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Q and the Historical Jesus

Posted on: February 28, 2015


The quest for the historical Jesus begins with accepting this basic directive of Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), “We are justified in drawing an absolute distinction between the teaching of the Apostles in their writings and what Jesus Himself in His own lifetime proclaimed and taught.”

Note that Reimarus says there is an “absolute distinction” between what Jesus said and what was written about him. He does not use a softer word like “basic” or “relative” or even “fundamental.” For Reimarus, what Jesus really said and what the follower of Jesus said about him are irreconcilable. Since Reimarus, the question of the historical Jesus, the real Jesus who lived and died before the beliefs of Christianity arose, has been in front of the church and the public. It is a perpetually scandalous question because if we accept that Jesus was human like anyone it seems that the whole enterprise of the Christian religion comes tumbling down.

Yet, the fear that Christianity will end with the “historical Jesus” has given way to a new and hopeful view that in fact Christianity begins with the historical Jesus. Since the historical Jesus question is all about history, the quest for the historical Jesus teaches us how to understand history and accordingly how to understand the Bible. There is no scandal to be found here anymore. What we end up uncovering with the historical Jesus are the different theologies at the birth of Christianity. We uncover the diverse ways earliest Christianity thought about Jesus. We learn that it is okay to have differing opinions about Jesus and, even further, we catch a glimpse of the human Jesus before the movement around him, eventually called Christianity, began.

The key to uncovering the historical Jesus is the Q Gospel. By comparing the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we can see that 23% of Luke and 25% of Matthew are held in common. This common writing can be reconstructed and is called the Q Sayings Gospel. Since this source is writing from a time ealier than both Matthew and Luke, it gives us a glimpse of a form of Christianity before the New Testament gospels were written. Q is a source gospel for the written gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Some of the most interesting things about the Q Gospel involve what is not in it. It does not have or use the title Christ for Jesus. So, Q gives us a glimpse at an early form of Christianity that did not think Jesus was the messiah. At the time of the Q writing there were other forms of Christianity that did call Jesus the Christ (or messiah), but Q did not. So, this shows us that at the beginning different kinds of Christianity existed.

Another element lacking in the Q Gospel is an emphasis on miracles. In the New Testament gospels, Jesus does a lot of miracles. Though there are two miracle stories in Q, one involving a Roman centurion and one involving a man possessed, the Q gospel does not remembered Jesus as a miracle worker but as a teacher. Almost all of Q is the teaching of Jesus. Q then is a type of Christianity that collected the sayings of Jesus and held them to be primary.

But the biggest silence of the Q Gospel is that fact that it has no passion narrative. It has no trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. What might be singularly the most central aspect of traditional Christianity, the passion of Christ, is completely absent in Q. This more than anything else indicates that for the Q people, it is the teaching of Jesus and not what he did that centred their community.

What the Q Gospel does have in abundance is aphorisms or short sayings attributed to Jesus. These include the sayings we find in Matthew as the Sermon on the Mount. They are such sayings as love your enemies, the least are the greatest, and no one lights a lamp to hide it. There are also some parables in Q like the mustard seed parable and the parable of the great banquet. There are Q sayings of judgement as well, such as woes directed to the citizens of Chorazin and Bethsaida.

It is due to the different types of sayings in Q that it is commonly believed the Q material passed through three stages of development. In other words, the Q Gospel was re-written on several occasions to reflect changing times. Without detail, the understanding today is that Q1 is the first layer or edition of Q. It consists of collected wisdom teaching such as love your enemies. Q2 is judgement material and the second edition of Q. It adds to the wisdom collection a set of judgements, like those directed to the towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida. These harsh judgements probably arose from the Q people responding to their critics. The third edition of Q, called Q3, added instruction or advice to the Q Gospel. It holds sayings like, “no one can serve two masters.”

The belief today is that there was a Q Community, which was a form of ancient Christianity, that did not survive past the year 70 when the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. But what has this to do with the historical Jesus? Two things. First, even though the Q Gospel is early, it is still not Jesus. It is only a glimpse of the historical Jesus. Most of the Q Gospel expresses the theology (or beliefs) of the Q people. Only after we see the theology of Q can we then ask what, in this material, gives us a “glimpse” of Jesus.

The theology of Q can be stated briefly. They followed Jesus as a teacher of wisdom and focussed on his sayings. What they believed is that in Jesus they saw the weak, the outcast, and the forgotten as the true people of God. The central saying for the Q people is “how happy are the poor.” The Q people saw themselves as the poor.

Did the historical Jesus also see himself as the “poor.” This unfortunately we do not know. We really have no biographical information about the historical Jesus. The only material of some certainty are the parables. And it seems clear that Jesus was about surprises, stories that always hold a twist. Equally, Jesus does not teach us anything about God because the parables do not have God in them. The parables are stories. Accordingly, the historical Jesus needs to be seen as an artist of words and not a believer or proclaimer of dogma. On the basis of this glimpse at an artist, the historical Jesus gives a challenge to religion today: that it turn to art and away from dogma.

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