James M. Robinson is the Arthur J. Letts Professor of Religion and Director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate School and Co-chair of the International Q Project.
This address was delivered at Princeton Theological Seminary, April 10, l997. The text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.
Robinson explains the relationship of the Q document (Sayings Gospel Q) to Matthew and Luke and shows what it can tell us about the ministry of Jesus before that ministry was interpreted by Matthew and Luke.
The topic of “the real Jesus” did not even exist until the Enlightenment, unless one wanted, as a latter-day Monophysite or Arian or Adoptionist, to revive long since forgotten heresies. But with the Enlightenment, or, more precisely, with the historicism of the nineteenth century, the question of the real Jesus was posed: Who really was Jesus, as a real person in history? What can the historian say? Over the last two centuries, there gradually emerged a new access to Jesus, made available through objective historical research.
I. The Rediscovery of the Sayings Gospel Q
Up until modern times, people could only know about Jesus through their religious experience in the church, codified in creeds and doctrines about Christ. . We all know, no doubt by heart, the Jesus of the Apostles’ Creed, which has turned out to be based not on a text Jesus taught his disciples but rather on the baptismal confession developed in Rome in the second century and projected back onto the beginnings. But in that familiar creed Jesus’ own history, what he himself said and did during his lifetime, is fully bypassed. Not what he said and did, but only what they said about him, counted as saving information: born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate. But what in between? Is that of no significance? Did not Jesus himself think that what he said and did had saving significance? Has Paul’s kerygma of cross and resurrection, which is what lies behind the Apostles’ Creed, really said everything that we want to know about the significance of Jesus? In the case of other dying and rising gods of the Roman Empire, what one narrates about the myth, is the nub of the issue. Nothing else is known about them — if they actually lived, nothing has survived to be reported — only the myth about their dying and rising. They are prototypes and guarantors of the afterlife, hardly more. But Jesus really lived in time and space and was significant enough that all these myths were absorbed into his significance, as the one and only dying and rising God. But what was Jesus’ own significance, which gave him this predominance?
To be sure, the Evangelists themselves have already tailored their narrations of Jesus’ sayings and healings to focus on the kerygrna, making the gospel of cross and resurrection the quintessence of the whole ministry of Jesus. So can one then be spared the details? Yet for modern people, a person who remains historically inaccessible is somehow unreal, more fancy than fact, indeed a myth. It would boil down to a kind of modern Doceticism if, moved by awe before the exaltedness of Jesus, we were to declare his historical reality to be academically unattainable or religiously irrelevant. The result was, in the nineteenth century, the quest of the historical Jesus, of which Albert Schweitzer wrote so masterfully.
It may be no coincidence that a century and a half ago, as this rediscovery of Jesus was just getting under way, there came to light a collection of Jesus’ sayings used by Matthew and Luke in composing their Gospels. Matthew and Luke updated the sayings so that they made clear what Jesus must have meant, namely, what Matthew and Luke meant, and imbedded his sayings into their copies of the Gospel of Mark, making of Matthew and Luke hybrid Gospels, partly Mark and partly the sayings collection.
Then, after Matthew and Luke used it in their enlarged, improved Gospels, that primitive collection of Jesus’ sayings was itself no longer copied and transmitted by Christian scribes, since the church of course — unfortunately — preferred those more up-to-date and complete Gospels. The more primitive text was itself lost completely from sight. In fact, it ceased to exist. For since we have no first-century copies of anything Christian, no copies of Q survived. It was never heard of again, after the end of the first century, until, in 1838, a scholar in Leipzig, Germany, Christian Hermann Weisse, detected it lurking just under the surface of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Since after its rediscovery it was commonly referred to as a source of the canonical Gospels, scholars came to call it simply “the source,” in German, Quelle, abbreviated Q. But since “Q” sounds rather cryptic, not to say flat, we have of late come to call it, for clarity’s sake and to be able to refer to it as a text in its own right, not just a source for something else, the Sayings Gospel Q.
This old Sayings Gospel was not like the canonical Gospels, so colored over with the kerygma of cross and resurrection that the historical Jesus, though embedded therein, was actually lost from sight by the heavy overlay of golden patina. Rather, this document was just primitive enough to contain many sayings of Jesus without kerygmatic overlay and without the Q redactor’s own additions. Here the real Jesus, who actually lived in history, has his say. So what did he have to say? Such questions have again become acute in our time, at least among modern people who stand within the Christian tradition but also want to know what really happened, what Jesus was really up to.
