What is the Q Hypothesis in New Testament Studies?

Although some scholars remain skeptical of Q, most find that positing its hypothetical existence explains the vast agreements found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

The Q hypothesis explains the large amount of material, roughly 230 verses, common to Matthew and Luke that is not found in or derived from the Gospel of Mark. This material is more than just similar as it is often in verbatim agreement. This, most believe, points to a common, although unknown, source. Without positing Q as a source used by Matthew and Luke, the only explanation is direct borrowing between the two. But that Luke used Matthew’s gospel, or vice versa, to produce his account is unconvincing to most scholars. Although most accept the Q hypothesis, there is a lack of agreement on whether Q should be thought of as a written source or oral tradition. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains that Q,

“[M]ust at one time have existed (since Matthew and Luke appear both to have had access to it), that was written in Greek (otherwise Matthew and Luke could not agree word-for-word in places – in Greek — in their non-Markan sayings material), and that contained almost exclusively (or exclusively) sayings of Jesus” (1)

The Date of Q

Q is considered important in historical Jesus research. This is primarily because of its earliness. Although uncertain, many have placed its date to around 50 CE. James Dunn says that Q is best dated to the 40s or 50s CE and therefore predates all four gospels (2). This is important as Q takes historians. The general rule of thumb in historical research is that the earlier the source, the better its historical reliability.

Did Luke Use Matthew, or Vice Versa?

Critics of Q raise skepticism over positing the existence of a hypothetical source and will usually claim that the vast agreements between Matthew and Luke not derived from Mark are a result of Luke’s use of Matthew’s gospel or Matthew’s use of Luke’s gospel. If true, there is little reason to suppose that this wouldn’t account for what Q is typically thought to explain. But, again, most find this perspective unconvincing.

There are several reasons for this. One reason is that there is no consistent sense of development from Matthew to Luke in terms of more primitive or developed material. But perhaps the biggest problem for thinking Luke used Matthew is that the two gospels are so different. This is especially striking given some of the very important stories like the infancy and post-resurrection narratives that can be found in both gospels but are clearly very different. There are some other pointers that Luke didn’t use Matthew. Consider Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. If we suppose that Luke used Matthew, then he has torn and fragmented the Sermon on the Mount and placed it in different places instead of integrating it neatly into his work. This makes little sense if he used Matthew’s account. Further, there is the difficulty of accounting for why Luke frequently places Matthew’s non-Markan material in different contexts than it is given in Matthew (the only exceptions to this being the temptation narrative and the preaching of John the Baptist).

What Do We Know About Q?

Once we accept that Matthew and Luke made use of a common source in Q, the question arises as to what we can know about it. This is where a considerable amount of debate between scholars has been had. Professor of religious studies John Kloppenborg has studied this question in detail. In his Q, the Earliest Gospel (2008), Kloppenborg provides the following verses that he maintains derive from Q (Luke’s versification is used in brackets) (3):

•   John’s preaching (3:7b–9, 16b–17) 
•   The temptation (4:1–13)  
•   Jesus’ first speech (6:20b–23, 27–33, 35, 36–38, 39–49)  
•   The centurion’s serving boy (7:1–2, 6–10)  
•   John’s question (7:18–19, 22–23)  
•   Jesus’ words about John (7:24–28, 31–35)  
•   Two volunteers (9:57–60)  
•   Jesus’ mission instructions and thanksgiving (10:2–3, 4–11, 12–16, 21–22, 23b–24)  
•   Instructions on prayer (11:2–4, 9–13)  
•   The Beelzebul accusation and request for a sign (11:14–18, 19–20, 21–22, 23,  24–26, 29–30, 31–32, 33–35)  
•   Woes against the Pharisees and scribes (11:39–44, 46–52)  
•   Admonitions on anxiety (12:2–8, 9–12, 22b–31, 33–34)  
•   The coming Son of Man (12:39–40, 42b–46, 51–53, 54b–56, 58–59)  
•   Two parables (13:18–19, 20–21)  
•   The two ways (13:24, 26–27, 28–30)  
•   A lament over Jerusalem (13:34–35)  
•   “Exalting the humble” (14:11/18:14)  
•   The parable of the great supper and sayings about following Jesus (14:16–24, 26–27; 17:33)  
•   Insipid salt (14:34–35)  
•   The parable of the lost sheep (15:4–7)  
•   “God or mammon” (16:13)  
•   Sayings on the Torah (16:16, 17, 18)  
•   Sayings on scandals, forgiveness, and faith (17:1b–2, 3b–4, 6b)  
•   The coming of the Son of Man (17:23–24, 26–27, 30, 34–35, 37b)  
•   The parable of the entrusted money (19:12–13, 15b-26)  
•   Sitting on thrones (22:28–30)  

We can accept Kloppenborg’s outline, but it must be noted that scholars are unsure, largely because we no longer have Q in extant form, of the exact nature of Q. For example, they do not know if Q was a single document or various documents. Perhaps it was an oral tradition. Any views on the nature of Q are held tentatively as scholars can do little more than speculate on the matter.

What most scholars do agree on, and as we can see in Q’s content outlined by Kloppenborg above, is that Q consists mostly of sayings of Jesus, with almost no narrative. There are only three narratives found in Q: the temptation narrative (Luke 4:1-13), the story of the centurion’s servant who is healed (Luke 7:1-10), and the casting out of a demon (Luke 11:14). Similar to a sayings source, Q is a collection of sayings of Jesus, which is not at all inconsistent with the early Christians seeking to collect the words of their Lord. We know that other groups who viewed Jesus as important collected his sayings; for example, the second-century Gospel of Thomas contains 114 of his sayings.

Some scholars have brought light to the fact that Q contains no passion narrative and this might indicate that there was a very early Christian community for whom Jesus’ death and resurrection had no significance. But this is unlikely given that the death and resurrection of Jesus were at the center of the earliest Christian preaching. Also, arguments from silence need to be used cautiously; for example, in the book of James we have no reference to the death of Jesus or his resurrection, but this doesn’t mean that there was a community that did not believe these things. Lastly, one needs to be careful with how much he claims to know about Q and any community connected to Q because we do not know if we have the source in its entirety.

References and Recommended Readings

Hengel, Martin. 2000. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Trinity Press International. p. 176-177.

Kümmel, Werner. 1996. Introduction to the New Testament. Abingdon Press. p. 66-67.

Stanton, Graham. 2013. Studies in Matthew and Early Christianity. Mohr Siebeck. p. 209-223.

  1. Ehrman, Bart. 2015. Q and the Passion Narrative. Available.
  2. Dunn, James. 2003. Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing.
  3. Kloppenborg, John. 2008. Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press.

2 comments

  1. Q is only legitimate if you accept literary dependence. It’s a hard thesis to accept, especially when considering that oral tradition was more common than literary at this time. Not only that, an analysis of the Greek syntax of each “shared” passage shows that there are major differences. It makes more sense to adopt literary independence, which is to say that the authors of the Gospels consulted oral sources instead of literary ones.

  2. […] Behind the gospels historians have discovered several hypothetical sources, commonly referred to as Q, M, L, and a pre-Markan formula. Q, M, and L are sources that the gospels authors accessed but are no longer in extant form. Consensus is that there are good reasons for accepting these hypothetical sources, rather than just viewing them as inventions. For instance, given the near word for word agreement between Matthew and Luke where they record the same events and words of Jesus, it becomes clear that they must have had access to some other shared material (that is not Mark). This is what scholars refer to as Q. For a more detailed description of Q, read can go here. […]

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