The Two-Document Hypothesis on the Synoptics: Q or No Q?

The Two-Document Hypothesis on the Synoptic Gospels is one I find attractive in various ways, but ultimately I think the more parsimonious account is:

  1. Mark was written first.
  2. Matthew and Luke are both based on Mark.
  3. Luke also draws on Matthew to fill out what he thinks is missing from Mark, but he recontextualizes some Matthean material to articulate what he wants to say to his own audience.

This account agrees substantially with the Two-Document Hypothesis. Of these three assertions, 1 and 2 are also part of the Two-Document Hypothesis. The verbal agreement (1) of all three synoptics, (2) of Matthew with Mark against Luke, and (3) of Luke with Mark against Matthew – but only in a few places of Luke and Matthew against Mark – suggest strongly that Matthew and Luke both based their gospel accounts on Mark and not on each other. That is, Matthew was not based on Luke, nor Luke on Matthew; still less is the structure of the textual similarities explained by a common oral tradition alone. In this much I agree with key propositions of the Two-Document Hypothesis.

The lack of direct evidence for the very existence of a written ‘Q’ source for Matthew and Luke, however, leads me to lean strongly against it. The mainly v-shaped dependency structure of Mark, Matthew, and Luke is something we can identify because we actually have Mark as a basis of comparison; for Q, we have no such evidence. If for the sake of argument we grant that there is such a Q document, it is just as easy to say that Q borrowed the same material from Matthew as Luke did, or else the same material from Luke as Matthew did: the lack of comparative textual evidence from an actually extant document gives us little basis for asserting confidently the direction of borrowing. Still less am I inclined to conclude firmly that there was a Q document upon which both Matthew and Luke drew.

On a higher level, I also think it highly unlikely that, as Q proponents seem to suppose, there was a Q document without a Passion and Resurrection narrative. Such is the nature of the Q document people have proposed as a source for Matthew and Luke, but a document has itself to have been highly respected – on par with Mark – to have been a textual source for not one but two of the Gospels. To early Christians, the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth about the inauguration and present experience of the age to come mattered only because his resurrection from the dead proved his identity as God’s Christ rather than as one more failed christic claimant; a Q without the Christian conviction of Christ’s resurrection, however, is not a text that two Gospels are likely to have used in the manner alleged by proponents of the Two-Document Hypothesis. On the other hand, it is even more problematic to suppose that a Q document had its own Passion and Resurrection narrative, but was not substantially used as a source in the corresponding parts of Matthew and Luke. These considerations, then, also suggest an alternative to the existence of a Q source for parts that Matthew and Luke have in common but did not take from Mark.

The few major agreements between Matthew and Luke on things not present in Mark, moreover, are not features that I think are well explained by borrowing from a hypothetical Q text. For example, both Matthew and Luke have ‘prophesy, who is it who struck you?’ (Matthew 26.68; Luke 22.64) rather than Mark’s ‘prophesy’ (Mark 14.65). But Q is usually posited as a document of Jesus’s sayings, somewhat like the ‘Gospel of Thomas’. Uncharacteristically for the character usually attributed to Q as as source for Matthew-Luke commonalities, the clause ‘who is it who struck you?’ is an extensive verbal correspondence of Matthew and Luke not in one of Jesus’s memorable sayings but in the Passion narrative. Either this clause comes from Q, or it comes from some other written source common to Matthew and Luke, or it does not come from a written source other than one of the four Gospels.

More plausible than a common but independent borrowing from a hypothetical Q by both Matthew and Luke, I think, is an adaptation by Luke of material from Matthew. Luke’s declared audience (‘most excellent Theophilus’, 1.3) and asides for the understanding of Gentile-born believers suggests at least one motivation for adaptation for an otherwise foreign audience. His placing of many unique parables into a travel narrative, with several reminders of Jesus’s sense of resolve in his purposeful march to Jerusalem, also suggests a sophisticated readiness to place sayings into narrative frame contexts suited to his literary purpose. Luke’s Gospel, which is the longest Gospel whereas Mark is the shortest, has almost as few citations of the Old Testament as Mark. If Matthew is written as a Gospel to the Hebrews, interpreting Jesus and his teaching by more direct citation of the Old Testament, Luke is a Gospel to the Gentiles whose author interprets Jesus’s teachings by arranging them in narrative contexts of his own choosing. Matthew and Luke are both based on Mark, but their differences in audience lead to substantial differences in their texts.

2 responses to “The Two-Document Hypothesis on the Synoptics: Q or No Q?

  1. Made a new FB, but 99.999% likelihood of zucc by the time you see this. Add me senpai, Deo volente uwu

    Liked by 1 person

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