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Q and the Passion Narrative

This, I think (!), will be my last post for now on the Q source apparently used by Matthew and Luke for many of their sayings materials, a source that must at one time have existed (since Matthew and Luke appear both to have had access to it), that was written in Greek (otherwise Matthew and Luke could not agree word-for-word in places – in Greek — in their non-Markan sayings material), and that contained almost exclusively (or exclusively) sayings of Jesus.

There are many other issues that we could discuss about Q, but for now I would like to end by mentioning just one.  It is regularly and routinely maintained by New Testament scholars that one of the striking features of Q is that it contains a list of Jesus’ sayings and no passion narrative – no account of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Scholars then draw a conclusion: the death of Jesus was not important to the community that produced the Q document.

I have to admit, I’m not completely convinced of this claim, even though I appear to be in the minority on this matter.   My view is that we can’t know whether this document copied by Matthew and Luke had a passion narrative.  How could we know, really?  The one and only access we have to this document, assuming it existed (as I do), is through passages that Matthew and Luke have in common that are not found in Mark.   Technically speaking, if either Matthew or Luke drew any of its material from Q and the other did not, then we would have no way of knowing whether that material in Matthew or Luke (but not both) came from Q or from somewhere else (M, L, or the author’s own imagination).

In theory it is possible…


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Is Paul at Odds with Matthew?
Did Matthew Copy Luke or Luke Matthew?



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 20, 2015

    Yes, I agree with all your logic here! I’m surprised that you’re in a minority of scholars seeing it this way.

  2. Avatar
    Kevin  March 20, 2015

    It would be sad if this were your last post on Q! It’s great reading.

    This is interesting speculation here. But when I read Q theories they seem so removed since it is a hypothetical source that neither we nor any church father. The only problem really with Q is that it doesn’t exist.

  3. Avatar
    spiker  March 20, 2015

    “For the Gospel of Thomas it is not the death and resurrection of Jesus that brings salvation. It is the correct interpretation of his “secret sayings.”

    If this is also true of Q, could Q be proto Gnostic? Admittedly, crumbs would be more evidence than one could muster for that idea and If I recall correctly you date Thomas to sometime in the second century. So the only basis for the question is the “sayings format” and perhaps Q lacked a passion narrative.

    I think you touched in this in your piece, but if lets say the “Markan community” viewed Jesus as fully human, is it such a stretch to think the “Q community viewed him as a philosopher” or prophet worth quoting.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      I don’t think that alone would make it proto-gnostic — there would need to be some kind of gnostic cosmology behind it (but there does not appear to be)

  4. Avatar
    bobnaumann  March 20, 2015

    Could not the same argument be made of the birth stories and the post resurrection stories? Or are they too diverse between M and L to be from a common source?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      Yes, way too diverse: different narratives and no significant verbal overlaps.

  5. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  March 20, 2015

    Does Paul seem to have known Q?

    Thanks, as always!

  6. talitakum
    talitakum  March 20, 2015

    Five stars. I am just surprised to hear that your conclusions are not shared by the majority of scholars..

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      Yes, I’m usually surprised when people don’t agree with me. 🙂

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2015

    This entire series on Q has been terrific. Thanks!

  8. gmatthews
    gmatthews  March 20, 2015

    Can you recommend any books on this hypothesis that Q had a radically different view of Jesus than the synoptics? I’ve been interested in the idea that the real Jesus was vastly different than the Jesus described in the NT.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      My first encounter with the idea was in an essay on “The Gattung [i.e., genre] of Q” in a book by Helmut Koester and James Robinson called Trajectories in Early Christianity (back in the early 80s). You might also look at Burton Mack’s book the Lost Gospel — not sure if it takes this line or not, but wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  March 22, 2015

        The Burton Mack book has a preview on Amazon and it looks like it looks like it discusses a Q non-Christian Jesus movement. Looks like he has other very interesting books. Thanks!

        I was hoping for an Amazon preview of the James Robinson essay, but they don’t have one. Google Scholar, however, links to what appears to be a complete copy of the book on OpenISBN. If anyone is interested I’m going to post the link on the forums shortly.

