Understanding an Argument for Q [Akin]


jimmyakin.com/wp-content/uploads/q-red.jpgThere is a clear literary relationship between three of the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

That’s why these three are known as the “synoptic” Gospels—because they offer a “shared view” of Jesus’ life (Greek,sun= “together” +opsis“seeing”).

The question of how they are related is known as the Synoptic Problem, and you can read my discussions of it here.

Which Evangelist Wrote First?

Through much of Church history, the dominant view has been that Matthew’s Gospel was the first to be written and that Mark either abbreviated Matthew or that Mark combined and abbreviated both Matthew and Luke.

After careful study, I would argue that neither of these proposals fits the evidence. Mark did not abbreviate Matthew (see here), nor did he combine and abbreviate Matthew and Luke (see here). Further, the earliest testimony we have—likely from one of the other authors of the New Testament—indicates that Mark wrote first (see here and here).

I therefore conclude that modern scholars are most likely correct when they argue that Mark wrote his Gospel first and Matthew and Luke used it as sources.

I am skeptical, however, of the claim of many modern scholars that Matthew and Luke also used another, now-lost, source known as Q (from the German word Quelle = “source,” though see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?, ch. 4, fn. 9).

Kinds of Material Found in the Synoptic Gospels

The fundamental reason that scholars propose the existence of a lost Q source is that the material in Matthew and Luke falls into one of four categories:

a)*** Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with Mark

b)** Material that Matthew and Luke have in common with each other and that is not found in Mark.

c)*** Material that Matthew alone has.

d)** Material that Luke alone has.

On the view that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, we can assume that both Evangelists derived the category (a) material from Mark.

The category © material, which is uniquely found in Matthew, must have come from sources unique to Matthew, and the same would be true for the category (d) material that is uniquely found in Luke.

But what about the category (b) material—the material in both Matthew and Luke that couldn’t have come from Mark, because it isn’t in Mark?

Explanations for the Material in the Synoptic Gospels

Scholars seem capable of proposing a limitless number of complex, convoluted ways that this material can be explained—involving a tangle of hypothetical sources and lost editions of the Gospels—but Occam’s Razor suggests that we not turn to these unless simpler explanations fail.

This makes our job easier because there are four, and only four, simple explanations for the category (b) material:

*]Matthew and Luke got it from a hodgepodge of different sources, and it happened to end up in both Gospels by chance
*]Matthew and Luke both got it (or most of it) from a common source, which is now lost
*]Luke got it from Matthew
*]Matthew got it from Luke
If the material that Matthew and Luke have uniquely in common amounted to only a few verses—perhaps a few sayings or stories of Jesus—then we might chalk this up to chance.

The difficulty with this view is that there is rather a lot of material in category (b): It amounts to around 235 verses, which is 22% of the verses in Matthew (1071 verses in total) and more than 20% of the verses in Luke (1151 verses in total). In both cases, the category (b) material amounts to more than a fifth of the respective Gospels.

This seems like too much material to attribute to random chance.

That points us to the possibilities that there is a lost source (dubbed Q), that Luke got the material from Matthew, or that Matthew got the material from Luke.

Why do modern scholars prefer the first of these proposals?

To some extent, it may be because of peer pressure. Around a hundred years ago, scholars began to prefer the first proposal—the Q hypothesis—and there was a snowball effect. They saw their peers adopting this proposal, and they naturally adopted it, too.

This tendency is sometimes called the bandwagon effect, and it is a known phenomenon in human psychology. However, that doesn’t mean that it is more likely to lead to the truth. Objectively, one still needs reasons to prefer the proposal favored by the majority to the alternative proposals.

So: Are there reasons to prefer the Q hypothesis to the alternatives that Luke got the material from Matthew or visa versa?

Christ’s Infancy and Resurrection

One way of trying to answer the question is to go through Matthew and Luke in minute detail—looking at the Greek text of individual verses to see what they tell us about the possibility that each of the proposals is correct.

