Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
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
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
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
Dr Harvey is a former Canon and Sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey.
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