I can of course only attempt a preliminary answer, for my work is far from complete. And I limit myself almost exclusively to this lost and rediscovered collection of Jesus’ sayings. I am working intensely on reconstructing word for word in Greek that Sayings Gospel, by undoing as best I can the improvements by Matthew and Luke, so as to listen to what Jesus himself had to say. In fact, I am heading an international team of more than forty, mostly younger scholars who, over the past decade, have been trying to decide just how that Greek source read, before Matthew and Luke updated it, but, thank goodness, left it sufficiently intact that our efforts are not in vain.
We have assembled an enormous database of opinions expressed by scholars over the past 150 years about the original wording of Q. After sorting French, German, and English excerpts from scholarly literature in chronological order, we have been meeting up to three times a year in America and Europe to evaluate that mass of scholarly opinion and thus to work out what seems the most objective reconstruction of the sayings, one by one. We have gone through all of Q once and are beginning to go through it a second time, now publishing, at Peeters Press in Leuven, our massive database under the title Documenta Q. A first volume, containing the Lord’s Prayer appeared last spring; a second volume, containing the temptations of Jesus just appeared this spring; and a third is in press. Three more volumes are to appear in 1997, and we hope to maintain the tempo of four per year until we complete the publication of the database in 2002. In view of this massive publication of scholarly opinion, I refrain here from 1earned-sounding discussions with the scholars, so as to keep in focus the text of the Saying Gospel itself.
We will also publish around the year 2000 a one-volume critical edition of Q in a synopsis, including the Gospels of Matthew, Luke, Mark, and Thomas, with English, German, and French translations of Q and Thomas, which is already being edited. Just to make available a reliable copy of the oldest Gospel, lost for 1900 years, is itself worth doing. But, even more important, Q points back, in its oldest layers, to what Jesus himself had to say. What could he possibly have been thinking as he was doing what he was doing? Thanks to the Sayings Gospel, the question is really not all that impossible to answer. I do think we can catch sight of what he was up to. That is where I want to begin with you tonight.
II. The Sayings Gospel’s Presentation of Jesus
Since I am working from a collection of Jesus’ sayings, I have to abstain from the narrative part of his biography, the stories of his birth, healings, Holy Week, and Easter, for, as we will see, they are not in the Sayings Gospel Q at all, or at most, present in a very indirect way. Yet I am happy to limit myself to the Sayings Gospel Q, to concentrate on what Jesus must have been thinking, to judge by what he was saying.
But before turning to Jesus’ sayings, let me at least say what one can infer from Q about his life: He grew up in a small village of lower or southern Galilee called in (Q 4:16) Nazara, but always called Nazareth elsewhere in the canonical Gospels, a hamlet perhaps too small even to have had a local synagogue in which Jesus might have learned to read the Hebrew scriptures. He must have found “sermons in stones,” to judge by the local color that becomes so eloquent in his parables (the stones themselves being especially prominent in Q).
In any case, we know nothing about him until he left home to join the apocalyptic movement of John by undergoing John’s initiation rite, baptism in the Jordan. John did not seem to have provided much guidance as to what to do next, other than, having straightened up, to fly right. Baptism by immersion in the Jordan must have symbolized taking off one’s old worldly identity and reemerging as a new, godly person. But what does that mean? Where does one go from there?
Perhaps, it is Jesus’ wrestling with this question that comes to mythical expression in Q as a debate with the devil in the three temptations of Jesus. In any case, the temptations are the only thing that occurs in Q between John’s baptizing Jesus and Jesus’ launching his own ministry with his inaugural sermon. For Jesus went directly to the people with the good news of a lifestyle underwritten by God himself.
Before turning to the substantive issue of where Jesus’ ideas went, I would like to digress a moment to speak superficially, geographically, about where Jesus himself went: Jesus moved to Capharnaum on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, chosen perhaps because it was ideally suited to the lifestyle he had in mind. Capharnaum was beside the lake, which provided a God-given year-round food supply, was well below sea level, and hence had a mild climate, and was a crossroad for land and sea travel. There were secluded villages in the forested mountains behind, to which Jesus could withdraw, one on the Galilean side of the frontier, Chorazin, and one just across the frontier, under a different ruler, Bethsaida, which seems to have been the home town of others baptized byJohn. He got along well with the despised customs officials (whom we probably translate inadequately as “tax collectors,” not to say “publicans”) and the equally unwelcome centurion of the Roman army of occupation stationed at Capharnaum, who implored Jesus to heal his boy, pointing out that Jesus could do it by just giving a command without even having to profane himself by entering a gentile house.
Let me get to the issue of what Jesus was up to. He seems to have found his own mission in speaking to the more basic question of where one goes from here rather than simply in continuing John’s initiation rite. Apparently, Jesus himself did not baptize. But he must have begun by believing in the imminent day of judgment as John proclaimed, for why would he otherwise have immersed himself in John’s cause? Yet he himself did not make the repetition of that rite, or John’s apocalypticism, the focus of what he himself was up to.
