The Gospels and Q

In school I never understood the hype around Q, since it is purported as a theory. What is Q and why is there so much stock put into it?

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It’s a source of Jesus’ quotations used independently by Matthew and a Luke. The theory is Matthew and Luke used Q, Mark, and that they had independent sources named M and L. With everything else to do with the Bible there are other theories. Some reject that Q existed and claim either Matthew used Luke or Luke used Matthew for the common material not found in Mark. Skeptics prefer this because it elimates the earlier source, Q.


In addition to @Zach’s excellent reply, I will add my personal observation that it was one of the driest topics which I had to learn when studying theology.

It is, strictly, not even theology. It’s within the field of textual criticism, and if anyone has every looked at a scholarly publication for NT textual criticism, it is assumed that one understands:

(1) At least nine languages: Classical Greek, Koine Greek, Classical Latin, Classical Hebrew, Aramaic, Classical Syriac as well as modern French, German and English (most modern resources aren’t published in English)

(2) The complex set of textual critical sigla, that is, the various (100+) signs and symbols that they use as shorthand (e.g. ° = one word omission) as well as to indicate which specific manuscript is under consideration (e.g. ℵ = Codex Sinaiticus).

But yes, much of the enthusiasm for the Q (German for quelle meaning ‘source’) hypothesis is because it - apparently - best responds to a number of questions that scholars have had about the relationship between the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke). Most of these questions were asked when it began to be accepted in the 19th century that Mark was written first (Matthew was traditionally thought to be first).

If Mark was written first, then it made sense that Matthew and Luke sourced a part of their shared content from Mark. But Matthew and Luke still had some shared content that wasn’t in Mark, and so an alternative source, Q, was theorised.


Just as Zach said above, Q is a hypothetical source that resolves the Synoptic Problem. Almost all modern scholars accept its existence, but most are still a bit uneasy that no copies, or evidence of its existence has been found.

It remains in the realm of the theoretical, although the discover of the Gospel of Thomas does prove that documents like Q, at least, existed. It was a collection of Jesus’s quotes rather than a gospel with a narrative structure.

Some scholars, and I don’t join them, believe that they can reconstruct layers of Q material (they call them strata), and draw conclusions from when different sayings were added. But that is too far down the path of hypothetical for me.

Every day I come to my computer, I hope that a copy of Q has been found, or someone has come up with a theory which resolves the Synoptic Problem in a way that fits the evidence even better. So far, I’ve been disappointed every day.

For an extremely brief, but readable, synopsis:


I personally think Q is Hebrew Matthew. I think tradition had it right with Matthew coming first. I suspect the reason for most textual criticism being set against it is because we only have Greek Matthew which came later. As tradition relates, the first in a Hebrew dialect and later on, one in Greek. Or as Paul says
Rom 1:16‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel. For it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and to the Greek.’

“Matthew compiled the sayings in the Hebrew language, and everyone translated them as well he could.”
St. Papias ~AD 100

“Now Matthew published also a book of the Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching the gospel in Rome and founding the Church.”
St. Irenaeus of Lyons ~AD 180

“Matthew also called Levi, apostle and aforetimes publican, composed a gospel of Christ at first published in Judea in Hebrew for the sake of those of the circumcision who believed, but this was afterwards translated into Greek though by what author is uncertain. The Hebrew itself has been preserved until the present day in the library at Caesarea which Pamphilus so diligently gathered. I have also had the opportunity of having the volume described to me by the Nazarenes of Beroea, a city of Syria, who use it. In this it is to be noted that wherever the Evangelist, whether on his own account or in the person of our Lord the Savior quotes the testimony of the Old Testament he does not follow the authority of the translators of the Septuagint but the Hebrew.”
St. Jerome of Stridonium ~ AD 392


The theory of the Document Q was created out of thin air in order to explain the fanciful theory of markan priority.

Every lie requires the addition of layer after layer after layer of new supposed explanations To make it fit with the truth. That is why lies get bigger and bigger. Usually the truth turns out to be a very simple explanation that does not require the creation of New supposed evidence And new supposed explanations .

Even though the early church fathers refered to and even quoted many documents both biblical and non biblical no one has ever even mentioned this supposed Document Q Before the protestant reformation.

In order to make markan priority work all of the references that the early church fathers made As to how the Gospels came down to us have to be discarded or the words have to be re-defined so as to convey no real information As to how we got the Gospels.

For example , these theorist will say that when the early church fathers talk about Matthew’s gospel they didn’t really mean Matthew’s gospel they really meant Q.

For a simple explanation that agrees with 95% of what the early church fathers said see the following,

How the Synoptic Problem Was Solved



Today’s your lucky day…I have it. As a bonus, you also get R.


Q is based on an analysis of the Gospels. If you set Matthew Mark and Luke nect to one another, you discover that large parts of Matthew and Luke are identical or similar to Mark. Next you will discover that there are passages that are in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. And then you will find material that is unique to each. (Not much unique to Mark)

It usually makes more sense to say Mt or Lk corrected Mk when they share a text. It is harder to justify some changes as going from Mt to Mk since Mt has a superior knowledge of Jewish culture and geography, for instance, or Lk wants to make a particular kind of point. Others do not agree, but it is in the details that Mark appears to be first.

The passages in Mt & Lk but not Mk are called Q. There are reasons why they are believed to be a written, rather than an oral source. Lk’s version is sometimes considered more like the original, because Lk makes fewer changes to Mk than Mt does. (so he may make fewer changes to Q than Mt.) ETC.

