first century. The Gospel of Thomas is just one example of a document written around the time of the first century that no one mentioned and until recently, we had no manuscript evidence for, yet it does and did exist.

      No one has argued that Q (or the Gospel of Thomas) was scripture or that anyone else, including the Synoptic authors, considered these sources to be scripture. Just because they used Q as a source does not say anything about whether they regarded that source as scripture. I’m sure you are aware that later writers of canonical documents in the New Testament used 1 Enoch and the Assumption of Moses as sources. Just because they used them doesn’t mean they regarded them as scripture.

      As we’ve already discussed, we have no reason to believe Papias was correct in asserting that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written in Aramaic. Here, you are relying on the testimony of Papias which is external evidence when all the internal evidence we have from the Gospel itself points away from this conclusion. Scholars are unanimous on this, even the scholars that don’t believe in Markan priority or Q. Matthew is not translation Greek. Scholars have tried to figure out what else Papias may have meant. Maybe there was an Aramaic logia or maybe he meant “in the Hebrew style” instead of “in Hebrew.” They try to come up with these explanations because they know if Papias meant he wrote in “Hebrew/Aramaic” that Papias was wrong.

      Even if you believe in an Aramaic proto-Gospel, you still have all the basic aspects of the Synoptic Problem to explain. If Matthew was translating from an Aramaic Gospel, then how are Mark and Luke related to the Greek version of Matthew? Did Mark and Luke also have access to the Aramaic version that Matthew used or do you believe that Mark and Luke had access to the Aramaic version of Matthew? Did Mark and Luke translate from the Aramaic version or did they copy from the Greek Matthew? I don’t know how you can buy Papias’ testimony without also asserting that Matthew was written first and then Mark and Luke used the Greek translation of Matthew. If Matthew was written first, then why has Mark removed all the good teaching material of Jesus from Matthew, added the more difficult readings, and diminished the superior style of Matthew? Why does Mark take Matthew’s Gospel and add all the unnecessary repetitions, adverbs, etc.? If Matthew was translating into Greek from an Aramaic proto-Gospel, how do Luke and Mark end up with such similar wording? You wouldn’t have such exact parallels if they were translating from Aramaic into Greek. The two languages are very different.

      You have asserted that since Matthew was an apostle, he wouldn’t need to use another document, especially from a non-apostle. At this point, I’m not sure you accept Markan priority, since I believe your reliance on Papias would force you to assert Matthean priority. However, if you believe Mark wrote first and Matthew used Mark, then Matthew used the testimony of a non-apostle. Mark was not an apostle. Matthew was not present for every event recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. He had to get his information from some other source.

      You seem to dismiss the evidence of wording and doublets presented in this blog outright with no explanation. How would you explain the doublets found in Matthew and Luke? What I have given in this post is only a few of the multiple occurrences of this phenomenon. How do you explain the exact wording between the shared material that only Matthew and Luke have in common? Do you think that Luke was copying Matthew?

      You say that “manuscripts” and “history” are the two most important types of evidence? Why? Why those two? If that’s the case, the Gospel of Thomas wouldn’t pass the two most important types of evidence if it were not for it’s recent discovery, but clearly it existed. I think the internal evidence of the gospels we actually possess is important. More important than church history tradition and manuscripts since most of the literary material culture from 2,000 years ago has not survived. I do not agree those are the two most important pieces of evidence.

      Q is a hypothetical document, and I’m not nearly as confident in Q as I am Markan priority, but the testimony of Papias is not convincing to explain the Synoptic Problem either. I think that the two-source hypothesis is more plausible than the testimony of Papias.

      1. Too much Papias? Since we only have 10 tiny fragments of his writings, I don’t think that is possible. lol

        You say we have no reason to believe Papias? What about his credibility? He had seen the apostle John. Eusebius thought his quote that explains the origin of Mark and Matthew was worth saving. For those two reasons alone, that should enough reason to believe him over any new theories by modern day scholars.

        What internal evidence of Scripture points to there being a Q document? I know you shared some things in your posts, but seeing patterns and come up with theories does not make it evidence. In other words, evidence cannot be inferred. Perhaps a more detailed explanation is needed in analyzing the internal evidence. Will you do a post that supports the Q document with internal evidence by going step-by-step?

        So scholars are discounting Papias because they already know he was wrong? What evidence is there that he was wrong?

        How are Mark and Luke related to the Greek version of Matthew? Good question. Luke already admits that his gospel is based on other sources. I believe this: Mark came first. Matthew came next and took things from Mark and polished them up. (Or, Matthew wrote his Aramaic (possibly using Mark as a source). Then person who translated it from Aramaic to Greek (possibly using Mark as a source).) Luke came last and took many, many things from Matthew, things from Mark, and some other sayings of Jesus that were being passed around. This explains the agreement and similarities between the gospels without any need for a hypothetical Q document.

        So Mark isn’t adding all these “unnecessary repetitions, adverbs, etc.,” instead, what if Matthew’s Greek gospel is removing them?

        What is the true reason to believe in a Q document? It just because of the incredible similarities between Matthew and Luke? Then why couldn’t Luke have taken from Matthew? Why do they both, independently, need to take from a mysterious Q document?

        I’m not for Matthew or Mark priority. I mean, just because Mark was written first, this does not automatically mean that Matthew used it as a source for his gospel. BUT, if Matthew did use Mark (a non-apostle), then Matthew did use the testimony of an apostle. This is because Mark wrote his gospel as he heard Peter preach. Mark’s gospel is really the gospel of Peter. Peter was the dictator; Mark was the scribe.

        “You seem to dismiss the evidence of wording and doublets presented in this blog outright with no explanation.” You’re right. It’s hard to follow. Or, maybe you wrote it well and it’s me. Or, most likely, I read it and saw that it proves nothing because the similarity between all the gospels can be proven another way: an explanation that does not need Q and which includes Papias’ testimony. I revisited your example of a doublet in Mark 8:34, Matt 16:24, Luke 9:23, Matt 10:38, and Luke 14:27. I do not see that this at all proves there was a Q. There are many, many reasons why some quotes are the same and some are different.

        Why are manuscripts and history the most important types of evidence? Because they are evidences from the point in history we are talking about. A manuscript taken from that time is physical proof that something existed. Historical accounts from people are written proof that something existed. Is there any stronger evidence to the past other than inventing a time machine to go back and witness it for yourself? When you have an ancient person say, “This is what happened,” and compare it to someone who lived 2000 years later and says, “This is what happened,” which person would you trust more?

        Now, if we found the Q manuscript, then I would take it all back. If we found that one apostle wrote a work, saying he knew Jesus and Jesus was not the Son of God, then I would reconsidering my faith and my life. But neither of these things have happened. If we found the Q manuscript, that would introduce proof to the Q-side of the discussion.

        You called it the Synoptic Problem. What is the problem?

      2. Thanks for your comments. I’ll not take the time to respond to all your thoughts. I appreciate them. If you haven’t already, you should check out Robert Stein’s The Synoptic Problem book. It is still considered by many to be the standard treatment on the Synoptic Problem. That book contains most of the same arguments in more detail. Thanks.

      3. Understood. I Google it and found this.
        en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synoptic_Gospels#Theories

        I would say that the theories I see as most likely are any (or a mixture) of these:
        Farrer
        Proto-Gospel (if Matthew’s Aramaic)
        Independence

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