The Connection between the Crucifixion and the Passover, Part VI

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 9 March 2005 0 Comments
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How does the "Q" document fit with the Synagogue theory of Synoptic Gospel formation as you describe it?


Your question, raised at a lecture I gave at the Hartford Theological Seminary in Connecticut, needs first to be placed into a context for the benefit of my readers. I was lecturing on the way the Synoptic Gospels were shaped by the synagogue during the oral period of Christian history. By the oral period I mean from the approximate time of the death of Jesus in 30 C.E. to the time when written gospels appear i.e., 70-100 C.E.

When one reads the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) one becomes aware of how deeply these stories are shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures. Prophets are thought to predict specific things that happened in the life of Jesus. Then New Testament stories reflect Old Testament themes over and over and over again. Jesus' birth and Herod's murder of the children is a retelling of the story of Moses' birth and Pharaoh's murder of the children. Abraham and Sarah having a baby, Isaac, in their old age is reflected in Zechariah and Elizabeth having a baby, John the Baptist, in their old age. This mutual dependence could be illustrated ad infinitum. I argued further that it was liturgy and not history that connected the Passover with Jesus' Passion; that John the Baptist was made to articulate the Rosh Hashanah message; that the harvest parable of the sower in Mark 4 reflects the harvest celebration of the Jews called Sukkoth or Tabernacles; that the story of Jesus' transfiguration reflects the Jewish observance of Dedication and so on.

Your question was how does the theory of the formation of the Synoptics square with the "Q" document. Let me take a moment to make sure my readers know what the "Q" hypothesis is. The world of biblical scholarship is almost universally sure that Mark was not only the first gospel to be written but that both Matthew and Luke have Mark in front of them and sometimes copy Mark verbatim, sometimes with alteration, into their own work. Matthew used about 90% of Mark. Luke used about 50%. We can set Matthew and Luke side by side and remove from each of them everything they took from Mark. When that is done, we become aware that there is still much identical or near identical material common to both Matthew and Luke. These common parts generally contain the sayings or teaching of Jesus. The theory behind the "Q" hypothesis is that both Matthew and Luke had a second document in addition to Mark that was an early collection of the sayings of Jesus. No pieces of that presumably now lost document have ever been discovered. "Q" supporters, however, presume that it must once have existed.

Most American biblical scholarship is strongly attached to the "Q" hypothesis. That is not as true among British and European biblical scholars, among whom "Q" has endured a decline in commitment in recent decades. "Q" is still the working hypothesis of the leaders of the Jesus Seminar. Though I am a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, I am not personally convinced of the truth of this hypothesis which makes me a minority voice in that community, where I contend with those I respect, who are far more competent scholars than I. Nonetheless I do not find the arguments for "Q" compelling.

The only other possible theory to account for these aforementioned similarities, and thus the one to which I adhere, suggests that Matthew added these additions to Mark and that Luke had both Mark and Matthew before him when he wrote. Luke tended to prefer Mark but he did copy some of Matthew's additions into his text and this accounts for the presence of material identical to both Matthew and Luke but not included in Mark. This makes Matthew the author of the "Q" material and it argues against it being a much earlier and independent source. I lean in this debate on the scholarship of Michael Donald Goulder, a New Testament professor at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, who wrote what I believe is a definitive critique of the "Q" hypothesis in the preface to his monumental study on Luke's Gospel, a two-volume work, entitled "Luke: A New Paradigm."

Now to address your question directly. I don't think the "Q" hypothesis affects my contention that the Synoptics are shaped by the synagogue. It simply adds another dimension to the interpretive process.

I enjoy the debate. I do not expect to win but I also do not expect to lose. That is what makes the debate both fun and eternal.

-- John Shelby Spong




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