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Tracing The Source of Q - Header

Written by Frank Ramirez ~ Published August 28, 2001 ~ Last Updated, September, 2001 ©
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Earlier this year as I write this I read the three volume Loeb Classical Library edition of the plays of Menander (342-291 BC). You may not recall the name, but for good or ill you cannot escape his influence. Menander was the comic playwright of the ancient world, remembered centuries after his death as the writer with no equal. In addition to a wealth of sayings which have entered our language in one mangled form or another (including “Only the good die young”) it's clear to me that the sitcoms which saturate the airwaves are the direct lineal descendants of his comedies. In contrast to the better-known Aristophanes, who wrote during a time of political freedom and whose comedies therefore are a tangled skein of contemporary in-jokes which require dense footnotes in order for us to laugh (well, chuckle, no one laughs if a joke has to be explained), Menander wrote during a harsher political climate. His humor could not poke fun at contemporary political figures. One result was this his comedy was stretched over the same framework over and over again, and its broad universality makes the humor clear today. Prior to the twentieth century Menander was known only second-hand through a myriad of quotations, including many in the early Church Fathers who were as familiar with his work as anyone. The texts of his plays were lost over the centuries, until the discoveries of papyri in the Egyptian desert brought scraps of his work to light.

The work of Menander was a part of this rediscovery. Certainly the recovery of his comic light was welcome to theatrical historians at the least. One nearly complete play and portions of many others were discovered, translated, printed, and commentaried many times over.

Menander's literary legacy, like that of many poets of the ancient world, now rests upon the testimony of fragments, but we are grateful for these scraps.

My references to ancient papyri might be considered interesting in and of itself to readers, but some might question what relevance they have in the present situation. Truth be told, I think the situation of Menander scholarship throws light on both biblical and Brethren issues. Let me explain.

This article will be printed next year in Brethren Life & Thought. Please check with Brethren Press for availability. May also be purchased at Annual Conference. Brethren Life and Thought is published quarterly by the Brethren Journal Association and Bethany Theological Seminary. The journal solicits thoughtful interpretative essays, scholarly articles, and short creative works including poetry, related to the faith, heritage, and practices of the Church of the Brethren and related movements, broadly interpreted.   -David B. Eller, Editor
Brethren Life & Thought

While reading a recent number of Brethren Life and Thought, the example of Menander came to me as a respected author alluded to that mysterious lost document known simply as Q. The point of the essay was to suggest that the content of Q should help define who we are as Christians in general and Brethren in particular. Briefly, Q, which stands for the German word Quelle, or source, is the supposed source document for much of what is in our gospels today. Most of the scholarship of the past century is built upon the assumption of the existence of Q. Most scholars would say that Q includes the sayings of Jesus, unadorned by story or even context. The first Christian community, before it was called Christian, according to this theory, proclaimed a Jesus who performed no unexplainable miracles, who died on the cross, and who did not rise from the dead. It is not always stated quite so baldly, but that in essence is what it amounts to.

Much of what I read in the Menander commentaries consisted of the scraps of Greek text, reconstruction of lost lines from a few letters, mixed in with guesses of what might have occurred in the lost portions of the plot based on the evidence of frescoes which depicted scenes from his plays, as well as our knowledge of what happened in his sitcom-like stories. A good idea of what the play might have been about can be gleaned from these multiple sources -- frescoes, testimonies, echoes from later and lesser playwrights who stole the plots, and quotations from other authors.

Indeed, I took advantage of these multiple sources to mount a production of Menander’s Perikeiromene, which I called “The Girl With Her Hair Cut Short,” a couple of years ago at a local community theater.

But at the heart of all theatrical and academic arguments are the scraps themselves.

And I wondered - where are the scraps of Q?

Where is Q?

A century of scholarship, as near as I can tell, has failed to bring to light one single saying of Jesus which can confidently be attached to this convenient source document. This has not prevented a treasure trove of books describing Q. There have even been editions of Q, heavily annotated, printing Greek and English text side by side. But there’s no Q. There are no testimonies to Q that I am aware of, or quotations in other documents, except where the scholars themselves make the inference that what they read in a gospel text is or is not derived from this document.

Not that there aren’t collections of the sayings of Jesus. The most famous is the Gospel of Thomas, assigned to the heterodox Gnostics, those mystics who separated body from spirit in a dualism unknown to our Jewish forebears who believed that all of God’s creation is good. And there are other sayings of Jesus, and other gospels of greater or lesser reliability, which have come to light and fueled debates over what Jesus said and did.

