Some Thoughts on Q  Material and the Synoptic Problem

Q Material is the text that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Mt and Lk) have in common, but which they do not share with the Gospel of Mark (Mk). Q is so called as an abbreviation of the German word for "source", the pressumption being that Mk and Q are sources that were used by the authors of Mt and Lk. In this essay I normally use the term Q Material rather than Q Gospel so that my terminology does not prejudice or anticipate conclusions.

The term "Synoptic Problem" refers to the problem of accounting for the Synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk and LK) having material in common. We can safely rule out that each author coincidentally made up the same material out of thin air. Rather, for any shared passage, it is far more probable that one person authored (not necessarily "wrote", as the source could be a shared oral tradition) the text and that the Gospel authors copied it. That author may or may not have been one of the authors of the Synoptic Gospels (I refer to the authors as "the authors" rather than as Matthew and Luke to avoid confusion whether I am refering to the author or the book itself and to use neutral terminology regarding authorship theories.)

For a saying of Jesus, one could argue that the author was Jesus and that all three Synoptic Gospel writers have independently used memories of those sayings. However, the Gospels were written in Greek while it is most likely that Jesus taught in Aramaic. Thus we still must deal with who did the translation and who copied the translation. (We can ignore the Historical Jesus debate since the concern iof the Synoptic Problem is how the Greek text came to be shared and not whether the author(s) of the Greek source(s) are actually translators or composers). Further, shared narrative texts must have had a single author and not just be shared memories of multiple authors of historical events, as it is unlikely two separate people would describe the same event in nearly identical words.

For the moment, let us just consider the pair of Gospels Mt and Lk. For the text they share in common, there are three possibilities:

The birth narratives, for all intents and purposes, rule out the first two possibilities. Both Mt and Lk have long narrations of the birth of Jesus, yet share no text in common! It simply is not credible to argue that the author of one had the text of the other as a source and yet incorporated not even a single phrase of the other's birth narrative in his own. The only tenable explanation of the shared text in Mt and Lk is that they shared a source or sources in common.

One may point to additional evidence that the authors of Mt and Lk used sources. The author of Lk mentions that there are many accounts in existence and that he, not being an eyewitness himself, wrote his Gospel after investigating them carefully.

Lk 1:1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. [NRSV]

In the compositional style of the author of Mt, we can sometimes detect "seams" where multiple sources appear to have been used. For example, consider Mt. 12:31-32.

Mt 12:31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. 

The two verses are somewhat redundant: twice we are told that blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. When we compare against the Synoptic parallels we find this impression reinforced. Mk 3:28-29 parallels one verse while Lk 12:10 parallels the other. It would appear that the author of Mt has found two similar sayings in his sources and put them together in his Gospel.

Mk 10:46-52 and Lk 18:35-43 record the healing of a blind man in Jericho. Mt 20:29-34 also records this event, except that it differs from the other accounts in several details, most notably in saying that there were two men healed. In Mt 9:26-31 there is yet another account of the healing of two blind men that also contains the added details in the Jericho story. It would appear that the author of Mt worked with sources in ch. 20, taking two stories of the healing of blind men and conflating them into a single story, but  he included the text of one of the sources in chapter 9 too, presumably inadvertently.

Mk also shares text in common with Mt and Lk. So we may offer the same three alternatives for Mk and each of the other two. For a variety of reasons, Mk is probably a source used by the authors of both Lk and Mt.  First there is the strong early church tradition that the author is John Mark and that his sole source was the preaching of Peter.  Second, comparison of differences in the shared text show that either the author's of Mt and Lk cleaned up the grammar and clarified the text of Mk,  or the author of Mk introduced grammatical foibles and obscurities into the text he was copying. The former is much more likely. Third, the version of a passage in Mk is usually more detailed than in Lk and Mt. It is more likely that the authors of Mt and Lk condensed Mk to fit his stories into their much longer Gospels than that the author of Mk invented details throughout or obtained the details from yet another source. (If the author of Mk is copying the other two it is unlikely he had a substantial third source since nearly every verse of Mk is present in one, the other, or both of the others.) There are numerous other arguments for Mk being a source of Mt and Lk. Taken together, they make it almost a certainty. 

We may conveniently divide the text of Mt and Lk into four parts:

We may further divide the Q Material  into two subcategories:

These two subcategories must be dealt with separately.

