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THE GOSPEL OF Q

The gospel's internal structure

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Disclaimer:

This essay is written from a common liberal Christian perspective. It assumes that the two source theory is valid. This theory maintains that the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke copied much of their material from the Gospel of Mark and from a lost Gospel of Q. This theory is accepted by most liberal theologians, but is opposed by others. 1,2

Religious conservatives generally believe that the Gospel of Q either did not exist or is redundant. So, none of this essay will be of particular value to them.

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The Internal Structure of Q:

Q appears to have been written in Greek - at least the version of Q that was used by the authors of Luke and Matthew was in this language. Most references in Q to the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) were to the Greek Septuagint translation, not the Hebrew original.

Further detective work has shown that Q can be subdivided into three subdivisions of sayings, called Q1, Q2 and Q3. The writing of Q apparently started about 50 CE, about 20 years after Jesus' execution by the Roman authorities. Unlike other Gospels which were apparently written over a short interval of time, Q was intermittently expanded over a period that has been estimated as great as 35 years. As in the case of the other Gospels, the names of the people who wrote Q are unknown. Biblical writers who later used portions of the Q material were:

bulletThomas, written during the early 90's, perhaps in northern Syria. He did not incorporate any Q3 material.
bulletMatthew, possibly written during the mid 80's, perhaps in northern Palestine
bulletLuke, perhaps written during the 90's in Greece or Asia Minor

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"Q1" - Describing Jesus as a Philosopher - Teacher

Prior to the writing of Q1, the Gospel message was passed verbally among individuals and groups. About 50 CE, this oral tradition was written down as Q1. B.L. Mack 3 grouped together the passages that formed the original part of Q into about 7 pages of fairly large print. They represent a powerful message which apparently contain the original sayings of Jesus as they were preserved at the time. Many of Jesus' original statements would have been lost during the period of oral tradition, either because they were duplicates of other sayings or because they were not remarkable enough to have survived fading memories. Undoubtedly, some distortion of the original words of Christ would have occurred. To read this sub-set of the original Gospel is a remarkable privilege; it is a sort of time capsule that transports the reader back into the mindset of the early followers of Jesus. Q1 covers the following topics:

bulletwho will belong to the "Kingdom of God"
bullettreating others (the Ethic of Reciprocity; a.k.a. Golden Rule)
bulletdo not judge others
bulletworking for the Kingdom
bulletasking for God's help
bulletdo not fear speaking out
bulletdon't worry about food, clothing, possessions
bulletthe Kingdom will soon arrive
bulletthe cost of being a follower
bulletthe cost of rejecting the message

What is remarkable about Q1 is that the original Christians appeared to be centered totally on concerns about their relationships with God and with other people, and their preparation for the imminent arrival of Kingdom of God on earth. Totally absent from their spiritual life are almost all of the factors that we associate with Christianity today. There is absolutely no mention of (in alphabetic order): adultery, angels, apostles, baptism, church, clergy, confirmation, crucifixion, demons, disciples, divorce, Eucharist, great commission to convert the world, healing, heaven, hell, incarnation, infancy stories, John the Baptist, Last Supper, life after death, Mary and Joseph and the rest of Jesus' family, magi, miracles, Jewish laws concerning behavior, marriage, Messiah, restrictions on sexual behavior, resurrection, roles of men and women, Sabbath, salvation, Satan, second coming, signs of the end of the age, sin, speaking in tongues, temple, tomb, transfiguration, trial of Jesus, trinity, or the virgin birth.

Jesus is described as a believer in God, but there are no indications that he was considered more than a gifted human being. His role was not as a Messiah or Lord but philosopher-teacher. The Gospel contains strong statements which are anti-family and which oppose Jewish religious rules. Rewards and punishments are described as occurring in this life, not after death. The "Kingdom of God" is described as a type of utopian society on earth which his followers were creating, not some future location in heaven after death. God is presented as a loving father with an intimate concern for the welfare of believers. The Holy Spirit is mentioned, but appears as a gift given by God, not as a separate person of the Trinity. There is no reference to Jesus' death having any redeeming function; in fact, there is no mention of the crucifixion  or resurrection at all.

