Visualizing Q [Akin]

#1 are 235 verses in Matthew that are paralleled in Luke but not in Mark or John.

This number represents more than a fifth of Matthew and Luke, and so some scholars have proposed that there was a written source—called Q—that both Evangelists drew upon, though it is now lost.

There are, of course, other possibilities. One is that Matthew simply used Luke; another is that Luke used Matthew.

It is possible that they both used a lost written source for this material, but there are reasons to question this.

A while back, I blogged about one such reason.

Now I’d like to use a visual means of making the same point.

The Basic Argument

The argument I made before was based on one posed by New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre (see his book The Case Against Q, 170-185).

Scholars who advocate the existence of Q frequently state that it was a “sayings gospel,” because the material in it largely consists of sayings of Jesus.

They then place it in the same category as other sayings collections, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas.

But Goodacre points out that, if it exited, Q would not have been simply a collection of sayings. Instead, it has narrative passages (passages that recount events rather than simply sayings).

Q thus would not parallel Thomas or other ancient sayings collections.

Visualizing the Phenomenon

In my previous post, I listed a number of narrative elements that Goodacre identified in the Q material.

Now I would like to visualize the way that this material shifts back and forth between narrative and sayings.

To do this, I used a copy of The Critical Edition of Q, edited by James Robinson, Paul Hoffmann, and John Kloppenborg.

Several years ago, this trio of scholars led an international team that attempted to establish the original text of Q, in its original order, to the extent that this can be done by present scholarship.

The Critical Edition of Q is a useful text for studies of the Synoptic Problem because it is a consensus text that does not rest on the work of any single scholar. As a result, it can be used as a neutral reference point for testing hypotheses about Q, because the question of whether a single scholar has biased the selection of texts in favor of his hypothesis does not arise.

The scholars who produced The Critical Edition of Q identified 92 passages that they think were or likely were in Q.

I typed these passages into a spreadsheet and then classified them based on whether they were narrative elements, sayings, or something that could be regarded either way.

I also counted the number of verses in each passage and assigned a color to the three categories, as follows:

*]Red: Narrative
*]Orange: Mixed
*]Yellow: Saying
For something to classify as more than just a saying, it had to involve more than just a note that Jesus responded to something that someone said. The reason is that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus occasionally responds to things that people said, and I wanted to show that Q involves narrative elements that go beyond those found in the Gospel of Thomas.

Using the classifications, I then created an image consisting of colored bars whose widths are based on the number of verses in these sections.

This is the image that resulted . . .

The Image

If you want to see the results of my study as an image in spreadsheet form, click here.

Here, in sequence, is what the colored bars represent.

**Bar 1 (red): **This bar, at the left of the image, represents 24 verses that are all at the beginning of Q and that have narrative elements. This section includes the ministry of John the Baptist, the Baptism of Jesus, the Temptation, and a reference to Jesus going to “Nazara.”

Bar 2 (yellow): This represents 26 verses of sayings material. The material is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew and the Sermon on the Plain in Luke.

**Bar 3 (red): **This represents 6 verses. It contains the story of the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant.

**Bar 4 (orange): **This represents 19 verses. It includes the question that John the Baptist sends to Jesus by his disciples, Jesus testimony about John, the reaction of the people to Jesus’ testimony, and Jesus discussion of the present generation in light of the way John and he have been treated. It also includes Jesus’ interactions with several individuals who end up not following him.

I classified this material as “mixed” because you could look at it either as involving significant narrative elements or simply as sayings with minimal narrative elements.

While it consists principally of sayings, the John the Baptist material involves the coming and going of John’s disciples, which can be considered narrative. It also harks back to Jesus’ earlier interaction with John, in which John identified Jesus as a major figure in God’s plan. Now John asks if he was correct in that assessment, making this a continuation of the previous encounter—and thus part of a larger, overarching story about Jesus and John.

Finally, the interactions of Jesus with the people who don’t end up following him could be considered narrative.

I think that there is a good case for classifying this material—or at least the material involving John the Baptist—as narrative, but since it is principally in the form of sayings, I left it orange.

**Bar 5 (yellow): **This represents 11 verses in which Jesus gives the disciples instructions about a preaching mission that they are to go on—how to conduct themselves, what to bring, etc.

This material is all sayings, so I left it yellow, but I think it could justifiably be colored orange or even red, because the instructions that Jesus gives the disciples about their mission suggests that they went on such a mission and later returned from it, just as we read in Luke 10:17.

If Q contained material about the departure or return of the disciples then this would create forward movement, narratively speaking, and earn an orange or red classification.

Bar 6 (orange): This represents 3 verses in which Jesus pronounces woe on various towns in Galilee.

I classified this as orange because, although it is in the saying form, it implies visits to the named towns in which Jesus encountered opposition, and Q could have contained prior references to Jesus encountering such opposition.

Even if it didn’t, the references to these towns imply visits and thus situate Jesus’ activities in a geographical way that takes us beyond abstract philosophical/theological sayings.

