Friday, February 03, 2012

What is the trouble with Q?

In a recent article in Bible and Interpretation, Dan Smith reflects on The Trouble with Q.  But the troubles he is talking about are not those niggles that make some of us question the existence of Q, the Minor Agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark, the Mark-Q overlaps, the weakness of the arguments for Luke's independence from Matthew and so on, but the way that many scholars fail to take the implications of the Q theory seriously.  Like Kloppenborg, Dan draws attention to facile appeals to Q's hypothetical nature by those who refuse to think through what the existence of Q means for our reconstructions of Christian Origins.

But is this really the trouble with Q?  I am puzzled by Dan's focus on scholars who are uninterested in the Synoptic Problem and Q.  Those who have not invested time in studying the problem are unlikely to want to engage seriously with the implications of the hypothesis.  In my own experience, the same set of scholars, the so-called "lazy" believers in Q, are equally unwilling to invest time in engaging with Q sceptical scholarship like my own. 

It is never easy in scholarship to find yourself in a position where you are telling other people that they should be interested in what you are studying.  Engaging other scholars' interest is always tough, and it is especially tough in areas like the study of the Synoptic Problem, which requires a lot of hard work and a degree of technical expertise. 

There is always the option, though, of seeking out dialogue partners among those who are already interested in the problem.  Dan alludes to those who do not accept the existence of Q but he does not mention them by name, much less engage them directly.  Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my memes relates to the Farrer Theory getting ignored in scholarship, but I am usually in those contexts talking about introductory-level works, textbooks and the like.  It is, however, something that happens in the higher-level work too.

The problem is that there is a major alternative to the Q hypothesis and critical engagement with it can help to clarify and focus the bigger picture questions that Dan mentions here, about the degree of diversity in early Christianity, in particular the question of the role played by Jesus' death.  Dan talks about engaging with people who may help with refining the Q hypothesis, but a healthy hypothesis is also one that engages with those who are attempting to refute it.

Let me offer one example of how this works.  Dan talks about taking seriously Q's silence about the salvific death of Jesus, the resurrection and the term "Christ".  Arguments about silence are often worth hearing and in the case of a text like the Gospel of Thomas, its silence on these same features is indeed worth some serious thought.  There is a difference in the case of Q, however, that makes any study of its silence problematic.  Given that the document is reconstructed on the basis of Matthew's and Luke's double tradition, there is always the possibility that it is not Q that is silent on the matters in question but that Matthew and Luke are silent in their witness to Q's contents.  

Dan talks about what he regards as similar difficulties in reflecting on Matthew, noting that there are many things we do not know about Matthew, its author, whether he wrote other materials and so on.  But we do have textual witnesses to Matthew that are pretty clear about the scope, parameters and wording of the work, the very things that are absent in the case of Q.   Indeed, the absence of any kind of textual witness to Q is one of the things that invites us to consider the alternative, that the kind of close verbatim agreement that Dan discusses may be evidence not for a lost document but for a direct link between Matthew and Luke.  

In other words, the hypothetical nature of Q is indeed relevant in this discussion.  Dan is right that the hypothetical nature of Q should not be used as an excuse for a refusal to think.  The real issue, though, is that Q's hypothetical nature is an invitation always to think about live alternatives.  To imagine a world without Q is surely one of the best ways of testing a model where Q is central.

To put it another way, what are the chances that Dan's essay will be noticed by those who are his targets?  At least the Q sceptics are willing to have the conversation.


Chris Petersen said...

Dr. Goodacre,

It dismays me to see that you are still having to fight this fight. I don't know that the NT scholarly community will ever rid itself of this Q pest especially given that as you pointed out often times us Q-skeptics aren't even a part of the synoptic problem conversation.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Chris. I was a little surprised that Dan Smith did not engage at all with Q sceptical work in this piece given that he is familiar with it.

Chris Petersen said...

Yeah, we (Q skeptics) are kind of like an annoying mosquito that they only very reluctantly have to deal with whenever they come out of their tents,i.e., that comfortable place where they believe all relevant discussion concerning the synoptic problem takes place. Dan Smith thought he was in his tent.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

There's another new instance of the Farrer theory getting ignored. In Peter Williams new article in NovT on Mark 1:41, he discusses several synoptic theories (Two Source, Greisbach, Proto/Deutero-Mark) but not the Farrer theory.

