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Could Q Have Been Lost? Readers’ Mailbag December 3, 2017

I have received a lot of questions about Q this week.  If you’re wondering about why blog members are interested in a figure from Star Trek, you may want to review this week’s posts.  Here is a question that I find particularly intriguing.



It is hard to believe that Q, if it existed, circulated enough to be used by both but then dropped off the face of the Earth without so much as a mention by an early church father, while references to so many other documents survived (with some being found).



Ah, this is an interesting observation and involves a set of questions that I’m very interested in but have never published (much of) anything about.  How much of the early Christian literature was lost?  Could early Christians simply have allowed important writings to disappear (even if independent once knew them)?

To the historian’s eternal chagrin, the answer appears to be yes.  My guess is that most early Christians simply didn’t see a need to preserve their writings for posterity because they didn’t realize there was going to *be* a posterity.  They thought Jesus was returning soon in judgment, that history as we know it was coming to a climactic end, and the Kingdom of God was soon to arrive.  Why copy the texts they received?  For what reason or whom??

It is not just a guess that many, many writings were lost.  It is a virtual certainty.  Most of them are writings we would LOVE to have.  I can’t tell you how important they would be.  It is often frustrating being a historian.

Here’s one thing to consider:  we have seven authentic letters from Paul’s hand (plus others that claim to be written by Paul but weren’t).  Seven.  How many did he actually write?  Well, there is no way to know.  In 1 Corinthians he mentions a letter he had written earlier to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9) and a letter they had sent to him (7:1).  We obviously don’t have either one.

2 Corinthians is usually thought by scholars to be a scissors-and-paste job, with anywhere from two to five letters being redacted together into one big letter.  We don’t have those other letters, just the portions preserved in 2 Corinthians.

How many letters did Paul write to Corinth over the twenty years or so that he was connected with the Christians there?  One a year?  Two a year?  Four a year?   We have 1 and 2 Corinthians – two.

And how many did he write to all the other communities and individuals he was connected with?   Did he write, say, one letter a month on average to this or that person or this or that congregation (in Jerusalem, Antioch, throughout Galatia, various churches elsewhere in central Asia Minor Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Rome, etc. etc. etc.)?   If his mission started in, say, the year 34, and he died in the year 64, and he wrote one person/church or another once a month, then that would be 360 letters.  We have seven.  Can you *believe* the early Christians didn’t save his letters?!?  I can hardly believe it, but alas, it’s true.

Or think about the Gospels.   Luke indicates that he had *many* predecessors who had written Gospels before him (Luke 1:1-4).  How many of those many do we have?  One.  (Mark.)   Did he have five others? Six?

Or take John’s Gospel.  Scholars have long argued that John has taken previously existing written sources and edited them into his narrative: a “signs source” that contained an account of Jesus’ miracles meant to convert the unbelieving Jews; two sources for his discourses; and a Passion source.   Were there others?  Who knows?   But that would be four sources we don’t have, except as he used them.

Consider the matter in wider terms.   As I discuss in my forthcoming book The Triumph of Christianity, Roman historian Keith Hopkins has written an interesting question, in which he poses two very interesting questions:  How many actual Christian communities were there in the early decades, and how many writings did they generate?   Both are very hard to answer.  In his comprehensive survey of all of our surviving literary sources, the great German scholar Adolph von Harnack was able to identify about fifty Christian communities by name by 100 CE.  How many communities were not mentioned by our sources?  I would assume most of them.  So were there a hundred-fifty communities in the empire by then?  Three hundred?  We don’t really know.

But suppose, Hopkins says, there were fifty.  We know (think: Paul) that early Christian communities were in contact with one another, often simply by writing a letter, one community leader to another (often in the name of the community itself).   Hopkins proposes that we imagine that between the years 50 and 150 CE these fifty known communities each wrote just two letters a year.  That’s not much.  I would think they wrote more.  But Hopkins asks us to suppose they wrote on average only twice.  Do the math.  That would mean that over that century there would have been 10,000 Christian letters sent back and forth.   How many of these letters do we have today?  About fifty.

Hopkins’ numbers seem to me (and probably to him) far too conservative.  Suppose there were actually 200 communities in the year 100.   That seems plausible: if there were just over 8000 Christians (I try to show in my book that this would be a good approximation for then), that would mean each community would have, on average, about forty members.   It is hard to imagine a community being much larger than that, since Christians were still meeting in private homes, and few places could accommodate even three dozen persons.   But suppose there are 200 communities, and suppose they each wrote a letter just once every three months, so four a year.   That would mean that there would have been 80,000 Christian letters produced in the period, represented now in just the fifty that survive.  It simply boggles the mind.

Is it imaginable that Q was lost?  For me, it’s not hard to imagine at all.  Most of the early Christian writings was never referred to in the few surviving sources (e.g., writings of the church fathers); and most of it has been irretrievably lost.

