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.
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