John P. Meier, The Marginal Jew,
v.2, ch. 13 : Excursus on the Q Document,
pp 177-233

(Detailed summary)

Does this Q document that biblical scholars talk about really exist?


The letter Q refers to the first letter of the German word "Quelle", which means source. The Q document refers to a tradition common to Matthew and Luke and unknown to the other evangelists Mark and John. It is this tradition which seems to be the source of two blocks of texts on John the Baptist. This Q document remains a scientific hypothesis which presupposes first of all that it is accepted that Mark was the first Gospel that Matthew and Luke took up in their own way: to explain why there are passages in Matthew and Luke which do not come from Mark but which correspond almost word for word with them, for example the temptations of Jesus, the Beatitudes or the prayer of the Lord's Prayer, the most plausible hypothesis is to imagine a source which is common to both of them, which we have decided to call Q. Having said all this, we can go no further: we must distance ourselves from those biblical scholars who think they can isolate a theology and a community behind this Q tradition, as well as editorial layers; we then try to know the unknowable. It is better to think of the Q tradition as a ring binder for collecting various documents.

  • Let's remind ourselves what this is all about first. As early as the 19th century, biblical scholars noticed that certain passages in Matthew and Luke were similar, almost word for word, and that they were absent from Mark and John. Among the best known texts are the account of Jesus' temptations, the Beatitudes and the prayer of the Our Father. In the context where a majority of biblical scholars hypothesized that Mark was the first Gospel and that Matthew and Luke took up his account in their own way, it was necessary to explain where the material, that Matthew and Luke were the only ones to know, came from. It was here that the hypothesis of a special source was put forward, which was called "Q", from the German word "Quelle", which means source.

  • In our study of John the Baptist we found two "Baptist blocks", Mt 3: 7-12 with parallel in Lk 3: 7-9.15-18, and Mt 11: 2-19 with parallel in Lk 7: 18-35; 16: 16 which we attributed to the Q document. But at the same time we insist that the existence of this document Q is a hypothesis, and remains only a hypothesis. In the 20th century we find reputable exegetes who reject this hypothesis, especially those who refuse to recognize Mark's priority in the chronological sequence of evangelical authors. One then speaks of oral tradition or multiple writings from various sources to explain the elements common to Matthew and Luke.

  • Document Q remains the theory that best explains the data common to Matthew and Luke. For if Matthew and Luke both used Mark's account, the first Gospel writing, while ignoring each other, how can we explain these common blocks found in their Gospel? The simplest answer remains the Q document for the following reasons:

    • Les verbal agreements between Matthew and Luke;
    • The "doublets", i.e., stories that Matthew and Luke copy from Mark, and which are still found elsewhere but in a different form in their Gospels (for instance, the prohibition of divorce);
    • The unusual and rare phrases in the Greek version of the Old Testament (Septuagint), or in 1st century Christian literature, but which Matthew and Luke share;
    • A significant number of agreements in the order of the stories in Matthew and Luke

  • After having said all this, one must distance oneself from all those biblical scholars who are trying to refine this theory by identifying a community, a geographical location, a theology and various stages of writing. This is impossible to know and can only lead to skepticism. The diverse ideas found in this Q document are impossible to systematize. In fact, one has the impression of being in front of a ring binder where one would have collected over time a whole panoply of stories and speeches. To identify strata in it is to pretend to know the unknowable, and moreover, it does not contribute to the question of historicity. The biblical scholar should wake up each morning repeating this mantra: "The Q document is only a hypothesis whose scope, formulation, origins or editorial strata cannot be known exactly".

Next chapter: Does the central message of Jesus boil down to that of love, or is it rather centered on the proclamation of the reign of God?

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