  9. Avatar
    gavriel  March 20, 2015

    Are there any traces in Luke’s and Matthews reworkings of Mark’s passion narrative that could indicate supplements from Q?

  10. Avatar
    toejam  March 21, 2015

    Yes, I totally agree. Another one of my personal gripes is when people try to sort Q into further hypothetical layers. Isn’t appealing to one hypothetical source risky enough?!

  11. Avatar
    SteveWalach  March 21, 2015

    Given that Paul’s letters pre-date the four gospels, it is surprising to me that none of them refer to Paul directly. As you have pointed out on many occasions, the gospels become more like Paul in terms of his Christology as they advance along the timeline from Mark to John but progressively less like Paul regarding his heavy emphasis on apocalypticism.

    Could it be that Q’s (alleged) lack of a passion narrative served as an indirect way to refute Paul’s single-minded faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection?

    The Didache and the Epistle of James seem to take more direct aim at Paul without ever mentioning his name. Is there a scholarly consensus as to why – except for Luke Acts – Paul is not directly referenced (to my knowledge) in 1st and 2nd Century writings that postdate his?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      Yes, possibly.

      Paul is mentioned in the letters of Ignatius (for example) at the beginning of the 2nd century and extensively in the writings of Irenaeus and Tertullian at the end. You may want to see my student Benjamin White’s book on Paul for an up to date discussion of the use of Paul in early Christianity

      • Avatar
        SteveWalach  March 25, 2015

        Thanks, Bart.

        I’ll check my university’s library to see if they have B. White’s book.

  12. Avatar
    Kevin Nelson  March 21, 2015

    Your position here is so well argued that I’m disappointed you’re in the scholarly minority. It seems to me that some of the Q enthusiasts have gone way overboard reconstructing a whole “Q community” based, as much as anything else, on their own feelings about what early Christianity should have been like. On a related point: Some of those same scholars believe Q had different sets of sayings added to it over the years. According to them, it is possible to distinguish layers or “strata” in Q. The oldest layer would then reflect Christianity in its most primitive form. What are your thoughts about that?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      I don’t think there was a single primitive form of Christianity, but lots of very early forms. But no, I don’t think we can deduce layers in Q.

      • Avatar
        yes_hua  March 23, 2015

        I’m glad to hear you say so about the single primitive form. Some of your critics, especially Robert Price, who I respect, take your use of ‘proto-Orthodoxy’ to mean that you think there was one faith arising from the disciples and became the religion we know today. I take it that perhaps you think there were pre-Catholic Christians who eventually formed the Catholic church, regardless of whether they came directly from the earliest believers or not. Is that clear? Do I understand your position on ‘proto-Orthodoxy’?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 23, 2015

          Yikes!! Why would they think I thought *that*???

          • Avatar
            yes_hua  March 24, 2015

            Because they don’t read your blog, I guess. Or read your work closely enough.

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 21, 2015

    With regard to the “passion narratives,” I have struggled with the concept of the atonement almost as much as I have struggled with the theodicy problem and the concepts of the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity. Have you ever thought about writing a book on the atonement starting with the animal sacrifices in the Old Testament? A working title might be: “The Blood of Jesus: How Jesus Became Thought of As Being the Blood Sacrifice for the Sins of Humans.”

  14. Avatar
    Stephen  March 22, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    Off the subject but I attended your lectures at the Smithsonian today and enjoyed them very much. Sorry for the trouble with the airline. I hope you are able to make connections with your bags at some point. You did arrive in time for the good weather. It was snowing here in DC yesterday.

    I’m looking forward to your new project about oral tradition and memory. Very interesting discussion.

    A question relating to your lecture about Pilate. How likely is it that a “criminal” like Jesus would get a personal interview with the Governor of Judea? I can see a flunky shoving a death warrant parchment in front of him to sign but wouldn’t someone a little lower in the bureaucracy handle the day to day administration of justice in the field? Are we supposed to imagine that the two thieves crucified along side Jesus also got a personal session with Pilate?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      Thanks — I enjoyed them too.