One only needs to look at the single overlap of their vocabulary, the metaphor of the tree and its fruit. John used this metaphor to call on people to bear fruit resulting from repentance, warning that if one did not produce good fruit, one would soon be chopped down at the judgment like a diseased tree (Q 3:8-9). Jesus dropped the threat of judgment but reflected on the metaphor itself (Q 6:43): There are indeed different kinds of fruit trees, as anyone living on the land knows, and each bears its own kind of fruit. Thorn bushes do not produce figs, and bramble bushes do not produce grapes. A healthy tree produces edible fruit, but a diseased tree produces only fruit that never ripens. Now, people are like trees: If you are good, you produce good things, but if you are evil, your produce is bad. What comes out of your mouth shows what kind of heart you have, just as what fruit comes off a tree shows what kind of tree it is. What matters is being the right kind of person. Then you will automatically produce the right kind of fruit. Here Jesus’ message, in distinction from that of John, was not “Be good or get chopped down!” but rather “Let me tell you what being a good person really means — I call on you to be just that!”
As this little sample illustrates, Jesus sought to come to grips with the basic intentions of people. He addressed them personally, as to what kind of people they were. He called on them — he did not teach them ideas, as would a theologian. For when we take his sayings and distill from them our doctrines, we have manipulated his sayings for our own purposes, first of all, for the purpose of avoiding his addressing us personally. We reclassify his sayings as objective teachings to which we can give intellectual assent rather than letting them strike home as the personal challenge he intended them to be. Our learned, highly technical scholarly debates about Jesus’ teaching would be, from his perspective, our dodge. So he would not agree with any of it but would want to cut through it all for an honest look at our heart.
If I then proceed to present, in as objective a way as I as a scholar can, his teachings, my very objectivity would be my dodge, by means of which I would evade his point. Therefore, in trying to talk really about what he had to say, what I say has to retain his note of direct appeal. This tone of interpersonal encounter, this person-to-person mode, is the only really objective way to talk about what Jesus was talking about, for it was that personal talk that he was talking, and walking.
III. What Did Jesus Have to Say in the Sayings Gospel?
Looking out for number one is not the way to go. One should not be concerned about one’s own life. Just think of the ravens (Q 12:22-31). They neither work the fields nor store in barns, so as to have enough stored up to get through the winter. They do not need to worry about such things, for God provides their nourishment. It is similar with lilies, what we would call wildflowers, which do not need to produce their clothing on a weaver’s loom, and yet the splendor of their adornment far exceeds the glorious costumes of a king like Solomon. God provides their clothing — he already knows what you need! You should count on him just as they do. Trust him without a care in the world! What one normally calls faith in God is only little faith, hardly better than what gentiles call religion. No matter how hard you work at self-preservation, you will not be able to stretch out life so as to avoid death. So it makes more sense to get involved in the actualization of God’s rule, where fulness of life is to be found, than to focus on self-preservation.
What does it really mean, to seek God’s rule? Here, Matthew interpreted God’s reign by adding, as a kind of gloss, “God’s righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). So one talks about Matthew’s moralizing interpretation of the kingdom of God. But that probably is not all Jesus had in mind. For, in another place in the Sayings Gospel, almost the same as was said about the ravens and wild flowers crops up again, and so one passage can help interpret the other; that passage is the Lord’s Prayer (Q 11:2-4). Here, the petition “Thy kingdom come!” is again glossed by Matthew’s added interpretation, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” But here it becomes clear that the so-called moral interest of Matthew does not come to expression as a moral appeal to the community but rather in a petition directed to God. It is he who should establish his will on earth! God’s rule is what brings God’s will, his own righteousness, to earth. And we can only ask him to do this for us. Of course, he will not have established his will on earth as long as people act unjustly among themselves, but that is not the actual focus of the prayer. God himself should bring to pass his just will!
The prayer in Q itself, prior to Matthew’s gloss, had interpreted the first petition, “Thy kingdom come,” as having to do with God’s providing food, in what had been the immediately following petition, “Give us this day our daily bread!” So God’s rule has to do primarily with eating? This option, offensive not only to us but already to Matthew, motivated him both to insert “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and also, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (the Beatitudes pronounced on the poor and hungry), to add that God’s blessing has to do with the “poor in spirit,” who “hunger and thirst after righteousness,” not simply with hungry beggars, which is what the Greek word translated “poor” actually means. But Jesus himself did not take offense at talking literally about food. In this regard, liberation theologians have understood Jesus well, for they experienced the setting of his sayings as they themselves lived among the poor and oppressed of South America. It is not because the poor are better or more worthy that the Beatitudes apply to them but simply because their plight is greater. Contrary to all outer appearances, they are fortunate, because God’s rule means taking care of them.
