Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Gospel of Thomas and Q

Over on her Forbidden Gospels blog, April DeConick mentions a new website with essays on Early Christian Religion by Robert Oerter. One of these essays, on Gospel Truth, which spends some time on the Synoptic Problem, includes an argument for the existence of Q on the grounds of its alleged similarity with the Gospel of Thomas,
[Q] is entirely unlike the canonical gospels in which the sayings of Jesus are interwoven with a continuous narrative. During the 1950s this peculiarity of Q was used as an argument against it. No such sayings gospel was known from the early Christian period, the critics charged. Q proponents needed to postulate not just a single text but an entire unknown genre of Christian literature. Ironically, just a few years earlier an amazing document had been unearthed, a document whose existence would turn this argument on its head . . . .

. . . . Such discoveries are exceedingly rare, and historians must usually be content with rearranging old data in new ways. Short of finding an actual copy of Q, more striking support for the Q document hypothesis can hardly be imagined. From the analysis of gospel interrelationships a hypothetical document had been reconstructed. That document required the existence of a previously unknown literary genre, the sayings gospel. The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas now confirmed that assumption. What had been seen as a weakness of the Q document hypothesis was suddenly transformed into a brilliantly successful prediction.
The argument sounds persuasive because it relies on the notion of "prediciton confirmed", but the premise, that Thomas is like Q, is faulty. I devoted the last chapter of The Case Against Q to setting out the case that the first third of Q has a clear narrative sequence, with a chronological, geographical, cause-and-effect progression, of the kind that is quite foreign to a sayings Gospel like Q. I argued that these differences between Q and Thomas were actually more telling than the similarities in that they pointed to a source-critical rather than a genre-critical solution to the problem. The reason that the first third of Q is rich in narrative and in narrative sequence is that it corresponds to the section of non-Marcan elements in Matthew's reworking of Mark, located in Matt. 3-11. After that point Matthew works closely with the Matthean order, and it is inevitable that double tradition material loses its narrative sequence.

Since many remain unfamiliar with the contents of Q, it is worth reminding ourselves again, in outline, of this narrative sequence. John the Baptist is introduced (Q 3.2) and located in the region around the Jordan (Q 3.3); crowds come to him for baptism (Q 3.7); he speaks to them about repentance (Q 3.7b-8) and he prophesies a “coming one” to whom he is subordinated (Q 3.16-17). Jesus is introduced and the spirit descends on him, and he is called Gods son (Q 3.21-22); the spirit then sends him to the wilderness where he is tested as God's son (Q 4.1-13); he is in Nazara (Q 4.16); he preaches a major Sermon (Q 6.20-49) and after he has finished speaking, he enters Capernaum (Q 7.1), where he heals a Centurion’s Boy (Q 7.1b-10). Messengers from John the Baptist, who is now imprisoned, ask about whether Jesus is indeed the “coming one” (Q 7.18-35), and the ensuing discourse takes for granted that Jesus heals people and preaches good news to the poor, all in fulfilment of the Scriptures, and likewise the teaching presupposes that Jesus associates with tax-collectors and sinners, and that he is criticized for doing so.

I argue that this narrative sequence points to the origins of Q as material source-critically extracted from Luke's non-Marcan, Matthean material. As so often, the devil is in the detail. The popularity of the appeal to Thomas in order to strengthen Q is still present, though, and it arises in part from a misreading of Austin Farrer. In the passage quoted above, Oerter refers only to Farrer (in a footnote) but it is worth looking at what Farrer actually said. His argument was that the strong narrative exordium led the reader to expect a culmination with Passion and Resurrection:
For Q has to be allowed to possess a strongly narrative exordium, not to mention narrative incidents elsewhere interspersed. It is no simple manual of Christ's teaching. It tells us with considerable fullness how John Baptist preached before the public manifestation of Jesus, and how Jesus, appearing in fulfilment of John's prophecies -- and, it would seem, undergoing baptism at his hands -- endured a threefold temptation in the wilderness, after which he ascended a mountain, and was joined by disciples there. Having delivered beatitudes and precepts of life, he "concluded his words" and presently made his way into Capernaum, where his aid was invoked by a centurion on behalf of his servant . . .

. . . . . This pattern of symbolism and narrative finds a natural place in St. Matthew's text, where, in our opinion, it indubitably originated. But what sort of place would it find in the imaginary Q? After an exordium so full of dogmatic weight and historical destiny, is it credible that the book should peter out in miscellaneous oracles, and conclude without any account of those events which, to a Christian faith, are supremely significant? . . . What is hard to believe is that he should supply the exordium, while omitting the conclusion; that he should set in train the only story of unique importance, and break it off. (On Dispensing with Q, 59-60)
There are things that Farrer missed in his discussion, and there are some emphases that might be a little different from ours, but Farrer had seen the problem with the Q document that the Q hypothesis implied, and he had seen it more clearly than many of the advocates of the hypothesis. The Q-Thomas alignment is only persuasive on a kind of simple, basic level; it does not bear closer examination.


steph said...

