The Historical Jesus
The "Q" Source
This is a source used both by Matthew and Luke but not apparently known to,
or used by, Mark. About 200 verses come from this source. Some scholars think
that there must have been a written document in Greek behind this common
material. A German scholar abbreviated quelle (German for "source") to
"Q" in 1890. A few think the material was originally oral.
The possibility of the existence of Q has been strengthened by the discovery
in 1945 of the Gospel of Thomas, which is also collection of sayings without
reference to the "story" of Jesus' life and works. Thomas contains 47 parallels
to Mark, 40 to Q, 17 to Matthew, four to Luke and five to John. Some conclude
that both documents originated in communities of Jewish Christians in Judea and
Galilee between the time of Jesus' death and the writing of the four main
The Gospel of Thomas can't be dated for certain as yet. Some think it
predates the main gospels. But the consensus so far seems to be that it's date
is more likely to be much later. The main point, though, is that it is a
collection of sayings without much supporting narrative and no context - exactly
similar to what the Q-source is thought to have been.
The community from which Q came was more interested in what Jesus said than
what he did. This isn't surprising. Not only were people of that time and place
not particularly interested in what we today call history, but there was a
tradition of collecting the sayings of famous people. The students of famous
philosophers put together their wise and witty sayings in gnomologia or
"words of insight". In the Hebrew Scriptures the Book of Proverbs is an example
of the logoi sophon or "sayings of the wise" which Hebrew and Persian
groups often collected.
There are only two narratives in Q: (1) Jesus' struggle with Satan (Luke
4.2-13; Matthew 4.1-11); and (2) the healing of the centurion's slave (Luke
7.2-3, 6-10; Matthew 8.5-13). But even these two stories focus more on what
Jesus said than on the events concerned.
The Q community were, it seems, interested in what they believed would be the
coming of the Messiah in power and glory to set things right. As we know from
Paul's letters, early Christians believed that God came to them through
prophecy. This was in turn evidence that they were God's elect who would triumph
when Jesus returned in the last days.
But care needs to be taken that modern interpretations are not merely
projected onto the material. Just because we think in terms of early apocalyptic
literature doesn't mean that it actually existed, or that early Christians
thought in exactly those terms. The four main gospels seem to think less about
Jesus coming again, and more about what they call "the kingdom of God". There is
a strong argument for supposing that by "kingdom" they meant "a way of running
society" (to use our modern orientation). "The way God does things" might be a
better equivalent of the "kingdom of God".
If this emphasis is given some weight, then much of Q has a social
context, referring to a better way of running the world than the early
Christians knew in their own lives.
The apocalyptic nature of Q suggests that it came into being in the first or
second generations after Jesus died. As we know from Paul's later letters, by
around the year 65 Christians had begun to wonder if Jesus would return as some
had thought. This makes a date for Q of later than 65 less likely. Some think
that the story of the struggle with Satan in Q refers to an incident in 39 when
there was a mass demonstration against the erection of a statue of the Emperor
Caligula in Jerusalem . If so, the Q material probably
came into being after that date.
Both the high degree of verbal agreement between Luke and Matthew, and some
particular word formations, lead many to conclude that Q was a written source
now long-lost, rather than an oral tradition. They think it unlikely that two
oral traditions, one used by Matthew and one used by Luke, could have sustained
such tight verbal similarity.
The Q material in Matthew and Luke is set in differing contexts, but in
roughly the same sequence. This is a strong argument against those who (like
Michael Goulder ) think that there was no Q source and
that Matthew and Luke either derived this material from elsewhere or wrote it
themselves. The very similar sequence reinforces the conclusion that Luke and
Matthew were not using independent sources, but the same one.
Mark's Gospel contains no Q material but is used as a source by both Luke and
Matthew. Strikingly, both Luke and Matthew also use Q versions of the sources
used by Mark in his gospel. Two examples are:
[a] Mark 4.25 is used in Matthew 13.12 and Luke 8.18. A similar version from
Q also occurs in Matthew 25.29 and Luke 19.26.
[b] So also Mark 8.34-35 is used in Matthew 16.24-25 and Luke 9.23-24. A Q
version also occurs in Matthew 10.38-39 and Luke 14.27 & 17.33.
