The Catholic Monk Thomas Merton once said that the Bible is a difficult, perplexing work. It doesn’t make sense. It has contradictions. And its Old Testament often portrays God as an immature, violent ogre. But with his hallmark Christian optimism, Merton says that’s exactly why he likes the Bible. It’s not fake or flaky. It portrays life as it really is.
I admit that some New Age websites telling us that “love is all around” give me the feeling that something not too loving is brewing underneath the surface of all that sugary sweetness. So I tend to agree with Merton. The Bible doesn’t cover up but exposes warts. Its compilers didn’t edit out apparent inconsistencies but left them in. Note the two different accounts of Creation in Genesis, for instance. Or Jesus saying we need to hate our parents, spouse, kids and siblings to follow him (Luke 14:26).
In the New Testament you’d think these difficulties and contentious scenarios would have disappeared. After all, many years had passed since Old Testament times and the relatively modern people around Jesus’ day could have edited everything into a nice, neat package. A package without contradictions.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
What about Q?
Most scholars agree that the New Testament was formed from an oral tradition. Christ lived his life, sometimes solitary, other times with his followers. People told stories about Christ and the Gospel writers collected those tales, probably according to their political and pastoral needs.
Some Gospel writers likely borrowed from existing texts. The words didn’t enter directly into their minds as some fundamentalists would say. At least, that is how it seems from the textual evidence.
No one can say for sure. It is possible that the Gospel writers were divinely inspired to say the same things the same way. I considered that perspective soon after my conversion to Christianity. But years of study have tempered my thinking… for better or for worse.
Different theories try to explain this.
A prevailing idea is Q theory. Q sounds hip and cool but I doubt that’s why religious scholars chose it. The theory cropped up in the early 1900s and, as far I know, marketing wasn’t a burning academic issue at that time.
Johannes Weiss was a German Protestant scholar who first coined the name “Q.” He used Q to refer to some of that shared material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. For decades most scholars assumed that Q alluded to the German word quelle, meaning “source.” But recent studies indicate that “Q” might have been chosen on a whim.
So maybe Weiss and his followers were trying to be trendy. Who knows. Before the word Q caught fire, researchers called this material the logia, calling to mind images of stony faced scholars sifting through weighty volumes in dusty old libraries.
What is most important to remember about Q is that it is a purely hypothetical document. Archaeologists have never discovered evidence that it actually exists. Not even a scrap or fragment. Despite this, some scholars carry on as if it were fact.
For and Against
Elaine Pagels is a religion writer who rose to prominence with her 1979 bestseller, The Gnostic Gospels. Pagels believes in Q because, as she points out, Jesus spoke in Aramaic. He, himself, wrote nothing. So Jesus’ actual sayings come to us through translated sources. But not only that. Our earliest existing sources are in Greek.¹
Whatever Jesus did say, our version has been translated at least once by somebody else. The fact that Jesus’ sayings are so strikingly similar in Matthew and Luke points to the existence of a textual source from which they were copied—namely, Q.²
Opponents of Q theory say the early Christians would have revered such an immediate record of their savior’s sayings, not allowing it to be misplaced or destroyed.
So where is Q? If Q did exist, how could the early Church have lost a document so important and essential to its formation?
Detractors have a simple answer. The early Christians would not have lost it. Q never existed.
For me it doesn’t really matter if Q existed or not. It is a compelling idea but as Pagels suggests, quite a few links were forged over the centuries from the era of Jesus and the occupying Romans to current, 21st century versions of the Bible. With much uncertainty accrued over two millennia, it would be unwise to fixate on any particular explanation without hard proof. Proof we may never discover.
It’s okay to not know everything
In a way, uncertainty is good. It can help to deflect the kind of fundamentalism that fuses zealous patriotism with a specific, dogmatic take on religion.³
Normally, I wouldn’t care about fundamentalists too much. But the visibility of some sectarians and their facile claims can make it more difficult for the rest of us thoughtful Christians, especially when trying to convey the beauty of Christ. Most caring, sensible people react adversely to fundamentalism. And if they haven’t really explored Christian religious differences, some otherwise good people lump all Christians together into one narrow-minded, authoritarian group.
Trying to explain the difference between the goodness of Christ and religious zealotry isn’t always easy. One has to get the listener past the image of aggressive, finger-wagging individuals.4
Worldly people, on the other hand, sometimes say that Christian religious experience is generated by body chemistry. For them, the Christian cannot discern the difference between an endorphin rush, sugar high or caffeine hit as opposed to the indwelling of spiritual graces.
To me, that only serves to tell me something about the mindset of the spiritually ignorant. Hard-boiled skeptics often don’t realize that while they’re looking at us, we’re looking at them.
At the other end of the spectrum, some fundamentalists say mysticism is nothing more than a devilish deception. There’s no talking to these people. They love to cherry pick Bible verses to support – while ignoring anything that challenges – their particular outlook.5
When folks, be they worldly or religious, are so entrenched in a limiting worldview my proverbial b.s. detector often goes from yellow to red. It may be a pastor. A blogger. A doctor. It doesn’t matter who. At those times I find the best thing is to politely withdraw and later on, when the time is right, redirect my thoughts into action.
¹ Some even believe in an original Aramaic New Testament that has been lost in the sands of time.
² See From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians, online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion. Most agree that we have no original New Testament documents. So this would make our present version of Jesus’ sayings third-hand, at best. » 1 » Original Aramaic » 2 » First but now lost transcriptions into Greek » 3 » Surviving copies.
³ To me this is like the old Roman Empire championing its state gods.
4 We’ve probably all lived through or heard a story about offensive, overbearing Christians.
For more on Q, see my highlights at LINER.
Who Is Jesus? (3) (vanguardngr.com)
The Reformation Rolls On: (brothersjuddblog.com)
Just listen (takeaminute.net)
Is this blasphemous? (quinersdiner.com)