The Lord’s Prayer is followed in Q itself by its interpretation (Q 11:9-13): Even a far-from-perfect human father will not give his son a stone if he asks for bread, or a snake if he asks for fish. How much more then the heavenly Father! You only need to ask him, and he will give you good things. It is this kind of trust that Jesus meant by “faith.” This time, it is Luke who spiritualized: God will give the Holy Spirit. But Jesus himself promised that the heavenly Father would give bread and fish.
One comes nearer to Jesus’ lifestyle when one looks a bit more closely at his mission instructions, addressed to the most active disciples, nicknamed today “wandering radicals.” They do not have a penny in their pocket. They need neither purse nor backpack, since they take with them neither money nor supplies (Q 10:4). They live like the ravens and wildflowers in the field, or like the dirt-cheap sparrows that never fall to earth without God’s knowing (Q 12:7). These disciples entrust themselves, completely unprotected, to God. They do not even wear sandals (Q 10:4), perhaps as a symbol of penance, perhaps only to attest that they, even if unprotected, nevertheless get by. They are not even equipped with a club to protect against wild animals or robbers. They go like lambs among wolves (Q 10:3).
One should offer no resistance (Q 6:29-30). If someone hits you on one cheek, you should offer him the other. Even a mugger who snatches your coat should be given the shirt off your back as a gift. If someone asks you for something, give it to him, and if someone seeks a loan, do not ask for it back. We are not only to ask God to forgive us but to forgive the debts of those in debt to us (although we have accustomed ourselves not to hear that part of the Lord’s Prayer).
One should love one’s enemies, indeed pray for one’s persecutors. Usually, )one is generous to good people, one’s social equals, who can return the favor. But that is being no better than customs officers and gentiles. Rather, you should imitate God, who rains, and shines his sun, on bad people as well as good. Only if you act that way, are you a child of God. Jesus was first called son of God not because he was like a Roman emperor, or like Hercules, or like other sons of God in that society, but because he was like God, loving his enemy.
With such a lifestyle, one seems not to have any chance in everyday reality. However, it has belatedly come to attention that, for example, in concentration camps, people have a better chance of survival if they band together into small groups of selfless persons who are ready to give the little they have to the most needy among them. Of course, our plight is not so desperate, and so we do not have to turn to such drastic measures. Think of the rich young ruler, who was just plain too well off, too much like us, to be a disciple of Jesus.
We are not normally the other person’s help but rather his fate, just as he is our fate. He has nothing to eat because I have stashed away extra bread. I am cold because he is hiding an extra coat in his backpack. He does not have a penny to his name because I have hoarded money in my money belt. We are all tools of evil, which is why life is ruined for us all.
In the extreme case of blood vengeance, which takes place between families or clans or villages in many “backward” parts of the world still today, we all agree that such a thing can only harm both sides and hence is to be gotten rid of by any means possible. Yet, in the less spectacular cases that take place under more normal circumstances, the equivalent selfishness, acting in one’s own interest, no matter what damage is done in the process to the other, is considered somehow acceptable in our so very “civilized” culture. Everybody is normally expected to look out for number one.
But God’s rule is something quite different. And it was that rule that Jesus and his circle wanted to introduce. How that took place in practice is described in some detail in the mission discourse: At the very beginning, before there were sympathizers, when there were no safe houses to which one could turn, much less house churches, the committed few disciples (and no doubt Jesus himself) walked, barefoot and without any supplies, from place to place.
One knocked on some unknown door and said, if the door was opened at all, “Shalom!” (Q 10:5~6). This greeting was not meant in a purely empty sense, the way we say “good morning” without having the least interest in what kind of day the other person will have, and as one could, then and today, say “Shalom” in a completely empty headed way. Rather, if one was let in, the head of the household was called “son of peace,” that is to say, the blessing originally implied in the greeting “Shalom” came upon the host. But if one was turned away, the blessing returned to the one who had knocked, who then had to go farther and keep knocking until he was received and could actually give his “Shalom.”
One ate what was put before one, be it simple, be it sumptuous. The Jesus people were not ascetics in the technical sense. John used for clothing and nourishment only what was, so to speak, directly offered by nature (Mark 1:6). He neither ate bread nor drank wine (Q 7:3 3). That is why he was thought to be crazy, demon possessed. John stood in sharp contrast to Jesus, who sat at table with such worldly people as customs officers and sinners. Of course, he was also rejected, though with the reverse justification: He was smeared as a glutton and drunkard (Q 7:34). In any case, Jesus did not make an issue, one way or the other, out of what he got to eat.
