Jesus According to the Q – The Earliest Portrait of the Historical Jesus

Author: Robert D. Brinsmead

August 2008

The Significance of the “Q” Document

For some time it has been accepted by the historical Jesus scholars, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, that Mark was the earliest of the four NT Gospels. It was written by an unknown Gentile Christian source around 70 AD. Some 15-25 years later, Matthew and Luke, written also by unknown sources, both copied Mark. They also added sayings of Jesus that were drawn from another common but unsighted source. It was the German scholars who first coined the term “Quelle” (meaning “Source”) to identify this unsighted source material used by Matthew and Luke. It now simply goes by the name Q.

One hundred years of Jesus scholarship has confirmed the existence of an early “Sayings Gospel” thought to have been in circulation during the 50’s of the first century CE. We are indebted to a number of scholars who in very recent years have been able to carefully and painstakingly reconstruct the Q. James M. Robinson is one of these scholars. The following outline draws heavily, but not exclusively, from his recent book, Jesus: According to the Earliest Witness.

The scholarly methods used in the reconstruction of the Q have been as rational and as scientific as the methods used by the cosmologists who actually discovered the existence of the planets Uranus and Pluto before they were sighted, or by Einstein who theoretically discovered that E=MC2 long before it was demonstrated to be true, or by physicists who have discovered a sub-atomic world that no one, including themselves, has ever seen. We say this in answer to the objection that the existence of the Q must be uncertain on the grounds that it has never been seen.

The Content of the Q Document

The Q was essentially a Sayings Gospel. It preserved the core sayings and teaching of the historical Jesus in their earliest form. The people responsible for this Sayings Gospel obviously felt that the most significant thing to record about Jesus was what he said. There is very little said about what he did, and less to indicate who he was.

  • · There is no apocalyptic element in the teaching of Jesus according to Q – nothing said about the end-time with its widely expected cataclysmic events.
  • · There is no mention of any of the great nature miracles – like stilling the storm, walking on water, feeding the multitude.
  • · There is no mention of the apostles.
  • · There are no religious practices advocated – no religious fasting, no observance of Israel’s purity code, no ceremonial, sacrificial or ritual observances. Jesus is simply an itinerant sage who is neither a religious reformer nor founder of a religion.
  • · There is nothing said about the organization of the Christian Church.
  • · There is nothing said about Jesus death and resurrection even though Q was obviously written and in circulation after these events.
  • · There is no Christology in Q – nothing said to foster the veneration of Jesus’ person as the Savior of the world. Rather than laud him, Jesus simply wants his hearers to do what he says. (Evidently his followers eventually came to think it was far easier to venerate Jesus than to do what he said.)
  • · The focus of Jesus’ sayings is on this world as the domain of God’s creation rather than on the next world or the hereafter.

The Way of Life Advocated in the Q Document

Q contains simple yet radical “way of life” sayings:

  • · Jesus taught an active and practical love of one’s enemies that would mirror his Abba Father who sends rain upon good and bad people alike. In the historical context of a hated Roman occupation that the Jewish people were anxious to resist with violence and bloodshed at the first opportunity, Jesus teaching would have seemed quite disloyal to the national aspirations. It also flew in the face of the bitter and sometimes bloody factionalism that was rife among his own people.
  • · No retaliation, revenge or pay-back justice.
  • · Forgiveness should be endlessly and unconditionally extended to others.
  • · Never be judgmental of others, and beware of being confident and smug about being in the right.
  • · Trust in the Abba Father’s care and reflect in your life his overwhelming generosity to all.
  • · Rejection of family ties that compete with or hinder any of the above.

The Methodology of Jesus’ Mission According to the Q

The mission methodology of the Q is so odd that it gives us some insight into why some people, including Jesus’ own family, said he was mad. He sent “workers” into the Galilean villages with these rather bizarre instructions –

  • · No shoes – go barefoot.
  • · Carry no food or extra clothes.
  • · Carry no scrip. (Satchel, bag)
  • · Carry no purse with money.
  • · Carry no protective stick. (To ward off dogs or robbers)
  • · Greet no one on the road.
  • · Beg for food and lodgings at a house.
  • · Pronounce the arrival of the kingdom of God to the house sharing bread and hospitality.
  • · Heal the sick in the house of the host.

As bizarre as the above methods may seem, in the historical context of the recent execution of John the Baptist and the suspicion of any subversive activity by the powers that be, workers plying the roads looking like lonely, bare foot and defenceless beggars would be less likely to arouse the suspicion of the authorities.

The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man in Q

The Q contains two oft-repeated phrases that uniquely belong to Jesus: these are the kingdom of God and the son of man.

On the lips of Jesus the kingdom of God –

  • · Is something that has already arrived, and not something which is merely imminent.
  • · Its arrival is joyfully announced as “gospel” and celebrated with eating and drinking.
  • · It is not something that is apocalyptic or cataclysmic as in John the Baptist and the popular Jewish expectation.
  • · It is not something that is revealed or demonstrated in any outward show, but is rather like yeast hidden in the dough or seed germinating in the ground. It is manifested in ordinary people doing very ordinary or human things.
  • · It is something that people were entering in Jesus’ day.

It is easy enough to translate the phrase “kingdom of God” as the rule, domain or empire of God, but the real substance of its meaning only becomes apparent when we look at the meaning of the other expression, “son of man.”

In recent years, some Jesus scholars have demonstrated quite conclusively from Jesus’ own Aramaic language that the term, “son of man”, so often on the lips of Jesus, was not a title. It simply meant “son of humanity” or “this man.” That understanding is now almost universally accepted by contemporary Jesus scholars, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. We might summarize the main features of Jesus “son of man’ sayings as –

  • · An expression of Jesus’ solidarity with the entire human race.
  • · The implication that his source of authority was an enlightened human consciousness.
  • · Courage to do the human thing no matter what custom, culture, religion, law, Scripture or political correctness might dictate. (Some may call this love, compassionate, unconditional acceptance of others, mercy, non-judgmentalism – attributes that an enlightened human consciousness will recognize as supremely human. There are a number of powerful reasons why, on the evidence, I prefer to subsume it all under the term, “doing the human thing.”
  • · A teaching to indicate that any man can recognize that he is also a son of man as Jesus was. (With apologies to the sexist language, women are of course included in this human solidarity/equality)
  • · A teaching that ordinary people doing the human thing is the only means by which the Abba Father or the kingdom of God can come to expression.

People simply doing the human thing, therefore, are the kingdom of God.

Some Inconvenient Questions

  • · How is it that none of the creeds of the Churches, whether the early ecumenical creeds, the Roman Catholic creeds or the Protestant creeds say a single thing about the teaching of Jesus?
  • · Should not the authentic teaching of Jesus take precedence over the Church’s teaching about Jesus?
  • · Is the distinctly non-religious nature of Jesus sayings compatible with the elaborate religious rites, orders, hierarchies, offices, garments, books, vestments, days, places, sacraments, prayers and dogmas?
  • · Is the Jesus of history really the same as the Jesus of the Creeds, or has the Jesus of history been embellished, reshaped, packaged, religionized and venerated to become the Jesus of faith?
  • · If the Jesus Sayings of the Q were nailed to the door of the Church as a monk once nailed a protest against Indulgences to the door the Church, how would the Christian religion survive?

Just asking!