This is an important task, but it requires a close reading of the Greek texts which is not easily accessible to the average reader. Many of the individual data points are also quite technical and debatable.

My preference here is to look at larger elements of the text which are found even in translations of the original language, such as modern English Bibles.

Even if we here put aside the details of individual verses, it is clear that there are certain passages in Matthew and Luke that could serve as tests for how the Synoptic Gospels were written.

These are the Infancy Narratives, which deal with Jesus’ birth and infancy (Matt. 1:8-2:23, Luke 1:5-52) and the Resurrection Narratives (Matt. 28:1-20, Luke 24:1-53).

The argument is that these two sections are so different from each other that Matthew and Luke did not know each other’s Gospels. In other words, if Luke knew Matthew (or visa versa) then he would not have written his Infancy Narrative or his Resurrection Narrative so differently from the other Gospel. They would have been more similar to each other.

A version of this argument is implicitly offered by Robert H. Stein, who writes:

One final argument that can be listed against the theory that Luke used the Gospel of Matthew as a source is the lack of M * material in Luke. (The same type of argument can also be made for Matthew’s not having used Luke, i.e., the lack of any L * material in Matthew.) . . . Why would Luke have omitted such material as the coming of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-12)? Would not the presence of such Gentiles at the birth of Jesus have been meaningful for Luke’s Gentile-oriented Gospel? Why would he have omitted the flight to Egypt and return to Nazareth (Matt. 2:13-23); the story of the guards at the tomb (Matt. 27:62-66) and their report (Matt. 28:11-15); the unique Matthean material concerning the resurrection (Matt. 28:9-10, 16-20); and so on? Added to this is the observation that if Luke had before him Matthew’s birth account and genealogy, one wonders if he would not have sought in some way to ‘harmonize’ the one we have in his Gospel with the Matthean version (The Synoptic Problem,* 102).

I say that Stein’s version of the argument is implicit, because he does not note that each of his examples is drawn from either the Infancy Narratives or the Resurrection Narratives (a point made by Mark Goodacre; The Case Against Q, 55).

An argument from the Infancy and Resurrection Narratives is legitimate in principle. If one Evangelist used the other then we would expect there to be traces of that in his presentation of Christ’s infancy and resurrection. If we find no such traces then that suggests Matthew and Luke wrote independently. And, in that case, the material they have in common would most probably be attributed to a lost source (Q).

However, before adopting this conclusion, we need to ask whether the two narratives are really so different from each other, whether they can be explained by Luke using Matthew or Matthew using Luke, or whether there are reasons why one Evangelist would avoid using the other in these parts of his Gospel.

This we will do in the next two posts.

Up next . . .

*]The Infancy Narratives and Q
*]The Resurrection Narratives and Q



How important is this?


Patrick, time for that chart of yours.


I need the executive summary of all this.


Thanks for explaining.


I don’t see that John the Priests’ remarks really establish Mark as having written first…
But it was an interesting read…

Most of the later dating of the Gospels relies on the predictions of the fall of the temple as evidence that they were written after 70A.D. It is ONLY because of this issue that Q is posited as necessary.

However, most scholars ignore the fact that there are alternative reasons to believe the prophecy to occur at an earlier date; eg: as a warning based on clear evidence of the time. For example, Josephus records that the Romans were launched and set to sack Jerusalem nearly a decade before the date they actually finished the deed. The only reason Jerusalem was not sacked before 70A.D. is simply because bad weather and the death of the Ceasar, led to the orders being rescinded for a time while the army was recalled to help with “internal” issues. But everyone in Government knew that unless God intervened again, that the army would resume it’s attack once Rome itself became stable again.

So, in my own view – The Gospels were almost certainly written earlier than most scholars will give them credit for. At least as early as 60A.D. even if Jesus’ prophecies are fabrications put on his lips by his apostles, as many scholars will argue. (I don’t … but even if a scholar does, the gospels could be written earlier based on evidence found in Josephus.)