With regard to clothing and nourishment, Jesus lived from what people, usually women, prepared for him. The interpretation of the petition “Thy kingdom come!” in the original Prayer in Q itself, namely, “Give us this day our daily bread!” was not answered by manna falling from heaven but rather by women, who, following a recipe found in Q (13:21), hid leaven in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened then put it into the oven until it was transformed into bread.
Such wandering radicals as Jesus sent out, who went as he did from house to house, were called at that time, before there were church offices like priest or bishop, simply “workers” (Q 10:2, 7). Whatever the workers were given as food or housing, they had earned, worked for. Their work consisted in what they could offer to those who lived in the house, the “peace” they could give in return for the hospitality. It consisted in healing those who were sick, accompanied with the reassuring word “God’s rule has touched you” (Q 10:9). That is to say, this is the way of life that one should seek, free of care like the ravens and wildflowers, the rule whose coming one was to ask for in the Lord’s Prayer. For one only needs to ask, and it will be given; to seek, and one will find; to knock, and the door will be opened (Q 1:9). One can entrust oneself to God as heavenly Father — that is what they believed, practiced, and proclaimed.
Sickness is not the will of God, not part of his rule. It is evil. When the sickness was accompanied by odd gestures and cries, as in the case of mental illnesses and “moonstruck” epileptics, it was attributed to demons, impure spirits. So it was particularly noticeable that God intervenes in such cases. It is by his finger that demons are driven out (Q 11:20), irrespective of whether it was Jesus or “your sons” who functioned as exorcist (Q 11:2 1). Jesus (like other exorcists) had power over demons, not because he, like Faust, was in league with their leader Beelzebul (Q 11:15) but because God rules here and now with God’s own finger (Q 11:22). It is a matter of God’s intervening to provide bread, to heal the sick, that is to say, to rule. The petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, no doubt used as a table prayer by Jesus when admitted to the hospitality of a home, were actually promptly answered in the house of the son of peace.
The reality of death is not denied in an illusory way. Though the sayings are reassuring, death is presupposed in a realistic way: The grass in the field, no matter how beautiful today, is tomorrow thrown into the oven (Q 12:28). The sparrows are never forgotten by God, and yet they fall to earth (Q 12:7). One is called upon not to fear physical death, so as not to lose one’s very self, panicked by fear of death (Q 12:4), which is the greatest threat of evil forces, from unbearable pain to dictatorships.
The saying about taking one’s cross (Q 14:27) may presuppose Jesus’ own death, which is not otherwise mentioned in Q. But the two other sayings of the same cluster probably go back to Jesus himself and say much the same thing: One must even leave one’s own family behind to participate in Jesus’ cause (Q 14:26). Only the person who loses one’s life for Jesus’ cause will really save it (Q 17:33). Even if Jesus did not himself predict his death, as the predictions of his passion that recur repeatedly in Mark would have us think, one can hardly assume that Jesus did not envisage the possibility of his persecution or assassination, even though the Sayings Gospel offers no explicit predictions of his death. He was surely prepared inwardly to accept death if it came to that, as his followers should also be.
IV. How does the Sayings Gospel Handle Jesus’ Death?
Although the Sayings Gospel has no passion narrative or resurrection stories, this omission does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the Q people knew nothing of Jesus’ fate or had never thought about where it left them. It is hardly probable that his death was not quickly rumored among his followers, even into the most obscure corners of Galilee. But then, after his death, was not the only sensible thing to do, to give up the whole thing as some tragic miscalculation, a terrible failure? Jesus had assured them, “the Father from heaven gives good things to those who ask him,” and yet his last word according to Mark was “My God, My God, why have you left me in the lurch?” (Mark 15:34). What was there left to proclaim?
The emergence of the Sayings Gospel was, to put it quite pointedly, itself the miracle at Easter! Rudolf Bultmann formulated a famous, or infamous saying to the effect that Jesus rose into the kerygma. But perhaps we would do better to say: Jesus rose into his own word. The resurrection was attested, in substance at least, in the Q community, in that his word was again to be heard, not as a melancholy recollection of the failed dream of a noble, but terribly naive, person, but rather as the still valid, and constantly renewed, trust in the heavenly Father, who, as in heaven, will rule also on earth.
There are a few sayings in Q that are best understood in terms of such a “resurrection” faith. “What I say to you in the darkness, speak out in the light; and what you hear whispered into your ear, preach from the rooftops” (Q 12:3/Matt. 10:27). This sounds as if Jesus had rather secretively only whispered his message and left the spreading of the good word to his disciples. We would have expected it to be just the reverse. Surely Jesus said it better, louder, and clearer than anyone! But perhaps such a saying reflects the recollection that his message was suppressed by force and thus obscured but then became all the brighter and louder as it was nevertheless revalidated and reproclaimed.