This is another strong confirmation that Q was a single source and that it
was used by both Matthew and Luke independently of Mark.
Overall, many suggest that Luke's version of Q preserves the original better
than Matthew's. A complete version of Q can be read by putting all the following
sections together (from Luke) :
Struggle with Satan
Leaving home & family
God's wisdom a gift
Prayer for kingdom
God answers prayers
Defeating demons a sign
Unclean spirit returns
Sign of Jonah
Light & darkness
Woe to Pharisees
Woe to lawyers
What is hidden
Do not fear
Confessing the Messiah
God is with the persecuted
Freedom from over-anxiety
Freedom from possessions
Parable: Be prepared
The faithful steward
Bringing conflict & division
Parable of the leaven
The narrow door
Parable: Great feast
Cost of discipleship
Two masters: a choice
A new age dawns
The Law remains
Forgiving each other
The last days
Parable: the talents
Rewards in heaven
The conclusion that Q existed as a now-lost written source of some sayings of
Jesus has withstood more than a century of testing with remarkable resilience.
Scholars still emerge from the woodwork with reasons why it should be
discounted. But their reasons are generally weak to the point of being fanciful
and are soon relegated to the graveyard of discarded theories.
Some reasons why the discovery of Q is so important bear summarizing in the
light both of continuing skepticism about the authenticity of the information we
have about Jesus, and of fundamentalist assertions that everything in the Bible
really happened just as it is recorded there.
If one accepts that Q is a now-lost written record of "what Jesus really
the form critical method of analysing the gospel texts must also be
accepted. We know about Q precisely because many hundreds of scholars have
torn the gospels apart down to their bare bones. The details can and must be
argued. But the overall approach has lasted and has born fruit. The Q material
can be validly separated from the gospel text.
Many have discounted the possibility that we can know what Jesus really
said. The gap between his life and the first of the gospels (probably Mark)
is, they say, too long for oral material to keep its shape and accuracy. The
distortions through time and distance of what Jesus really said would be
considerable - perhaps fatally so if we're searching for a Jesus of history.
The origins of Q are, in contrast, almost certainly quite early. There would
have been a time during which what Jesus actually said would have been
remembered and passed on by word of mouth. But written material was assembled
much sooner than the sceptics suppose.
Some propose that the gospels contain the verbatim words of Jesus. The
nature of Q renders this unlikely. First, it shows clear signs of having been
restructured into a written version from the loose way people usually speak.
Since the invention of tape recorders we can demonstrate that people don't
speak grammatically unless they are reading a written script. Second, the
gospel writers have inserted the Q material into their own theological and
liturgical schemes. There is no way of showing that the writer or editor of Q
did not do the same. We must suppose he did.
In similar vein, a number of further assumptions can be validly drawn from
the evidence :
Not only was Q originally a written source but it was written in Greek.
Attempts to find Aramaic in the text have failed.
The content of Q indicates that it had considerable status in the early
Jewish-Christian communities centred around northern Galilee. They looked to
it for guidance in life-issues.
Q wasn't a once-off document, written as a single piece. Rather, it was
a collection which was added to from time to time. Some changes may have been
made by later, non-Galilean sources - though the evidence for this is not that
Each of the four gospels (excluding Thomas, that is) is designed to get
across a particular theological theme. Q is not like that. It is a collection
without coherence, although there are some connections through catchwords. It
lacks literary design and is fundamentally un-edited.
Because Q is a collection, any signs we can pick up from it about the
conditions and concerns of the community which gave birth to it are likely to
closely reflect the social map of the Q community. That is, there will be
fewer confusions produced by a themed and edited method of writing.
Those who are not familiar with the scholarship of the past 20 years may
react to Q with some dismay. This is understandable. But I prefer to regard it
positively. We have in the gospels not a magically-created hand-me-down from God
via a mysterious process of revelation, but a truly human impression (rather
than a record) compiled in a normal way for those times.
What we know today about Jesus is therefore subject to all the strengths of
weaknesses of ordinary human processes by which knowledge is conveyed from
person to person.
 The Historical Jesus, G Theissen & A Merz, SCM
 Midrash and Lection in Matthew, SPCK, 1974.
 The New Testament, N Perrin & D C Duling, Harcourt, 1974
 After Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, J L Reed, Trinity Press,