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Q for something different

Luke and Matthew

The quadrupling of versions  -  in the official Christian scriptures  -  of the career of Jesus of Nazareth,  is an open invitation to us to do some thinking for ourselves.   The four Gospels are obviously not independent eye-witness accounts,  and the way they relate to one another tells us a lot about how their authors' minds worked.

The standard scholarly explanation for the connections amongst the first three Gospels is the two source theory.   Mark,  it is very commonly believed -  on good evidence  -  was written first  (towards 70 C.E.).   Matthew and Luke copied from Mark a generation later.   They also worked with another written source,  'Q'  (for want of a better label)  which no longer survives as a separate document.   'Q' was in Greek,  at least in the editions that Matthew and Luke got hold of.

We can make a good stab at reconstructing  'Q'  on the basis of the non-Markan material common to Matthew and Luke,  with a few other bits and pieces which seem to belong in the same company.   A most interesting document emerges.   It has an integrity and completeness of its own  -  which is some sort of vindication of the whole theory.

'Q'  begins with a sample of John the Baptist's stern preaching,  and moves on to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.   There is one miracle story  -  the healing of the centurion's slave,  included probably because of the important saying it contains.   'Q'  is in large measure a compilation of sayings of Jesus,  organized into discourses  -  the material of the Sermon on the Mount and the Sermon on the Plain,  for instance,  and including some parables.

A document like this has been put together to meet the needs of some particular community,  and it is reasonable to suppose that the selection of material and the way it is presented will tell us something about them.   We get the impression of a sectarian group located,  geographically,  close to the Sea of Galilee.   It is 'sectarian' in the sense of reacting against the dominant religious pattern and its advocates,  in the name of a purer form.   'Q'  is scathing about Pharisees and Scribes.   There is instruction calculated to preserve the unity of the group,  under pressure.   There is detailed guidance for carrying through the 'mission'.   It seems that the mission didn't have much success,  to judge by their bitter reaction.   The  'Q'  people know what poverty means.   Practical necessities of food and clothing certainly do matter,  yet they are challenged to rise above these concerns to trust in God.   They look forward to the coming of the  'Son of Man'  of Daniel 7,  through whom God's reign of righteousness will be established.

It's not too fanciful to suppose that we have in  'Q'  a kind of missing link between later Christianity and the actual career of Jesus of Nazareth.   It is understandable that most of the sayings material that seems most surely original to Jesus comes to us in this strand of tradition.   Scholars date  'Q'  in the fifties,  which is early,  compared with almost anything else we have.

Of the greatest interest is what  'Q'  leaves out.   There are no nativity stories.   Disciples are not mentioned by name.   Jesus is not described as 'Messiah'   -  that stream of Jewish expectation is not picked up.   Nor is he closely identified with the coming 'Son of Man'.   He is the messenger of divine Wisdom,  and that is sufficient dignity and authority.

The execution of Jesus is not recounted,  and there is no hint that his death has saving significance.   Jesus dies just as you expect prophets to die at the hands of the establishment.   'Q'  offers none of the sacrifical theology which became pervasive in early Christianity.   At an earlier time it was strongly argued against the existence of   'Q'  that there would never have been a 'gospel' that lacked this theological dimension.   The 1945 discovery of the Gospel of Thomas,  a well-developed first-century pure-sayings gospel,  rendered that argument null and void.

If atonement thinking did not feature in the Jesus movement,  we may wonder where it came from.   It certainly arose early,  because it was part of the orthodoxy Paul inherited.   There is a tantalizing gap of a generation between the death of Jesus and the beginning of written reflection on his career.   Though we don't have the record of it happening,  we may guess that somewhere an educated scribal group,  recognizing Jesus as in truth a word from God,  tried to think through the significance of that insight in terms of their Jewish faith tradition.   What they came up with was the conviction that the death of Jesus was the final achievement of what the Jewish temple system had always been concerned with.   It was a radical sacrifice for sin that had universal implication.   This caught on.   It suggested the way for an integration of the old and the new.   The gift in Jesus was the decisive stage in God's ages-long salvation-work for humankind.

We now know that there was variety in earliest Christian thinking.   Paths diverged.   But dissenters on this theological issue achieved only a hidden representation in the Christian scriptures  -  through  'Q'.   The winners of the inter-Christian competition for the right to call the theological shots  (as ultimately judged by the Emperor Constantine)  gained,  as part of the prize,  the chance to decide which scriptures would become 'official'.

We cannot reasonably claim that early theological developments were misguided.   But we are entitled to ask whether particular ancient rationalizations remain appropriate to our own circumstances.   The variety of focus for different Christian groups at the beginning,  alongside the perception that Jesus himself did not offer any kind of 'Christian theology',  invites us to seek insight into the Jesus-event that speaks to the challenges of our own time.

Note: There is an excellent presentation
of a reconstruction of the  'Q'  document in
The Complete Gospels - Annotated Scholars Version
Robert J. Miller editor
HarperSanFrancisco 1994

  Evan Lewis



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