Yes, Thomas is such a worn out appeal to the existence of the hypothetical "Q" when in fact Thomas bears little resemblence to the hypothetical "Q" (which is based on alot of assumptions including the fact it exists in the first place), especially on the claim sometimes referred to that we don't have the whole of "Q" and the bits missing amount to it being a more coherent gospel. The existence of Thomas demonstrates nothing more than the fact that a list of sayings could be compiled into a single document. It does not demonstrate that "Q", a hypothesis based on alot of assumptions, and a much more complex document than Thomas, existed, let alone that it was a single, written, Greek, document, never referred to after being copied "independently" by Matthew and Luke and presumably lost. Occam's Razor is another worn out appeal ... simplistic hypotheses simply do NOT reflect historical reality or account for all the bits that don't quite fit!

Jim Deardorff said...

I've never wanted to spend time on such a doomed hypothesis as Q, and so seem to be extra ignorant on it. How can Lk 3:21-22 be considered as a piece of Q, when in Mk 1:10 the spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove, just as in Matthew and Luke?

Mark Goodacre said...

Steph: I agree with almost all of what you say, but would like to pick up on Occam's Razor in due course.

Jim: it is regarded as a Mark-Q overlap pericope, i.e. there are major agreements here between Matthew and Luke against Mark. Many Q theorists deal with the difficulty by suggesting that the baptism was in Q. James Robinson has been a strong advocate of this view, and it makes it into the Critical Text of Q.

steph said...

Because the agreements beween Matthew and Luke against Mark in those verses, warrent it being labelled a "Mark Q overlap" according to Q advocates.

It's interesting that Oeter does, as a scholar of physics, concede that early Christianity is "majorly" out of his "area of expertise"! I wonder if perhaps, he is entirely dependent on secondary literature, a bit like Spong and A.N. Wilson. I wonder how dependent he is on Kloppenborg and maybe Kloppenborg is even dependent on him for his inappropriate appeal to analogies from phsyics.

steph said...

You can't ;-) because the function of Occam's Razor is to simplify the evidence when it's complicated which thereby produces a simplified hypothesis which doesn't reflect historical reality ... which is complicated!!!

Mark Goodacre said...

Interesting points about the dependence on secondary literature, Steph. Certainly he seems heavily dependent on Crossan and, to some extent, on Mack. To his credit, though, he has read Sanders and Davies's Studying which is one of the best introductory presentations of the evidence. But in the end, of course, there is no substitute for spending time with the texts.

On Occam's Razor, I agree in part with what you say, but only in part. I'll explain why in due course; it needs some teasing out and a sentence or so can't do it justice. But thanks for bringing up an interesting question.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Though the essay bears a copyright date of 2009, the bulk of it however appears to be written in 2001. For example, footnote 13 refers to "Richard Carrier’s excellent online summary, “the Date of the Nativity in Luke” (2001 version)," but this article had been updated many times since then. This suggests that the 2001 version was actually the current one when he writing the essay. Consistent with this clue is that the most recent book used was Witherington 2001.

A 2001 composition date may explain why this essay on Q neglects to make any mention of your Case Against Q. Your book was published in 2002.

Robert Oerter said...

Thanks for taking a look at my essay on the gospels, Professor Goodacre.

It has already been pointed out that I am not an expert: I see myself as a popularizer of New Testament scholarship. In my essays, I tried to stick to those areas where there is considerable agreement among scholars and where I found the arguments to be strong. (The arguments are not my own - I am dependent on secondary sources, as noted by the commenters here.) As a scientist, I am - perhaps unduly - impressed by a successful prediction. Of course I don't think that this single argument can establish the Q document hypothesis beyond all doubt; it is just one among many arguments for Q.

I do think that there is room for disagreement here: the case for Q is not foolproof, and good arguments can be made against it, as you have shown in your work. My goal in the essay was to make the strongest case for (what I feel to be) the strongest position.

Mark Goodacre said...

Stephen: looks like you are right.

Robert (if I may): thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I enjoyed reading your essay and I hope to get a chance to look at your other materials in due course. Of course you are in good company in making your argument about Thomas and Q though I suppose it has become a bit of a hobby horse of mine to try to point out the problems with it. I am currently writing a book on the Gospel of Thomas that will lay out my views more clearly on how that work relates to the Synoptics. I understand what you mean about the persuasive power of apparently successful prediction, but the problem with it here is that Thomas looks nothing like Q. In so far as Thomas contrasts with Q, it could be argued that what we have is unsuccessful prediction.