Not interested in the intro? Skip right to the the full chapter and my commentary.


During my research into the Gospels, mentions of the Q source turned up very often, and it its existence seemed to be an accepted fact. However, the more I read about the Gospels, especially by modern scholars, and the better understanding I had of the development of the Gospels, the less this hypothetical Q source was needed. It was proposed as a solution to the "Synoptic Problem"... and yet, with a non-apologetical view of the Gospels there simply is no problem.

To be clear: if we don't treat the Gospels as evidence of a historical person called Jesus, there is no Synoptic Problem. There is dependence on earlier Gospels by the later Gospels, but nothing about this presents any kind of "problem", or at least as far as I could see. If my religion (or my job) depended on Jesus being a historical person, with special authority placed on his works and teaching, contradictions in the Gospels would be a problem.

But the Gospels aren't history. They are scriptures.

A scripture is something read in a church by a church leader or teacher, which is then explained and expounded on for the benefit of the congregation. A scripture is something used for liturgical purposes. These are not controversial claims at all. Scripture readings are the basis of most church services in the modern day, and the tradition goes back to the very earliest church meetings, as recorded by the Church Fathers.

With this in mind, I decided to take a deeper look at Q. Is Q needed in modern Biblical scholarship? I read some introductory works by Mark Goodacre, a proponent of the view that Luke knew both Matthew and Mark, and that Q never existed (the Farrer Hypothesis). When first reading the Gospels this would be the most obvious view, in my opinion, but since I had heard about Q so long ago I just assumed it was correct. But why is this "No Q" claim so controversial? Why is it so quickly dismissed?

I decided to go back to a classic that outlines the Two Source solution to the Synoptic Problem: The Four Gospels - A Study of Origins, The Manuscript Tradition, Sources, Authorship, & Dates by B.H. Streeter. Surely this work would answer all my questions! The first six chapters were very interesting, laying out a possible geographical view of textual criticism, one that appeals to me greatly, though I admit I don't have the knowledge or access to materials to critique it.

But then I got to chapter 7, where Streeter lays down the "Fundamental Solution". That is, he explains Q. And this is where my view of Streeter's opinions and theories takes a nosedive. While I'm not a Fellow of Queen's College in Oxford, I do have a very basic understanding of logic. Unfortunately, very basic logic is all that is needed to completely explode the Two Source Hypothesis.

As I read through chapter 7, and then chapter 8, and on, my notes and comments on Streeter's text became more and more extensive. Soon I realized that it all came down to the same point: how much special pleading is needed to even allow the hypothetical Q document to exist?

It turns out Q is special pleading all the way down.

So, I've decided to publish my commentary on chapter 7 of The Four Gospels. This is a personal study, but I think this kind of look at Q is needed, just to show how shaky it is.

Since making these notes I read some more material by opponents of Q. Most importantly, I read the articles On Dispensing With Q by A. M. Farrer (1955) and Is Q a Juggernaut? by Michael D. Goulder (1996). I realized pretty quickly that I had noticed many of the same problems with Streeter that Farrer and Goulder had spotted years before me. However, I think its important to note that someone like me, with no special knowledge or qualifications, could, from first principles and when presented by the same faulty logic by Streeter, come to similar conclusions about Streeter's work.

A. M. Farrer, coming from the scholarly world, had to be kind, or at least polite, in his critique of Streeter:

"St. Thomas understood the business of being an Aristotelizing Augustinian, and if I am not his disciple, it is not because I find him to have reasoned falsely. It is because I do not concede the premisses from which he reasoned. And if we are not to be Streeterians, it will not be because Dr. Streeter reasoned falsely, but because the premisses from which he reasoned are no longer ours."

In a position outside of academia, I'm free to say it as I see it: Not only were his premises false, but from those premises he reasoned falsely. To put it bluntly, Streeter was full of shit.

So this commentary isn't written to address all formulations of Q and every scholar agrees with the Two Source solution to the Synoptic Problem. It is, quite specifically, a commentary on Streeter's scholarship.

* * *

Context is needed for this commentary though.

If I'm not interested in the historicity of Jesus, what question am I trying to answer? If the Gospels aren't the history of Jesus, what use are they to a historian? I'm interested in the development of early Christianity, and in the changing understanding of Jesus over time. As evidence of a person called Jesus, the Gospels are useless. As evidence of what four different authors thought, the Gospels are invaluable.

I'm writing a book on the Synoptic Gospels (and Star Wars) which I'm posting to this blog chapter by chapter, so I'll be going more into my view of the development of the Gospels there. Some ideas are new (as in, newly formulated by me), but nothing is particularly revolutionary or controversial. I'm just framing the development of Gospel texts using the development of the Star Wars movies as an analogy, and with the Star Wars Saga as an extra data set to test the same theories and critical techniques. Anyway, the following outline (for context) is quite basic, and I'll be expanding on parts of it on this blog and in my upcoming book.

Occam's Razor states that we shouldn't multiply explanations. Or, to put it another way, the theory that requires fewer new and additional explanations to make it work (or even possible) is the theory that is more likely to be correct.

