The Q Document

Why is the so-called Q document the most important lost book of the New Testament and the key to unlocking the puzzle of the Synoptic Problem?

The task of the “synoptic problem” is to discover the very early sources on the life and teaching of Jesus that were available to the synoptic writers.

The "problem" becomes apparent when you place the contents of the Matthew, Mark, and Luke side by side. Parallel incidents can be explained easily, but what about the numerous cases in which the actual words are parallel? And not just very important words as would be the case if you read the same story in three different newspapers, but every word.

Scholars conclude that each gospel, though independently written, must have drawn much of its material from a source or sources also available to one or both of the other two.

Click here to learn more about who wrote the synoptic gospels and the synoptic problem.

Mark and the Q document

Synoptic problem

Careful analysis of the texts of the synoptic gospels shows that 97% of Mark's gospel is reproduced almost word-for-word in Matthew and Luke. Scholars conclude that the writers of Matthew and Luke must have used Mark's gospel as a literary source.

The above chart also shows that 23% of Luke is word-for-word identical to 25% of Matthew, but this is material unique to these gospels and not found in Mark. This suggests another literary source in independent of Mark used by both Matthew and Luke. Scholars call this the Q document (from the German Quelle, meaning "source"). Q explains the words (and verses) in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark.

Synoptic problem

Above: The Gospels of Matthew and Luke were written independently, each using Mark and a second document called "Q" as a source. Q is defined as the "common" material found in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark.

The Q document is assumed in the Two Source Hypothesis (2SH) of the origins of the synoptic gospels. According to the 2SH Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke, both of whom also independently used the now lost source - the Q document. 2HS is the generally accepted theory of the evolution of the synoptic gospels.

Click here to read more about the "synoptic problem."

Scholars generally agree that Matthew and Luke both used a second common written source in addition to Mark's gospel. This is the Q document, which explains the two hundred Matthew and Luke have in common, often in identical language, and which are mostly "sayings" of Jesus not found in Mark.

There is no extant (surviving) copy Q. We can, however, reconstruct it by comparing similar verses in Matthew and Luke, as has been done by the International Q Project (IQP). Q may be called the "Synoptic Sayings Gospel", which some scholars believe may have been composed as early as 50 CE.

The most likely solution to the so-called "synoptic problem" is that Mark was a source for Matthew and Luke, both of whom also independently used a now lost sayings source called the Q document.

The Q Document and recent scholarship

Several important Q-studies have been published in the last quarter-century that have extended the discussion about Q.

John Kloppenborg A significant contribution has been made by John S. Kloppenborg, Chair of the Department and Centre for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto in Canada. Among his several publications The Formation of Q: Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987; and Excavating Q (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) have been highly influential.

Kloppenborg's extensive research about the Q document affirms it to be one of the oldest circulating sources of the sayings of Jesus. He identified two, possibly three, separate layers within Q. Q1 is a sapiential layer (wisdom sayings). Q2 is a judgmental layer. There are traces of a third possible layer, which includes the temptation narrative.

Christopher M. Tuckett, Professor of New Testament Studies at Oxford University, in Q and the History of Early Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996) provides one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of the Q document. Tuckett also explores the theology of Q, as well as reconstructing the social situation of the early followers of Jesus who valued and preserved his sayings.

Elaine Pagels, Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton University, explains the Q hypothesis and the Q document for the popular PBS Frontline documentary series From Jesus to Christ.

Dr. Pagels does not regard Q as a gospel. Rather, it is a hypothesis. When scholars found that Mark is completely incorporated into both Matthew and Luke, they also discovered that Matthew and Luke also used other sayings, parables, and stories not found in Mark. These pericopes are identical in Greek. Jesus spoke Aramaic not Greek. Pagels argues that we would only have Jesus speaking identical sayings in Greek if we had a written translation in Greek of his sayings. In addition to Mark, then, she argues there must have been something else written down that would have consisted of the sayings of Jesus, translated into Greek. This is the Q document.

According to Dr. Pagels, "Nobody ever has found this source written. We can reconstruct it because we guess that there was such a written source, but nobody has seen it, and it certainly in my mind is not a gospel. It's a very good and well-founded hypothesis."

Problems with Q

To the limited extent that the early Church Fathers discussed the origins of the gospels, none of them has clearly indicated either the existence of Q or the priority of Mark, that is, the two pillars of the 2SH. Instead, the priority of Matthew is the most consistent testimony in the early centuries of Christianity.

In the 1950s Oxford academic Austin M. Farrer published a paper “On Dispensing with Q,” in D. Nineham, ed., Studies in the Gospels: Essays in the Memory of R. H. Lightfoot (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1955). The Farrer Hypothesis (FH) entirely dispenses with Q, but he retains the framework of Markan priority. According to the FH Luke used Matthew directly as well as Mark, therefore making Q document unnecessary.

Professor Mark Goodacre has provided a web version of Farrer's original article. Click here to read "On Dispensing with Q" by Austin Farrer.

Mark Goodacre

Mark Goodacre, Associate Professor in New Testament at Duke University in North Carolina has provided the strongest argument against Q in his book The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2002). Dr. Goodacre defends the FH by accepting Markan priority but rejecting Q.

What might have been the content of the Q document?

James Robinson

Dr. James M. Robinson, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California is regarded the most prominent Q scholar of the 20th century. He is also a member of the Jesus Seminar.

In 2000 Robinson, along with Paul Hoffman, John Kloppenborg published The Critical Edition of Q: Synopsis including the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark and Thomas with English, German, and French Translations of Q and Thomas. This work includes a reconstructed version of what the original Q document might have looked like.

The Critical Edition of Q is the product of the IQP. The Society of Biblical Literature initiated the IQP in 1985 to develop an accessible critical edition of the Q document. Click here to read the full text in English Translation of the IQP’s Q, with a short introduction, on John Kloppenborg’s homepage.

Here are some pericopes which originated in Q:

* The Beatitudes

* Love your enemies

* The Golden Rule

* Judge not, lest ye be judged

* The Test of a Good Person

* The Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Builders

* The Parable of the Lost Sheep

* The Parable of the Wedding Feast

* The Parable of the Talents

* The Parable of the Leaven

* The Parable of the blind leading the blind

* The Lord's Prayer

* Expounding of the Law

* The Birds of Heaven and the Lilies in the Field

Return from the Q Document to Lost Books of the Bible home page.

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There is a wealth of scholarship available on the Q Document. Although Q has not survived as a separate extant manuscript, it has been reconstructed by comparing the similar passages in Matthew and Luke, but absent from Mark.

Many scholars now believe that Q is the lost Gospel of the Sayings of Jesus and was the earliest written record of Jesus. Not every one agrees! I have read and recommend that you read a broad cross-section of the various scholarly opinions of Q.

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