There may be the same kind of contrast between the time before Jesus’ death and the time after it in the saying about the unforgiveable sin. The saying is usually thought to be telling those who had rejected Jesus himself when he was alive that afterwards they are not irretrievably lost but have a new chance through the preaching of the disciples equipped with the Spirit after his death.
In both these difficult sayings, the preaching after Jesus’ death is held to be more audible, more effective, more true even, than the preaching of Jesus himself. This is an “Easter faith” of a special kind!
The Easter faith of the Sayings Gospel then has primarily to do with the authority of Jesus’ sayings, which even after his death are not devalued but only then come into full power. In this high evaluation of Jesus’ sayings lies the Christology of the Sayings Gospel. This is why Jesus’ first disciples did not really need to use christological titles, which seem so indispensable to us.
“Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do what I tell you?” This question introduces the concluding exhortation of Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Q (6:46). Thereupon follows the double parable of houses built on rock or sand (Q 6:47-49). Everyone who hears my words and does them will be acquitted in the judgment! Not the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem or the baptism of John the Baptist in the Jordan River brings the ultimate salvation, but rather keeping Jesus’ words, as they are conserved in the Sayings Gospel–to be sure, on the condition that they are really kept, observed, and not just conserved.
The eschatology of the Sayings Gospel shares the view that in the general resurrection, everyone will be judged according to his or her own works, as commonly assumed in antiquity, in Judaism, and even by Paul (2 Cor. 5:10). Since all will rise at the same time, one will observe the judgment of the others and in some cases even influence it: “Your sons” who are exorcists “shall be your judges. . . . The queen of the south will be raised at the judgment with this generation and will condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here” (Q 11:19, 31-32). Q’s closing word is that those who have followed Jesus “will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Q 22:30). Everyone will be there at the day of judgment, and the truth will out!
So it is not surprising that, in their own defense, people would appeal for acquittal by referring to their connection with Jesus: “Then you will start saying, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ And he will say to you, ‘I do not know you. Away from me, evildoers!'” (Q 13:26-27). Such Q texts do not yet have in view Jesus as the Judge but rather envisage him, among the character witnesses who testify, as the crucial one in the view of the Judge. He speaks up for, or against, people who appeal to him. Another saying puts it a bit differently: “Everyone who confesses me before men, the son of man will confess before the angels. But whoever denies me before men, the son of man will deny before the angels.” Here, too, Jesus is not Judge but a witness in court. The angels are the judges. Yet the early Christology of the Sayings Gospel can be sensed from such eschatological sayings: If Jesus’ witness is decisive for one’s fate, since neither God nor the angels will reject his witness, then it really does not make much difference with what title or lack of title that happens. If it’s decided, it’s decided! Doing what Jesus said, not what somebody else said, but really doing it, is what stands up in the day of judgment.
In the course of the christological development, Jesus himself comes to be understood as the Judge. His witness, as after all decisive, is objectified, becoming functionally the Judge’s sentence itself, and so he comes to represent or replace God or the angels. In the Sayings Gospel, this development is hardly more than suggested. The saying with which Q closes, to the effect that those who have followed Jesus will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Q 22:30), has for the first time humans as judges and so surely must presuppose that Jesus himself functions as the main Judge, though this is not said explicitly. But even this concluding saying does not imply that Jesus is the exclusive judge but envisages a judging shared with his inner circle. The bare beginnings of the later Christology are only suggested but not at all developed. One thing that makes the Sayings Gospel so fascinating, not only for laypersons but even for theologians, is to see the first gingerly steps from Jesus’ own, rather selfless message, oriented to God’s reign, which he activated while otherwise being unaware of himself, to our focus on him as the center of our faith!
V. How Can One Get From the Sayings Gospel to Us?
If the Sayings Gospel gives us insight into the doing and thinking of Jesus, how does that connect to us? Q as a document ceased to exist after the first century. Is not its Jesus, the real Jesus, also gone? Simply detecting, a century and a half ago, a collection of his sayings imbedded in Matthew and Luke does not necessarily mean that we have any connection with him.
The real Jesus, as I have sought to portray him on the basis of the Sayings Gospel, was not only in his way otherworldly — he was worlds apart from us! Yet we may still want to understand ourselves as his disciples, his church, with him as our Lord. The efforts undertaken again and again over the past century to trace a line of continuity from the historical Jesus to Paul and from there to our church have been all too tenuous — more ingenious than convincing. It is easier to trace the path from Paul’s Christ to us than to trace the path from Paul back to Jesus. Although Paul is our oldest source, dating back to around 50 C.E., Paul himself had not met the historical Jesus but only the resurrected Christ, who for Paul literally and figuratively so outshone Jesus as to leave Jesus out of sight.
