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Article No. 141

Q - a lost gospel

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Apart from some snippets in the rest of the new Testament, the four gospels are our source of all knowledge of the historical Jesus. There are a few outside references to Jesus and Christians - otherwise nothing. We do of course know Him in our own Christian experience - but our knowledge of Jesus the man is founded on the historical certainty that such a man lived and walked the land of Palestine about two thousand years ago. The gospels tell his story. Christianity is rooted in historical fact.

All the more important therefore that we pay close attention to discerning as much as we can about the gospel record. It is a sobering factor that some scholars hold that the earliest gospel was written about twenty years after the death of Jesus. If we place the crucifixion at CE 30 then Marks gospel - thought by most scholars to be the first gospel written and circulated - was probably written between CE 50 and CE 60.

If we take the date as CE 55 and go back the same period in our own lives we see immediately how difficult it is to even remember big events, much less small incidents and what people actually said. As I write this in 2007 the same gap of years takes me back to 1982. What happened that year? I can remember where I lived and I can remember several big events in my life around that time. But all the detail has gone - just a memory or a picture here and there. But conversation? All disappeared! Can you remember what anyone said to you in 1982?

So how is it that St Marks gospel is so explicit - containing detailed conversations? I think there are three significant reasons for the detailed gospels that we have before us today.

The first reason is the fact of the oral tradition in those days. Few people could write and read - there were many poor people and there were no printed books. For centuries they had been using scrolls which were costly. It was the practice - and had been since time began - for parents and teachers to teach orally by stories. People were accustomed to hearing the old stories recounted to them. These stories were transmitted from generation to generation without any changes. They were recounted as the speaker had learned them. It is therefore perfectly likely that there would be a good memory of the stories of Jesus. The stories would be passed from person to person in the same way. This is one way that his teaching and stories of his healings were kept alive.

Secondly, there is the clear evidence that the earliest gospel - Mark - was used as a source by the later gospel writers. Both Matthew and Luke copied chunks of Mark into their own gospels. This meant that the old stories were repeated for all those to whom the gospels circulated. Probably those who wrote Matthew and Luke also had their own memories of what they had seen and heard of Jesus, or what they had heard about his teaching, prompted by reading Mark’s gospel

Thirdly - and most importantly - it is thought by many scholars that a kind of abbreviated gospel - a collection of the sayings of Jesus - circulated among the earliest Christians. It is thought to have been in the form of a number of loose sheets about six by eight inches. These sheets would have a hole punched through in one corner and a piece of twine threaded through and tied so as to keep the sheets together. It would have a front and a back board to protect the sheets from being spoiled. The contents of these early ‘books’ would not be similar to the gospels, but rather a collection of the sayings, and some of the doings, of Jesus.

No such book has ever been found - but then it is hardly likely that any copies would be preserved when, a decade or two later, the fuller and more authoritative gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke came into circulation. This ‘book’ has been called ‘Q’ for the German ‘Quelle’ meaning - ‘source’ No copy of Q has ever been found, nor is there evidence of its existence - except for one very powerful fact - a fact strong enough for most scholars to be able confirm its existence. Its existence can be deduced from the contents of the first three gospels. It is clear that Matthew and Luke copied large chunks from Mark when they came to write their gospels but there are some other parts of their gospels that clearly have a common source other than Mark.

These are very similar sections parts of Matthew and Luke are not copied from Mark. So similar are they that scholars have pieced these verses together and called them ‘Q’ - German for Quelle - ‘source’.

So, in date order of composition from earliest to latest, we have:

Q - those verses common to Matthew and Luke that are not to be found in Mark

Mark - the earliest gospel written around CE50-60

Matthew and Luke - writing with Q and Mark in front of them

John - written later (CE100?) presumably with all the other material available to him, but certainly not used in the same way.

There is also, of course, some material that is common to both Matthew and Luke and Mark. It is possible that some or all of this material also originated in Q, but it is also possible that this material first appeared in Mark, and was then copied by Matthew and Luke. Therefore it is wiser to exclude such passages when trying to reconstruct Q. We cannot be sure that they came from the earlier ’gospel’ of Q.