But no Q. Despite this, there is more certainty after a century of what Q contained and did not contain than one would expect for such an important document. And as a result Q turns out to be a most convenient gospel.

What is Q? It turns out it’s whatever you want it to be. Scholars quote each other incestuously regarding the content of Q. In stark contrast to the works of Menander, or Sappho, for which there are scraps, the total lack of documentary evidence means that Q becomes whatever is convenient.


A reliance on a Q created in one’s self image creates a false trump card to canon the illusion of a superior source to the Bible the rest of us are using. The four gospels as they have come down to us (and they have come down pretty reliably -- no other document of the ancient world has the wealth of manuscripts behind it as the Scriptures) present four different viewpoints of Jesus. A case can be made that critical examination of these accounts, weighing sources and influences, is a valid way of understanding what the texts mean. Much can be learned by comparison of the documents that we have, both orthodox and heterodox. In addition, speculation about possible source documents is legitimate -- as long as it is labeled as speculation, and the manuscript situation made clear.

As things stand now, we know of no Jesus without miracles. That is not as comfortable for some as for the great majority of professing Christians of all stripes. This is not, however, just an academic exercise. The people of the Word are called to deal with the Word. The whole bible. Not just the convenient bible. Before we put too much reliance on Q, let’s see it.

This is especially important when it comes to our identity as Brethren. We have stated from our founding that we have no creed but the Bible. A more recent formulation has been that we have no creed but the New Testament, but in either event, the assumption is that the documents we have, as they have been presented to us, are the foundation of who we are. We may argue about interpretation, priority, and practice, and certain portions of scripture may make us profoundly uncomfortable, or require explanation, or even explaining away, but we cannot simply wish the text away by alluding to a document which by the very fact of its non-existence conveniently becomes whatever it expediently needs to be.

The most profound lesson I learned in seminary, one which has stuck with me these many years since graduation, was the lesson I learned from Graydon F. Snyder, in first year New Testament studies. Grady stated that the one true heresy was removing a piece of scripture. We may disagree about interpretation and translation and context, but not on the canon.

The documents as they exist define us. As Brethren we have seen a minor revolution in our understanding of ourselves over the course of the last century, precisely because of the discovery and reclamation of documents. The Brethren histories of Martin G. Brumbaugh and Henry Holsinger, for instance, remain important documents with regards to attitudes, but the work of Don Durnbaugh and others in actually finding, cataloging, and publishing our historical records has led at last to serious accounts of our history, faith, and practice.

Brumbaugh, for instance, wished to find the reforms of the early twentieth century progressives implicit in the earliest Brethren of two hundred years before, and it was generally accepted that there was a so-called “wilderness” period when Brethren strayed from those roots. The documents suggested that our history was much more checkered -- and interesting -- than at first supposed.

We're still looking for documents as Brethren. The Brethren Historical Library Association has a wish list, or hit list if you prefer, of documents for which there is some evidence that at one time or other existed. They may still be out there. And Q, if it truly existed, may still be out there as well, awaiting recovery. If scraps of Q make their appearance in the papyri discoveries, then all bets are off. Their inclusion in scriptural apparatus will be appropriate, and their place in evaluating our identity as Christians and Brethren may become valuable.

Of course the discovered scraps of Q might indicate that this document was both ephemeral and unimportant. Indeed, the lack of any real documentary evidence for Q already makes that highly probable. But it seems to me for now that someone has to point out the obvious -- the Emperor has no clothes. Q remains extraordinarily conspicuous by its absence. If it ever existed at all it may not have been very important. The Kerygma, or proclamation, that the Lord Jesus is Risen may have been far more important, and it is that which is the foundation of our received New Testament documents.

Indeed it is painful to point this out, as many of those who have built strong arguments upon Q are either those I admire and respect, or am also in sympathy with their aims and goals. Certainly I make no claim to be in the same league with these experts when it comes to the depth and breadth of their knowledge and expertise. However the interest in any number of ancient authors which has been increased by the publication of scraps, shreds, and tatters over the past century should have evoked a similar hunger for hard documentary evidence for those who allude or rely on Q as well.

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About the Author

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Frank Ramirez is pastor of the Everett Church of the Brethren in Everett, Pennsylvania, and a prolific Brethren author whose articles frequently appear in denominational literature. He is the author of the recently published “The Love Feast,” a compilation of history, theology, and personal insights surrounding the Brethren communion service. Ramirez was also evening worship speaker at the 2001 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren in Baltimore, Maryland.

Please see other articles by Ramirez: Creeds and the COB, Tower of Siloam

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