If you enjoyed this post, just think how much you would enjoy receiving posts like this five times a week, on interesting topics related to the New Testament and early Christianity.  To get them, you only need to join the Blog.  It won’t cost much money, and every dime goes to charities dealing with hunger and homelessness.  So why not JOIN??


A Very Strange Saying: From the Gospel of Peter?
Last Minute: Dinner on Thursday?



  1. Avatar
    rivercrowman  December 3, 2017

    Maybe the early Church fathers just picked the top seven of Paul’s letters.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 3, 2017

    This may be a dumb question, but…*how* was mail delivered in those days? I understand that it could be sent from one region to another on ships. But on land, were there actual mail services that carried it from one city to another, on horseback, and delivered door to door?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Not dumb at all. Virtually always it was delivered by hand, by personal carrier (someone happening to go to the place).

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 4, 2017

      In Paul’s letters he sometimes mentions the person who is delivery the letter. For example, at Romans 16:1 Paul “commends” Phoebe and asks the Roman church to welcome her. The act of “commending” someone is often part of a letter of introduction. That is, Paul is saying, ‘This Phoebe woman, she’s with me. You can trust her. Treat her like a friend.’ It appears, therefore, that this part of the letter is effectively acting like a letter of introduction for Phoebe, which further suggests that Phoebe is the one who is personally delivering the letter. In fact, I would argue that most of Paul’s letters — if not most letters by Christian apostles in general — served this dual function. It’s as if, for example, Timothy would say to Paul, “Hey, Paul, I’m heading out to the Macedonian church. You want me to bring them anything?” And Paul would respond, “Yeah, as long as you’re going that way, can you take a letter for me? I have a lot to tell them.” And Timothy could say, “Sure, when you finish the letter, give it to me and I’ll take it with me.” For the most part, this is how such letters traveled, not by some postal service, but by members of the church themselves carrying letters back and forth as they traveled.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  December 3, 2017

    Best to look on the bright side I guess. It is at least theoretically possible that one or more non-canonical but authentic Pauline letters remain to be discovered!

    What do you think of the news that a Greek fragment of the FIRST APOCALYPSE OF JAMES has been discovered?


    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      One can hope. yes, it’s a great discovery — but important to note: this is a text we already have in translation, it’s not a new translation of a text previously unknown.

  4. Avatar
    James Chalmers  December 3, 2017

    A very compelling argument. There were LOTS of very valuable (e.g., writings of Paul, the New Testament’s most preferred author) documents lost. But still, the existence of other letters from Paul is referred to in the letters we have. And Q, if it existed, had to be in fairly wide circulation–wide enough to reach both Mark’s home base and Luke’s. And, intrinsically, it’s of the highest imaginable value–the words of the Lord himself, and two or three intriguing stories about him.
    Still, it’s true that upwards of ninety percent (it’d be fun to work up a plausible percentage–it would be in the upper nineties?) of extant documents, many of them of great value by first-century standards, are gone, and disappeared without a trace. I think Goodacre would have to concede that that might be enough to sheathe Occam’s razor.
    Especially compelling: the disappearance of John’s signs and discourse sources–sources similar to Q.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      I don’t think it had to be in wide circulation. It had to be available to two authors living in two different places. We don’t know anything more than that, unfortunately.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  December 3, 2017

    Hey, anybody seen my copy of the memoirs of the Emperor Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire, the most famous and powerful man of his time, or possibly any other, widely attested by contemporary sources to have been written and published a few decades before Jesus was born? I could swear I put my copy–what’s that you say? No surviving copy can be found? Lost to posterity forever? Damn, I should have been more careful with it. Oh well, it’ll turn up eventually.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Actually, the Res Gestae is well attested!

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 4, 2017

        A funerary inscription–perhaps a Reader’s Digest version of his earlier memoirs. That survived. The book didn’t.

        I just mention this whenever people say “How could anything about Jesus ever have been lost?” Far more famous works of that era disappeared without a trac.e

  6. Avatar
    anthonygale  December 3, 2017

    Why do you think the specific documents we have were preserved? Lets say Paul wrote 300 letters and 7 survived. Why those 7? Sheer luck? Because they were considered more important? Why are there more copies of Luke than the gospel of Mary? In that case, probably not sheer luck. If nobody was interested in preserving texts/traditions early on due to the apocalyptic expectation, then why even bother writing a gospel or an apocalypse? I agree that without question much has been lost. But I think (perhaps incorrectly) that a document used independently by two revered texts (that got into the New Testament) stood an increased chance of being referenced or preserved. Not so incressed to say it couldnt have been lost, but enough to doubt. Especially also taking into consideration Matthew and Luke agreements against Mark.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Oh how I wish I knew….

