Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Tbe not-so-queer problem of Q

The modern critical approach to the biblical texts began some 150 years ago in Germany. Sometimes termed the Higher Criticism, this approach stresses that things are not what they seem. The Pentateuch, for example, was not written by Moses or dictated to him by Yahweh. Moreover, according to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which further research has abundantly confirmed, that foundational text breaks down into four main streams, known by the initials J, E, D. and P. These do not correspond to the traditional ordering of the five books, but afford a glimpse into the stratigraphy, as it were, of the Pentateuch--the stages of its formation. Each stream is dominated by a particular theological concern.

Other scholars began to deploy a similar approach to the New Testament, especially the four canonical gospels. Since the publication of Johann Griesbach in 1776, it has come to be generally agreed that the Gospel of John stands apart. In fact, it has long been recognized that the the Gospel of John differs significantly from the other three canonical gospels in theme, content, time duration, order of events, and style. Some 1800 years ago, Clement of Alexandria famously summarized the unique character of the the Gospel of John by stating "John last of all, conscious that the 'bodily' facts had been set forth in those [earlier] Gospels ... composed a 'spiritual' Gospel."

Our focus here lies elsewhere, with the other three, ascribed to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Known as the synoptic gospels, these form a set. The synoptic gospels feature an enormous amount of parallels between them. About 80% of the verses in Mark have parallels in both Matthew and Luke. Since this material in common to all three gospels, it is sometimes known as the Triple Tradition. The Triple Tradition is largely narrative but contains some sayings material.

Once their kinship is granted, what of the relations among the three synoptics? During the Middle Ages, the relatively short Gospel of Mark was thought to be a summary or epitome of the others. In 1838, however, Christian Wilke established the priority of the Mark, now accepted as the earliest of the four.

Mark is the shortest of the gospels, suggesting that the longer gospels took Mark as a source, adding additional material to it (as opposed to Mark taking longer gospels but deleting substantial chunks of material). Mark's diction and grammar is less sophisticated than that found in Matthew and Luke. It would appear that Matthew and Luke "cleaned up" Mark's wording (as opposed to Mark intentionally "dumbing down" more sophisticated languages). Mark regularly included fragments in Aramaic (translating them into Greek), whereas Matthew and Luke do not.

Another finding is extremely important. Matthew and Luke share a large amount of material that is not found in Mark. In fact, more than 200 verses in the two later Synoptics are common to both. Technical analysis suggests that neither copied the other, so that the material derived from yet another fund of technical material.

This recognition has led to what is termed the “two-source” theory for Matthew and Luke; they came about through merging the Markan component with the other body of material. Nowadays, this other body of material is commonly termed Q (Q standing for the German word Quelle, “source”). It has also been shown to underly about a third of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

It is possible to deduce that the Q document, in the form that Matthew and Luke had access to, was written in Greek. Were Matthew and Luke consulting a document that had been written in some other language (for example, Aramaic), it is unlikely that two independent renderings produced by Matthew and Luke would have the same wording.

Strictly speaking Q is not a gospel--that is, a narrative biography of Jesus--but a collection of sayings (or logia). Begining in the 1980s several scholars presented reconstructions of Q.

This burst of interest fostered increasingly more sophisticated literary and redactional reconstructions of Q, as seen the work of John S. Kloppenborg. Focussing on certain literary phenomena, Kloppenborg argued that Q was composed in three stages. The earliest stage featured a collection of wisdom sayings involving such issues as poverty and discipleship. This nucleus was expanded by including a layer of judgmental sayings directed against "this generation.” The final stage included the Temptation of Jesus.

Although Kloppenborg cautioned against assuming that the composition history of Q is the same as the history of the Jesus tradition (i.e. that the oldest layer of Q is necessarily the oldest and pure-layer Jesus tradition), some recent seekers of the Historical Jesus, including the members of the Jesus Seminar, have done just that. Basing their reconstructions primarily on the Gospel of Thomas and the oldest layer of Q, they propose that Jesus functioned as a wisdom sage, rather than a Jewish rabbi,
One commentator, Bruce Griffin has written thus of the Kloppenborg hypothesis:
“This division of Q has received extensive support from some scholars specializing in Q. But it has received serious criticism from others, and outside the circle of Q specialists it has frequently been seen as evidence that some Q specialists have lost touch with essential scholarly rigor. The idea that we can reconstruct the history of a text which does not exist, and that must itself be reconstructed from Matthew and Luke, comes across as something other than cautious scholarship. But the most serious objection to the proposed revisions of Q is that any attempt to trace the history of revisions of Q undermines the credibility of the whole Q hypothesis itself. For despite the fact that we can identify numerous sayings that Matthew and Luke have in common, we cannot prove that these sayings come from a single unified source; Q may be nothing but a convenient term for a variety of sources shared by Matthew and Luke. Therefore any evidence of revision of Q counts as evidence for disunity in Q, and hence for a variety of sources used by Matthew and Luke. Conversely, any evidence for unity in Q - which must be established in order to see Q as a single document - counts as evidence against the proposed revisions. In order to hold to a threefold revision of Q, one must pull off an intellectual tight-rope act: one must imagine both that there is enough unity to establish a single document and that there is enough disunity to establish revisions. In the absence of any independent attestation of Q, it is an illusion to believe that scholars can walk this tightrope without falling off.”

