Is Q Still a Hypothesis? Francis Watson Asks the Question…

In our weekly New Testament seminar, it was a pleasure to have our own Francis Watson presenting on the Gospels (as he now is working on a large project involve, especially, non-Canonical gospels).  He chose a very interesting topic with the title: ‘Is Q Still a Hypothesis?’.

The Synoptic Problem is neither an area I am well schooled in, nor is it actually an area that I find interesting.  But, Prof. Watson did a good job of making the discussion relevant to a wider NT audience.  There were rumors that Watson was going to criticize the majority-scholarship opinion that Q was a real document and that we have all but laid out what it involved and how it was used as a source.  Watson, though certainly criticizing Q-ists (is there a name for Q groupies?), was, more importantly, making a point about method.  Watson argued that we have simply taken Q as law and have settled for reading the Synoptics as an open and shut case of Q+Mark+some redaction = Matthew and Luke.

Watson’s goal was to show that a hypothesis is something that needs to constantly be tested against the evidence (i.e. Synoptic texts) and is never really going to be historical fact given the materials we have to work with.  In order to jostle Q free from the high place of security in which it stands, Watson looks at how some Matthew and Lukan passages make sense if we perceive them through the eyes of the Luke-knew-Matthew (and Mark) model.  Again, Watson was not saying he absolutely favored the Luke-knew-Matthew model over the Q hypothesis (though it seemed that he was implying so much).  Rather, it was a methodological concern that we have forgotten that Q is just a hypothetical solution.

One of the overriding concerns with the Luke-knew-Matthew theory is that Luke, then, would seem to be doing some strange and sometimes ‘irreverent’ hacking away at parts of Matthew (like the Sermon on the Mount).  But, Watson points out that in order for a new gospel to be written, it must make its mark in terms of fresh perspectives on the gospel-story, distinctive themes, or insightful alternative comparisons.  Also, Luke does, in fact, have some very different emphases than Matthew, and Watson surmises that this may lie behind such ‘unusual’ editing.  Again, Watson is not trying to argue for Like-knew-Matthew over Q.  Rather, his master-argument is that we need to study each passage of the Synoptics with both of these two theories being tested (and others?), and not just settle for one solution that mostly fits and leaving it at that.

I enjoyed when it came to question time, because I knew Dr. William Telford was going to be there and that he would champion the cause of Q!  And he did!  His concern, similar to Kuemmel’s, was that, if Luke really did have Matthew to work from, why so much editing?  Why so many changes?  He especially pointed out the very different features in the early chapters (birth narratives, geneaology) and the passion narratives.  Why deviate so far?  At this point everyone looked at Watson as if to say….’just walk away.’  But, no!,  he in fact had a reasonable answer.  Even though the content of Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives are strikingly different, the frameworks for them are parallel- a similarity that seems extremely unusual if they did not know either one’s.

I really did  not think I was going to benefit much from this discussion, but I did.  Indeed, it made me think more about issues of authorship in Paul’s letters.  In fact, one might write a paper entitled ‘Is Pseudonymity in Ephesians still a hypothesis?’  One might ask – was it ever a hypothesis!?  What I think we can take away from Watson’s cautionary statements applied, mutatis mutandis, to Pauline authorship, is that we must let the hypothesis of ‘this can’t be Paul writing here’ still be a hypothesis and continue to test authenticity as a theory as well – at every passage and statement.  Some have treated it as an open-and-shut case, but it is still just a theory!  Actually, I don’t think Watson would like my comparison here, but I do think his methodological concern is applicable.


5 thoughts on “Is Q Still a Hypothesis? Francis Watson Asks the Question…

  1. I think it is a little pessimistic to suggest the ‘majority scholarship’ subscribe to a single written Greek document. I have been greatly encouraged to discover that most scholars other than those actually publishing on the reconstructed document hypothesis are actually open to a little more complexity in any solution to the synoptic problem, even those to whom a “Q” appeals. “Q” is just not realistic.

  2. Help me if you can Nijay! Do you know if Telford has written on this topic, especially on the discrepancies btwn infancy narratives and genealogy? I’m looking for good biblio on the latter, I’ve seen it assumed but never argued.


  3. The purported problems with the Farrer hypothesis (= Luke used Matthew and Mark, while Matthew used Mark) are not nearly as foreboding as they are made out to be.

    As for *why* Luke would change the order so much: Watson’s answer (as you report it) moves in the right direction, but it’s important to note that Luke had a reason to write his gospel, *viz.* the reason he refers to at the beginning of his book: he basically says, “Others have gotten the order wrong, so I’m going to tell you what the right order is”. Luke really was only alarmed at Matthew’s changing a few places in Mark’s order of events, changes that resulted in a resignification of a verse here and a verse there (e.g., Matthew rips Mark 9:1 from its context, so that Jesus’ promise there no longer appears to be fulfilled by the Transfiguration [a Markan design]–Luke restores that verse to its Markan place). Matthew’s redactional designs aimed at re-eschatologizing what Mark had de-eschatologized, and Luke, wanting to undo Matthew’s tendentious reworking of Mark, restores Mark’s order. For marketing purposes, of course, it would not be enough just to make those few alterations. Luke had to give a reason for readers to prefer his gospel over Matthew’s, so he had to do a lot more rearranging just to give the appearance that his gospel is very different from Matthew’s. (This, I think, is what Watson is getting at.)

    And as for *how easy* it would have been for Luke to pick out all the so-called Q material in Matthew: I think it would be the easiest thing in the world to do. If we can suppose that Luke was very familiar with Mark, then it would have been very simple for him to identify everything that isn’t Markan in Matthew’s text.

    Personally, I think the “why” and the “how” of Luke’s procedure on the Farrer hypothesis are very clear. And it bears mentioning that, if the question of why Matthew and Luke have such a different order of “Q” is a problem for the Farrer hypothesis, then it should be just as much of a problem for the Q hypothesis. Why is it “crankiness” on one hypothesis, but not on the other?

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