    • Avatar
      godspell  December 4, 2017

      Some people hung onto the letters. Finally, many years later, there was a push to save things, and these were the ones that were still extant, so they were collected. There is no why. This one got stuck in a closet. Another was preserved by someone who wanted to show it to guests. Maybe these are the least popular letters of Paul–the popular ones got read to death.

      These days we have almost unlimited online storage for our correspondence. We take it for granted. But think of how easily physical records are lost.

      And who’s to say that virtual records will stand the test of time, given the infrastructure involved in storing them? Perhaps our era will seem fragmentary and confused, thousands of years from now, if that’s not hoping for too much.

  7. Avatar
    Pattylt  December 3, 2017

    I think we would need to add texts, gospels, letters etc. that were later considered heretical and either destroyed intentionally or just never copied. Perhaps very few or quite a lot? Could Q fit the category of having some heretical material (according to later Christians)? We’ll never know that either. Heavy sigh.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 3, 2017

    Hmm? very interesting and new information for me. Thanks.

  9. Avatar
    ardeare  December 3, 2017

    Do we have any evidence of Romans coming to collect taxes or policing the Jewish population and destroying or confiscating any early church writings they found? Also, would the orthodox Jews have had any such authority to destroy or confiscate these same manuscripts?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      No evidence of non-Christian destruction of Xn writings until the persecutions of later centuries, sepcially the Great persecution under Diocletian.

  10. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  December 3, 2017

    Okay, let’s say he did write that many letters. I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to get writing material in Paul’s time, and then to make sure the letters actually arrived at their destination. They had nothing like the postal services we have today. Apart from the unlikelihood of just being able to write, but being able to write and post 1 letter per church per month. That seems like a stretch in my mind. Do you know of any studies that have been done addressing this topic?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Short letter were written on wax tablets that were, once receive and read, wiped over and reused for the return correspondence. Papyrus was not exorbitantly expensive, and Paul had support from his communities and so could probalby have afforded what he needed. so it’s hard to tell how big a problem it was.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  December 3, 2017

    Considering that many writings have been lost…do you think it’s possible that the real Mark actually did write a Gospel like the one Papias described, and/or someone named Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew or Aramaic, and they’ve been lost? Would one be more likely than the other?

  12. Avatar
    Hon Wai  December 3, 2017

    Do your estimates of number of letters written by the Christian communities take into account the very low levels of literacy in antiquity (something you have emphasised in previous writings)? How many extant letters & documents do we have from the Roman world in the 1st century? My hunch is despite Christians being a very small minority in the 1st century, the number of surviving Christian writings is disproportionately high relative to Roman writings.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Yes, I’m very much bearing that in mind. In a congregation of 20-30 people there would be 2-3 who could read, and you only need one for all of the peole there to “read” a letter (since they heard it read out loud)

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  December 7, 2017

        But that estimate presumes the rate of literacy was stable throughout the Empire. Is there good reason for that supposition?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 8, 2017

          No, I don’t presume it. A group of 30 people may have had only one literate person; or seven.

  13. Avatar
    fishician  December 3, 2017

    One of the important things I learned from your work, and others, is that the early Christians really expected the end to come soon, within their lifetime. A lot of stuff makes more sense when you put it in that context. How can you give all your possessions to the poor and survive? Why turn the other cheek to injustice? Why didn’t Corinth have a church leadership structure? Why weren’t the early Christian writings better organized and preserved? It all makes sense if they thought time was indeed very short and soon God was going to set everything right, so you didn’t have to consider the future.

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  December 3, 2017

    There’s also the point that why would they bother to preserve a separate Q document when it was already more-or-less preserved in Matthew and Luke? Unless there were some significant enough differences between the separate Q and the combined form of Q, why waste the parchment? Case in point, we know that the Torah is made up of difference source documents, combined into a whole. If you were a Jewish scribe ca. 400 BCE who had a copy of the so-called Deuteronomist source along with the composite Torah itself, why would you bother copying *both* the Deutronomist document AND the Torah, when you already have the entire Deuteronomist source in the Torah? Why waste the time and resources? No, you would just copy the Torah.

    In fact, I would argue that the only reason we still have Mark is not because it was intentionally preserved for reasons of completeness — that is, even though pretty much all of Mark is preserved in Matthew and Luke — but because there were communities who continued to use Mark exclusively, and well-enough into the Christian era that those small differences between Mark and Matthew/Luke were important enough to preserve. Otherwise, we probably would have lost Mark, too, the same way we have lost the hypothetical J, E, P and D sources for the Torah.

