Original Question

Mainstream scholarship widely supports the view that the authors of Matthew and Luke shared a common source, since lost, in contemporary discourse called "Q".

Yet it is easily plausible that the common source between them is simply whichever of them occurred first, such as to be then used by the other.

Indeed, the synoptic "problem" appears easy to resolve through the proposal that Mark appeared first, followed by Matthew, which referred to Mark, and that Matthew was in turn followed by Luke, which referred to both predecessors. Such a proposal is offered here not definitely to reject other possibilities, only to suggest that the supposed "problem" might not accurately be portrayed as a serious or difficult dilemma.

(The Mark-Matt-Luke chronology with maximal dependency among them and no shared extinct source is known as the Farrer-Goulder Hypothesis.)

Why are the contrasted features of the three texts argued to be problematic, and why do so many suggest that Q provides the best available solution?

Further Comments

I appreciate the link to the article by Peter Kirby. Although I cannot evaluate how much it is representative of the wider scholarship, it is certainly more concise, precise, and directed than the other summary accounts I have seen.

Unfortunately, I fail to be persuaded, though I welcome further commentary that might clarify the steel-man representation, that is, the most compelling possible argument, for the position.

I would share my thoughts on the Kirby summary:

  • Currently, the Wikipedia article on Q, like other accounts I have seen, frames the hypothesized source as substantially a list of sayings and teachings. In contrast, the summary includes references to the genealogy, nativity, and resurrection accounts, the former two notably creating a glaring contrast between Matthew and Luke. A source centered on teachings during adult life would not likely resolve questions surrounding birth and death. Of course Q plausibly could be framed as including these details. At issue is not the possible scope of the document, but rather that any such unresolved ambiguity threatens dialectal consistency between facts in the premises and inferences in the conclusion. Any particular framing and argumentation must resolve this ambiguity outright, and preserve consistency throughout.

  • The stance largely betrays an urgency to depict the authors' intention and skills, especially Luke's, as elevating above other objectives factual precision and rigor, such that the authors would have been unwilling to make any alteration that detracts from providing the reader with a comprehensive and accurate account of events. Yet plainly all three synoptic texts, replete with emotional poignancy, rhetorical structure, and poetical presentation, are, in addition to anything else, works of creative literature. As the arguments apparently rest on the belief that the authors pursued a fact-centered method, they collapse unless the possibility can be excluded that an author based decisions on his subjective perception of how they contribute to the artistic literary quality the resulting text. Even as the view is common that the synoptic texts are not fact-centered accounts, the argumentation variously dismisses or ignores the relevance of artistic tastes or motives. The controversy need not entail whether the texts might describe real events, only whether they might also express artistic literary intent as a competing concern.

  • The argumentation entails an onus-shifting fallacy, wherein the perceived lack of clear indication of an author's motives and rationale for usage of two extant sources in a discernibly consistent and systematic way is claimed to support the conclusion that the author did not rely on those two sources. If Luke had reasons to weave together two sources and embellish them in some particular fashion, then those reasons simply may have died with Luke. Equally, even he might have been unable to articulate such reasons were he asked while alive. Any or indeed every scholar's inability to conceive of Luke's reasons for making some choice cannot lead to a conclusion about whether he made that choice. Given that inferring motives and rationale is central to the critical practice of studying text, it may be tempting to presume that every one indeed may be reliably inferred, but ultimately the number of questions that one might hope to resolve long after the fact will vastly exceed the number that one accurately can resolve. Confidence that anyone can reasonably know why another did all that he did will surely generate erroneous results.

  • The discussion omits consideration of the intrinsic probability that the particular, hypothetical text was indeed created and then subsequently lost. While surely many documents have perished, in fact most that ever were created, the Q hypothesis asserts the occurrence of a text carrying details on a particular subject and in possession by particular authors, yet that was not preserved, nor even mentioned in extant text, while still other texts in possession of the same individuals were preserved. Each of these particular constraints lowers the probability that the entire sequence of events occurred as described, and augments the accumulated demand on the strength of evidence to support the hypothesis. Weighed against the vast uncertainty in the speculation supporting the conclusion, the argumentation would seem to fall short of such demand.

