• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as current film releases with spiritual significance, and a few bits and pieces on the Bible.

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    Was Q a Redactor?

    Reading The Lost Gospel, Q at the weekend got me thinking about other possible explanations for the shared material in Matthew and Luke. I started to unpack some of these ideas yesterday, but wanted to do so more fully.

    One of the problems I have with the view that Q existed as a deifinitive written source is the fact that no copy of this "lost gospel" has ever been discovered. Of course it can be argued that the same could be said about the Gospel of Thomas until 1945. However, there are to my mind three crucial differences. Firstly, the world has changed a great deal since then. The finds in Egypt and Qumran have greatly increased awareness that there might be other lost documents, and the increase in global communication has made it far more likely that if a copy of this document still exists it would find it's way into circulation.

    Secondly, as far as I'm aware the Gospel of Thomas seems to have been the product of a single community, it's possible of course that it was more widely distributed, but I personally know of no evidence for that (please let me know if you know more on this than I do). On the other hand Q would not only be the product of the Q community, but at least two other communities those of Matthew and Luke. (Some scholars see our understanding of the early church as moving away from the community model, but it still seems to be the dominant model for the time being).

    This brings me onto the third difference. Whereas the Gospel of Thomas may have been considered heretical, and thus its disappearance until 1945 is most likely explained by a purge by the orthodox church, Q was surely acceptable. It contained no heresy and formed a major part of two of the gospels that would eventually become canonical. Whilst it's certainly possible that it may have fallen into disuse, it is unlikely that it would disappear without trace.

    The other problem I have with the existence of a written Q is that not only have we no copy, there seems to be no mention of such a document in early church history. We are aware of a number of texts such as the Assumption of Moses of which we have no copies, but we know about because one of the early church writers referred to them or even quoted from them. But there seems to be no parallel here. Again, given that this document would have been non-heretical it seems strange that its presence is not noted anywhere.

    All of which brings me onto thinking that there may still be another explanation. It would be nice to see the Farrer theory explored in greater detail. One or two writers are taking up the challenge, but the overwhelming majority of scholars seem to be sailing on regardless and building very tall theories on, what seems to me at least, a very unstable foundation.

    So I'd like to suggest another theory about this shared material. Not because I'm necessarily convinced by it, but perhaps because I find it at least as plausible as the Q theory, and hope that in some way it might cause scholars to look afresh at their assumption. I should state for the record that I don't seriously expect to have uncovered the solution to the synoptic problem (my lack of formal training would make that an incredibly arrogant claim and I am not convinced by this theory particularly myself), but I think there is some mileage in explaining it. And as this is a blog, where the whole point is a level of dialogue then I thought I'd voice it as a theory.

    One of the (unverifiable) claims about Q is that is our earliest written gospel. Tom Wright is keen to point out that "gospels" such as Thomas and Q are nothing of the sort, since they contain no announcement about the good news of the kingdom, but that is another issue. The thing is that there is no evidence that Q pre-dates Mark by 10-20 years as Borg suggests. In fact the larger the gap between the composition of Q, and the composition of Mark becomes, the more implausible it becomes that Mark did not know Q.

    If, as it seems fair to suppose Mark and Q write independently of one another then it is surely still feasible that Mark was actually written before Q. I started thinking then about the supposed lack of passion narrative in Q. It seems unlikely, to me at least, that the Q community would have embarked on the process which Borg so eloquently describes if he was just a failed wisdom teacher with a couple of miracles to his name. As I suggested yesterday, the fact that Matthew and Luke chose Mark's passion account does not mean that Q was without one. Q's could have been inferior, or, it's at least feasible that if it was written after Mark, that he knew it and used Mark's passion narrative, just as he had collating the other phrases more generally associated with Q?

    The following portrait then begins to emerge. Mark wrote his gospel first. Both it's novelty, and it's engaging style meant that it became well known relatively quickly, and would long be beloved, ensuring its existence. Then along comes the author of Q, he has been gathering materials for some time, and weaves together a number of different sources into his account. He, perhaps has already accumulated the three types of material in what we call Q, Q1, Q2, and Q3. He has a good source of material about John the Baptist (looking at the material in an isolated form with a fresh pair of eyes, it is clear that Q consists of a great deal of material about John, perhaps one of Q's sources was one of John's followers). And now he has information about his miracles (to which he strangely only had indirect references save the centurion), and he also had some (and only some) of the material that has come to be known as M and L. He brings this altogether, and forms a new gospel.

    Unfortunately Q is not a great writer. Where he incorporates a phrase or saying wholesale it rings true of the original detail, but his structuring, and the way he incorporates the sayings is clumsy. Nevertheless it gains some circulation, and the combination of its strengths and its weaknesses inspire two other writers to try and improve it and produce the gospels known as Matthew and Luke. They are able to do so fairly quickly, as a lot of the work has been done for them. They incorporate some of the oral tradition held in high regard by their communities, and re-work the material to be more in line with the teaching of those communities. Because they are part of larger, more significant, communities, these gospels also quickly circulate occasionally even reaching some places ahead of Q. Because they are better writers most Christians outside of their communities find both Matthew and Luke to be greatly preferable to Q, and so Q drops out of circulation, becomes ignored, and eventually forgotten.

    Some of that no doubt sounds a little far fetched, but I find it hard to think of objections that do not also apply to the generally accepted Q theory. However, there are many that are far more learned than I, and can no doubt provide all sorts of objections, some of which would also not apply to Q. I invite them to do so.



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