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Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 4: Q

Several respondents on the blog have asked me whether I would consider Q to be a lost Gospel that is still lost. My answer is direct and emphatic: yes I do! And to the question, also asked several times, if I had one lost Christian writing that I could have turn up tomorrow, what would it be? – again, unless someone imagines that there was once something like Jesus’ lost autobiography (!), my answer is: Q!

Some members of the blog may not know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about Q, so let me explain. In the nineteenth century, some NT scholars became obsessed with the question of why Matthew, Mark, and Luke agreed frequently in so many ways and yet also have so many differences. These three are called the Synoptic Gospels (as opposed to John) this because they do indeed have so many stories that are the same, often in the same sequence, and often with precise word-for-word agreements, so that you can put their stories on the same page and they can be “seen together” (which is what the word “Synoptic” literally means. The theory that emerged among these scholars is what I call the “four-source hypothesis” (some scholars call it the two-source hypothesis, but I find that confusing, because these same scholars think there were four sources!).

According to this hypothesis, Mark was the first Gospel written (that’s the theory called “Markan Priority”), and Matthew and Luke both copied it for a large number of their stories, sometimes keeping it exactly the same and sometimes changing it.   But there are a number of traditions found in Matthew and Luke not found in Mark – e.g., the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.  Most of these traditions are sayings.  Obviously Matthew and Luke didn’t get these from Mark, since he doesn’t have them.  And there are reasons for thinking that Matthew didn’t get the stories from Luke or Luke from Matthew (this is debated, but it’s the view most scholars have).   That leaves basically one option: they both must have gotten these traditions from another source, which no longer survives.  That is the source scholars call Q.  It was made up mainly of sayings of Jesus.

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Thomas and the Other Gospels
Lost Gospels That Are Still Lost 3: The Greater Questions of Mary



  1. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 16, 2012

    These guestions are speculative but they crossed my mind:

    1. If the gospels and Paul’s letters were so wildly copied as were the gnostic gospels why wasn’t Q also copied and
    2. There are some sayings in James that are similar to Q as well as in the DIdache. Are these related to Q?
    3. In some instances Jesus seems to speak in parables and then gives an interpretation to only his disciples. The same is also evident when Jesus encounters a large crowd…he takes his disciples aside to speak with them alone. Is this not a form of gnosticism….giving secret knowledge?



    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 16, 2012

      1. We wish we knew! Maybe it was seen as inferior to Matthew and Luke since they contained most of it? Who knows?

      2. They may have been influenced by similar streams of the oral tradition.

      3. I would say that this idea of secret explanations is common throughout much of antiquity (even Plato), and it’s something picked up by the NT Gospels but even more prominently by later Gnostics. But I don’t think that the motif is distinctive just to GNostics.

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  November 16, 2012

    How often do the early church writers, say second and third century, mention the synoptic gospels? I’ve never read of them so much as hinting at Q, M or L (maybe I’m wrong on that, but I don’t recall ever reading about it anywhere). Wouldn’t the lack of mentions of these theoretical books suggest that they were oral traditions rather than written? I realize that lack of evidence is not evidence of absence, but still….

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 16, 2012

      The theory is that by the second and third centuries these sources are no longer in circulation — just as lots of earlier books (for example, most of Paul’s letters) were not copied extensively, for one reason or another. But they (his letters, e.g. again) certainly existed! The synoptics themselves are quoted in the second century — e.g., Justin quotes them without calling them by their later names; he calls them “Memoirs of the Apostles,” and by the time we get ot Irenaeus (185 CE) and Tertullian (200 CE) they are cited explicitly and by name.

      • Avatar
        Jim  November 21, 2012

        If Luke and Acts are early second century–as suggested by Borg, Tabor, etc–and Luke used Matthew, then Q is a nonissue.

  3. Avatar
    Scott F  November 16, 2012

    Or M and L are those parts of Q that either Luke or Matthew skipped but the the other used? I call this the one and a half and two quarters source theory

  4. Avatar
    James Dowden  November 16, 2012

    What do you make of the contention (Goulder, Goodacre, etc) that Luke was familiar with Matthew?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 16, 2012

      I don’t buy it. On the upside, it gets rid of the need for Q; on the downside, Q seems actually to make better sense to most of the people working on this. Goodacre was Goulder’s student, and is carrying his flag. They both were/are very smart (Goulder was quite remarkable). But most people haven’t been convinced.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 16, 2012

    Good post. Thanks.

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    brandyrose  November 16, 2012

    Thank you so much for this explanation Bart! It now makes Q crystal clear for me! I had thought I saw on some History Channel show once that the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas got scholars excited because it was the first “Q like” gospel that had been found. Am I understanding that correctly?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 16, 2012

      Yes, if Q lacked a passion narrative, in theory it could have been much like Thomas (in form, not necessarily in teaching or content.) For many years the standard view of Q — that it was a collection of sayings without a passion narrative — was debated since many scholars could not believe that any early Chrsitian would write a “Gospel” of just syaings without Jesus’ death and resurrection. And then Thomas turned up, a Gospel of just sayings without Jesus’ death and resurrectin!

