The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins
As a Christian, I was indecisive as to the origins of our four Canonical gospels. Ideally, they were four independent accounts by eyewitnesses, or associates to eyewitnesses, each showing a unique perspective of the life of Jesus. In fact, my church pastors never strayed too far from this ideal course. However, reading the Gospels for myself led me to some troubling questions.
The Gospels contain sayings of Jesus, which in some cases are identical between gospels. For example the Parable of the Leaven found in Luke 13:20-21 and Matthew 13:33 – “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened”. In other cases, the sayings are placed in the same setting, but slightly different, as in the voice from heaven’s proclamation of Jesus after the baptism (Matt 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22). The voice speaks directly to Jesus in Mark and Luke (‘Thou art my beloved son’), but the voice speaks to the crowd in Matthew (‘This is my beloved son’). Why the differences in some cases but near verbatim in others? Was this design by divine purpose, copyist error, or dare I say, differing Gospel traditions? Of course, my church never dwelled into this territory of Biblical study, and I was left with my questions parked in my brain where they remained for years.
Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel of Q deals directly with this question with a hypothesis that is wholly plausible. Since studying up on Christian origins, I have run into ideas of Markan priority and the two-source hypothesis, but never fully understood the rationale behind these ideas. Mack shows the problems in harmonizing the various Gospel sayings, demonstrates the feasibility of Markan priority, then interprets the person of Jesus based on the implications. Mack does this in an intelligent, highly readable and nontechnical manner that requires only familiarity with the synoptic Gospels. It does treat some material a little too lightly for my tastes, but on the whole this was an excellent read.
Mack begins with the origins of the two-source hypothesis and why it is needed. Much of the material in Matthew and Luke are identical, particularly the sayings of Jesus like the previously mentioned Parable of the Leaven. However, those sayings which are common through Matthew and Luke are strangely missing in Mark. This is especially strange in the case of Matthew, since much of Matthew shares similar plot elements with Mark. This leads to the hypothesis of the book, that Mark is the earliest of the Canonical Gospels (Markan Priority), that Matthew and Luke independently used Mark and a lost sayings gospel code-named Q (two-source hypothesis), and that the hypothetical lost gospel Q can be, at least in part, be extracted by comparing common sayings between Matthew and Luke. Mack then reconstructs Q based on his own Greek translation. The result is a book of sayings from a man named Jesus, a man who is a non-miraculous, non-divine Galilean Cynic. It is utterly fascinating, and wholly plausible.
My largest issue with the book is based on Mack’s stratifying Q. If the Q hypothesis is correct, Q is certainly our most ancient document based on Jesus. It is at this point that I wish Mack would have gotten a bit more technical in his presentation. Not content thus far, Mack separates the sayings of Q into three categories: common instructions based to the community at large, apocalyptic judgments largely addressed to ‘this generation’, and miscellaneous material that does not seem to fit the overall theme, like Jesus’ wilderness temptation.
Mack contends that the three categories are actually three levels of redaction, with the successive layers written at different times. Mack then reprints Q *again* with the ‘original’ version of Q, that with the general community instructions. That the hypothesized original Q is reprinted seems to stress the contention that this version is the closest to a historical Jesus that we are ever going to get, yet it merely comes by categorizing the sayings of Q. Mack may see redaction in the categories, but it just seems like a neat idea with little basis. Interpreting Jesus based on layers of storytelling like this makes the whole idea seem circular to me.
With that one complaint out of the way, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the viability of the two-source hypothesis. Read it, like anything else, with a critical eye and take out of it that which makes sense. After reading this book, I am convinced that, while not airtight, it is the most plausible hypothesis to the origins of our synoptic gospels and how they were written that I have ever considered. I recommend this book to anyone curious about Gospel origins and the sources for Christian faith.
(originally published on 23 Aug 2007)