Conversations on Morality: A Q-Based Biography of Jesus

Conversations on Morality

Discussions on the History of Conscience and Ethics

A Q-Based Biography of Jesus

    Back in the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson put together a speculative narrative along the lines attempted here, not just a laundry list of sayings. He clearly was not really trying to reconstruct -- prophetically -- a then unknown Q, which was apparently a purely sayings gospel for the most part. But he was attempting to reconstruct a solid biography according to the tenets of modern historical scholarship as he understood them at that time.

    We've come some way since then, and so it is a matter of great interest exactly how, with today's further scholarly developments, one might contextually use the Luke/Q passages within the Markan narrative (generally taken as the earliest) to construct a biography of Jesus along the lines Jefferson was attempting. The results could either be illuminating or pointless, depending on one's point of view. As always, I have no great bias one way or the other. Comments from others are always welcome on this end product.

    By way of preface to this attempt, I should let the reader know that, in attempting to give a modern-day equivalent to what Jefferson attempted, I am keenly aware that any application of current Q scholarship to this task is fraught with certain fundamental questions.

    How certain can we be that there was a Q gospel as such? Even if there was, how certain can we be that it reflected the earliest stratum of written record on Jesus of Nazareth? How certain can we be that, whatever the earliest stratum, it necessarily reflects the most accurate information we are likely to have on Jesus' ministry? How clear is it that Jefferson himself was necessarily trying to reconstruct the earliest ascertainable information? Is the entire set of assumptions that accepts the earliest written documents as automatically the most accurate deeply flawed? Even in today's world, would Jefferson himself have been the first to put aside any assumptions that the most accurate information has to be also the earliest? Would he have still depended far more on a sophisticated sixth sense to determine which redactions of individual episodes in the various Synoptics were the most credible? Would the linguistic, stylistic advances in Greek scholarship have seemed a good servant but a bad master? Or would he have been as eager as any of today's scholars to incorporate some of the newer findings, regarding the chronological and evident transcriptional attributes of Mark, Luke and Matthew, into his finished product?

    Finally, would our decision to concentrate here, and strictly as part of a provisional exercise, on only Mark and the assumed Q verses in Luke have filled Jefferson--even in the light of modern scholarship--with dismay at the very thought of-- temporarily--putting Matthew and John to one side? Certainly, there was plenty of both Matthew and John included in Jefferson's redaction at Monticello. Conversely, would Jefferson's apparent caution in the face of the ostensibly supernatural make him look askance at certain passages in Mark and in presumed Q--passages that are duly incorporated in our proposed sequence?

    In all candor, there is no doubt that Jefferson's achievement, despite the occasional duplication, was far more ambitious and thorough than anything you will see here.

    One thing's for certain: I expect these questions and many more to be seriously addressed by our readers. They should be, and we welcome them.

    As we pore over this summary, let's keep in mind the most admirably crusty, least axe-grinding take on the entire so-called Q Gospel anomaly that I have yet seen. It comes from a surprisingly detailed, throrough, and even-handed article in the Atlantic Monthly of December 1996. After going through all the exhaustive scholarship of the last hundred years, and also presenting in-depth refutations of the very notion of any written source material antecedent to the Synoptics at all, the article then cites the following remarks from a New Testament professor who does not subscribe wholeheartedly to either the Q Gospel theory or its detractors:

      "There's this idea that we can always be sure where something was written, or what the steps in the tradition were, or even that there was one Q community," says John Meier, a New Testament professor and historical-Jesus researcher at the Catholic University of America. "There was probably a ragtag collection of sayings of Jesus that floated from community to community, and Luke usually has the more original version of the sayings. That's about all we can know. A good number of European scholars are aghast at all of this Q reconstruction."

    Given the uncertainty in much of this, I have nevertheless proceeded, for the sake of argument, on the assumption that there was, at least, a Q-type document behind much of Luke and the (?less reliable?) Matthew. I have also accepted the argument, as a working hypothesis, that the Q Gospel and the Gospel According to Mark are the two earliest, and hence the surest basis for a 1990s historical redaction along Jeffersonian lines.

