In the world of biblical studies there is the argument known as Q (and L and M) which asserts the common material to Matthew and Luke comes from oral tradition that was codified in a now lost document, a sort of proto-gospel, that influenced the composition of these two Synoptic Gospels. As any reader of the New Testament gospels know, there are materials unique to each of the gospels. Then there is material common to each. Q, along with the other hypothesized sources, M and L for Matthew and Luke, attempt to address how common and unique material ended up in the gospels.
The Q-source, and the other gospel sources (L for Luke, or Lukan material; M for Matthew, or Matthean material), now serve as the foundation for modern New Testament scholarship along with Mark (Marcan priority) and make up the “Four Document Hypothesis.” Mark’s gospel among the biblical texts is the earliest, written anywhere between 66-74 AD by most scholarly opinions, and is the most unique of the Synoptics. For instance, Mark doesn’t include the Sermon on the Mount, something common to Matthew and Luke (larger in Matthew than Luke). Mark also doesn’t include the preaching of John the Baptist. Mark also doesn’t include the many famous parables of lost sheep or faithful servant. Since Mark is more unique in its material than Matthew and Luke, the general scholarly consensus is that Matthew and Luke, while having some influence from Mark, were more widely influenced by sources outside of Mark’s gospel. Luke himself says he talked to many eyewitnesses of Jesus. This poses the question of an older oral tradition that started to coalesce in a document that Matthew and Luke drew from: Q.
For many grad students in religious studies, the encounter with Q-hypothesis is generally shocking and revelatory. It is the first time they’ve heard about it, or if they have, it is the first time they study it in-depth in a scholarly setting (googling about Q instead of reading scholarly books on Q doesn’t quite qualify as in-depth studying of the topic). The basis for Q is a largely technical, historico-grammatical, argument as it relates to interpreting Matthew and Luke.
Since the emergence of Q in the early 20th century by B.H. Streeter, who brought it to its most mature and recognizable form, similar assertions have been made about how Matthew and Luke compiled their unique material. While Matthew and Luke have common material derived from Q, their unique material must have been independent to the other. In other words, what is common to Matthew and Luke was a shared source (Q) and what is unique to them was independent of the other. This is known as M and L. Matthew’s unique material was unique to Matthew and independent of Luke (M-source). Luke’s unique material was unique to him and independent of Matthew (L-source). M and L must have been independent of the other gospel writer to account why material is unique to each gospel. Moreover, M and L were independent of each other and also independent of Q, which explains why there is unique material only to Matthew and only to Luke not shared from Q.
Part of Q, L, and M hypothesis rests on gospel dating. Mark as the earliest gospel is known as Marcan priority, and this is almost universally accepted in the modern academy. Dates vary, but, as mentioned, 66-74 AD is generally the timeframe for Mark’s authorship (ca. 70 AD is used as the benchmark). Mark’s gospel, it is believed, was written during the Jewish Wars when the Romans would eventually surround and sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. Part of the dating of Mark relates to Jesus’s prophecy of the destruction of the Temple. Early date scholars assert that Mark’s prophetic “recalling” of Jesus asserting the Temple’s destruction was a prediction that came true (following intertextual realities in the Old Testament where some predictions of the OT authors come true and others do not proving the existence of predictive writing in the Bible which the author of Mark follows as an heir of). The later date scholars assert that Mark’s prophetic telling of Jesus asserting the Temple’s destruction was after the fact (it “came true” only because it was written after the Temple was destroyed). But we need not be concerned with these debates since early or later date authorship doesn’t change the fact that Mark is the earliest gospel.
Mark’s early composition influences Matthew and Luke (both written ca. 85 AD), who likely had access to Mark given some of Mark’s material is found in both Matthew and Luke. But since Matthew and Luke have source material unique to them not found in Mark, it must derive elsewhere and be independent of each Matthew and Luke (M and L). Since Matthew and Luke have material common to them not found in Mark, it must derive elsewhere but was shared between Matthew and Luke (Q).
It’s a very persuasive argument, especially for novice grad students eager to learn about the origins of biblical composition. And we certainly spent a fair amount of time on Q and unique source material in the New Testament while I was a student at Yale.
However, the argument is not necessarily as persuasive as it appears.
Since we know that the gospel writers were, effectively, interviewing contemporaries of Jesus while compiling their gospels, the common source material can simply be from oral tradition (an unpopular but still respected view among New Testament scholars). Q goes beyond the oral tradition thesis. The Q-Hypothesis maintains that there was a document, a codified document of oral tradition which Matthew and Luke came into possession of. Furthermore, there are no references to Q in early Christian tradition that we have passed down to us (it may have been lost as was common for ancient works but this absence is still something to be aware of). While absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, this is a problem for critical scholars. It is certainly rationally plausible that Matthew and Luke, in their engagement with elderly individuals who lived in Jesus’s time, could have derived common source material from oral memory rather than a written document (Q).
Likewise, the unique material in Matthew and Luke could equally derive from unique memories from the oral tradition (thus not needing a written M and L which were also lost because of the storm winds of history). Matthew and Luke would not have interviewed, faute de mieux, all the same people. Or if they had some crossover, the crossover explains the common material. Individuals only telling Matthew stories of Jesus, and individuals only telling Luke stories of Jesus, can plausibly account for how they derived unique material found only in their gospels. Oral tradition doesn’t necessitate M and L, which, like Q, maintain that there were documents. (Some scholars recognize this and backtrack to assert M and L as oral traditions unique to Matthew and Luke rather than making the leap into the Four-Document hypothesis where Q, L, M, and Mark served as the four documents for the material in Matthew and Luke.)
What motivates Q, L, and M is a prejudicial presupposition deriding oral tradition. The oral tradition is unreliable and too messy for the relative coherency of material found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew and Luke especially). Therefore the material common and unique to Matthew and Luke must have been codified material to explain their inclusion in the Gospels. Only through a codified document (now lost) can the material in Matthew and Luke have been transmitted.
Are Q, L, and M plausible theories for textual criticism? Yes. But are there equally plausible arguments against them and in favor of just oral tradition? Yes. One of the problems in grad school is, and as a grad student who went through this I can look back on the experience and realize it, that that plausible arguments in favor of just the oral tradition are never entertained or discussed. It is taken, pardon the pun, as gospel fact that Q, L, and M existed as documents before being lost. And it’s easy for them to be lost: so much written material in the ancient world was lost. However plausible their theories, it’s still equally plausible that the unique and common material to Matthew and Luke came from oral tradition. And that’s just as fascinating a story as Q, L, and M are as now lost documents. It is also the minority view in biblical scholarship that I agree with: Q, L, and M, in their basic form were part of oral traditions that were subsequently utilized by the Synoptic Gospel writers. The more concrete theses about Q, L, and M, however, are that they were sort of proto-gospels, written documents about Jesus and his life that the Synoptic gospels came into contact with and borrowed from in the composition of their work as well as their compiling additional material.
Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.
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