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The Lost Q Source

I can now return to my thread dealing with a question asked by a reader:  if I could choose, which of the lost books from Christian antiquity would I want to be discovered?  My first and immediate answer was:  the lost letters of Paul.   My second answer is what I will deal with here.  I would love – we would all love – to have a discovery of Q.

Many readers of the blog will know all about Q.  Many will know something about Q.  Many will have never heard of Q.   So here’s the deal.

Scholars since the 19th century have worked out the relationship of the Synoptic Gospels with one another.   Matthew, Mark, and Luke are called “synoptic” because they tell many of the same stories, often in the same sequence, and sometimes in exactly the same words.  Synoptic means “seen together.”   You can “see” these Gospels “together” by laying them side by side and noting their abundant similarities (and differences).   But the only way they could have such extensive similarities (especially the verbatim agreements) is if they were copying one another or are copying a common source.

It has long been known that Mark was the earliest Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used it as a source for many of their stories.  But Matthew and Luke have a number of traditions about Jesus in common that are not found in Mark – for example the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.  Almost all (not entirely all) of these traditions are sayings of Jesus.

And so scholars in 19th century Germany who worked out a solution to the “Synoptic Problem” (the problem of explaining why the Synoptics have such precise similarities among themselves and yet so many differences) suggested that since it appears that Matthew did not get these sayings from Luke or Luke from Matthew (see below), they hypothesized a one-time source, now lost, that they called the Sayings Source.  The German word for “source” is Quelle.  And so this hypothetical document is called Q for short.

Some scholars today doubt …

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Evidence that the Synoptics Are Copying (one another? other sources?)
Why I Wish We Had More of Paul’s Letters



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 16, 2015

    About “sayings” of Jesus in general: are all or most scholars convinced that those attributed to him in the Synoptic Gospels really were his…and original with him?

    I don’t doubt that he existed. An apocalyptic preacher from Galilee, whose disciples believed he was the Messiah before he was crucified, and wouldn’t give up that belief. But can we be sure the teachings attributed to him really did come from that (probably not well-educated) preacher, and not from a number of sources that have been jumbled together?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 16, 2015

      No, each saying has to be judged on its own historical merits, applying rigorous criteria.

      • Avatar
        AGK527  March 18, 2015

        Are there sayings of Jesus from extra-biblical gospels/sources that you think Jesus actually said? Do you talk about this is misquoting Jesus or in your other books?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 18, 2015

          I don’t think there’s a good chance that any of the non-canonical sayings is authentic.

  2. Avatar
    Scott  March 16, 2015

    Many thanks for showing how Matthew’s habits in using Mark’s material shed light on how he likely Q.

    Given the above, when you say, “these stories found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark are almost always inserted into a different sequence of Mark’s narrative,” should we conclude that Matthew “clumped” the Q sayings in with the Mark verses while Luke “scattered” them in a variety of contexts?

  3. Avatar
    Todd  March 16, 2015

    You discussion on Q is very good and I appreciate the inclusion of the section from your text book, especially the list of common passages…I would like to see ore of that list.

    QUESTION…..I have a copy of the 1959 edition of the first translation of the Gospel Of Thomas and I have been interested in its relationship with Q. If you have not already done so, could you say more about Thomas and the Q document? Thank you.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  March 16, 2015

    Two questions for the ever-growing “Further Readings” pile:

    1] If you had to recommend a single (accessible) book that surveyed current thought about Q, what would it be?

    2] Who do you think does the most reasonable job of presenting the case _against_ Q?

    (That is, while I assume you wouldn’t agree with the conclusion of such a book –and that we, as the readers of the blog, probably wouldn’t expect to be convinced by the arguments– I still think that, given the apparently overwhelming evidence in support of the existence of Q, it would be interesting to see what form such an argument might take.)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      1) You might think about David Alan Black Rethinking the Synoptic Problem or Mark Goodacre The Synoptic Problem