    Following is the general consensus as to which verses in Luke seem based on Q (the actual text is accessible through the linked heading below):


      Chap. 3: 7-9; 16b-17
      Chap. 4: 1-13
      Chap. 6: 12; 17; 20-23; 27-33; 35-49
      Chap. 7: 1-3; 6-10; 18-19; 22-28; 31-35
      Chap. 9: 57-60
      Chap. 10: 2-16; 21-24
      Chap. 11: 2-4; 9-11; 13-26; 29-35; 39b-44; 46-52
      Chap. 12: 2-12; 22-31; 33-34; 39-40; 42-46; 51; 53-56; 58-59
      Chap. 13: 18-21; 24; 26-30; 34-35
      Chap. 14: 11; 16b-19; 21; 23-24; 26-27; 34-35
      Chap. 15: 4-5; 7
      Chap. 16: 13; 16-18
      Chap. 17: 1-4; 6; 23-24; 26-27; 30; 33-35; 37
      Chap. 18: 14b
      Chap. 19: 12-13; 15-24; 26
      Chap. 22: 28-30

    Fuller evaluation of these so-called Q passages will have to come from those readers ready to study these verses in depth. As always, study of the King James version is preferred with a thoroughly modern up-to-date translation also by one's side as a needed check.

    In attempting to incorporate these Luke passages at appropriate points in the Mark Gospel, one has to also look at a number of passages in Mark as carefully as one must look at anything in Luke. It is generally accepted now that later manuscripts have occasionally inserted into this early gospel certain phrases or entire verses, insertions which were probably not part of the original. These nine insertions can be guessed due to their absence in the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus mss., the two earliest Mark texts we have. The nine additions are:

      1: 1b
      7: 16
      9: 44
      9: 46
      9: 49b
      11: 26
      14: 68d
      15: 28
      16: 9-20

    Of these nine additions, the last in chapter 16 has probably occasioned the most dispute. I have, however, consistently removed all such passages, including the last one, from the following redaction. As always, serious and open discussion on all these matters is welcome.

    In addition, the questions raised by an extant letter of Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215 AD) had to be addressed. In this letter, reference is made to something termed The Secret Gospel of Mark, and Clement quotes two passages unique to this version. Both passages would have been lost had Clement's letter not been preserved. In addition to quoting two of the unique passages, Clement makes reference to different versions of Mark, some being later than others, and he seems to indicate that the passages unique to The Secret Gospel were written some time later than Mark's initial composition. Apparently, the distinctive Greek style in these two passages and some of the concerns reflected in them have been shown to bear a striking connection to three specific insertions(?) in the familiar, canonical Gospel of Mark. The three are:

      14: 51-52
      15: 40c
      16: 1b

    Could these three insertions be just that, taken from a later version inferred from Clement?

    In order to appreciate just why it is so striking that precisely these specific verses should stand out, one must, first of all, remind oneself of the sheer dependence that both Matthew and Luke appear to have had on the Mark Gospel. This is because, between the two of them, they ended up using practically every word that Mark wrote at some point or other. It appears that Matthew reproduces about 90% of Mark and Luke uses about 50%.

    Thus, it appears to be more than coincidence -- and here's the amazing surprise -- that, with the exhaustive use they made of Mark between them, they should both concur in never using certain details from these suspect verses. Yet such is the case.

    The odds seem pretty high against both Matthew and Luke accidentally avoiding those very details -- present only in these three citations -- already singled out by modern Greek scholars.

    Apparently -- and fuller details on this would be greatly appreciated -- the subsequent realization that these three citations were never used by Matthew or Luke, and the conclusions stemming therefrom, came some time after the independent assessment of similarities in Greek style (and content) between these three citations and the unfamiliar Clement citations from The Secret Gospel. So axe- grinding leveled at these non-Matthew, non-Luke citations in the canonical Mark was probably not at the back of the linguistic analysis singling out the distinctive Greek style of these suspect verses in the first place.

