The Gospel of Q: the Gospel that doesn’t exist
The gospel of Q doesn’t exist. It was absorbed into the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But the gospel of Q does exist. It can be reconstructed as a separate document, casting Christianity in a new light. Q. stands for Quelle, the German word for source. Scholars figured out that large parts of Matthew and Luke told not just the same story, but used almost the same words. Both are working with an oral tradition, but while oral traditions repeat set scenes, they do not repeat large sections of material almost word for word. So, scholars removed these sections and put them together, and lo Q was born. This is sometimes called the two-source hypothesis, Mark + Q = Matthew or Luke.
Q contains roughly 235 verses found in Matthew and Luke, about an equal number from each. Without Q, Matthew and Luke would have lost much of their content, the Sermon on the Mount aQ nd the Beatitudes becoming no more than passing references. Q. provides the content.
What does Q look like as its own gospel?
It lacks narrative form.
It lacks what most people take as central to Christianity: Jesus Christ as the son of God, Christ’s crucifixion, Christ’s resurrection, and the very idea that Christ died as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the world. But it would not be Jefferson’s Bible either, with all the magic and mystery removed.
Here’s a list of some of the sayings in Q. There are many others.
Gospel of Q
“How fortunate are the poor; they have God’s kingdom. How fortunate the hungry; they will be fed. How fortunate are those who are crying; they will laugh.”
“I am telling you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
“If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek as well.”
“If anyone grabs your coat, let him have your shirt as well.”
“Give to anyone who asks, and if someone takes away your belongings, do not ask to have them back. As you want people to treat you, do the same to them.”
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even tax collectors love those who love them, do they not?”
“Instead, love your enemies, do good, and lend without expecting anything in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of God. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good; he sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
“Be merciful even as your Father is merciful. Don’t judge and you won’t be judged. For the standard you use [for judging] will be the standard used against you.”
This should all sound familiar because it is, present in both Matthew (Sermon on the Mount) and Luke (“Sermon on the Plain”) in this form. Q is the source. It is the raw material of Christianity. The original authors are called the Q people because almost nothing of Christian doctrine and dogma are present. Jesus was not divine. The Q people “thought of him as a teacher whose teachings made it possible to live with verve in troubled times.” (Mack, p 4)
Also present in Q are some of the more disturbing sayings of Jesus, as well as some puzzling ones.
“Whoever does not hate his father and mother will not be able to learn from me. Whoever does not hate his son and daughter cannot belong to my school.”
“For I have come to create conflict between a man and his father, disagreement between a daughter and her mother, and estrangement between a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law. A person’s enemies will be one’s own kin.”
“I came to strike fire on the earth, and how I wish that it were already aflame!”
“Be sure: If the owner of a house knew when a thief was coming, he wouldn’t leave his house to be broken into. You also must be ready. For the son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
“In the days of Lot it was the same—they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built. But on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. This is how it will be on the day when the son of man appears.”
“I am telling you, on that night there will be two in the field. One will be seized and the other left. Two women will be grinding together. One will be taken and the other left. Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.”
Message of Q
The gospel of Q has about 1,400 words; this is just a sampling. It reflects the two dimensions of Q, the two ways in which Jesus is seen. First, as a sage or teacher of wisdom. Second, as an apocalyptic prophet. These are roles that do not fit together very easily.
The message of Q is that traditional values such as wealth, possessions, and even learning are worthless. The perspective is that of that society’s losers, who already know that their rulers are empty suits.*
The first account of Jesus
The claim of Burton Mack and others is that what he calls the Jesus people wrote Q. It is the first written account of the words of Jesus. The Jesus people were not Christians, and never became Christians. Their gospel disappeared into the narrative gospels of Matthew and Luke.
As the reader can readily see, there are two types of sayings. The first are sayings that lead people to better lives. The second include end-time sayings, but also sayings that would divide the Jesus people from their own families. John S. Kloppenborg’s argument that Q was composed in stages is now well accepted. The earliest stage was a collection of wisdom sayings. The second stage was composed of what he called judgmental sayings directed at “this generation.” The final stage included the temptation of Jesus and his encounter with John the Baptist. I have not included it here.
How to make sense of the two layers?
Earlier sayings represent Jesus as sage, later sayings as a prophet of the apocalypse. They serve different purposes. The first provides wisdom and guidance for daily life. The second helps the Q people define themselves as a group that experienced itself as under attack from within as well as without.
