Friday, December 25, 2009

Q and Christmas

It has been over 150 years since Biblical scholars have begun examining certain writings in the New Testament. The basis of this activity has been the way the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke overlap.
Most scholars agree that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke used his writings as a common reference. About 45% of the writings of both Gospels repeat stories from Mark, using the same order and even the same words in many cases.
But in addition, approximately 25% of Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels contain writings that agree with each other, but are not found in Mark. The implication is that there is some other document to which they referred. That document is simply called Q after the German word Quelle, or “source.”
First things first – why is it assumed that Mark’s Gospel precedes the other two? There are several reasons:

1.)                          It is shorter. It is more likely that Matthew and Luke added content to Mark than that Mark took their stories and deleted large chunks of them.
2.)                          It is less sophisticated. It is more likely that Matthew and Luke cleaned up Mark’s writings than that Mark “dumbed down” the writings of the other two.
3.)                          Mark included Aramaic quotes and translated them into Greek. Matthew and Luke did not.

But is there any evidence that Matthew and Luke actually copied from a common document rather than just repeating orally transmitted accounts from actual witnesses to Jesus’ ministry? Indeed there is. Some of the stories are repeated in both Gospels, usually in the same order and using the identically same words. The odds against the writers having picked up the stories word for word from eye-witnesses are astronomical.
Although Q has never been found, it appears to consist primarily of Jesus’ sayings and teachings. If Q actually existed, it seems to have been written by contemporaries of Jesus. If so, it is remarkable that no miracles or other supernatural beliefs were mentioned; there is no mention of virgin birth, miracles, salvation, speakin g in tongues, apostles, heaven, hell and many other topics that are a staple of 21st century Christianity.
However, many parables have been attributed to Q, among which are the following:
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.

The existence or non-existence of Q is of no importance to conservative Christians; God told the writers what to write, and that explains any similarities or coincidences between them.
Liberal Christians, however, take a different view. In the 50s and 60s Paul wrote his various epistles, and theological as they were, they contained very little material on Jesus’ actual sayings and activities.
Q gives some idea of pre-Pauline Christianity. Many 21st century beliefs were unknown to his early followers – among others, the concept of the Trinity was foreign to them. God was the God of the Hebrews.
Without a coherent theology the fledgling movement would probably not have continued to exist after the original followers had expired. Saint Paul provided that theology. After that appeared, Q was appropriated into the Gospels, and the original document was superfluous. Eventually it disappeared.
If Q were found tomorrow, would it make any difference to modern believers? I don’t think it should. As with any other organizations, religions evolve and change. With certain exceptions, e.g. the Crusades, the Inquisition and certain very conservative interpretations, Christianity has been good for humanity. Offsetting the dark periods mentioned above, it has provided hospitals, universities and good works of all kinds.
Above all, it has provided hope, a much needed commodity today as throughout the ages. The religion would not exist if it had not undergone the Pauline interpretation and the stories, true or not, of the gospel writers. Later church fathers provided further rites and beliefs which the religion carries to this day.
Although the true date of Jesus’ birth is unknown, the celebration of His birth is a time of goodwill and generosity unequaled by any other world event. Even if a whole alphabet of Qs were found, it would not change the central message of Christianity: Jesus Christ is born today! Merry Christmas.

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