John the priest/elder merely confirms that Mark was written before 120A.D.
There is a long distance, however, between 62AD and 120AD. Either Matthew or Mark could have come first in that time span. So Akin’s argument really is over stating what he has proven so far, although his arguments are intriguing.

I know that oral traditions can easily last thirty years. Comparing ballads of the Norse, known to be written by different authors on the same subject show clearly that oral tradition can preserve large numbers of phrases and exact wordings which had become “traditional.”

Jesus was an itinerant preacher, the original twelve would have had to repeat his words to the crowds several times over during a period of days. Although there may have been versions of the sermons in Greek or Hebrew, still … a single apostle is not likely to change their story between multiple accounts and languages. They were not known to be multi-lingual (the pentecost event being set aside.) An apostle HAD to have memorized at least one form of the sermon in order to repeat it. (they didn’t write it down, as eg: Peter was illiterate. )

For that reason, I do not find it strange that the wording is nearly identical in many places between Matthew and Mark, for that’s the nature of rote memorization.

Notably, Luke was not an eye-witness to the sermons, and served a different audience; so the differences in Luke are striking. Compare Matthew’s sermon on the mount, to Luke’s sermon on the plain. The content of the beatitudes is presented in an entirely different manner than Matthew.

Matthew and Mark are reported to be either direct eye-witness accounts, or the dictated account from an eyewitness. (Peter). So the agreement in phrasing is hardly surprising to me, even without Q. Because I see no reason for the Gospels to have been written at a much later date (save John). Oral tradition is capable of producing most of the results we see in Matthew and Mark.


Real Catholics don’t put “scholars” above the Church’s teaching.

From 1907 to 1933 the Pontifical Biblical Commission emphatically stated:

  1. ‘Matthew wrote his Gospel before the other Gospels

  2. Scholars are not free to advocate the two-source theory whereby Matthew and
    Luke are dependant on Mark and the “Sayings of the Lord” (“Q”).’
    The New Biblical Theorists, Msgr George A Kelly, Servant Books, 1983, p 34].

No. 94 Roman Theological Forum July 2001
by Sean Kopczynski

“Sadly, however, the scholars went modern and embraced the rationalistic Protestant scholarship. Consider the following from the Jerome Biblical Commentary under the title Emergence of Catholic Critical Scholarship:
“Over-all, modern Catholic NT scholarship has consisted in a judicious selecting and combining of acceptable elements in Protestant scholarship; it is not yet following its own new paths. It has succeeded in convincing more intelligent Catholics that the ultraconservative biblical positions of the past are no longer tenable.”

“By adhering faithfully to the teaching of the Church, I now had enough information to complete my paper on the Synoptic Question. In my paper on ‘who wrote first?’ I employed the PBC decrees and other authoritative external evidence from the Fathers and Tradition. Happily, I was able to argue for Matthew first followed by Mark and then Luke. This approach and solution soothed my conscience, strengthened my faith, and made me smile at the narrowness of using only internal arguments.”

Fr William G Most presented the reality against in **Did St. Luke Imitate the Septuagint?, **identifying that “at present the number of attacks on the Two Source Theory is multiplying11.”
11 Cf. W.R. Farmer, The Synoptic Problem, Dillsboro, NC, 1976; Bernard Orchard, Matthew Luke and Mark, Manchester, 1977; E.P. Sanders, The Tendencies of the Synoptic Tradition, Cambridge, 1969; T.R. Rosche, “The Words of Jesus and the Future of the ‘Q’ Hypothesis” in JBL 79 (1960) 210-20; Sanders, “The Argument from Order and Relationship between Matthew and Luke” in NTS 15 (1968-69) 249-61; O.L. Cope, Matthew, A Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven in CBQ Monograph Series 5, 1976, esp. p. 12: John M. Rist, On the Independence of Matthew and Mark, Cambridge, 1978; Hans-Herbert Stoldt, History and Criticism of the Marcan Hypothesis, tr. D.L. Niewyk, Macon and Edinburgh, 1980.


Did you even read the article?


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