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Reason and Revelation Volume 14 #11

What About the Discovery of Q?

by  Brad Bromling, D.Min.



has been found! So claims Burton L. Mack, professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Claremont, California. It has been postulated for years, but its discovery is now said to be official. No, a cache of ancient scrolls and artifacts has not been uncovered in Asia Minor. And no, a janitor has not found a previously unclassified manuscript upon a dusty shelf in the basement of a museum somewhere that scholars can now recognize as Q. So where was the document found?

Scholars have long supposed that, besides Mark, Matthew and Luke employed a common source when they composed their Gospels. The main clue to this was the fact that besides the material that they share in common with Mark, both Matthew and Luke contain additional material in common with each other that is not in Mark. This shared material amounts to over 200 verses. Luke’s comment that other reports concerning Jesus were circulating before he put his record down on paper has led some scholars to suspect that more than mechanical dictation or “inspired memory” was at work when the Gospels were written (Luke 1:1-4). The question then arose: What was this source that both writers used? Because the German word for source is quelle, it became scholarly shorthand to refer to this undiscovered source as “Q.”

The search for Q overlapped and sometimes came in conflict with what became known as the search for the historical Jesus. Many scholars came to the opinion that the New Testament tended to obscure the actual character and identity of Jesus. They reasoned that the well-meaning writers of the New Testament embellished the actual historical facts about Jesus. So they set out to find the authentic Jesus. One of these efforts was attempted by Adolph von Harnack (1851-1930), who extracted from the Gospel records all the “sayings” of Jesus. He thought that if we would read those sayings without their narrative settings, we would be able to form a more objective opinion of the historical Jesus.

Eighty years later, some scholars believe that Harnack was both very far from, and yet very close to, finding Q. Where he went wrong was in putting all the sayings on equal footing (whether they were actually said by Jesus or merely attributed to Him). He was close to Q, though, because it has now been decided (by some) that Q is a subset of the sayings that Harnack had isolated.

Q’s discovery, on the one hand, is somewhat anti-climatic, since (according to these scholars) we have been reading it all along, but just didn’t know it! On the other hand, it has created a maelstrom of controversy. Why all the furor? The reason is because scholars who have isolated Q suggest that reading Q alone leads us to a radically different picture of Jesus and the earliest movement He created. By analyzing Q as a document that arose out of a particular cultural, social, and political climate, we are given insights into the original community of people who followed Jesus. What does Q tell us about these people? Mack explains:

The remarkable thing about the people of Q is that they were not Christians. They did not think of Jesus as a messiah or the Christ. They did not take his teachings as an indictment of Judaism. They did not regard his death as a divine, tragic, or saving event. And they did not imagine that he had been raised from the dead to rule over a transformed world. Instead, they thought of him as a teacher whose teachings made it possible to live with verve in troubled times. Thus they did not gather to worship in his name, honor him as a god, or cultivate his memory through hymns, prayers, and rituals (1993, p. 4).

That is Mack’s story. Conservative scholars, however, are not so impressed.

While recent enthusiasm over Q is running at an all-time high, there are fundamental problems that must be addressed. First, merely distilling the gospel material that is common to Matthew and Luke (and absent in Mark) and printing it as a separate Gospel ignores the question as to whether the Q hypothesis is the best explanation for the commonality. The issue of literary dependence cannot be merely assumed, but must be proved. This has not been done (Linnemann, 1992, pp. 145-152). A more likely explanation for common material is that the Gospel writers were all discussing the same core of historical data surrounding the same central figure. Second, there is no manuscript evidence that Q existed or was in circulation as an independent document. Its existence is still mere conjecture. Third, even if the so-called Q material in Matthew and Luke were drawn from an independent source (and this stretches the imagination), there is no way to know how much of that source actually exists in the Gospels. So, all efforts to reconstruct the beliefs of an early community of Jesus’ followers based upon the Q material alone are lame. To say, as does Mack, that the “people of Q” knew nothing of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus begs the question. It assumes that the Q material isolated in Matthew and Luke was all there was to the original document. That is a claim that never can be substantiated without a Q manuscript.

The bottom line is this: Q has not been discovered.


Linnemann, Eta (1992), Is There a Synoptic Problem? (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Mack, Burton L. (1993), The Lost Gospel—The Book of Q and Christian Origins (San Francisco, CA: Harper).

Copyright © 1994 Apologetics Press, Inc. All rights reserved.

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