Scholars have extracted the common verses and called the result Q. You can actually buy a copy of Q - it comprises about two hundred and twenty five verses from the gospels. The book is called ‘The lost gospel of Q’ and is published by Ulysses Press, ISBN 1-56975-100-5 price under £10 - see Amazon! I recommend that you get a copy - not only for its use devotionally, but also for the rich source of better understanding of the origin of the gospels. . Each of the eighty two sayings is on a separate page and the book and can therefore form the basis for a daily reading stretching for nearly three months.

When you read Q you are as far back to Jesus as it is possible to get. You are reading what is probably part of the first written account of his sayings. Q contains no history or sequential account of his life. There is just a collection of sayings.

So what is the significance and value of Q? We must remember that any account of the sayings of Jesus must be selective. The person putting it together has chosen what to include and what to exclude. And, of course, we have no idea who put the small book together. Was it an apostle? Or a disciple? Or was it a church somewhere - perhaps the church in Jerusalem? Was there just one book circulating, or were there variations of it? Were there revisions - new editions? What did they leave out?

Bearing in mind that probably a decade or two had passed before the book was created (although, of course, it may have been brought into existence very early) - how accurate is it? We should realise that being older than the gospels does not necessarily make Q more 'pure'. its attraction to us is that, quite simply, it is the oldest document about the teaching of Jesus that we possess. It is also 'authenticated' by the fact that it is entirely derived from Matthew and Luke’s gospels. What it contains was obviously considered important by the person collating the sayings and doubtless met a vital need in the aftermath of the resurrection. The fact that it circulated - and therefore was used by Matthew and Luke - indicates that it was found acceptable to many of the early Christians.

Now for some reflections on Q.

First we must remember that there are some scholars that dismiss the whole idea of Q - and find other solutions to the problem of the similarities between the gospels. So there must be an element of reservation about our use of it. On the other hand, all that it contains is from the gospels so it is only the fact that we are segregating these verses into a separate section (called Q) that could lead us into wrong assumptions.

When I read Q, I am struck by several things. Firstly, the directness of all that is included. Rarely is it obtuse or irrelevant to one’s daily living. I think that gives us an even clearer idea of the sort of impression that Jesus made on people as he moved around Palestine. He was clear, direct, relevant to their daily lives. Secondly, it gives me an even better sense of the tumultuous life that must have followed Jesus in his ministry. The crowd pressing in on him as a daily occurrence. Crowd control must have been a priority for the disciples. Even if the crowds had half the numbers quoted in the gospels, marshalling the crowds must have been a huge daily exercise at various times in his ministry.

Thirdly, it is interesting that there is nothing about the crucifixion in Q. Some have taken this to mean that the early Christians were more concerned with his teaching than his death and resurrection. I do not see it like that. It seems to me that the reason why Q is silent about the cross is that both Matthew and Like either knew the facts themselves or had other suppliers of live first hand information. They therefore did not need to refer to Q. The fact that they ignored Q may simply be because they had better information than what was in Q. Or maybe they had more detailed information than was in Q. Either way they did not need to refer to Q for the details of the crucifixion and the resurrection - hence they ignored what was written (if anything was written about the crucifixion) in Q - and hence we are unable to reconstruct what was in Q.

It is also possible, of course, that either Matthew or Luke copied his crucifixion details from Q, but that the other one wrote his own version. In  that case we have no way of knowing which version comes from Q.

It is also a fact that Q records nothing about the birth of Jesus. This might have a similar explanation to that given above - or it might just be that the significance of the birth of Jesus only became prominent a decade or two after Q was written and circulated. It should be noted that only two gospels of the four record any details of the birth of Jesus.

Realising the significance of Q and studying it brings home to the reader in a fresh way the value and fragility of the New Testament. The gospels are incredibly valuable to every Christian - but they are also fragile, in the sense that if they are read and regarded wrongly then they lead to an unbalanced and indeed wrong view of the teaching of Jesus Christ. The gospels have to be regarded and evaluated properly. To treat them in a literal way, without critical analysis, is in my opinion to completely miss the true value of the incredible gift from God of our scriptures.

We must never let our own insecurity push us into treating the scriptures as 'infallible' - that is, to be taken as literal truth. Of course they are God’s gift. Of course they are exactly what God intended us to have. Of course they are sufficient for all we need - for salvation and for living the Christian life. But they must be used with understanding and intelligence. They must be reflected upon in prayerful meditation. Then they become the words of salvation to all who read and understand, led by the Spirit.

Tony Cross

September 2007.

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