      • Avatar
        nazam44  November 24, 2012

        It is not only Q and Thomas that lack reference to Jesus’ death and resurrection but also the epistle of James and the Didache. Or ‘am I reading too much into it?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 26, 2012

          I think the problem is that these others are not *Gospels*. It’s not odd for Jesus’ death not to be mentioned in a book about something else, but in a Gospel it strikes people as odd. (The Didache does seem to assume the death of Jesus, btw, in the eucharistic prayers, e.g.)

  7. Avatar
    toddfrederick  November 17, 2012

    1. Are you saying that Q had a passion narrative? How is the Q passion narrative in Matthew and Luke different from what is in Mark and John that would make Matthew and Luke’s passion narrative particularly Q?

    2. Why isn’t it enough to have just an early document of sayings of Jesus? “The Q Sayings of Jesus” for example. To many people (even non-Christians) Jesus’ teachings in Matthew and Luke are sufficient without a Resurrection story…..especially for Social Justice Christians and humanists who use Jesus’ teachings. Adding a resurrection story can be a turn-off for those who don’t want to get into super-naturalism or fantasy. (ie. The Jefferson Bible).

    The resurrection story isn’t just a late Jewish theme. It is found in Egyptian and Hellenistic religion. I’m not sure a resurrection story is needed for Q to be complete.

    3. I think you mentioned somewhere (can’t find it) that what we have of Q in Matthew and Luke is not all there is to Q….If I read you correctly, and if we don’t have an original Q document other than what is in Matthew and Luke, then how do we know that the Q in those Gospels is not the total Q? Could not the sayings be extracted from Matthew and Luke and we would have a “Q Document?”

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 18, 2012

      My view is that we don’t *know* what was not in Q, so I don’t know if it had a passion narrative or not. And either does anyone else!

  8. Avatar
    fred  November 20, 2012

    “The way to know what was in Q is to see where Matthew and Luke have traditions that are word for word the same that are not in Mark”

    Matthew and Luke contain Nativity narratives which are incompatible, but they do agree that Jesus was born of a Virgin in Bethlehem. Shouldn’t this be assumed to have been in Q, in spite of not having common wording? If not in Q, then it implies yet another common source, doesn’t it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  November 21, 2012

      You’re right, they both have infancy narratives, but they are nothing alike (in terms of the stories told; and there are no verbatim agreements of any significance at all). So they were not taken from the same source. We can’t know, then, whether Q had one or not.

      • Avatar
        fred  November 26, 2012

        OK, there’s no textual evidence like there is for Marcan priority and Q, but why would Luke and Matthew create narratives about a virginal conception and birth in Bethlehem? I understand that 1st century messianic expectations included a birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), but wasn’t it unique to connect a Messiah with a Virginal conception (based on a mistranslation of “Almah” in Isaiah 7:14)? It would seem to my uneducated eye that some sketchy, common tradition was probably behind both stories.

        I’ll add that Christians with whom I’ve discussed this typically claim that the Virginal Conception is more likely to be true since there’s no evidence of a common source. This does imply that Mary discussed her sex life with some people, and you have to wonder why she’d think her divinely conceived son was “beside himself,” according to Mark 3:21.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  November 26, 2012

          I’d say that the idea of a virgin birth does indeed preceed both Matthew and Luke. But that doesn’t make it historical! It makes it earlier than 80 CE or so. And the *views* of the virgin birth are very different in Matthew and Luke.

  9. Avatar
    dennis  June 8, 2013

    Hi Bart . In reviewing old posts from the Members Section from before I joined , I came across The Lost Gospels That I Would Be Most Delighted To Find posts and was disappointed to find the Gospel of the Hebrews , the Gospel of the Nazarenes and the Gospel of the Ebionites not addressed . If I read the Wikipedia entries on them correctly , they survive only in fragments mostly quoted by orthodox non-Jewish Christians to refute their ” heresies ” ( talk about irony ! ) . A particular area of fascination for me is what the very early Jewish members of the Jesus Movement saw , heard , and believed . I think it was implied that some of these ” Gospels ” were written in Aramaic which would suggest that the authors , or at least their immediate sources , would have been eye/ear witnesses to the events/sayings of Jesus . How possible do you think it is that some Arab kid herding goats is going to stumble on a mid-first century document that will turn the existing New Testament on its ear ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  June 8, 2013

      Yes, these are very important Gospels, and there is enormous scholarly confusion/debate about them — even to the extent of whether there were actually three of them or only two. If three, then the Gospel of the Nazareans would have been written in Aramaic. If only two, all bets are off. My current project involves a commentary on the early non-canonical Gospels, and I will be including the Jewish Christian Gospels. I’ve always thought there were three of them, but I’m going into more intensive research with an open mind! And yes, it would be very nice if these things would turn up. But I’m not holding my breath….

  10. Avatar
    jzweifel  January 27, 2015

    Hi Bart. Would focusing on the contents of Q and Mark together not provide a more accurate way for Christians to learn about Jesus, rather than most of the other books and traditions? I ask this in light of the contradictions, forgeries, errors, and the overall elevation of high Christology in the centuries following Jesus’ death as pointed out in some of your books. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 27, 2015

      Yes, Mark and Q are usually given the greatest attention when it comes to reconstructing the historical Jesus.

      • Avatar
        jzweifel  February 2, 2015

        Thanks Bart. Is there a decent publication containing the contents of Q that you recommend? I notice that different authors have slightly different variations of what they consider “Q” to be. thank you.

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