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And Then There Was Q

After my post yesterday about the “priority of Mark” (the view almost universally held among scholars that Mark was the first Gospel written and that Matthew and Luke used it for many of their own stories) I received a number of queries from readers about the “Q” source.   So I better address that as well.

Matthew and Luke obviously share a number of stories with Mark, but they also share with each other a number of passages not found in Mark.  Most of these passages (all but two of them) involve sayings of Jesus — for example, the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.  Since they didn’t get these passages from Mark, where did they get them?   Since the 19th century scholars have argued that Matthew did not get them from Luke or Luke from Matthew (for reasons I’ll suggest below); that probably means they got them from some other source, a document that no longer survives.

This came to be known as the “Sayings Source.”  The scholars who developed this view were principally German, and the word in German for “source” is “Quelle.”  And so, for short, scholars call this hypothetical lost document Q.

Some scholars have called into question this hypothetical document Q — especially my friend and colleague at Duke, Mark Goodacre, who is on the blog.  But its existence is still held by the great majority of scholars as the most likely explanation for the accounts, mainly sayings,  of Matthew and Luke not in Mark (as you might imagine, there are numerous other ways to explain these agreements: maybe Mark was first, then Matthew copied Mark, and then Luke copied both Matthew and Mark; or maybe Matthew was first and then Mark condensed Matthew and then Luke copied Matthew; maybe … you could go on for a very long time).

The scholars who work deeply in this area get WAY down into the weeds, and I’m not going to go there.   Instead I’ll explain simply why most scholars don’t think either Matthew or Luke was copying the other and discuss a few more interesting features of the lost Q source.  Here is what I say about it in my discussion of the Synoptic Problem in my textbook on the New Testament:


Once Mark is established as prior to Matthew and Luke, the Q hypothesis naturally suggests itself.  Matthew and Luke have stories not found in Mark, and in these stories they sometimes agree word for word.  Whence do these stories come?

It is unlikely that …

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Redaction Criticism of the Gospels
Arguments for Markan Priority (that Mark was the first Gospel written)



  1. Avatar
    Colin P  November 30, 2017

    Off topic but I have a question on christology. In “How Jesus became God” you argue that the first Christians after the resurection had an exalted christology as relected in the Synoptics. However an incarnational christology also quickly developed as reflected in Paul’s letters. How do you think the Jerusalem church viewed this aspect of Paul’s teaching? It doesn’t seem to have generated the same level of controversy as that of gentile circumcision. Would both christologies have been anathema to the Jews?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      I wish we knew! But alas, it is a gaping hole in our knowledge (one of many).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 1, 2017

      I think this depends on what you mean by “incarnational”. If you mean that God himself is incarnated within the physical body of Jesus, then I don’t think even Paul believed that. If you’re talking about an angelic being taking on a human form, then I think that not only could an ancient Jew have believed that, but most ancients probably would have taken it as a given. That is, of course angelic beings took human form, because even in the Torah and the Prophets we read about angelic beings in human bodies, e.g. the angels who come to Lot, the angels who come to Abraham, the angel who wrestled with Jacob, etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if Paul thought that this was exactly who Jesus was, an angelic being (possibly the divine essence of Wisdom) who becomes “incarnated”.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  November 30, 2017

    So Q can be taken as evidence of a community who valued Jesus’ sayings and teachings more than the implications of his crucifixion and resurrection?

    Are there any sayings in Mark that can be seen as having had a common ancestor with any of the sayings in Q?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      Only if Q didn’t have a passion narrative. And yes, htere are some overlaps between Mark and Q, that scholars have tried to explain in various ways (common oral traditions?)