The Q people often lived among Jews as family members, such as spouses, sons, or daughters. The result is the many sayings that state that to become a follower of Jesus, you must leave your family. I wouldn’t call the Q people a cult, but this is a standard strategy of cult formation: get the members away from the family. I prefer Jesus as sage, but there is no doubt that both types of sayings are part of Q.
Burton Mack argues that this is the original Jesus, and that the gospels are myths, stories that sprung up using Q to tell a very different story about sacrifice and salvation. This is plausible, and the dating works. Some have proposed that the earliest sayings were written down before Christ’s death. But most put the 40’s or 50’s CE as the time of Q’s composition, decades earlier than Matthew and Luke, and well within the living memory of those who encountered Jesus. It seems to have been composed earlier than Paul wrote his letters. None of the Q material is in Paul, who wrote for a different purpose: he was creating a church. Likely he had little or no contact with the Q people.
Paul’s church was the church we are familiar with, the church of the resurrected Jesus, whom we now refer to as Christ, or Lord, as well as the Son of God. The congregations of Christ, documented most clearly in the letters of Paul from the 50s CE, moved away from the teachings of Jesus, and toward the Christ who was resurrected. It is this move, from Jesus as teacher to Christ as sacrifice for our sins, that made the narrative gospels possible (Mack, p 2).
How and why Q disappeared
On the one hand, the gospels link Jesus Christ with Judaism; on the other hand, the apostles are linked with Christ. For years it was falsely assumed that the disciples were the apostles who actually wrote the gospels. The result is a direct line from Jesus Christ to the disciples and later on to the bishops.
This means that their [gospels] primary function as narratives was to create the illusion of a chain of tradition that not only linked Jesus with the epic traditions of Israel but also with the disciples as the apostles of the church. (Mack, p 230)
By the time people figured out that the apostles didn’t write the gospels, the canon (what made it into the New Testament and what didn’t) was set in stone.
As First Clement put it, “The apostles received the gospel for us from the lord Jesus Christ, Jesus the Christ was sent from God. The Christ therefore is from God and the apostles from the Christ.”**
Conclusion: how it might have been
There is a passage in Q that reads “the one who does not take one‘s cross and follow after me cannot be my disciple.” Some scholars ignore it. Others argue that the passage does not refer to Jesus’ crucifixion, still others argue that it does (Kloppenborg, p 141; Smith, pp 12-13). The passage can be found in Matthew 10:38. The Greek term translated as cross, stauros (σταυρός), is the usual term for cross found throughout the New Testament. The literal translation is post, but it’s hard to see that it matters.
It’s also hard to see this Q passage as anything but a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. The question is what to make of it. Following Kloppenborg’s suggestion (pp 79, 141), I think the best, and certainly the most interesting way to read it is that of course the Q people knew about the crucifixion of Jesus. They just did not make the cross the centerpiece of their thinking about Jesus. What if, instead of the cross, the Sermon on the Mount, had become the centerpiece of Christianity? What if the Gospel of Q had not disappeared into Matthew and Luke?
About these things it’s impossible to know, but I imagine that it would be less a religion about Jesus the man-God, and more about the teachings of Jesus. It would have been a this-worldly religion, in which doing right by one’s neighbor takes the place of individual salvation. It wouldn’t have been Christianity, but it would have remained a religion with Jesus as its teacher and prophet. That doesn’t sound so terrible to me.
* In Q, Jesus sounds like a Roman Stoic, though most who make this comparison choose the Cynics. Their views are similar. Roman values coursed through Galilee at the time of Jesus, but I can’t go into that here. See Mack, The Lost Gospel, chapter 4.
** First Clement is a letter addressed to the churches of Corinth around 100 CE. The work is attributed to Clement 1, the first bishop of Rome. It did not make it into the Bible.
Charlotte Allen, “The Search for a No-Frills Jesus.” Atlantic, December, 1966. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1996/12/the-search-for-a-no-frills-jesus/376729/
Burton Mack, The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins. HarperCollins, 1993.
John S. Kloppenborg: Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Daniel Smith, “The Post-Mortem Vindication of Jesus in the Saying Gospel Q,” in Library of New Testament Studies. T&T Clark, 2006.