      2) Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q

  5. Avatar
    James  March 16, 2015

    I agree we’d most love to have many, some, even one or two, of the other letters of Paul. But I’m not sure Q rates so high among the missing. I mean, can’t it be said that we do have most of Q? Can’t we assume, on the hypothesis it existed and both Matthew and Luke had it at hand, that between the two of them they knew it was good stuff and recorded most–ninety percent? at the very very least seventy percent–of it? So I’m not saying Q isn’t very valuable. I’m saying ex [the q] hypothesis we pretty much have Q, so t’s not exactly a missing document. After all, whole books have been concocted that seem to purport not only to set down for us (the great bulk of) Q, but also to treat it as a document comparable to the gospels that have come down to us, and find in it two or three layers, some of which are late and some of which go straight back to (very near) Jesus himself. I get the impression you’re not entirely persuaded that what we have of Q lends itself to this type of analysis. Am i right? And is it true that via Luke and Matthew, on the Q hypothesis we do have a lot of Q come down to us today? (What missing documents might rate as high as Paul’s letters? The very first written recollections of the deeds and sayings of Jesus, whatever their date, whoever recorded them. Which might be Q, but maybe–probably??– not. Or does that make sense?)
    (The case of the missing Q material: on the Q hypothesis, the chose the same passages to record in their gospels. What can we infer as to how much they did not choose ot record?)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      Yes, I don’t agree with the “layers of Q” arugument. Maybe I’ll post on this.

  6. Avatar
    GokuEn  March 16, 2015

    Prof Ehrman, I apologize for going off topic but I have a (what I hope is) a small request. I have been submerging myself in Historical Jesus scholarship for the past year or so, but now I feel like I want to move a little bit forward into Paul. I have just ordered E.P. Sander’s “Paul and Palestinian Judaism” on Amazon to begin with. Could you please recommend me other must-read books on Pauline Scholarship? I am in particular interested in perhaps a textbook that give historical exegesis to Paul’s Letters.

    Thank you in advance!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      Another classic is J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle. A very different kind of classic study is Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians. ONe of the most intriguing is Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body. And the most recent good treatment is Albert Harrill Paul the Apostle. Maybe I’ll post on this question soon.

  7. Avatar
    cchen326  March 17, 2015

    From the way you explained it Q seems to be the best explanation for the first 3 gospels. You had mentioned that even though most scholars today would agree on Q, but some actually don’t.

    How do the ones that don’t think Q document existed explain it otherwise? Is there another way to explain the similarities and differences that is somewhat feasible?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      They say that Luke copied Matthew or, better, both Matthew and Mark.

    • Avatar
      AGarrow  July 1, 2015

      Another group of scholars is now emerging who don’t think the (conventional) Q existed. They argue that Matthew used Luke. This is an interesting angle because the conventional arguments against Luke’s use of Matthew don’t work in reverse. E.g. ‘Why would Luke break of the Sermon on the Mount’? The difference between Matthew’s Sermon and Luke becomes explicable on the basis that Matthew sought to supplement Luke’s sermon by drawing in related materials from his sources (including other parts of Luke). This option has had very little attention previously – but there is now a monograph on the subject by Robert K MacEwen. I have a couple of articles on Matthew’s use of Luke, which also offer an explanation for the phenomenon of Alternating Primitivity, due out next year. Video previews of these papers are available via http://www.alangarrow.com/synoptic-problem.html

  8. Avatar
    Jason  March 17, 2015

    Is “the voice” of Q fairly consistent in the Koine Greek when broken out from Mt/Lk, or does it seem that it could be yet another amalgam of different writers?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      There are debates about that. I may cover it in a future post.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  March 17, 2015

    Are there any reasons for thinking Q couldn’t be the Matthew described by Papias?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      I suppose the biggest problem is that Q appears to have been in Greek, not Hebrew.

      • Rick
        Rick  March 18, 2015

        This may be similar to Jason’s question above; but, is there any evidence within the use of the Greek whether Q (or any part of Q) could be a translation from Hebrew? Probably hoping for too much but…

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2015

          For the verbatim agreements of matthew and luke in Greek, it would need to have been a Greek text.

