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    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.

    Friday, January 21, 2011

    On the Ideological Convenience of Q

    Having taught on Matthew, Mark and Luke in the autumn, I've been mulling over various issues related to the synoptic problem. One thing that I've been thinking about in particular is the ideological convenience of Q (the hypothesised sayings gospel which the majority of scholars believe was the source for the material shared only by Matthew and Luke).

    Precise applications of the Q theory vary widely, but generally speaking it's held to be earlier than (or at the latest contemporary with) Mark, and having its roots in the first recollections of Jesus' words by those that followed him during his ministry.

    Whilst New Testament studies is a broad field, there are nonetheless two major camps, though there is considerable divergence within each. On one side we have what we'll call the conservatives. Broadly speaking they hold to the position that the gospels are, if not actually infallible, an historically accurate representation of what occurred in the life of Jesus. On the other hand we have the liberals who reject this position, believing that the best way to access Jesus and his teaching is by historical reconstruction using the gospels as key sources.

    Now I should be clear that I am not claiming that those who believe in Q do so purely because it suits their ideological beliefs. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Q theory does suit both groups rather well. For this latter group the presumed antecedence of Q suggests that it is also more historically reliable. As a result the ethical teacher Jesus we would find were a copy of Q ever to be discovered is a supposedly more likely reconstruction than Mark's apocalyptic exorcist and miracle worker. In a context where exorcism and apocalypticism seem 'a bit weird' but the power of words is greatly appreciated, it's not hard to see the appeal of the Q theory.

    Conversely were the Farrer-Goulder-Goodacre theory to be correct (i.e. that Matthew used Mark and then Luke used both Matthew and Mark) then this would suggest that the miracle working Jesus we find in Mark is the most historically probable, and that there's an increased chance that the ethical teacher is the invention of the early church.

    For the conservatives the appeal is slightly more straightforward. Agreement with Q theory not only gives them a degree of academic credibility - they agree with the scholarly consensus on this crucial issue - but it also bolsters the reliability of the later gospels. The gap in time may remain the same but Q acts as a crucial stepping stone providing reassurance that the Jesus of the gospels really does correspond to Jesus as he actually was.

    As I said above, the convenience of the Q theory isn't necessarily the reason why any given scholar believes in the theory. It does mean however that Farrar theorists (and other Q-sceptics) have their work cut out in overturning such a sizeable majority.

    Edit: In the comments, Mark Goodacre mentioned something that I meant to say when I originally posted this. It stands to reason, of course, that those who reject Q may also be doing so for ideological reasons, myself, no doubt, included.



    • At 7:57 pm, January 21, 2011, Blogger Loosed Mind said…

      You point out that liberal or even secular oriented schoolars and those of a neo conservative orientation finding agreement when it comes to Q which is so speculative is a bit suprising on the face of the matter. You also raise the mutability of Q and related source hypotheses showing how with these speculative narratives on the scriptural development can and do seem to be used to suppot both the historical reliability of the gospels by some and by others to show a quite opposite situation where any sence of the gospels being a true account would be defining that truth on grounds of meaning perhaps but not historicity in what they report ofe events.

      So there is a shared theoretical speculation the concomatant theological applications of which fit well and hold a common appeal and sway to those of divergent positions. I pose that this might be less stunning to people of faith of another time but that in America today the differences between Christian liberals and conservatives as we are calling them is exagerated and capitalized on in how the media represents this devision and in the ways it is adressed by political leaders not only reinforces such devisions but creates them and even works to redifine the meaning Christians give to such devisions.

      All that said I pose that there is one explanation which makes sense of the agreement of a sort between both capmps. In the matter of Q and the gospel sources you are dealing with matters that are less related to historical critical work than it is to textual criticism. Hermenutical work centered on historical critical arguments will not often result in a similar colegial consensus at least that is my thought. However in matters of textual analysis and criticism liberals and conservatives will rediscover much common ground and shared agreement. You might say that textual analysis is to the historical critical aproach what a hard science like physics is to a soft science like sociology or psychology. We might duke it over th idea of codependency and who is or is not best categorized as such but sre likely to even argue about what sort of evidence should would be relevent to the consideration and much more while it iis hard to imagine anyone of credibity not agreeeing over the laws of physics.

      I am actually a bit N.T. Wright fan and in his work I see this comming up at various points and I think he even adresses it to an extent. Similer to that in the field of New Testament Studies the ready access to contemporary non-canonical works, differences in manuscripts,and descriptions within the text of how the author has come to know something, when he wrote it, what degree of significance should be placed on what they report etc means that (much moreso than in OT studies) you will find both liberals and conservatives engaging - and often with one another) a much more dynamic set of questions and possibilities without retreating to reactionary reiterations of their respective theologicall determined truth claims, put another way they are less able to justify prejudicial positions which deny the historic fact of the narratives or insist on some espoused plain meaning which must be imposed on other texts and historical research never yielding even when texts and findings refuse to cohere.

    • At 9:38 pm, January 22, 2011, Blogger Mark Goodacre said…

      Thanks for the interesting post, Matt. I largely agree with this. I think that it is one of the reasons for Q's longevity -- it has appeal across the board. But there are, of course, ideological reasons behind the desire to reject it too.

    • At 12:44 am, January 23, 2011, Blogger Jeff said…

      I'd agree with the general point, for which thanks, but offer a friendly amendment. It's only in the first stage in Kloppenborg's stratification of Q that you find a Jesus distinct from Mark's apocalyptic prophet and healer. In the second stage, Jesus exorcises by the finger/spirit of God attesting the advent of God's kingdom (Q 11:20), heals the centurion's boy (Q 7:1ff), cites his wonders in response to the Baptist's question about the eschatological judge (Q 7:18ff), and warns of the judgment following the Son of Man's coming (Q 17:24ff); absent Kloppenborg's stratification, the Jesus of Q is an eschatologically-minded wonder worker, period. But Q is often taken to lack such embarrassments to the modern mind as Jesus' atoning death and bodily resurrection. This is not entirely accurate, as Wright has shown that Q ascribes importance to the resurrection, and while (like Luke) Q avoids atonement language to describe Jesus' death, Kloppenborg has recognized that it finds significance in Jesus' death, as well. But the commonly supposed lack of emphasis on Christ's passion and resurrection is congenial to a liberal theological sensibility, and so to your point.

    • At 8:43 am, February 17, 2011, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for all your responses to this question. Mark I'd meant to say that at some point so thanks for reminding me. Post edited accordingly.



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