      As to your question: I’m afraid I don’t really know! (We have such sparse records about such things. Off hand I don’t know of anything relevant. Maybe someone else on the blog does?)

    • Bethany
      Bethany  March 22, 2015

      Hmm. One thought that’s crossing my mind is that Jesus was taken up on political charges, and I’ve gotten the impression that keeping the lid on unrest in Judea was one of Pilate’s main jobs (and was why he came to Jerusalem for Passover). So maybe he was more likely to deal with the Jesus than with (say) a thief, who wasn’t posing any particular challenge to Roman rule?

  15. Avatar
    Luke9733  March 22, 2015

    A little off topic, but is there evidence pointing towards there having been a “Signs Source”? Do you personally think that such a source is likely to have existed?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2015

      Yes, I do — I may say something about this on the blog.

  16. cheito
    cheito  March 22, 2015

    DR Ehrman:

    Mathew and Mark were not eyewitnesses. The author of Luke was not an ‘eyewitness’ either, although he claims to have received his sources from ‘eyewitnesses’…

    Luke 1:1,2

    1-Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us,

    2-just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,


    However Paul knew some ‘eyewitnesses’, i.e., Peter John and James. He states in one of his undisputed letters to the Corinthians, that He also had seen Jesus after His resurrection from the dead, in the same manner Cephas and all the apostles, including James and other witnesses who were not apostles, had seen Him…Paul also claims that Jesus died for our sins and that He was raised on the third day according to the scriptures… So Paul not only had the testimony of the ‘eyewitnesses’ themselves but he also had ‘scriptures’… What scriptures was he referring to? I don’t think he’s speaking about the old testament here… Do you? Even If he was, he nonetheless had the witness of the ‘eyewitnesses’ i.e. Peter, John and james…Do you agree?

    ! corinthians 15:3-9

    3-For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,

    4-and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,

    5-and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.

    6-After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep;

    7-then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles;

    8-and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.

    9-For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2015

      Luke never says that *his* account was based directly on eyewitness reports, just that ultimately the stories went back to eyewitnesses.

      Yes, Paul claimed to be an eyewitness of the resurrection and to have known three other eyewitnesses of the resurrection. I wish we knew precisely which scriptures he had in mind!

  17. Avatar
    Chris  March 22, 2015

    If Q is mainly composed of the sayings of Jesus, could we expect its passion narrative to also be brief?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2015

      I”m not sure it follows, since the sayings were lots of short parables and one-liners, but the passion narrative was a string of events.

  18. Rick
    Rick  March 23, 2015

    Enjoyed your day at the Smithsonian also. Hope you can do one again.

  19. Aleph82
    Aleph82  March 23, 2015

    “It is regularly and routinely maintained by New Testament scholars that one of the striking features of Q is that it contains a list of Jesus’ sayings and no passion narrative – no account of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Scholars then draw a conclusion: the death of Jesus was not important to the community that produced the Q document.”

    Do the majority of scholars agree with this conclusion? Wouldn’t their reasoning be similar to that of the mythicists who claim that the teachings and deeds of Jesus didn’t matter to Paul since few references to them can be found in the 7 extant letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2015

      It’s a good question. I think it is the majority view among supporters of Q that it did not have a passion narrative; but I don’t know if it’s a majority view that Q therefore had a different view of the importance of Jesus’ death.

  20. Avatar
    Joe  March 23, 2015

    I like your comment on early Christianity in the plural ‘Christianities’ same with Judaism about 2,000 yrs ago, it should be pluralized as there were numerous groups, each with their own spin on things. Excellent blog, one thing which has always bothered me when speaking with Evangelicals and other fundamentalists is that what you and others discuss, doesn’t filter down to the masses who seem to live according to the words on a bumper sticker I once saw in the US, which read ‘God said it, I believe and that settles it’. On the other hand your giving back to the communities via your blog, which paid for our education, and we paid for theirs, is admirable.

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