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QUESTIONING Q

SPCK £19.99(0-281-05613-7)Church Times Bookshop £18

AT an early stage in New Testament studies, every student will be introduced to Q, the hypothetical source (Quelle) of the material that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have in common, and which is not in Mark. The hypothesis is 200 years old, and has spawned countless studies and refinements.

But it has also become more than a technical solution to the enigma of the relationship of the first three Gospels. Such a source (if it existed) must have been ancient — perhaps our earliest, and therefore most authentic, source of information about Jesus. Moreover, it apparently consisted entirely of sayings: it had no narrative, no crucifixion, no resurrection. In which case, those who compiled and preserved it were presumably content with the picture of Jesus it presented — hence the popularity in modern Jesus-studies of portraits of Jesus as primarily a teacher of (often subversive) “wisdom”, or as an itinerant philosopher similar to the Cynic preachers of the pagan world.

But did Q exist? Very early scraps of papyrus have turned up in Egypt with fragments of the other Gospels, but none of Q. No ancient author ever refers to it. All we have is reconstruction by modern scholars, devised primarily as an answer to the problems created by the intricate relationship of the Synoptic Gospels with each other.

But this reconstruction seems now on the way to becoming a “Gospel” in its own right. With the aid of a computer in California, an international team of scholars claim to have established, and are now publishing, a “critical text”. “Questioning Q” seems to have become an occupation open only to outsiders — eccentric scholars who refuse to accept the consensus and its now far-reaching implications.

Yet the theory still has opponents. Is their position no longer tenable? Or might it be the case (as these authors argue) that the very success of the Q hypothesis has made its proponents oblivious of its vulnerability; indeed has made them lose the habit of seriously engaging with contrary arguments at all?   

This collection of essays by eight American and British scholars is a serious attempt to have the question reopened. They recognise that abandoning Q would be nothing less than a paradigm shift for New Testament studies. But at the very least their arguments demonstrate the fragility of the hypothetical structure that is taken as established by the great majority of scholars. Their project is a wholesome reminder that, despite two centuries of labour and ingenuity, the origins of our four Gospels still remain beyond the reach of any certain knowledge.

Dr Harvey is a former Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.

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