Yet there was in early Christianity another path from Jesus to the church, less dramatic than the great theologian and missionary Paul, but more pervasive in the actual life of early Christians: the Gospel of Mathew! That Gospel was by far was the most widely used early Christian book, to judge by the number of copies that have surfaced in the dry sands of Egypt, or by the number of quotations in early Christian writers, or by the number of textual corruptions introduced from Matthew into other Gospels by scribal copyists obviously more familiar with Matthew. The Christianity that step-by-step won over the ancient world, until the Roman Empire became the Christian Byzantine Empire, was primarily the Matthean rather than the Pauline kind of Christianity. It was a Christianity of mercy and philanthropy, which won the allegiance of the underprivileged and suppressed, that is to say, the mass of the population, more so than the Pauline theology that ultimately flowed into Neoplatonic philosophical theology of the educated minority (with literacy standing at about 15 percent). Christianity as a mass movement so powerful that Constantine finally had to yield to its pressure was more a Matthean Christianity; and that means it was, through Matthew, really connnected to Jesus.
In this sense, the question of tracing the path from Matthew back to Jesus is a way to see how we effect the last step back to our roots. But here we hit upon an untilled field. The discipline of church history always traced the path of events via Paul. A conspiracy of silence has obscured what happened to the movement that Jesus launched in Galilee, ever since Luke’s Acts told the story of the church’s beginning with only one passing allusion to there even being a church in Galilee (Acts 9:31). Luke’s view of the Christian witness skipped from “all Judea and Samaria” to “the end of the earth” without even mentioning Galilee (Acts 1:8). Paul knew very few sayings of Jesus and did not have a kind of religiosity, much less a theology, built on Jesus’ sayings; he even argues that knowing Jesus according to the flesh, the earthly Jesus, is not really necessary (2 Cor.5:16), so as to argue that he is in no regard less qualified than Jesus’ own disciples.
The Book of Acts also presents such a Pauline Christianity: Jesus has ascended to heaven, and it is the Holy Spirit who since Pentecost leads the church. Sayings of Jesus are conspicuously absent from the life of the church in Acts. Luke had buried them back in his Gospel, and once he had finished copying out the end of Q (at Luke 22:30), he rather explicitly said that the idyllic, unreal world of Jesus has been put behind us, for we must now come to grips with reality, buy a sword, become the church militant, and replace the kind of mission Jesus had advocated and practiced with one like the missionary journeys of Paul. But when one turns to Matthew, the contacts with the Sayings Gospel Q are so striking that one has now come to realize that the Gospel of Matthew was written in a community that itself had been part of the Sayings Gospel’s movement.
So it has become a new scholarly task to supplement the standard version of church history, based on Paul and Acts, with the church history that leads from Jesus via the Sayings Gospel to Matthew, that is to say, from Galilee directly to Antioch without the detour via the Damascus road. For the Gospel of Matthew probably comes from the region of Antioch, from a small community that had begun in Galilee and continued there for some time, since one was told not to go on the roads of the gentiles or into the towns of the Samaritans but only to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt. 10:6-7). Perhaps it was the war with Rome in the 6os, which devastated Galilee before reaching Jerusalem, that finally forced the remnants of the Q community to join the refugees fleeing north up the coast to the nearest metropolitan area, Antioch, the capital of the former Seleucid Empire.
The first steps from Galilee to Antioch, the beginning of the path from Jesus to us, can be sketched as follows:
(1) Jesus’ immediate followers reproclaimed Jesus’ sayings, which were collected into a number of small clusters, to function as prompters or handouts for such wandering radicals.
(2) The editing of such clusters into the Jewish-Christian Sayings Gospel Q took place at about the time of the fall of Jerusalem (70 C.E.).
(3)The first major part of the body of the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 3-11, into which the text of Q is largely compressed, was composed as a kind of rationale or justification for the Q community’s having held out so long in its exclusively Jewish orientation.
(4)The complete adoption of the Gospel of Mark into the Gospel of Matthew, in chapters 12-28, reflected the reorientation of the Q community, now the Matthean community, into the worldwide mission of the gentile church, legitimized through the Great Commission to convert all nations, with which the canonical Gospel of Matthew closes.