We'll start with these four totally uncontroversial and widely accepted ideas about authors in the ancient world, and about the history of the early church:

For now let's assume these observed facts hold true, and I'll expand on them with the most basic explanation of the development of the Synoptic Gospels (with names of authors as shortcuts, not claims to authorship):
  1. The Gospel writers were not interested in recording detailed and accurate histories of a character called Jesus. They were interested in producing material that was helpful for teaching the congregation of their churches, and material that would be helpful for running their churches smoothly. The earliest New Testament scriptures (the Epistles) had these exact same functions, and the new scriptures (the Gospels) took on this role too.

  2. Mark wrote his Gospel first, as a form of midrash and mimesis based on existing literary and scriptural sources. This process, and his techniques, are well understood and are totally uncontroversial, both in the ancient world and in modern scholarship. The only reason to disagree with modern studies on this subject is to further an apologetic goal of portraying Mark as an extraordinary historian, someone inspired by the Holy Spirit, or as some other form of unusually unique writer. Realistically, no technique Mark used was unique in the ancient world, and what he actually accomplished is well understood.

  3. Mark incorporated into his story of Jesus a lot of teaching in the form of discourse and parables, as well as attaching such teaching to miracle stories (or writing new miracle stories to explain current teaching). Mark used teaching material either of his own devising or the teaching current in his own church. What better authority to attribute teaching to than Jesus? This is a well known and still-in-use technique, that is, to lend greater authority to your own writings than would be possible if you claimed yourself the source (e.g. Morgan Freeman's latest opinions of the Sandy Brook shootings: ).

  4. Matthew, or the leader of Matthew's church, used Mark's Gospel as scripture. He read passages for the congregation. After the reading he would talk more on the story/miracle/teaching. Sometimes he would illustrate the point further with a parable or story of his own devising. When members of the congregation asked "What happened before or after this?" the church leader would answer in the best interest of the congregation, or (cynically) in the interest of confirming his own position of authority in the church. There's no reason to suspect Matthew's church was the only one to be using Mark's Gospel in this way.

  5. Using the new teaching and new tradition developed in his own church, Matthew wrote his own Gospel. He used Mark's Gospel as a framework and inserted the new teaching and tradition in the most natural places. That is, in the same context as the new teaching had been developed, before or after readings of particular passages of Mark's Gospel during church meetings. Matthew also diminished Mark's references to pagan literature and massively strengthened the references to the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures). From the evidence we have, it seems Matthew was the first to collate this new round of teaching with Mark's Gospel to create a new Gospel. Again (see point 3 above), he gave his own church's teaching more authority by attributing them to Jesus, not to himself.

  6. Scroll length was an issue at that time, with a common maximum length of about 30-35 sheets. Mark used less than that, but Matthew had to condense Mark's material to fit in as much of his own teaching as possible. He left out some parts of Mark if he preferred his own ideas and material.

  7. Luke, or the leader of Luke's church, also knew Mark's Gospel. He had developed a layer of teaching in his own style, with a slightly different theology, a different position on some social issues, and probably a different congregational demographic. Inspired by reading Matthew's Gospel for the first time, he decided to write up his own Gospel, as he had a lot of teaching from his own church he wanted to preserve or share in writing.

  8. Luke, with the same upper limit on scroll length as Matthew, had to leave out much of Mark to fit in his own parables and teaching. He also found material in Matthew he wanted to include, though some sections didn't appeal to him.

  9. Instead of using Matthews arrangement, he decided to break up the teaching into much shorter sections interspersed with travel and miracle narratives. We can guess at reasons for him to rearrange Mathew's added material, though for now it's enough to show that he had a copy of Matthew's Gospel to work from.

That is, roughly, a good working hypothesis for the development of the Synoptic Gospels.

This hypothesis, that new teaching material developed as part of reading existing scriptures in church, and that Matthew knew Mark, and that Luke knew Mark and Matthew, does have a few "problems". These are problems with the hypothesis itself if you treat the Gospels as history, and the Gospel writers as historians. If you treat the writers as church leaders, or literate church members, who recorded the teaching and stories told in their church as the words and actions of Jesus, some factors still need extra explanation, but these factors don't "break" the explanation.

One example "problem" is that Luke changes major details in the extra narrative sections Matthew added to the beginning and end of Mark's Gospel.

In this formulation, Luke had no problems changing Matthew's stories, and in fact good reasons to do so. There are two ways to look at the chronology:

In the first chronology, Luke might not have used Matthew's full versions of the Nativity and resurrection appearances because his congregation already knew his own versions. As for what Luke and Matthew's added narratives have in common, these can explained in part by independent reasoning from strong inferences in existing scriptures: namely that Jesus was born in David's line (so from Bethlehem), and yet was also called a Nazarene (so from Nazareth). Both came up with a different way to explain this. Alternatively, Luke may have used his own narrative "facts" as a structure, but then taken the final details from Matthew, those not crucial to his story, but added them as flavor, like the names of Jesus's parents (and there are some clever theories as to where Matthew got these). The end of Mark's Gospel, as abrupt as it is, cries out for continuation. Maybe Luke had already made up his own longer ending of Mark before ever seeing Matthew's Gospel.