Setting aside this controversy over the purported layering to be found in Q, the roster of motifs thought to have originated therein is striking. These include:

* The Beatitudes
* Love your enemies
* The Golden Rule
* Judge not, lest ye be judged
* The Test of a Good Person
* The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders
* The Parable of the Lost Sheep
* The Parable of the Wedding Feast
* The Parable of the Talents
* The Parable of the Leaven
* The Parable of the blind leading the blind
* The Lord's Prayer
* Expounding of the Law
* The Birds of Heaven and The Lilies in the Field

As I write, a group of scholars is seeking to produce a definitive edition of Q under the auspices of the International Q Project and the Q project of the Society of Biblical Literature. These scholars are working under the direction of James Robinson at the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at Claremont College in California. While awaiting their results, one may consult Burton L. Mack, “The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins” (1993) and Marcus J. Borg et al., eds. “The Lost Gospel of Q: The Original Sayings of Jesus” (1999).

Looking back over the history of research, it is evident that for a long time, the Q hypothesis was pursued simply as a solution to the synoptic problem; hence the major publications of Bultmann and Streeter (1921 and 1924 respectively).

The grounds for the recent interest in Q are quite different. Once the text is properly reconstructed, it will serve, it is held, to throw light on the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. For some time, now, the conventional wisdom has held that the apostle Paul altered and enlarged the message of the earliest followers of Jesus. Yet because some of the Pauline Epistles (at least four) are the earliest surviving documents we have, peering into the pre-Pauline stage has been hazardous and often subjective. If, however, we can rely on the Q to document this phase, the problem is solved--or at least very substantially addressed.

Notwithstanding the enthusiasm it has been generating of late, some problems remain with the Q claim, the hypothesis of the recovery of a “lost gospel.” For example, we now have the texts--in their physical embodiment--of at least sixteen “noncanonical” gospels (that is, those in addition to the traditional four). As far as I know, no tangible physical evidence, not even a few slivers of papyrus, has come to light of Q. All we have is material in other documents that is assumed reliably to have derived from Q. Thus the situation is not unlike some planet that is not actually observed, but assumed to exist because of its effect on other celestial bodies.

One possible solution to the nontangibility issue is to hypothesize that the Q document was not written down as such, but circulated in oral form. Studies of various cultures have shown that such transmission can occur. However, because of the so-called “telephone effect” oral documents change with each retelling, no matter how careful the tellers are to preserve the wording. As found in Matthew, Luke, and Thomas, however, the texts are very stable, suggesting access to a written archetype.

A second problem concerns the completeness, or noncompleteness of the Q material, as it has been deduced from survivals in the gospels ascribed to Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. The idea that the 225 or so verses recovered in this material constitute an organic whole seems to be tacitly accepted without argument. In the light of this assumption it is assumed that the absence of certain motifs, many of the material, the doctrine of the Trinity, and so forth, is an indication that they were not held by the earliest followers of Jesus. Instead, they are mythical accretions, many stemming from the surrounding pagan world. But what if such motifs were found in other portions of Q, which have not happened to survive.

A further question touches on the order of the contents of Q. As noted above, there is no overarching narrative structure. Instead, we have a series of atomic fragments, sometimes loosely related, but in many instances simply following one on another. Contemporary scholars assume that the order preferred by the author of Luke is the original one. Yet how can one be sure?

Recent work has shown that the Q problem poses two distinct issues. The first concerns its deployment in support of the two-source assumption, that is, Matthew and Luke as two products of the conflation of Mark and Q. Is is still not possible, though, that the Q material was originally generated by the author of Luke (and not borrowed)? Once established, this Lukan material could migrate into Matthew and Thomas. Or the current could go in a reverse direction, following an old view found in St. Augustine that gives priority to Matthew. These intricate questions can be pursued in the specialist literature. When all is said and done, though, it seems that the two-source theory, confidently assumed by many New Testament scholars, is not quite nailed down. This is so, even after more than two-hundred years of carefully argued analysis.

That older problem subsists as the first of two current issues. A new issue is whether one can use Q, as currently reconstructed, as evidence for the beliefs and practices of the earliest followers of Jesus. That matter is still unfolding, and a better answer must await further analysis and research.



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