  • 4
    whomever proposed to close this question - please knock it off. This is the kind of hard and well thought through question that this site needs more of.. Just because a question is hard and perhaps heavily academic is no reason to vote to close Apr 5, 2020 at 21:49
  • @KorvinStarmast, I appreciate the support. I am perfectly aware that many would not want to participate in such a discussion for any number of reasons. I am equally aware that many find it useful, important, or engaging. For this discussion as well as any other, I hope that the same principle is respected: If you are willing and able to make a useful contribution, please do so, and if you are disinterested in the subject, freely move your attention elsewhere.
    – brainchild
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:47
  • I was going to write an answer but the more I research the more lacking the supporting material favoring the Q solution. I found a 2017 Undergrad History Honors Thesis Is Q Necessary? A Source, Text, and Redaction Critical Approach to the Synoptic Problem which proposes a solution other than the Farrer hypothesis and a 2006 book The Myth of the Lost Gospel which proposes Mark -> Luke -> Matthew solution bolstered by statistical analysis. Apr 8, 2020 at 4:57
  • The Q and Synoptic Problem extensive encyclopedia entries from the IVP Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd Ed. also show that while the Q theory is still viable, it is increasingly challenged by non-Q theories. Good luck! Apr 8, 2020 at 4:57
  • @GratefulDisciple: Thank you for the references, but deeply studying the issue in books is outside of my current involvement. I am hopeful that someone who genuinely understands the questions could resolve my confusion with some succinct explanation.
    – brainchild
    Apr 10, 2020 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


Proponents of the Q theory would say that none of the alternatives provide an adequate explanation of all of the parallel passages in the synoptics. Leaving to the side any of the non-Markan-Priority theories (as they are even more minority views than Q-less views), you're left with basically two options without Q: Matthew used Luke, or Luke used Matthew. Proponents of Q would say there are substantial problems with either model.

One example from An Introduction to the New Testament by Carson and Moo concerns the order of events in the gospels. They give this table on page 89:

a table showing the order of events in the synoptic gospels

The bold passages are those where Matthew or Luke have a different order than Mark. There are times when Matthew and Mark have the same order and Luke is different, and times when Mark and Luke have the same order and Matthew is different, but no times when Matthew and Luke have the same order and Mark is different.

Note that Matthew and Mark agree, against Luke, in placing the accusation that Jesus casts out demons in the name of Beelzebul just before the so-called parables of the kingdom; and Luke and Mark agree, against Matthew, in putting the stilling of the storm and the healing of Gerasene demoniac just after these parables. At no point, however, do Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. To put it another way, at no point does Mark follow an order that disagrees with the other two (hence the lack of any bold type in the Mark column.) (page 92)

If Matthew or Luke used the other, we would expect that there would be occasions when the earlier gospel changed the order from Mark, and then the later gospel used the same order, i.e., there should be times when Matthew and Luke agree against Mark. And you also have the problem that, whichever one you think is final, there are passages where it would appear to have rejected the order of the other and then reinstated the order from Mark. If Matthew is final then you have to explain how it took Luke 11:14-32 and 8:19-21 and repackaged it into Matthew 12:22-50 so that it matches the order of Mark 2:20-35. If Luke is final then you have to explain how it took Matthew 8:18, 23-34, 9:18-26 and repackaged it into Luke 8:22-56 so that it matches the order of Mark 4:35-41. (This option is less problematic because you could say that Luke just ignored Matthew and copied Mark directly. If you want to propose Matthew is final then you have to account for using Mark's order but adding in Luke 11:29-32.) With Q the explanation is simpler: Matthew and Luke used Mark, reordering it at times, but without reference to the other gospel.