In the second chronology, the differing facts are explained by Luke deeming Matthew's Nativity and resurrection narratives as inappropriate for some reason, even if they were already well known. There are many old and new theories as to why Luke would want to downplay Matthew's use, in the Nativity, of dreams, royal visits, trips to Egypt, Joseph's ancestry, the chronology of events they did share, etc.

There are other explanations for Matthew and Luke's disagreements in facts, but the basic thing to take away is that they didn't consider these things as "facts" at all, or certainly not historical facts. They both aimed for good scriptures to help with teaching in churches, and if Luke or Matthew wanted a different parable to make his point, he'd write one, just as if a "fact" about Jesus needed "fixing" to fit his theology or message, he'd change that too.

Differences in details within the same stories in Matthew and Luke are interesting areas of extra study, to see if we can tease out the reasons for those differences and what they tell us about the historical development of Christianity and the concept of Jesus Christ, but they don't break the overall hypothesis.

* * *

Before the conclusion of this introduction, it's good to mention Karl Popper's concept of Falsifiability. That is, if something is false, there must be a test that can be performed to show it. If there is no way for a hypothesis to be shown as false, it is worthless as a hypothesis as it has no predictive powers or any other function. The hypothesis that Q didn't exist is very easily proven false: someone finds a copy, or any evidence at all, of Q.

So, if we are to test the Streeter's arguments for Q against my outline for the "Luke knew Matthew" (the Farrer Hypothesis) position, we need to look at the following criteria (in no particular order):

However, the initial point of this commentary was to note how many explanations are employed to make the Two Source Hypothesis, and Q, work at all. I tried to note all the problems with Q, and how many different solutions are needed to explain away different cases of the same problem, and also how many different documents are needed to make this work.

Ready? Then let's begin! Go here to read the full chapter and my commentary.

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Final Comments

Did you read it all? Yeah, I'm sorry, my commentary on the 15,000 word chapter ran to about 8,000 words.

I'm not going to do this for any more chapters... or not of this book. Chapter 8 outlines Streeter's "Proto-Luke". I did make some notes for this, but far fewer, as Streeter's arguments are based on the faulty logic of chapter 7, and are self-refuting to any astute reader. Proto-Luke really is an exercise in twisting logic and evidence even further to fit apologetic goals.

And Streeter admits that he isn't interested in evidence for his theories, only in formulating theories that provide more evidence for Jesus. Instead of admitting that the Gospels don't contain anything of value to historians about Jesus, he tries to come up with ways that they could.

For example:

"I hope to establish a conclusion which may not only advance one step further the solution of the interesting critical problem of the literary relations of the first three Gospels, but which has also, if I mistake not, an important bearing on the question of the historical evidence for the Life of Christ."

If Mark contains facts, the other Gospels must be non-factual at any point where they diverge from Mark. Either that, or there is no way to tell which Gospel has the real facts in any case.

Using Streeter's methods, where both Matthew and Luke agree on specific details not contained within Mark, these specific details can also be taken fact (despite being in contexts and stories that otherwise disagree with each other). However, the problem for apologists is that if Matthew or Luke just made these details up as expansions of Mark, they can't be facts at all.

Q and Proto-Luke (to say nothing of M and L) are hypothetical documents created to give historical weight to otherwise obviously fictional material not found in Mark's Gospel.

"All recent discussion of the historical evidence for the Life of Christ has been based on the assumption that we have only two primary authorities, Mark and Q; and, since Q is all but confined to discourse, Mark alone is left as a primary authority for the Life.

If, however, the conclusions of this chapter are sound we must recognise in Proto-Luke the existence of another authority comparable to Mark."

That's pretty clear, I think. Some further quotes:

"But, if so, this means that far more weight will have to be given by the historian in the future to the Third Gospel, and in particular to those portions of it which are peculiar to itself."

And from chapter 9 (where Streeter outlines his "Four Document Hypothesis [that] offers an extremely simple explanation of all the difficulties which the Two Document Hypothesis cannot satisfactorily meet"):

"Thus the final result of the critical analysis, which has led to our formulating the Four Document Hypothesis, is very materially to broaden the basis of evidence for the authentic teaching of Christ."

While later chapters of The Four Gospels have some interesting food for thought, time and time again I found Streeter saying something totally opposite from my understanding of logic.

"Another equally misleading assumption, again more or less unconscious, has been the idea that antecedent probability is in favour of a hypothesis which so far as possible reduces the number of sources used by Matthew and Luke, and minimises the extent and importance of the sources of material peculiar to one Gospel."

If you are concerned with backing up your claims for the historical Jesus or his authentic teaching, Q may help you. If you're more concerned with logic and/or history, you should probably examine Q scholarship yourself, and examine the reasons why the scholar is happy to multiply explanations in exchange for multiplying sources.