The Q: A Mysterious Collection of Jesus’s Sayings

Richard Burridge

There is a theory that the Evangelists Luke and Matthew used a document with the sayings of Christ that has not survived to this day. The dean of King’s College London, Richard Burridge, the world’s leading expert on the New Testament, discusses the validity of this theory. 

I’m a big fan of the Star Trek TV series. “Q” in this series is a kind of symbol that appears and disappears when it wants to, and can take any shape. Sometimes it seems to me that modern scientists who study the New Testament use the Q theory in the same way.

It is clear to me as a scientist that the Apostle Mark was the first to write the Gospel. I suppose that Matthew and Luke were familiar with his text. It is known that the Gospel of Mark contains 661 verses. 95% of its verses are directly or indirectly present in the Gospel of Matthew. That is how the people of antiquity worked. You can try to reconstruct it.

Evangelists Matthew. The Ebbon Gospel, around 825

Imagine that you have some authoritative source, for example, some text and you have some ideas and thoughts that you want to convey. When I study, for example, there are books all around me. I take a little bit from one book, I cite another book, and then I use those materials to create footnotes that prove the statements I made in the text. However, ancient scholars and writers didn’t work that way. Imagine that you have only one scroll, for example, 10 meters long, and you can only keep one such scroll unfolded on your desk. I guess that Luke, while he was writing his Gospel, just used something from the scroll of the Apostle Mark for reference, and then he folded up that scroll, put it aside and started to use some other source. There are roughly two hundred verses in the Gospel of Luke that are identical to those we find in Matthew, but Mark has none of those. Why? The Q theory tries to explain this mystery.

It is assumed that these two hundred verses, which Luke and Matthew have in common with each other, but which Mark hasn’t, were taken from some unknown document, tentatively called Q. There are many versions of how this could have happened. The most obvious explanation is that there was some missing document that contained the Savior’s teaching, and that this document was at the disposal of the Evangelists.

I have no absolute certainty of its existence and it doesn’t matter to me personally. I just find it more convenient to use the letter “Q” than to keep saying the bulky phrase: “The 200 verses that are present in Luke and Matthew but not in Mark.” This is just a very long sentence, isn’t it?

In principle, “Q” is a nice and useful shorthand. Other scholars believe the Q document may indicate a collection of Jesus’s sayings that were distributed orally and reached Luke and Matthew independently. However, this source may also have been written down. The Apostle John the Theologian writes, And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written (John 21:25). Obviously, the personality of Christ himself and what He did were so important to people at that time that there were probably many various documents about Him and His teachings.

However, I think it is important to remember that God inspired Christians to choose from all those documents exactly those things that through the Holy Spirit became the four Gospels, which are still relevant for us today.

This excerpt is a fragment from an interview that was conducted as part of the Seventh East-West Symposium of New Testament Scholars, organized by the All-Church Postgraduate and Doctoral Studies Center of Saints Cyril and Methodius (Moscow, September 25 – October 1, 2016). 

Richard Burridge is Dean of King’s College in London and a Professor of Biblical Interpretation. 

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

About the author

The Editor of the Catalog of Good Deeds.

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