The minor agreements have many possible origins, and absent archeological finds, it is nearly impossible to assign any given agreement to any single origin. Many minor agreements certainly arose in the process of the original manuscripts being copied. A scribe, familiar with a  parallel or similar passage in another synoptic Gospel would, consciously  or unconsciously, assimilate the two. This is a process that continued for centuries as can be readily seen by comparing  the KJV (based on later Byzantine manuscrpts) with NIV or most other current translations (which use earlier Alexandrian manuscripts).

Other minor agreements result from simple coincidence. Minor agreements occur in Markan passages by definition (there needs to be a common context for there to be an agreement). When the authors of Lk and Mt copied material from Mk, they often modified grammar & vocabulary. It would hardy be surpising if from time to time, both made the same change.

Finally, the authors of Lk and Mt may have been relying on one or more common sources that overlap Mk but which provide some additional text that both authors incorporated. Whole passages that are part of the Q Material are most likely also due to the two author's sharing a source (or sources) in common. A good case can be mode for this being a written document, although at least some of the material is likely due to shared oral tradition. I will use the term Q Document to refer to this hypothetical document that accounts for most of the Q Material.

The Q Material are mostly sayings although several are in fact framed by some narrative material. This suggest thst the literary form of the Q Document is a collection of sayings, a form known from the Old Testament books Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, as well as in the Apocrypha and in some Nag Hammadi finds. The most striking aspect of the Q Material is that it does not extend into the Passion narrative. Skeptical scholarship has made much of this, positing a primitive Christianity for whom the crucifixion was not central and the resurrection was unknown. The resurrection, so they say, was a myth developed later out of ecstatic experiences of the continued presence of Jesus.  I think they are absolutely right that the Q Material represents an early stage of Christianity that did not know about the resurrection. However I differ regarding the timing of that stage and the development of the resurrection belief. Rather, the Q Document was a collection of notes about Jesus' teaching made while he was still alive!

From here I want to trace what I believe was the course of the development of the Synoptic Gospels. First we have the written notes of one (or more) of the apostles made around 28 AD.    After Jesus' death and resurrection in about 29 AD, the first narrative accounts would have been written. This must have happened in the early 30's AD. It is simply not credible to claim that the church would wait decades before writting the first narrative accounts.

The Q Document and these early narratives were almost certainly written in Aramaic. Papias, in the second century, claimed that Mt was originally written in Aramaic. Since the Greek Mk is a Source behind Mt, this Aramaic document cannot be identical with Mt. However, it could be a source. In fact, the material in Mt that is not from Mk or part of the Q material forms a plausible narrative Gospel by itself, from the birth through the resurrection. I thus propose a third source for Mt, an Aramaic narrative Gospel written in the early 30's by Matthew. Because Mt opens with the same birth narrative this hypothetical source has, Mt was considered to be the same, though greatly expanded, document as it,  hence the claims of Papias and the attribution to Matthew of our Greek Mt.

We know from Acts that Peter did journey to other churches from Jerusalem. It also appears from careful analysis of the chronology of Galatians and Acts that Peter was absent from Jerusalem during one of Paul's visits. Finally, Eusebius claims Peter first went to Rome in the 40's. Papias records that Mk was written by John Mark, Peter's interpeter in Rome after Peter had preached there. Another ancient writer notes thst Peter neither spprored Nor disapproved of the work. Such a reserved comment suggest the claim is historically accurate rather than a fiction intended to enhance the authority and prestige of the book. The possible dates for its Composition are from the 40's to the late 60's when Peter was martyred in Rome.  This earlier date makes more sense of the data (see on Lk below) than the late 60's AD that is more often assumed. This Gospel was written in Greek.

Lk is volume one of a two Volume history: Luke-Acts. Acts ends abruptly with Paul having to await trial for two years, but without resolving the outcome. The most logical exploration of this is that the book caught up with events. That is, Paul's traveling companion, presumably Luke, wrote the two volume set, completing it in Rome before Paul's trial. This would date the Gospel to about 60 AD. Requiring the earlier date that I noted above for Mk. This dating is also confirmed by Paul quoting Lk as scripture to Timothy a few gears later before his 2nd Roman imprisonment.

It is unlikely that Mt and Lk can be separated by much time as time would increase the odds of one author having access to the other's work. Further, we must date Mt to before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The author put the predictions of Jesus regarding the destruction of Jerusalem in the Olivet Discourse together with eschatogical material, betraying no awareness that Jerusalem was destroyed without the end of the world occurring.

This essay barely skims all the issues and oversimplifies those it does discuss. To further explore the Synoptic Gospels, I'm planning on most of my individual Bible studies to work their way through the Q and then the special-Mt material. This will give me the opportunity to study my hypotheses in more detail and is as good as any other selection of passages on which to do Bible studies.