Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

Q: The Other Lost Gospel

Readers of the four canonical gospels have since antiquity recognized that the first three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—share a common narrative through-line and similar, at times verbatim, wording. (For this reason in modern scholarship they are known as the synoptic Gospels, since they can be "viewed together" in parallel columns at once.) In antiquity this overlap proved the fidelity of the gospel-writers as witnesses to and recounters of the life and sayings of Christ (John's divergence from the synoptic gospels was also explained theologically and historically: after the circulation of the other gospels, John was asked to compose a more spiritual account.)

With the rise of modern biblical criticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, primarily in German-speaking territories, other explanations for the convergence and divergence of the synoptic gospels arose: that one author borrowed from another, that multiple authors shared sources, that the overlaps and distinctions were not proof of the fidelity of the gospel-writers but (to the contrary) of their editorial interventions to craft distinct and perhaps even competing lives of Christ. (This generally skeptical attitude of "higher critical" scholars toward the composition of biblical texts in part impelled "Bible Hunters" to go seeking ancient biblical texts to support their reliability.)

By the early 19th-century, some scholars began positing a particular relationship among the synoptic gospels that accounted for two notable features: Matthew and Luke shared strong narrative similarities with Mark more than with each other; Matthew and Luke shared a coherent set of texts, mostly sayings of Jesus, that were absent entirely from Mark (including some of the most famous of Jesus's sayings, such as the Sermon on the Mount). They developed what is known as the "two-source hypothesis," that is, Matthew and Luke both composed their gospels using two pre-existing sources: a narrative source (either Mark or an early version of Mark) and a sayings source, which is otherwise lost. 

That hypothetical, non-extant sayings source came to be known as Q, from the German word Quelle, "source."

British and U.S. scholars in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries took hold of this theory and elaborated it in various forms, until, by the mid-twentieth century, it began to take hold as a dominant biblical critical explanation for the relationship between the first three gospels. When the complete Gospel of Thomas was unearthed as part of the Nag Hammadi codices, one of the core objections to the Q-theory—that no sayings gospel was known to have existed in antiquity—was dispensed with. While other theories have existed alongside Q to explain the synoptic gospels, for much of the latter half of the twentieth century Q held sway.

Beginning the 1970s, concerted effort was made to determine the precise nature of Q. It was not enough simply to extract the sayings that Luke and Matthew had in common since their wording was not always identical and their very existence in later gospel texts meant that editing must have taken place between the composition of Q and its incorporation into these later gospels. It is difficult (and perhaps inadvisable) to untangle the motivations of the scholars working so diligently to reconstruct Q. They might be interested in finding the "original" words of Jesus to help modern Christians; they might be interested in dethroning the centrality of the canonical Scriptures by pointing out their belatedness and derivativeness; perhaps both, perhaps neither.

The 1980s proved a turning point in Q studies: First, James Robinson convened the first meeting of the "Q Seminar" at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical literature in 1983. The goal of this seminar was to work collectively to reconstruct Q. Second, in 1987 John Kloppenborg published his 1984 dissertation as The Formation of Q.

In this volume, Kloppenborg argued not only that the form of Q used by Matthew and Luke could be derived from their texts, but that earlier redactional layers of Q could be further deduced. That is, through careful scholarship he could demonstrate how the sayings of Jesus were edited over time as the earliest communities of Jesus followers responded to the world around them and their own changing beliefs. Kloppenborg deduced three layers of Q, each representative of a different stage of this Jesus-community. The third and final layer was the Q used, and adapted, by the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

By treating Q in the same way higher critical scholars treated the extant gospels—as products of editing and transformation over time—Kloppenborg marked a turning point in how scholars envisioned Q. Not merely as an inert source but as a distinct gospel, evidence of a community of believers changing over time before the other gospel communities took shape.

Eventually Kloppenborg and Robinson, along with German scholar Paul Hoffman, published their dense and erudite "critical edition of Q."

Normally, a critical edition is a reconstruction of a text based on surviving, often conflicting sources. An editor makes decisions between different witnesses to decide which might represent the original text and publish their reconstruction at the top of the page with their detailed references to different manuscripts and variants at the bottom of the page. Of course, there are (by definition) no manuscript witnesses to Q, apart from manuscripts of Matthew and Luke. In their critical edition (which also translates individual verses of Q into multiple modern languages), the three editors do rely on those manuscripts but also their own scholarly insights into the hypothetical layers of this hypothetical document.

At the same time this painstaking, almost mathematical work was going on other scholars were promoting Q to a general reading public in the same way that other apocryphal texts were being promoted during this period: as an alternative, probably older, perhaps more authentic guide to the original teachings of Jesus. Just as collections of apocryphal sometimes referred to these texts as "lost," so too Q became the newest "lost gospel" to hit the religion shelves of bookstores.

Burton Mack was a somewhat iconoclastic social historian who saw in Q affirmation of his theories that—in contrast to the passion-oriented gospel accounts—the historical Jesus was a countercultural philosopher teaching a new way of being in the world. Marcus Borg was also a liberal New Testament scholar who privileged the liberating teachings of the historical Jesus (evident in Q) over the dogma of the canonical New Testament. Mack's translation and commentary on Q was published in 1993; Borg's in 1996; both chose the title The Lost Gospel. 

Both Mack and Borg (along with Kloppenborg and Robinson) were involved during this period in The Jesus Seminar, a group sponsored by the nonprofit Westar Institute that had as its goal the scholarly reconstruction and popular dissemination of the most historically likely words and deeds of Jesus. Q, from the 1980s in the 2000s, was one compelling source through which these public-facing scholars could enter into a broader reconsideration of Christian origins.

Over time, the centrality of Q in gospel scholarship has wanted. Scholars such as Mark Goodacre have taken up the mantle of earlier, non-Q centered explanations for the synoptic gospels and Q is now one among several options taught to students of the New Testament.
The height of Q optimism coincides in interesting ways with the height of Gospel Thrillers in the 1980s to 2000s (although both continue to be published), as both open up possibilities of using a "lost gospel" to rethink Christian origins. Q has never been the object of conspiratorial thinking (at least, not overtly), representing a kind of "missing link" in theological evolution rather than a consistently suppressed and marginalized truth.

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