THE ‘Q’ DOCUMENT
Source Criticism, came with the ideas of Anglican bishop Herbert Marsh (1757-1839), who presented the hypothesis that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were made up from Mark’s shorter narrative, plus another document that nobody has ever seen, nicknamed ‘Q’. (1)
Until then, the popular opinion held the traditional belief that Matthew and John were the original documents, whom later guided Mark and Luke into making their own narratives, as it was taught by the first Christians for centuries (2). This ancient theory gave authority to the narrative of the four gospels, as genuine apostolic records. This, however, was later challenged by Reformed Christianity and adopted later also by Catholics and Orthodox as valid hypothesis, since tradition lacked any real historical evidence in favor of the original hypothesis.
THE HYPOTHESIS OF ‘Q’
The hypothesis of source ‘Q’, says that the common parts from the anonymous documents attributed to Matthew and Luke, gathered all their information from the shorter version attributed to Mark, which would be the source of all the common narrative between them; but other parts that are only common to Matthew and Luke, and not Mark; must have been taken from a ‘disappeared’ document called ‘Q’ , the initial letter in German for the word meaning ‘sayings’, which is assumed to be a primitive written collection of the famous sayings of Lord Jesus.
This document has never been seen, and only exists in the minds of the investigators who attribute an ancient written source to the copies we have today, specially since we can clearly see an increase in the narrative of Matthew and Luke, in contrast to the record of Mark (being Mark the shortest).
The source is said to be the first written collection of Jesus’s sayings and miracles, that were written based on oral tradition, and that were later adapted and inserted into the main texts, in a coherent manner.
But this presents certain problems:
1 – If this was the primary source available, why is it apparently ignored by the author of John?
2 – Why is not mentioned by any of the church Fathers?
3 – What was the source of this ‘Q’ document?
If this document really existed, and the gospel of John as it is assumed, it is the latest one, it should also include it in its narrative as an immediate source. Furthermore, if John is truly the work of an apostle, then why it would vary from the apparent ancient legacy of this original document? Unless the author of John considered it apocryphal or never existed.
Considering the value tradition has given to the standing canonical documents, by consequence, the existence and value of this ancient document should have been known by the ancient Christians, but it is not mentioned by any of the Fathers, or by Jerome the translator of the Latin version.
The hypothesis of the ‘Q’ document is still an interesting idea, specially since it is a fact that the four gospels are anonymous. Certainly, whoever wrote these documents must have had access to common source considered authoritative, whether one or many, and if many, they must have had the same contain in all, or complement each other.
This idea does not attempt against the inspiration of Scripture; because even when it may be born from tradition, all genuine Christian traditions ultimately end up in a historical apostolic origin.
One of the core beliefs of Christianity is the apostolic origin of the gospels we have today.
Even though we know the four gospel texts we have today, are only copies of copies, we believe these reflect what originally was passed on first-hand from the apostles to their immediate assistants. There is not other way to grant total reliance on the New Testament, saved the conviction to be the true records of first-hand witnesses (Jn 19:35; 21:24; 1Jn 1:1-2; Heb 2:3; 2Pe 1:16), whose original message has survived many copyists.
If they were just a collection of ancient traditions without apostolic approval, the teachings of Christianity would be subjected to doubt due the lack of first hand sources, which eventually would give way to sectarism, unbelief, and final undermining of our faith.
The ‘Q’ source is an idea that has ground, but it lacks archeological proof to be considered real.
What most probably happened, is that some early original apostolic documents were passed on to the churches, who in later generations made successive copies the best they could based not on tradition, but on these hard-copy sources, and from them all, we have come to have the versions we have this day, which by faith we believe it contains the original message unadulterated to this day, but expressed in different manners.
(1) James D.G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, 2003.
(2) Eusebius, History of the Church, 3.39.15.
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