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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Synoptic Relationships » Q Theory

Q Theory

If you’ve not read much about “the synoptic problem” (theories about where Matthew, Mark, and Luke came from), this post may not be for you. These are simply some quick notes about Q Theory and Mark Goodacre’s case against Q — and I am persuaded by Goodacre that Q is a myth.

Q is an imagined document which scholars think they see in the background of Yeshua-sayings that are shared only by Matthew and Luke (they don’t occur in Mark).

The Q theory is that Matthew and Luke each independently used Mark and this lost source of sayings which scholars call Q. Let me break that down. The theory is that Matthew did not know Luke and Luke did not know Matthew. The sources they had included Mark and Q (and both had special sources either written or oral besides Mark and Q as well).

To better understand this, think of a harmony of the gospels, which puts the gospels in columns. Triple Tradition materials is stories and sayings that occur in all 3 (Mt-Mk-Lk). Double Tradition material usually occurs in Mt-Lk (though sometimes Mk-Lk and Mt-Mk).

Most of this Double Tradition material (the Mt-Lk stuff) consists of sayings. Why are these sayings in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark? The answer in Q theory is that they had a source of sayings called Q. The Q theory is a good theory. It has some support. It seems logical.

Note: I am avoiding a long post on details, including the 7 arguments used to support Q (four negative and three positive). For a thorough discussion, read Goodacre.

Now, here is Goodacre’s basic case:

#1, Another theory of gospel origins works better than the Q theory.

#2, The Farrer theory (supported by Goulder and Goodacre): Luke used Matthew and Mark plus other sources.

#3, In the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theory, the Double Tradition material is Luke using Matthew.

#4, Many have doubted this because Luke takes things Matthew gathers into long discourses (Sermon on the Mount) and spreads them out all over his gospel (many of the Sermon on the Mount sayings are in Luke, but spread all over). — Goodacre says this is Luke’s literary artistry at work. He simply has a different idea about how to use the sayings than Matthew and is creatively spreading them into more specific contexts instead of long sermons.

#5, Why doesn’t Luke use some things in Matthew (most famous: the Magi)? The answer, which can be backed up by the larger context: Luke doesn’t like certain things. Magi are one of them (see Acts 8:9 and following). Luke chooses the “Luke-pleasing elements” only.

#6, Sometimes Luke’s version of a saying appears more “primitive” (closer to what scholars imagine might be the original form of Yeshua’s words) than Matthew’s. Goodacre says this is because Luke (as did all the others) had a large body of oral tradition to work with and may have preferred a different version than Matthew.

#7, Some have argued for Q by noting that Luke sometimes lacks additions or “corrections” in language Matthew has made. Goodacre: sometimes Luke preferred Mark over Matthew.

NO WORRIES: If this sounds like Greek to you or boring, don’t sweat it. This is just extra fodder for the imagination and for understanding gospel origins.

BENEFIT: If the Q theory is wrong, and if we can say that Luke used Matthew and Mark as well as other sources, it changes the way we look at several things. We can read Matthew as an attempted improvement on Mark and Luke as an attempted improvement on both (see Luke 1:1-3). Also, the value of oral tradition (eyewitness testimony) is higher if we dispense with Q (which was supposedly a written source which constrained Mt and Lk). The creativity of Matthew and even more so Luke is better appreciated when Q is regarded as a myth.

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Filed under: Background to Gospels, Formation of the Gospels, Synoptic Relationships

2 Responses to "Q Theory"

  1. I’m a fan of Goodacre–thanks for the summary, Derek!

  2. I have long believed that Q isn’t, but not on the basis of particularly deep study on the topic (my undergrad prof Bart Ehrman of course gave us the whole Q and nothing but the Q, but we were freshmen, and later in NT survey at a conservative seminary we reviewed briefly some problems with Q, but also studied Matthean priority which may have been off-topic). So thank you for the notations. Why wouldn’t it be that Luke in using many sources and had access to Matthew? Seems like a better theory! I would like to check out Goodacre for the details and arguments against as well.

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