The religious and spiritual life of the early Christian movement two decades after Jesus' crucifixion bears little relationship to today's Christianity. A modern day Evangelical Christian would probably regard all of Jesus' followers as unsaved and essentially ignorant of all of the fundamental beliefs of Christianity. 

Some authors identify the contents of Q by numbering the sayings QS1 to QS64. Using this identification system, the Q1 material can be found at the following locations in the Gospel of Luke:

Q Location Luke Location Comments
QS7 6:20a Start of the Beatitudes
QS8 6:20b-23  
QS9 6:27-35  
QS10 6:36-38  
QS11 6:39-40  
QS12 6:41-42  
QS13 6:43-45  
QS14 6:46-49  
QS19 9:57-62 "Foxes have holes; bury the dead"
QS20 10:1-11 Sending the 70 disciples
QS26 11:1-4 Lord's prayer
QS27 11:9-13 "Seek and ye shall find"
QS35 12:2-3 Speaking publicly
QS36 12:4-7 Fearing retaliation
QS38 12:13-21 Inheritance; parable of the rich fool
QS39 12:22-31 Worrying about the future
QS40 12:33-34 Give your possessions away
QS46 13:18-21 Mustard seed, leaven
QS50 14:11 & 18:14 Humility
QS51 14:16-24 The great supper
QS52 14:26-27 and 17:33 Anti-family sayings; saving life
QS53 14:34-35 Savorless salt

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"Q2" - Describing Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet:

Many prophetic and apocalyptic pronouncements were added a couple of decades later, after Q1 had been firmly entrenched as the standard teaching text of the community. The new sayings were written in response to the serious civil unrest and upheavals in Palestine associated with the Roman-Jewish war. Another motivation was the rejection that they had experienced by their families and by the Jewish people generally. Q2 includes statements of judgment and doom which were directed against those who refused to listen to Jesus' message. The new sayings were written circa 60 to 70 CE, and introduced John the Baptist and his disciples into the Q material. They were identified as the words of Jesus and John, even though the sayings were conceived by others many decades after Jesus' death. This would be considered fraudulent by today's standards. However, in the ancient world, sayings were often added to the words of great teachers after their death and attributed to them. This gave the new sayings great credibility and authority within the movement. The sayings were inter-woven within the Q1 material in order to generate the impression that the judgmental texts were part of his original message.

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"Q3" - Retreat from the World

Additional sayings appear to have been added during the mid 70's CE. This was at a time that the Roman-Jewish war had concluded, after the Jews had been driven from Palestine, and just before the book of Mark was written, As before, the sayings were falsely attributed to Jesus. They describe the followers of Jesus as retreating from the violence and civic unrest of society and patiently waiting for "their moment of glory in some future time at the end of human history." 4 The status of Jesus was upgraded beyond his original Q1 status as teacher and his later Q2 status as prophet-teacher. Q3 describes him as a deity, who converses directly with God and Satan. It was at this time that the Gospel of Q started to be noticed by other Christian writers. Matthew and Luke built their Gospels in part around Q and Mark. The author of the Gospel of Thomas incorporated Q1 and Q2 into his writing, but was apparently not aware of the Q3 additions.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Mark Goodacre, "World Without Q: A Synoptic Problem Web Page," at: http://www.bham.ac.uk/
  2. Mark Goodacre, "Ten Reasons to Question Q," at: http://www.bham.ac.uk/
  3. Burton L. Mack, "The Lost Gospel of Q: The Book of Christian Origins", Harper, San Francisco, (1993). Pages 73 to 80.
  4. Burton L. Mack, "Who Wrote the New Testament?", Harper Collins, San Francisco, (1995) Read reviews and/or order this book.

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Copyright 1998 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Most recent update: 2005-AUG-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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