    • Avatar
      anthonygale  December 4, 2017

      That’s an interesting comparison to the Documentary Hypothesis. To continue with the Star Trek references, I can see how Q might have been assimilated (by Matthew and Luke instead of the Borg). That raises some questions. Was it common practice in history for books, that once stood on their own, to be assimilated into a larger volume and never copied on their own again? If the Documentary Hypothesis is correct, that would be one example. The Bible itself would be another. But outside of these examples, one of which is hypothetical, is there evidence this often happened? And if so, why were some writings (say Mark) spared while others were assimilated (say Q)?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  December 5, 2017

        From my experience reading ancient writings, such assimilation seems to be not only common but the norm. For instance, Aristotle’s Organon (his major treatise on logic) comes down to us as a complete work, but we know that it started out as disparate, incomplete documents that at various points in history someone combined into a complete, coherent work. The Analects of Confucius has a similar history. Various, disparate documents from different branches of Confucianism connected to different disciples of Confucious were combined (probably during the Han dynasty, more than 400 years after Confucious) into the complete, structured work we have received today. Moreover, the other major Confucian work, the Mencius, has a highly organized structure that belies the clearly disparate origin of its parts. The major Daoist work the Zhuangzi, which contains sections that clearly came from different pens and different schools of Daoism, is also organized into a relatively organized whole.

        But the grand daddy of organized, assimilated scripture is, without question, the Tipitaka or as it’s called the Pali Canon of Theraveda Buddhism. This massive work, which can be found today in multi-volume editions (the first modern print edition had 38 volumes) that can run up to 16,000 pages, is a masterclass in the assimilation of disparate Buddhist traditions into a complete, well-organized whole. There are entire sections from some chapters that have been copied, verbatim, into other chapters, even though the two chapters have totally different surrounding texts and contexts. You can literally see 400 years of Buddhist tradition organized into a massive, impressively sophisticated structured whole. And yet, we can find various examples of the sources used to create the Pali Canon in the writings handed down in the Mahayana school of Buddhism that exist in Sanskrit and Chinese. Just about every work of major religious scripture appears to be an amalgam of this kind, from the Vedas of Hinduism to the Hadith of Islam. It’s more the rule than the exception.

  15. Avatar
    rburos  December 3, 2017

    How much agreement is there on the substance of Q? Much of it would surely be easy, but are there controversial elements of Q that are probably rather subtle?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      There’s pretty broad agreement that the material in Matthew and Luke not in Mark is Q; the question is: what else did it have (some of Matthews or Luke’s material not in the other? Things found in neither?) and, also importantly, not have?

  16. Avatar
    Tony  December 3, 2017

    Actually, Luke knew of at least two Gospels, Mark and Matthew. That’s how we got Q – remember?

    I suspect the loss of early church writing may well have been deliberate. The Church Fathers spend most of their efforts fighting heresies. Gnosticism, docetism, Marcionism, and on it goes. For all we know, the surviving “orthodox” sect was initially a minority. They were the ones who invented Jesus of Nazareth!

    Paul was also looked on with suspicion. Any letter of Paul clearly stating his Jesus to be a celestial angel who was sacrificed in the lower heavens would definitely not have made it!

    I would not refer to Harnack as a great scholar. His insistence that the letters of Ignatius of Antioch are the real thing shows incredible naivety. Of course, he had other reasons to push his viewpoints and most NT scholarship is unwilling to rock the boat.

  17. Avatar
    Jim Cherry  December 3, 2017

    Hi Bart,
    Possibly for your mailbag?
    Sometime, can you address the historical/theological “fairness” problem in Christianity? (Or any other religion that claims exclusivity).
    Simply put: “Is it fair that because I was born in North Korea (or born to Muslim or Hindu, etc. parents) that I should suffer eternal torment in hell because I did not convert in life and die as a Christian?”
    Was Origen addressing this problem when he proposed transmigration of souls?
    Is the Talking Cross in the Gospel of Peter also addressing this problem?
    Thanks for all you do!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Good quesiton. I’ll add it. (Spoiler alert: no, it’s not fair!)

  18. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  December 3, 2017

    What is the shelf life of the materials these early books were written on? How long would they have last without preservation?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      Papyrus was still useful for a couple of centuries, and in certain climates could last for millennia! (Well, in Egypt)

  19. Avatar
    Mike  December 4, 2017

    I don’t really have a comment on the issue currently being discussed; I’m new to Bart’s blog & just wanted to make sure I’m properly registered, etc. That’s why I’m posting a comment. BTW, I’ve enjoyed many of Bart’s writings over the years & have taken one or two courses from him through The Great Courses company. He is a great scholar & his own personal spiritual journey is very intriguing.

  20. Avatar
    Alfred  December 4, 2017

    Fascinating! Has anyone estimate the probable numbers of sources used for the gospels (say minimum and maximum estimates)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2017

      No way to know. Mark — indeterminate; Matthew and Luke — at least three each, probably more; John — probably four at least, maybe more.

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