  10. Avatar
    gavriel  March 17, 2015

    You seem to argue in favor of a single written document for Q? Why couldn’t it be a collection of minor scripts? If so, it would be easier to explain why there are no ancient explicit references to Q. These hypothetical minor documents must then have been important enough to be brought to the attention of both Matthew and Luke, or at least the majority of them. L & M could then belong to this group. Or am I wrong?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      All we can say is that Matthew and Luke must be using the same single source in places, becuase they are word-for-word the same. But there are probably a group of do cuments of vearious kinds back there.

  11. Avatar
    Samuel Riad  March 17, 2015

    Great post Dr Ehrman, Can you please tell us in a future post about the argument commonly used against Q, namely the problem of minor agreements, and how pro-Q academics respond to it? Thanks again.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 17, 2015

      Yes, I’ll probably get around to this eventually — but it’s hard to do (it becomes very academic very quick)

      • Avatar
        Kevin  March 20, 2015

        This would be a great post!
        If it’s complicated that doesn’t speak well for the argument though.

  12. Avatar
    paul c  March 17, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, Those 19th Century German scholars, were they primarily Lutheran or Catholic? Or were they both working in different institutions?

  13. Avatar
    Kevin  March 18, 2015

    Is Q really a lost book when no one found it in the first place? Does any ancient source refer to this? It’s my understand that it’s a modem synthesis, what Luke and Matthew have in common.

    Also you say “Matthew and Luke have stories not found in Mark, and in these stories they sometimes agree word for word.” and say this is evedence of some other writing. Well that’s true if one just copied from the other!

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2015

      Well, if Matthew and Luke had it and used it, and it no longer survives, then it would be lost!

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 20, 2015

    Wow! What an excellent review of “Q.” My favorite section in the Bible is the parable of the sheep and the goats.

  15. Avatar
    JSTMaria  March 23, 2015

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,
    I have two questions: The Gospel of John does not contain the story of the trials of Jesus in the wilderness after his baptism. Instead, he goes straight to teaching and performing miracles. Why do you think that is? And–do most of the ancient and numerous copies of what ultimately became the canonical Gospels contain the story of the last supper? If so, or if not, any ideas why that would be? I’m just wondering about why various Christian denominations value or devalue the concept of the Eucharist. Thanks! -Jen

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2015

      There are no demons in John either. Jesus is not really temptable in John. And yest, the Lord’s supper is in all our manuscripts. It’s in them, no doubt, becuase it was in the original forms of the Gospels.

  16. Avatar
    Tom  May 26, 2015

    I’ve often wondered if Q might ‘be’ the document(s) derived from the author (Luke?) given Acts Chapter 1:
    “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen…. ”
    There are hints to other documents elsewhere in Paul’s writings which I *guess* could be either Q or L.

    (just throwing out my uneducated guess how I’ve come to understand *Q* over the years…)

    Many thanks,

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2015

      The problem is that Luke is referring to his earlier own book, the Gospel, which itself appears to have used Q (not to have been Q)

  17. Avatar
    fabiogaucho  November 27, 2015

    Since we are in Q material, how would you fill in the blank “give us this day our ____ bread”? What do you make of the word “Epiousios”?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 28, 2015

      My guess is about as good and bad as anyone’s. As you know, it’s a very strange and inexplicable word!

  18. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  June 15, 2017

    This is one of several things I’ve come upon the last few weeks–http://markgoodacre.org/Q/ten.htm
    This post wasn’t that long ago, so I’m assuming most scholars feel the same about Q. Marc Goodacre gives 10 reason why the existence of Q should be doubted.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 15, 2017

      Mark is one of the view people arguing that Q did not exist. He makes the best arguments there are, but my sense is that the majority of scholars remain unconvinced.

  19. Avatar
    ErikdenTuinder  October 24, 2017

    Dear Bart Ehrman,

    I have a question regarding the Q source. I have read about the Q source in your NT textbook and it sounds as a plausible explanation to my ears for the Synoptic problem but if Q was a written source and served as a source for both Matthew and Luke, wouldn’t the early church fathers have mentioned this Q source any of their writings? Or am I missing something here?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2017

      Only if they knew about it. (And realize, we have only a tiny fraction of the writings of early Chrsitains — it may well have been mentioned by others). My guess is that Q simply was never copied and circulated after the first century: no one saw a need for it, if they already had it, in a fuller form, in either Matthew or Luke.

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