Mark Goodacre said...

Good grief; this is one of the most egregious examples I've seen, especially as the Farrer theory would impact directly on the argument in a way that would favour Williams's case, i.e. Luke here following Matthew's redaction of Mark. Moreover, I even discusses this very example in Way Through the Maze. I can feel another blog post coming on.

Mark Goodacre said...

I've added comments over on the ETC blog, comment number 11,

Anebo said...

Supposing that we grant that Luke is dependent on Matthew: in that case where does Matthew get his material that he adds to Mark? Unless you think he is inventing it out of whole cloth as a purely literary work (as many well be the case with the infancy narrative), he must be following some written or oral source, must he not? How is your theory different from merely arguing that Matthew is the only only independent witness to Q? Isn't Q, in its essence, whatever source Matthew used?

Mark Goodacre said...

It's a common question but a good one. Some discussion of it in the epilogue of my Case Against Q as well as elsewhere in the book. I don't deny that the evangelists had other materials than what we have available in Matt, Mark and Luke, so I don't think that Matthew made up all his non-Markan material or that Mark made up all his material or that Luke made up all his non-Markan and non-Matthean material. But Q is not a name for Matthew's non-Markan material; it is the name given to material that is derived from the non-Markan material that Matthew shares with Luke.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

To expand upon Mark's answer, if Matthew and Luke were independent, their common source Q must contain, in a single document, a specific set of common content, in a specific common order, and with a specific commonality of wording. This is means Q can be analyzed, like any other document, in terms of its common content, order, and wording.

Granted, there are folks who speak of an oral Q or multiple sets of Q material, but these proposals do not take into proper account the striking literary similarities in the non-Markan material shared by Matthew and Luke. If Matthew and Luke are independent, then what Q is is highly constrained by the evidence.

On the other hand, if Luke depends on Matthew as in the Farrer theory, Matthew's non-Markan source(s) can be anything, and we cannot use Luke's witness as a control for identifying its content, order, or wording. Thus, Matthew could have any number of oral and written sources, and the non-Markan material that happened to be next to each in Matthew need not have existed together until Matthew put them there.

Dan Smith said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks for taking the time to comment on my piece in Bible and Interpretation. I certainly didn't mean to slight competing hypotheses, or to present another case in which you still have to "fight this fight," as one commenter says. My main concern was not with scholars such as yourself who find "trouble with Q" on literary grounds (see my first paragraphs). Rather, my focus was on those who simply refuse to engage with Q scholarship - while otherwise accepting the 2DH - because it is "hypothetical" or because they find the resulting document (or their misunderstandings of it, as I learned from those who commented directly on my essay) difficult to accept.

all the best, Dan

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your comments. Indeed your targets in the article, the people I call the "lazy" believers in Q, are also often my targets -- not only do they not think through the implications of the Q hypothesis (back end) but also they do not think through the Q hypothesis as a solution to the Synoptic Problem (front end). And ultimately these are related. One way of testing a hypothesis is to reflect critically on its application. That's where in particular I think your material on Q's silence is worth comment. Cheers, Mark

Jason A. Staples said...

I continue to think that the way we teach Introduction to New Testament courses in university and seminary settings is somewhat to blame here. Generally the Synoptic Problem is brushed over at high speed and high altitude to get to the Synoptic Solution (=Two/Four Source Hypothesis), which is then treated as though it were itself the real truth of the Gospels.

If the instructor is especially fair or a Q skeptic, s/he might blow past the Synoptic Problem to show a few possible Synoptic Solutions while again repeating that the majority of critical scholars hold to the Q hypothesis.

If we taught this material a bit more inductively and let introductory students grapple a bit more with the data before giving them the current options, I suspect we'd see significantly less blind/lazy reliance on the Q hypothesis. Those who would hold to the Two/Four Source Hypothesis would do so in a more robust fashion, while there would be more Q skeptics out there also.

I'm convinced we do a lot of damage to future NT scholarship in the way we introduce the subject to budding students, and this is one area where that's really evident.

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Jason. Agreed. Enjoyed your blog post on this subject too. In my teaching, we begin with the problem and only get to potential solutions after the students have a grasp of the problem. I think that one of the sad things is that some are missing out on the fun of the Synoptic Problem too by leaping straight to a solution and refracting all the data through that solution.