  3. Avatar
    James Chalmers  November 30, 2017

    1.There is no evidence of a Q document—no references to it, no traces of it itself. True, we know of lost documents—but that’s because they’re referred or alluded to or quoted from. Many missing documents there is evidence for. For Q, none. None unless you cite the passages where Matthew resembles Luke and there’s no Markan parallel. But for these similarities, there’s an explanation that doesn’t require the postulation of the an entity for which there’s no evidence.
    2. Matthew 26:68 and Luke 22:64 both conclude a passage from Mark with the words (translated) “Who is the one who smote you?” If Q had no passion narrative, how account for this parallel?
    3. Matthew 13:31-2 and Luke 13:18-19 closely track Mark 4:30-2 except that Matthew and Luke have, and Mark does not, “a person having taken it,” “became a tree,” and “branches.” If Luke had Matthew, the three parallels would be easy to explain. How does the Q hypothesis account for them?
    My dependence on Mark Goodacre will be apparent to you. (It’s his “Ten Reasons to Question Q” I’ve stolen from. I want to add that E.P. Sanders is among those who doubt Q’s existence.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2017

      2. Possibly a common oral tradition both of them knew. 3. See my earlier post (common oral traditions; each had the same form of Mark at that point that differs from the one we have, etc.

      I’ve asked Mark if he’d be willing to post his views here on the blog, and he’s thinking about it.

      • Avatar
        James Chalmers  December 1, 2017

        Please, Professor Goodacre–I know you’re busy, but you are our champion and we need you to come forward with your slingshot and slay the beast!

        • Avatar
          AnotherBart  December 9, 2017

          LOL!! Now now, Dr. Ehrman isn’t a beast. But I do see “Q” as the scholastic version of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. I’m so glad I was spared the temptation to get into it, because I could have easily become an addict. I checked out Farmer’s Synopticon: (the color coded Greek Mat/Mk/Lk) recently. It is a fascinating puzzle, if one dates the Gospels late, but, as I put them pre-trial of 62 A.D., Luke is obvious, to me, softening Matthew’s anti-Pharisee tone.

          Back to Bigfoot. Once upon a time, there was a mysterious man-like creature rumored to inhabit the jungles of Africa. A strange looking orange type was also heard about in Asia. At some point in the 1800’s, or thereabouts (not sure about the history of the ‘orange beast’ (I’m making that one up)) these strange mythical beasts were actually found. Bones were recovered. Aha! Proof! Then (Gasp!) One was… seen!!! and …. shot. (we’re talking real live National Enquirer stuff here!!! Man Like Beast!!!)

          Then…. they were put….. in….. zoos. Sigh. Today we call them “Gorillas”. Mystery over. Ho hum. No more mythical excitement. Now we have to go searching for something else. Y’know, I heard there’s a man like creature that roams some forests in North America……….. or the north pole!! Back to the excitement! Sasquatch! The Abominable Snowman!!!

          Seriously. I watched an orangutan in the Waco Zoo. I could watch him all day. A Real Live Bigfoot. But since we have photographs and can pay to see him, (for like $5, next to the giraffe exhibit) His mystique is GONE…. so sad.

          In the real live world of documents we have truly missing things, that we know are missing and will probably never be found. Such as Aramaic Matthew. Plenty of documentary evidence with no logical reason to suspect that it did not exist at some point. And its gone. Then there are the writings of Papias, which we only have fragments, quotations preserved by other writers. Then there’s Hegesippus. And the Greek writings of Irenæus. Lost writings of Clement of Alexandria….(his “outlines”) . Those are our real live mysteries, our missing documents. Our ‘orangutans’ and ‘gorillas’.

          But “Q” has so much intrigue, that 100’s of 1,000’s of pages have been written on it….. because….. it suggests……. ???????

          Seriously. Compare Unique Luke with Unique Matthew. Then ask yourself which book you would present to Burrus with Paul standing at your side……. I’ll bet if I reached for the one that starts with the letter ‘M” Paul would SMACK that hand of mine!

      • Avatar
        Pattylt  December 1, 2017

        Oooooh! I just squeeled out loud! Please, please agree to do a post on Q.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  December 2, 2017

        “I’ve asked Mark if he’d be willing to post his views here on the blog, and he’s thinking about it.”

        On first reading, I thought you were talking about the author of the Gospel of Mark!

  4. Robert
    Robert  December 1, 2017

    For some reason this post does not appear on the daily list of posts: https://ehrmanblog.org/category/public-forum/

    That may explain the few responses here.