Let me in conclusion speak briefly to each of these four stages that led from the real Jesus to the Christianity of which we are heirs:
(1) The collection of sayings of Jesus that in Luke 6 is called the Sermon on the Plain and in Matthew 5-7 the Sermon on the Mount is a very old collection originally composed as a unit in and of itself, with its own introduction, the Beatitudes, and its own conclusion, the twin parables of the houses built on rock or on sand. Between, in the body of the sermon, lie the sayings most characteristic of the real Jesus: those concerning love of enemies, turning the other cheek, giving the shirt off one’s back, and forgiving debts. There was another such small collection on prayer, including the Lord’s Prayer and its commentary about the father who gives to the asking son neither stones nor snakes. A third collection was about ravens and wildflowers. These three little clusters are so close to each other in meaning that the Matthean community put them all together, perhaps at a very early date, into what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. Then there was the collection of mission instructions, telling how the Q people were to carry out their Jewish-Christian mission. It is these oldest collections of sayings of Jesus that produced the picture of the real Jesus that I described at the beginning of this presentation.
(2) The final editor of Q took sayings of Jesus that were still circulating, including these small clusters, and edited them in two regards: On the one hand, he superimposed on the Q material the Deuteronomistic view of history found in the Old Testament, according to which God lets Jerusalem be destroyed not because God is unfaithful but because Israel is, having rejected God’s prophets, indeed having killed them, rather than listening to them. The final editor of Q thought history had in this regard repeated itself:
Jesus’ offer of salvation had been by and large rejected, and so God had abandoned again his house in Jerusalem and turned it over to the Romans to destroy. So Q pronounced judgment on “this generation.” For its rejecting of Jesus, God was rejecting it.
But another concern of this editor of Q was more inner-Christian, namely, to reinterpret John’s talk of a “Coming One” who would hold judgment to refer not directly to God, whom John must have intended, but rather to Jesus. The editor organized the first main section of Q around a cluster of predictions from Isaiah to the effect that the Coming One will heal many sicknesses and evangelize the poor. Between John’s prediction of a Coming One and the claim that Jesus, having acted as Isaiah predicted, is that Coming One, lie the inaugural sermon, beginning “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God,” in which the evangelizing of the poor is documented, and the healing of the centurion’s boy at Capharnaum, one healing representative of all in the list of healings collected from Isaiah. This is Q’s “proof” that Jesus is the Coming One prophesied by John as coming to hold judgment. And so God’s judgment on Jerusalem at its destruction can be interpreted as retaliation for the rejection of Jesus’ message by the Judaism of that time, “this generation.”
This Sayings Gospel, organized in this way, may have converted a few followers of John but did not by any means effect the conversion of all of Israel, the impossibility of which is already writ large in the Sayings Gospel itself. The text ends with the reassurance to the disciples that they will, after all, judge the twelve tribes of Israel, even if they could not convert them. Yet this negative outcome is not the last word.
(3) The small and failing Q community knew about the much more successful gentile church. Such contacts would have emerged at the latest when the survivors of this Jewish-Christian community, which reached Antioch after the war, found there the gentile church. The community of the Sayings Gospel Q, which had intensified over the years its Jewish-Christian exclusivity, had, perhaps quite haltingly, to modulate into the community of the Gospel of Matthew, which in effect ended up repudiating that exclusivity. But Matthew, before turning to the gentiles, produced an enlarged, improved, concentrated version of the first major section of Q, in which Jesus was proven to be the Coming One predicted by John, which one can still read in chapters 3-11 of the Gospel of Matthew. But this was in effect the swan song of the Q community, as it was absorbed into the gentile-Christian church, except for holdouts who returned to the baptist movement or to emergent normative Judaism, or became small Christian sects that we, on the winning side, call heresies: the Ebionites, meaning the “Poor,” or the Nazarenes, claiming Jesus of Nazara.
(4) This belated self-justification of the survivors of the Q community in Matthew 3-11 did not succeed in forestalling the inevitable. So what was left of the Q community, absorbed into what we should now call the Matthean community, took over the gentile-Christian Gospel of Mark and copied it out pretty much by rote in Matthew 12-28, with only an occasional editing out of especially offensive gentile traits, finally justifying going over to the gentile side of Christianity with the Great Commission by the resurrected Christ to evangelize all nations, thus canceling Q’s Jewish-Christian basis in a Jesus who limited his mission to Israel.
So Jewish Christianity ceased, for practical purposes, to exist as an independent entity. Yet the Jewish-Christian Gospel incorporated in Matthew as the last will and testament of the Q community made its way into the growing gentile church as a major part of the most widely used Gospel of all, the Gospel according to Matthew. So the real Jesus’ actual sayings remained, in spite of everything, accessible. The church today can still listen to Jesus, which, in my opinion, is is precisely what we should do. He is very unsettling, as I am sure you felt as I tried to present his sayings. But his goal of a caring, selfless society may be the best future we can hope for, and work for.