There are thigs to be learned by dividing things up in this way. And there are always things to be unlearned among what you have already learned.

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I’ve never quite understood why this is an issue at all; but I’m not an academic. If my brother, myself, and my best friend go to an amazing football game and sit at field level on the 50, then decide afterward to each write about it, there will be remarkable coincidences and some definite differences, all based on our interpretations and experience of that game.

Further, if you take someone who was sitting in the press box and ask them to write an account, you’ll see the same similarities but also likely more stark differences.

Why can’t the same be applied to the Gospels?

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I never understood the hype around Q either. He was a pretty annoying character IMO.


This is a good question and I’ll try to answer it.

Using your scenario, you now read the three reports. You write your report first. Yours winds up being the shortest report. Then your brother writes his. 90% of what he writes is almost identical to yours. There are a few parts though that you didn’t mention at all in your report. Now, the friend writes his report and uses a lot of the same parts that both you and your brother did but he also uses some parts that match your brothers that you didn’t have in yours. The parts that you didn’t include but your brother and friend did include seem to be very similar to each other but not put in the same parts of the story so it doesn’t seem like they directly copied each other. These stories that are only in your brothers and friends report and not in yours is what is proposed as Q. There seems to be some information that they had that you didn’t have.

Finally, your brother and your friend have a few parts that no one else has…even each other. These are M and L. Unique material.

The best estimates are that Mark was written first and it was about ten years later that Matthew wrote. Luke and Acts about another ten years after Matthew. Scholars can see the progression of the stories and who used who for material. Q is needed because there is definite material in Matthew and Luke that is not in Mark, in spite of almost all of Mark being in the other two.

Since the stories in Matthew and Luke aren’t in Mark and these stories are similar to each other but placed in a different order or a different surrounding or time in the Gospel, a source seems to have been used that had these stories but none of the surrounding material to place them in the exact same locations or settings. Thus the Q material was a written source of sayings without the time or place or setting that Matthew and Luke used to fill in their Gospels.

Helpful? …or clear as mud :joy:

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In any event, theories based on logical deductions of this type should not be threatening to the integrity of the Gospels, nor should they threaten anyone’s confidence in biblical scholarship.
And I’m not sure why some get bent out of shape about this kind of scholarship.
The theory of common sources makes perfect sense whether it is actual or not. Actual proof of this theory will probably remain hidden from us. So?

The human elements of scripture are messy, they are messy to the extreme. And if one expects this kind of scholarship to come in a neatly bowed gift box, you can only be terrified when confronted with things like:
oral tradition
translations through many languages
missing documents
copying errors! (yes, copying errors)
thousands of scripture “trees” that vary in some way


Q is a way of explaining why there are two kinds of strikingly similar content in Matthew and Luke : strikingly similar content that can also be found in Mark, and strikingly similar content that cannot be found in Mark.

If several pupils in a classroom write an essay about the same subject, of course there will be huge similarities in content. But if the teacher finds bits in several essays that share the same wording, sometimes down to the same word order, he will get suspicious that some pupils copied on another, iow that there is a common source.

The similarities that lead scholars to postulate Q are of the same order : too close to be coincidental.


I realized you are not addressing this question to me and I do not claim to be an academic but I think your question could be answered by stating it was not just similar in content , but that the wording seems to be exactly the same, in many instances, so much so that copying had to take place. To a lesser extent some similarities in sequence of events could argue for copying taking place.

I do not have to defend copying taking place to make my argument for the defences of the traditional understanding of the order of the Gospels. But those arguing for Markan Priority base their arguments on the conclusion that copying did take place. I recognize that as a reasonable conclusion but not one that I have to defend.

And I insist that Matthew and Luke Gospels were the 1st written

And this is where we disagree. Can you please provide those details or even a better a Web page listing them

I guess that is my stumbling block. It seems a reach that because there are things in my brothers and friends reports we must assume a third ‘Q’ source. It seems just as plausible, and frankly more likely, that they just either saw different events (I went to get popcorn and they saw the halftime show) or they emphasized them differently (I thought the fake punt was a game changer, they felt it was the long bomb pass).

Q just seems to be making up a reason for things that could just as easily be explained by human nature to me.


Ahhh. Okay. That would make more sense to me then. I thought it was more of a similarity of content vs. verbatim word choice. My understanding wasn’t complete.

As to the order of the gospels, I don’t have much information, so I can’t challenge you on that.

I’m reading Brant Pitre’s book (slowly; its pretty thick stuff for my poor old brain) and I like it. It’s just hard slogging for me.

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To what purpose? Felix Just, s.j. provides some of the comparison, though no real clear statement of why the details point to Mk as first.

If you think Mk copied from Mt, why is the Lord’s Prayer omitted? That seems like something that should be included wherever the gospel is proclaimed, so the deletion of it is probably important. OTOH, it is easy to come up with reasons why someone working with Mk would include it, as both Mt and Lk do.

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If you just want a general idea of what happened, you could just treat them as 3 congenial reports, no problem.

But if you want to study them intensely and gain a greater understanding of the game, you might look at the reports more carefully. Was it American, British or Australian football? Where was the halfback and how did he participate? The reports can supplement one another and shed light on what the others wrote. Analyzing the reports could give a better understanding of the game like analyzing camera footage helps coaches understand strengths and deficiencies.

But on a general level, Q makes little difference. It is only important for those who seek a detailed, in depth understanding.

I think this sums it up. Q has only a literary, not a documentary, existence.

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