    I’ve noticed this happening a few times before, perhaps Steve is on vacation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      It’s supposed to happen automatically. I’ll look into it!

  5. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 1, 2017

    1 Peter 3:21 says that “baptism… now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as [a pledge to God from] a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ….” (brackets show A footnoted translation from the NRSV.)
    This seems to differ both from John’s baptism of repentance and Paul’s dying and rising with Christ. Is this a distinct view of baptism in the NT?

  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 1, 2017

    One of your objectors argues that the Q hypothesis should be rejected because it threatens the claim that Mt & Lk independently attest the existence of Jesus. Do you think it’s valid to reason from the assumption that Mt & Lk must be independent attestors? We’re still left with Paul, Mark, Q, and John, plus the non Christian sources, no?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Silly argument. They have lots of stories about Jesus not from Q or Mark.

  7. Avatar
    jan.kriso  December 2, 2017

    I red Mark Goodacre´s book called “The synoptic problem” and I found his reasonings very persuasive. Would be nice to see you two debating this (and other issues) for semi laymen audience! But (correct me, if I´m wrong), he is not necessarily against Q, he “just” says, that standard argument for Q is based on wrong presumptions. I was a bit disappointed with your book “Jesus before gospels”. Surely, it´s an interesting and well researched book, but there was something lacking – it focused almost entirely on oral transmission of stories about Jesus. Just layman thinking – there is a gap of some 35-40 years between Jesus crucifixion and Mark´s gospel (and even more time between Jesus´ death and Matthew and Luke). Suppose you were a greek speaking gentile from Antioch, who converted as a young man around 50 CE (say twenty years after Jesus execution). Did you celebrate eucharist? Did you recite Lord´s prayer? And if so – where did you get it from? And let´s say you went on business trip ten years later and converted your friends from another city during the trip. Maybe you wrote them some letters, that recorded “your” version of Lord´s Prayer and other stuff. Maybe you recorded your oral traditions (think of the Signs source identified in John). Seems to me, like many christian communities scattered across the world, reach independently a phase, when they felt urgency to write down and summarize all they knowledge and they did it in a form of ancient biography, i.e. gospel (synoptic communities – maybe they were somewhat close to each other?, johannine community, community of gospel of Peter, possibly Egerton community and who knows how many others. Maybe writing down your own gospel was an unavoidable thing for christian community at certain stage of their development?

  8. Avatar
    sbruck  December 2, 2017

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    The primary reason for not adding the birth narratives into the reconstruction of Q seems to be that Luke and Matthew lack the word for word agreement we would expect if they shared Q for that material. Does this mean the verbatim agreement in other double tradition is much stronger than in the birth narratives?

    I would LOVE to see a conversation between you and Mark Goodacre on this topic, thanks for mentioning that.


  9. Avatar
    Evan  December 2, 2017

    The British scholar Alan Garrow has compiled an extremely compelling argument that Q never existed. In seven short videos totaling 52 minutes of viewing time he pretty much proves beyond any doubt that Matthew used both Mark and Luke, and what we imagine as the “Q source” was actually Matthew copying and reorganizing Lukan material directly. See these videos here: https://www.alangarrow.com/mch.html. It is virtually impossible to believe in the Q theory once you’ve seen this data. Bart, if you see any holes in his arguments I would be grateful to hear them.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      I’m afraid I don’t know him or his work. The problem is always that it is very hard for someone without advanced training in a field (whether neuro-science, astronomy, evolutionary biology, philosophy, or biblical studies!) to see the holes in an argument that an expert can see pretty quickly. So we’ll see if he convinces any scholars!

      • Avatar
        Evan  December 5, 2017

        You are an expert. I will lay a wager that you cannot find any holes in Garrow’s argument, and that in fact you will be convinced of his resolution of the Synoptic Problem. If you are not convinced, document whatever holes you see on this page. If you are convinced, post a statement that you believe he may have a viable solution to the Problem. Either way, once your assessment is posted, I will donate $1000 to your blog as a thank you for the time you invested to view his presentation and formulate a response.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 6, 2017

          Ah, that’s tempting. How long are these videos?

