Saturday, October 12, 2013

Q, Doctor Who and the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical"

Regular readers will know that I am not averse to finding an excuse to talk about the rich potential for analogies between scholarship on Christian origins and Doctor Who (e.g. recently The canon of Doctor Who and the canon of the New Testament).  This is one of those occasions where reflection on the one world provides a helpful way of thinking about the other.

Those familiar with the world of Doctor Who will know that this has been a momentous week for the longest running science fiction show ever.  One of the tragedies of 1960s British television is that the BBC routinely failed to save television programmes after they had been broadcast.  Many programmes were wiped and some were simply binned.  For the last generation or so, obsessive fans and collectors have been frantically trying to find lost copies of programmes missing from the archive, especially Doctor Who.  This week was truly momentous in that nine lost episodes of Doctor Who were announced as having been found, returned to the BBC, and digitally remastered and released.  The star of these episodes is Patrick Troughton, the second doctor, who earlier played Paul of Tarsus (1960).  The nine episodes comprise two stories, "The Web of Fear" and "The Enemy of the World", both of which are classics.  I am savouring the new episodes.

I have sometimes thought about the analogies between the lost episodes of Doctor Who and the lost writings of early Christianity.  There is something extraordinarily exciting when early Christian writings are rediscovered, an excitement that for scholars of early Christianity parallels the excitement felt by Doctor Who fans when lost episodes turn up.  The most recent hoard was true bounty too.  It was a cache that enabled us to watch two almost complete stories for the first time.  Previously, only episode 1 of "Web of Fear" and episode 3 of "Enemy of the World" were available, but now we can watch both serials almost in their entirety.

It's rather like the way that for many years we had only a few fragments of the Gospel of Thomas.  P.Oxy. 1, 654 and 655 were three Greek fragments of Thomas discovered in Oxyrhynchus at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.  Like episode 3 of "Enemy of the World", and episode 1 of "Web of Fear", we previously had only a fraction of the Gospel of Thomas available.  Then, just as all the rest of "Enemy of the World" and most of "Web of Fear" turned up this week, so too the whole of the Gospel of Thomas turned up in the big cache of finds in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.

When you have only fragments of texts, or only parts of a story, you find it all the more tantalizing to want to see more.  And when you do see more, there is nothing quite like it.  The excitement of rediscovering an authentic piece of something so special knows no parallel.

There is also something of an interesting contrast here.  My academic friends and colleagues like to tease me about Q, the hypothetical source behind Matthew and Luke's double tradition material, against which I have been a vocal opponent.  They like to suggest that perhaps one day Q, like the missing episodes of Doctor Who, will also turn up.  They can, of course, fantasize all they like, and I thoroughly enjoy the teasing, but there is an interesting point here.

One of the reasons that students often struggle with the concept of Q is that it is a hypothetical work, unattested in antiquity.  It is solely a scholarly construct.  In the case of the Gospel of Thomas, we knew of such a text from antiquity because people like Origen mentioned it.  We knew of the existence of the work by citation even though for many years there was no detailed textual attestation to its content.  Just as in the case of the Doctor Who missing episodes, we knew that it had once existed, but it had been lost.

Q is not like that.  It is important to remember the difference between "lost" and "hypothetical".  A work is rightly described as "lost" when we know that it once existed, when it leaves some kind of trace in conversations among those who witnessed to its existence.  But there is no reference, as far as we can tell, to Q, in antiquity.  We can't find anything, anywhere that attests to its existence.  It is a solely a scholarly construct, based on the notion that Matthew and Luke accessed Mark independently, a postulate that requires a hypothetical writing to have existed.

This is not to say, of course, that Q is problematic because it is hypothetical.  If Q were the best way to explain the close textual agreement in the double tradition between Luke and Matthew, then that would be sufficient reason to postulate its existence.  My point here, though, is to remember what kind of theory the Q theory is.  It is a theory about a hypothetical source.  It is not a theory about a lost source.

Although the rhetorical appeal of titles like The Lost Gospel (Burton Mack) and The Lost Gospel Q (Marcus Borg) is obvious and to be expected, it is worth underlining that Q is not really a "lost gospel" at all.  It is a scholarly construct.  Moreover, the attraction of trying to find "lost" writings , an attraction I very much share, should not obscure the fact that there is a world of difference between a writing we know to have existed and a writing we have constructed as a scholarly endeavour.