    As the S.V. intro to the Secret Gospel points out:

      Rather than assume that by coincidence both Matthew and Luke, independently of one another, chose to alter Mark's story in precisely the same way, scholars have tended to argue that such differences arose when later editors changed the Gospel of Mark after Matthew and Luke had already made use of it. That is to say, Matthew and Luke did not use what we have come to know as the canonical Gospel of Mark, but rather an earlier version of it. Clement's account, which speaks of various versions of Mark known in the second century, generally confirms this view.

    Thus, in inserting the assumed Q verses from Luke at appropriate points in the Mark narrative, I have removed these three Mark insertions not paralleled in Matthew and Luke along with removing the nine other haphazard additions, referred to above, coming from later extant mss. in contrast to the earliest mss., the Sinaiticus and the Vaticanus.

    Accordingly, the proposed sequence, using an amended Mark and the Luke/Q verses, is as follows (the verses from Luke are on the indented lines, and, where variant, King James numbering has been adopted; the chapter headings form links to the actual text):


    Mk: 1:1a; 2-6;

    Lk: 3:7-9; 16b-17;

    15:4-5; 7;

    3:1-7; 9-12;
    6:17; 20-23; 27-33;

    7:1-3; 6-10;
    18-19; 22-28;
    11:14-15; 17-26;

    11:33-35; 12:2-3;
    19:12-13; 15-24; 26;



    7:1-15; 17-37;

    11:16; 29-32; 12:54-56; 58-59;
    14:26-27; 17:33;
    12:4-9; 22-31;

    CHAPTER 10
    9:43; 45; 47-49a;

    CHAPTER 11
    12:33-34; 16:13;
    13:24; 26-30;

    CHAPTER 12
    17:6; 11:2-4; 9-11; 13;

    CHAPTER 13
    14:16b-19; 21; 23-24;

    CHAPTER 14
    13:1-8; 10;
    12:11-12; 51; 53;
    17:26-27; 30; 34-35; 37;
    12:39-40; 42-46;

    CHAPTER 15
    14:26-50; 53-68c; 69-72;

    CHAPTER 16
    15:1-27; 29-40b; 41-47; 16:1a; 1c-8

    As in the case of the initial list of so-called Q verses (see above), I leave it up to others, for the time being, to study most of the implications, either illuminating or ludicrous, of this itemized sequence.

    In inserting the Q verses, I always give the numbering as it appears in Luke, and the reader in following through this sequence, if interested in doing so, should use the King James versions of Mark and Luke for easiest reference.

    The Luke sequence -- the train of thought, in other words -- for individual Q passages is usually adopted, since modern scholarship generally regards the Luke passages from Q as being textually cleaner than those in Matthew. Thus, the presentational sequences of Mark and Luke have determined most decisions.

    As readers work through this sequence, some may be struck by the "un-Jeffersonian" decision to retain the account of the women finding no body at the tomb (Jefferson ends his account earlier, with the burial); while others may be surprised -- at the outset -- by the decision to start this account straight off with Jesus' ministry, as in Mark, with no reference to Jesus' growing up, many details of which were, in fact, used by Jefferson.

    Unlike Jefferson, I have been careful not to retain any contrasting duplications of similar material from two different gospels. However, strikingly similar incidents told at different points in Mark alone (such as the loaves and fishes miracle) have been left as in the original. On the whole, some readers may feel that a degree of depth and insight is afforded by admitting two (or three) contrasting accounts of similar incidents, parables or sayings. That may, in fact, be one of the presentational and textural strengths of Jefferson's redaction. But I decided it might prove more interesting for discussion if specific choices in such cases were made after all, using more stringent historical and critical guidelines.