For another example, consider the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and the Sermon on the Plains (Luke 6:17-49). There is lots of overlap here, which is not shared with Mark, and yet there are significant differences that would be hard to explain if one of the Gospels had simply used the other. The two texts are easier to explain by them both using a shared source, editing and expanding it to serve the different purposes each had in writing their gospel. (For example Matthew wants to show Jesus's relationship to the Jewish Law far more than Luke does.)

First up, the blessings in Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26. Matthew has a longer passage, with Luke only using half of the blessings. But Luke then has four woes which are not in Matthew. There are also several vocabulary differences so it's not the case that one simply copied the other, leaving out some verses.

Luke's passage on loving your enemies (6:27-36) is similar to Matthew 5:38-48, but there are many differences, and they have similar things in different orders. I've coloured the similar verses myself here. Note that each gospel has places where they are longer than the other. And Luke includes the golden rule here while Matthew has it later in 7:12. There's no simple way to explain one gospel using the other, as it would have to simultaneously condense and expand it. But if Q had only the shared parts I coloured, then it's easier to explain each gospel expanding upon it, no condensing needed.

a parallel analysis of Matthew 5:38-48 and Luke 6:27-36

Another noticeable difference is the passages on judging others: Matthew 7:15 and Luke 6:37-41. Although Luke's Sermon on the Plains is much shorter overall, here Luke is quite a lot longer. Luke's parable of the blind leading the blind is found elsewhere in Matthew 15:14, and the first part of Luke 6:38, "Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap." is not found anywhere in Matthew.

This page by Peter Kirby covers better than I can many of the arguments for Luke's independence of Matthew, ie, that he didn't know of or have a copy of Matthew when he wrote his gospel.

  • As I go through the details of the arguments, I wonder how much of the suggested problems might be resolved if the author of final of the three texts indeed used both of the other two, but gave deference to Mark. Thus the writer of, say Luke, may have used Matthew the way that it has been proposed that he used "Q", without it being actually a real, separate source. Also, I wonder why it is unreasonable that one author variously augmented, redacted, reordered, and reworded the text of another. I do the same when I edit my own writing, and have done when coauthoring text with collaborators.
    – brainchild
    Apr 5, 2020 at 14:08
  • Deferring to Mark is an option for some things, but not when Mark doesn't have a parallel. And I barely scratched the surface here, all these positions put forward lots of arguments. More questions have also been asked on this topic at the Biblical Hermeneutics site.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 5, 2020 at 14:21
  • On editing: Q is proposed to be a collection of teaching without any narrative. It's easy to imagine the gospel authors taking a contextless quote of Jesus, for example the parable of the blind leading the blind, and fitting it into a section of teaching where it contributed to the message of the whole. It makes less sense why one gospel author would take a parable out of its context, where it was positively contributing, and move it to a new context. You have to explain two things then: why the editor thought it would be better somewhere else, and how the original passage wouldn't be broken.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 5, 2020 at 14:30
  • @epl Do you know how Luke final proponents analyse the coloured passage, Luke 6:27-36? We'd need specific motives for why he reordered Matthew, why he condensed some parts, and why he expanded others. Sure a general motive of "he thought it would be better this way" may in fact be true, but when there are competing analyses, specific motives are what will be convincing. Especially because in lots of other places Luke doesn't do anywhere near as much editing. Is there a specific reason Luke doesn't like talking about miles but does like talking about lending, but not greetings?
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 5, 2020 at 14:39
  • @Epl that's fine, but then you're not really explaining anything. I think expansions have a plausible explanation which deletions in general don't: the author (or another of their sources) remembering more that Jesus said. So expanding from Mark, Q, Matthew, or Luke almost always has that simple explanation. Deletions are harder to explain, though we can posit certain ones, for example Luke focusing on gentile audiences rather than Matthew's focus on a Jewish audience. But only some deletions could be explained that way. I think I'll ask about this passage at BH.SE.
    – curiousdannii
    Apr 5, 2020 at 15:02

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