          • Avatar
            Evan  December 6, 2017

            A total of 52 minutes viewing time. There are five as I recall, averaging about ten minutes each.

        • Avatar
          AnotherBart  December 8, 2017

          Sounds interesting. Views that are held onto for a long time can be very hard to shake, even when presented with strong evidence. It took a long time for me to comprehend that the Gospels might not ever have been anonymous the way we think of it since I’d been taught that, had read that in virtually every commentary that I laid hands on for decades.

          In fact, I came across this blog in my search for ‘anonymous’ and ‘gospels’ while digging…. I’d never heard of Dr. Ehrman……

          Then I found Eusebius…..

    • Avatar
      AnotherBart  December 8, 2017

      Without having watched the videos I’ve become convinced, by looking at ULuke and UMatthew that Matthew would have been a monstrous problem at the trial of 60-62 in Rome. Luke had ample opportunity in Philippi during the 50’s and during his 57-59 stint in Jerusalem to compile his information. Matthew, to Roman eyes, would have made Jesus out to truly be an instigator. (just look at the 7 woes).

  10. Avatar
    Anton  January 17, 2019

    Is it possible mark and luke talked to each other on what to write rather than relying on Q.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 18, 2019

      It’s one of the options that has to be considered, but there are very good reasons for thinking it didn’t work this way (they get a bit technical, but maybe I’ll repost some of them; in the mean time, if you look up Q Source on the blog, youj’ll probably find some discussion of it)

  11. Avatar
    vallancemjv@gmail.com  June 16, 2020

    Hi there Bart.
    Do you think – as some Scolars Di- that The Gospel of Thomas was originally a much larger text? Could it then maybe have been a contender for Q ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 16, 2020

      No, it appears to be complete, but there’s no way, of course, to say for sure. It can’t be Q because most of Q is not in Thomas and most of Thomas is not in Q, and what is shared between them is invariably worded differently.

  12. TimOBrien
    TimOBrien  July 19, 2020

    Even a cursory comparison of how Matthew and Luke modified their foundational source, Mark, suggests (to me, anyway) that both authors must have taken time off from their day job as doctors. Luke is identified elsewhere in the canon as a physician. His gospel appears to have essentially preserved what he “borrowed” from Mark. The putative Matthew, were he around today, could have made a good living dispensing “spin” on behalf of politicians. This author was clearly a master redactor — who didn’t hesitate to make whatever revisions he felt necessary — including to the very words of Jesus, himself! — to insure that his account comports with his own theological suppositions.

    As I noted previously in another thread, Matthew modified BOTH sides of the initial interaction between the Rich Young Ruler and Jesus, clearly to eliminate the problematic “No one is good except God alone” line (Mt 19:16-17 vs. Mk 10:17-18//Lk 18:18-19.) But that is certainly not the only example.

    [Getting to the question in the next post]

  13. TimOBrien
    TimOBrien  July 19, 2020

    Matthew actually concocted dialog between John the Baptist and Jesus (Mt 3:14-15) to acknowledge — though, strangely enough, not actually redress — the Who’s Who problem created by the ritual ablution. He also softened some of Jesus’ too fastidious standards by, for instance, inserting a disclaimer into the absolute prohibition of divorce (Mt 5:32 vs. Mk 10:11-12//Lk 16:18). And these are merely the first examples that come to mind.

    Such emendations by Matthew are easily recognized because we not only have his source, Mark, for comparison, but also the unredacted versions of these pericopes in Luke. The purpose served by Matthew’s alterations is as single-minded as it is self-evident — to correct what that author regarded as theological missteps and misstatements by Jesus.

    Is there anyway to similarly separate wheat from chaff in what Matthew and Luke got from Q — notwithstanding that, unlike with Mark, we don’t have the Q source for comparison?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 20, 2020

      Scholars certainly work hard to do this, but in the end it is hard to establish any kind of cretainty.

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