    Clearly, some readers may miss some very special passages out of Matthew and John, but this provisional sequence is intended more as a structural guide to the telling of the story, based on the earliest presumed sources courtesy of 20th-century scholarship, than as a final, fully fleshed-out account at a level equal to the lofty, comprehensive standards that Jefferson aimed for.

    Again, amplifications, suggestions and reflections are always welcome. Thank you.

Alan Wild
    Thanks for compiling Q. I want to see what Jesus taught, not worship him as a man. Similarly with Confucius, words and ideas hold the importance; a man is transient. Men should be remembered and thanked, surely, but not worshiped. Confucius and Jesus are worshipped as Gods. How can people pervert intent like this?!
    We can barely scratch the surface on this perplexing question. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. At the very least, to address it adequately, one should start by acknowledging the seeming contradictions within even the earliest strata related both to Confucian and Christian traditions.

    It is generally accepted that the earliest written chapters in The Analects of Confucius are nos. III through IX. More recent scholarship has restricted this even further to chapters IV - VIII. Even within these strict parameters, certain contradictions still emerge that leave the precise status of Confucius unclear. A few perplexing remarks of Confucius in chapter VII, in particular, may point in two directions.

    On the one hand, anecdotes 19, 27, and 33 suggest impatience with personal worship, while 22 could be taken as implying the opposite -- for some. Following are the apparent self-effacing disclaimers in 19, 27, and 33:

      VII: 19
        "The Master said, 'I for my part am not one of those who have innate knowledge. I am simply one who loves the past and who is diligent in investigating it.' "

      VII: 27
        "The Master said, 'There may well be those who can do without knowledge. But I for my part am certainly not one of them. To hear much, pick out what is good and follow it, to see much and take due note of it, is the lower of the two kinds of knowledge.' "

      VII: 33
        "The Master said, 'As to being a Divine Sage or even a Good Man, far be it from me to make any such claim. As for unwearying effort to learn and unflagging patience in teaching others, those are merits that I do not hesitate to claim.' Kung-hsi Hua said, 'The trouble is that we disciples cannot learn!' "

    Some might square Confucius's apparent insistence, above, on his humble capacities against his assertion, below, made in the teeth of an apparent threat to him posed by a dangerous Minister of War in Sung, Huan T'ui:

      VII: 22
        "The Master said, 'Heaven begat the power (te) that is in me. What have I to fear from such a one as Huan T'ui?' "

    I recognize that one could simply take this as an assertion that Confucius was armed with his own te (also translated as "virtue"). In itself, this is not necessarily a statement of any special properties to be worshipped. Nevertheless, one might see how a declaration of this sort would lead to worship of the kind rejected in anecdotes 19, 27, and 33.

    Similarly, when it comes to Jesus, if we confine ourselves strictly to the earliest stratum of Gospel writing embodied in the Vaticanus/Sinaiticus Gospel of Mark and the Q passages in Luke, possible contradictions still emerge that could also point in two directions.

    On the one hand, in Mark, 10:18, Jesus corrects a rich man who has just addressed him as "Good Master":

      Mark, 10:18
        "And Jesus said unto him, 'Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is, God.' " [appears as 11:21 in our Gospel sequence linked to this chapter]

    Squared against this simple statement of his mere humanity is Jesus' remarks in a Q passage in Luke:

      Luke, 10:22
        "'All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father, and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him.'" [appears as 7:43 in our Gospel sequence linked to this chapter]

    Granted, this is a knotty passage. Many could dispute -- and have -- its precise meaning. Still, one can see how this might be taken (as could VII:22 for Confucius) as more of a warrent for special adulation than Jesus' more humble warning to the rich man in Mark, above.

    Naturally, I welcome other interpretations of all these passages from scholars more versed than I am in the intricacies of both New Testament and Confucian studies. I do believe, at the end of the day, that, however we interpret these various passages, the inference of contradictions in them taken by some others, whether correct or not, must be accepted as having led to contradictory traditions.


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