Bar 7 (yellow): This represents 147 verses that consist of sayings without significant narrative elements.


You may or may not agree with my classifications. Indeed, I think that some of them—particularly elements in Bars 4-6—could be classified differently.

However, even if we assume the classification most favorable to Q, where everything that is not red should be classified as yellow, something every interesting emerges.

It isn’t only that Q switches between narrative and sayings material, as Goodacre pointed out. It’s that Q switches between them in a very noteworthy way.

If only Bars 1 and 3 are classified as involving significant narrative elements and everything else is classified as sayings then:

*]Q would begin with clearly narrative material (John the Baptist and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry).
*]It would switch to a major sayings collection that is clearly presented as a unit in Matthew and Luke (the Sermon on the Mount/Plain).
*]It would revert to a narrative for a single story (the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant).
*]Then it would switch back to an extremely long series of sayings.
*]Finally, it would end without returning to the kind of narrative framework that it began with.
This is very unlike what we see in ancient sayings collections like Thomas, Proverbs, or Sirach.

Matters Get Worse for Q?

Things get even worse for Q if some of the material is classified differently.

If Bars 4-6 are classified as narrative, if only some parts of them are, or if we allow a mixed “narrative/sayings” classification then we have an even more complex picture that deviates even further from the idea that Q is a “sayings gospel.”


If we attempt to visualize Q in terms of the narrative and sayings elements that it would have included, we find that it switches back and forth between them in a way that is not like other ancient sayings collections.

This gives us more reason to see the hypothetical, lost Q as a unique document and thus as one that was less likely to exist, in view of the fact that we do not have ancient parallels for it.



I personally like the Q hypothesis, but unfortunately our source material is limited to Matthew and Luke–namely “the parts Matthew and Luke have in common not found in Mark.”

I often wonder–seeing how Matthew and Luke treat the material they got from Mark, it is likely that they used the material from Q similarly. Matthew, for example, does a lot more cut-and-pasting to rearrange his sources so they make sense to him, while Luke tends to use large blocks in sequence, but he tends to cut out redundant materials, and is at least as willing to edit words and phrases as Matthew.

Which leads to my point, if any: how do we know there was not more to Q? Perhaps we have some in plain sight–that material used either by Matthew or Luke, but not both. Perhaps there were duplicates of stuff from Mark also in Q, such as parables or short sayings.

Of course, all this is merest speculation–until (if ever) a document that is Q, or perhaps another document that used Q, is found.


Patrick- time to post that diagram…again.


I think if you look at the spread sheet and follow the logic that Mr. Akin presents, I think you will agree with his conclusion.:shrug:


All these letters makes it sound like an algebra problem! I think I will stick with the Catena Aurea and follow the Church Fathers.


No offense, but that kinda sounds like a poor excuse. I’ve seen quite a lot of people who do the same - they don’t bother looking at something in-depth because they feel it is too complicated, out of their league. (To be fair, there are complicated and overthought stuff, but that ain’t 100% of the total.) That’s why many Christians out there are not too very knowledgeable about these modern studies (but to be honest, they’re not too knowledgeable about ancient authors either). They don’t bother looking for themselves, they just prefer either (1) to remain ignorant or (2) stick with soundbytes and hearsay. And the unfortunate thing is, most of the people who produce said soundbytes are not always the ‘right’ people for the job.

To be fair, scholars themselves are to blame for this ‘it’s complicated’/‘it’s not my league’-kind of mentality. Most scholars are actually not very good speakers - they don’t know how to formulate their ideas easy enough to be understood by the average joe (without all the technical jargon), and most of their studies can only be found in expensive, thick journals that only other scholars could be pressured into buying and reading. And it just so happens that some of the handful of people who have the gift of being able to articulate their opinions and ideas intelligibly and concisely are very often the type of people whom many conservative Christians would usually stay away from (read: Bart Ehrman, John Dominic Crossan, Robert Funk, etc.*) They inevitably become the public face of modern historical Jesus scholarship (though in actuality, they only represent a fraction of the whole), which is why it gets a bad rap from certain sectors.

  • To be fair though, you’ve also got people from the opposite side like N.T. (Tom) Wright who provide a little more variety.

Oh no, not this time, Steve. You do it; it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Try looking at Wikipedia.



No offense, because I have nothing but the highest respect for you. but i assure you that most of us who have a distaste for the so-called scholarly approach feel this way not because we feel inferior or that its too deep for us or that its out of our league. Being traditional is not synonimous with choosing to be dumb, like some so-called scholars like to portray us as, because tradition has more than enough deepness, and the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Jerome, Albert the Great, etc. may not be visualized as sipping on tea and looking down their noses at all the dumb people who dont have all the college degrees and who actually believe in miracles and the reliability of Scripture. Its not a matter of the deepens and complexity of the approach to the field of Biblical studies, because we have that and then some, but rather we have problems with the anti-traditional mentality and the deep study of going against everything that Christian and Jewish tradition has carried on for milleniums.


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