[ Author: Kathy Petersen ]
If you’re familiar at all with issues related to the gospels, their historicity and scholarly questions about who wrote them and when, you’ve probably heard of “Q”. [If you haven’t, it’s a hypothetical written gospel that was written prior to the four canonical gospels, which the (synoptic) gospel writers drew from in writing their accounts.]
The achilles’ heel
The biggest problem with Q, is that there are no extant copies of the work and there is actually no evidence that it ever existed. Yet some scholars act as if it certainly existed; some speak of it as established fact, rather than hypothetical. Why do they think it existed? Mainly (if not entirely) because there are passages in the gospels (particularly the synoptic gospels) which are not merely parallel accounts but use identical wording in the Greek.
While the Bible allows for the possibility of other written accounts of Jesus’s life (Luke said that “many” had undertaken the task of writing an account of Christ’s life and early Christianity; if John was written last, as most people believe, then Matthew plus Mark don’t exactly equal “many”) and Luke apparently consulted other accounts (written and oral). It has always bothered me that Matthew would be portrayed as needing to consult another account, since he lived through it as one of The Twelve. According to tradition, Mark’s account is from Peter and he also wouldn’t need to consult some other source. [It’s like suggesting that George Washington needed to consult somebody else’s account to write about what happened during the American Revolution. Why, when he lived through it!]
However, just like English has many synonymous words and phrases and different ways of expressing a single thought, so does Greek. This means that the gospel writers could use a variety of different words in telling the same story, yet they often chose identical phrases. Many scholars think that this is proof of the existence of “Q” but I would like to offer an alternative source: oral tradition.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says something which most scholars accept as an oral tradition dating back to the earliest days of the church, to within the first 3-5 years (at most) after Jesus’s resurrection. The phrasing Paul uses, is identical to what Jewish rabbis used when they “delivered” what they had “received” when he gave the gospel in a nutshell – that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again. Though Paul wrote this in 1 Corinthians, it wasn’t original with him but was a formulaic statement that had become traditional in the church.
Word of mouth
So, we know that the early Christians did have at least one statement of oral tradition. Why not others?
The canonical gospels were written any time between a few years after Jesus’s death, to several decades later (depending on what scholars you believe; this article is not going to go into that, though I personally favor an early date). If Paul’s “creed” that he passed onto the Corinthians was formulated within the first few years of Jesus’s resurrection, how many other statements about Jesus, His life and His teachings could have been similarly formulated, memorized, and spread?
Many of us have memorized things (whether Bible verses or movie lines) and I’ve found that these phrases that I’ve memorized pop up easily when I say or write something. This would account for the identical phrases in the gospels, without having one dependent on the others or on any other written account.