16 comments:

Rick Wadholm Jr. said...

That is indeed a helpful analogy and one that I will be sure to use in my future lectures (where I already argue such, but now have a fun cultural connection to demonstrate what we are talking about). Plus, its fun to know that there were lost episodes of the classic series that have been found. I'll have to give them a view sometime.

Nick Laurence said...

Presumably you rule out all source theories for the Pentateuch for the same reason: the Pentateuch could not possibly have been formed from lost sources, because no-one ever mentioned them. Similarly for Isaiah et al.

It doesn't seem a great argument to me, but fundamentalists will love it for eliminating a host of source critical ideas.

A Simple Wender said...

Or consider the "Basic Writing" that lies behind the Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions and Homilies: no trace of it in antiquity, yet it surely existed. Keep in mind too that we have texts without name in antiquity and names without texts; so, Q may not have had a name (as we often think happened with the canonical gospels early in their existence) or we could find Q and discover that its name is attested by an early Christian writer or two. (Tony Burke)

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Rick. Yes, delightful possibilities for the analogy. The newly discovered stories are wonderful.

Mark Goodacre said...

Nick - no, that would be a ludicrous argument.

Mark Goodacre said...

I agree, Tony. Clearly those are the sorts of possibilities that might obtain it one is persuaded of Matthew's and Luke's independent use of Mark (which, of course, I am not).

gospel said...

If the roots of the 'Q' hypothesis are considered, then it could be a 'lost' work, being that mentioned by Papias as the Logia of Jesus. But once 'Q' is severed from those quite resonable roots, it should lose any right to be called 'lost' until it is 'found', not 'fabricated' as it has been!

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Do you think we'll find other early Christian (or for that matter Jewish) writings in the Oxyrhincus papyrusses being transcribed being Zooniverse's Ancient Lives? Or do you have a black horse in the race, so to speak?

Incidentally, what happened to your bloglist? I miss it.

Rick Hubbard said...

Maybe I’m being a little thick-headed about this, but I wonder why you so quickly dismiss out-of-hand Nick’s question, Mark. Are there not some similarities between the observations that formed the Documentary Hypothesis and those that formulated the Q Hypothesis?

(Rick Hubbard)

Mark Goodacre said...

Yes, the Papias comment was in some ways at the root of the Q hypothesis -- people thought that they had found Papias's logia. But now Q has a life separate from Papias's logia and stands on its own feet as a source-critical hypothesis.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Jens. I am always excited about the possibilities of new finds -- nothing quite like it!

The blogroll went when Google reader went. I can't find a way of automatically generating the blogroll using Feedly, but will keep an eye open.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Rick. Yes, that was a bit terse, wasn't it?! I was reacting to Nick's remark, "Presumably you rule out all source theories for the Pentateuch for the same reason: the Pentateuch could not possibly have been formed from lost sources, because no-one ever mentioned them," which would be a ludicrous way to argue, and certainly does not correspond to the way that I argue about Q.

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I know it's not your area, but what are your thoughts on the Documentary Hypothesis?

My only thorough introduction to it has been Friedman, and he of course has a dog in the race. And even if he didn't I have no way of personally verifying his claims about the ages of the Hebrew in the different sources.

scottbignell said...

I still think it's quite reasonable to think that Papias' attestation that there existed a collection of sayings compiled by Matthew is good reason to suspect the existence of Q. It's not unreasonable to think that Gos.Matthew as we have it today was called so because people knew that it was Mark + Matthew's sayings. I'm really on the fence with Q. I think both sides make good arguments. Mr. Goodacre, do you see your hypothesis gaining any ground in recent years?

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Scott. It depends in part on whether you think Papias is witnessing to "a collection of sayings" when he speaks about logia. Yes, I do think the Farrer theory has made some ground in recent years but then of course truth is not a matter of counting heads. :)

Kasey Weadon said...

Theoretically speaking, if scholars were to find a new and primitive fragment containing a synoptic saying(s) that is either independent or double tradition, what is the probability of it being labelled as a fragment from a primitive written Q document? That is, rather than supposing it is a fragment from an early GMatt or whatever.