Chapter 6: Written Gospel Sources

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 6: Written Gospel Sources

The Existence of Written Sources Behind The Gospels

Luke begins his gospel by referring to the fact that ‘many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word’ (1:1-2). Among the sources which were used by Luke himself and by Matthew were at least two written documents, one of them the gospel of Mark in substantially its present form, and the other a collection in Greek of sayings of Jesus, incorporating some narrative details, which is nowadays known as Q (from the German Quelle = source). The use by Luke and Matthew of these sources can be demonstrated because, in the case of Mark, the source itself is available, and a comparison of the texts of the three gospels leaves no reasonable doubt as to its employment in the other two gospels; in the case of Q, although the original document has not survived, the occasional verbal agreement in ‘non-Marcan’ passages of Matthew and Luke is such as to show that a document existed, although its extent can only partially be established and the possibility always remains that more than one document was used.

Many more written accounts of Jesus’ teaching, his controversies, his miracles, and his ministry, may have been in existence when our gospels were written. If so, they have perished, and we can only search for traces of them in our existing gospels. As none of them seems to have been used in more than one of our gospels, the task of reconstructing them is difficult, and none of the theories which have been put forward can be regarded as more than a possible hypothesis. Yet the question is of such interest and importance that some at least of the theories suggested deserve to be mentioned here, and further discussed in connection with the composition of the individual gospels.

Two types of theory can be distinguished, that which seeks to explain almost the whole of a gospel as compiled from written sources, and that which argues from peculiarities of style, language, and form, that written sources of limited extent were used by the final author of a gospel in conjunction with a mass of oral tradition. This distinction is an important one, as the former type of theory reduces the status of the final author of a gospel almost to that of an editor writing at a late period when trustworthy oral traditions were comparatively scarce; the latter type of theory assumes the existence of smaller, but earlier and more valuable written sources, some of which may even be apostolic, which have been combined with considerable oral tradition, of varying historical value, by the final author.

Mark is generally admitted to be our earliest gospel, but there are difficulties in accepting it, in its present form, as John Mark’s transcript of Peter’s preaching. Attempts to solve this difficulty by source-theories have been along two lines. Some critics have attempted to sketch out one large original Marcan source (often called UrMarkus, from the German = ‘Original Mark’) which has been later edited, while others have tried to show that Mark or another has employed a number of small sources, collections of Jesus’ controversies and sayings, e.g. Mk. 3:20-35, 7:1-23, 9: 38-50, 13, some of them at least already in written form.

That Matthew used both Mark and Q is generally admitted, although some scholars think that he used Q in a different ‘edition’ from that which lay before Luke. It has been suggested, notably by Streeter,(The Four Gospels, pp. 254-265.) that virtually all remaining sayings of Jesus in this gospel are drawn from one further written source (M), but other scholars think that Matthew, while employing written sources for some of his Old Testament quotations and for part of the Sermon on the Mount, also drew much of his material from the oral tradition of his own time.

The question of Luke’s sources is complicated by Streeter’s theory (Op. cit., pp. 199-222) that an earlier edition of this gospel, Proto-Luke, was later enlarged by the incorporation of much of the material of Mark. Proto-Luke itself, according to Streeter, (Op. cit., pp. 208 ff.) is a combination of two written sources, Q and L, the latter a document compiled by Luke himself, embodying traditions of the Caesarean church. Others would see in L Luke’s own collection of information from more extensive oral sources, and others again a series of short written ‘fly-sheets’ used by Christian missionaries.

In John’s gospel the question of written sources is a very difficult one, but amongst the multitude of explanations that have been offered for the problems presented by this gospel are the redaction by a later editor of an earlier gospel or gospel-material, and the use by the author of a number of written sources, e.g. in the prologue, in his collection of ‘signs’, and in the discourses.

While none of these theories can ever be finally proved, it seems probable that Q was not the only early document about the life and teaching of Jesus which has disappeared, and that our gospels represent the climax of a development in the writing down of the oral tradition. On the other hand there is much to be said for the view that Mark was the first writing that assumed a ‘gospel’ form, in the sense that it attempted to give an account of the whole period of Jesus’ ministry as well as giving examples of his teaching; it is even possible that the ending of Mark’s gospel with the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb and the flight of the women (16:8; the verses that follow were not part of the original gospel) indicates that his pioneer plan was to tell of the earthly ministry of Jesus, and that he regarded the Resurrection appearances as part of the later story of the heavenly Christ.

The Document Q

The difficulties of reconstructing this lost writing from the gospels of Matthew and Luke can be illustrated from their treatment of Mark. If we did not possess Mark’s gospel, and could only reconstruct it from the agreement in language of Matthew and Luke, our reconstruction would contain less than three-quarters of the actual gospel of Mark. Furthermore Q seems to have been predominantly a collections of sayings, and the possibility cannot be overlooked of the agreement of language between Matthew and Luke being sometimes due to the overlapping of sayings-sources or to the faithfulness of oral tradition. The order in which Matthew and Luke use pieces of Q is often very different, and while it is on the whole probable that Luke has usually preserved the right order, it is impossible to be certain of this.

What can be regarded as a certain nucleus of Q is given below in Luke’s order; many other passages from Luke and/or Matthew may well be considered as having belonged to Q, but are here disregarded.




3:7b-9, 16b-17


John the Baptist’s Preaching



The Temptation

6: 41-2


The Beam and the Mote

7: 6b


The Centurion’s Servant

7: 19,22-3, 24b-28, 31-3511


Jesus’ Testimony to John



Two Would-be Disciples

10: 2-3, 5, 12

9:37-38, 10:11,15-16a

Mission Discourse



Woe to Chorazin, etc.



Jesus Thanks His Father



The Blessedness of the Disciples



Answer to Prayer

11: 17-18a,19-, 20, 23


The Beelzebub Controversy



The Return of the Evil Spirit



The Sign for this Generation



On Light

11:39, 42-43, 49-51 34-36

23:25,23, 6, 34-36

Woes to the Pharisees



Whom to Fear

12:22b3l, 34


On Cares



Watch and be a Prudent Servant



Mustard Seed and Leaven



The Guests in the Kingdom



Jerusalem, Jerusalem



No one can serve Two Masters


5:18, 32, 11:12-13

About the Law and Divorce

17:24 26-27, 30,37b

24:27,37-39, 28

The Days of the Son of Man


From this reconstruction of the kernel of Q, (The English text of Q, following Streeter’s more extended reconstruction of this source, has been compiled in a handy form by A. Peel, The Earliest Gospel [Epworth Press.]) it was clearly not a gospel, but a collection of Jesus’ teaching, illustrated occasionally by the introduction of events such as the Temptation and the Healing of the Centurion’s Servant. Matthew and Luke rarely agree in their wording when they provide introductions to Q sayings, and it seems likely that in the original Q such introductions were usually very short, i.e. ‘And Jesus said’, or not present at all.

No attempt to ‘reconstitute’ Q has succeeded in making of it a well-arranged ‘handbook’, although there are signs of a rough general arrangement by subjects,(Cf. T. W. Manson in The Mission and Message of Jesus, pp. 3 f.) and these subjects seem to have included those most vital for Christian evangelism, the Substance of the Christian Life, Principles of Christian Missionary Propaganda, Defence of the New Religion against Jewish Attacks, Expectation of the Judgement. The selection of topics makes it reasonable to assume that the purpose for which Q was written was to furnish a standing record from the sayings and acts of Jesus to support the teaching (Didache) with which early Christian missionaries encouraged and exhorted their converts.

Any selection from the sayings and acts of Jesus was bound to have ‘a Jewish and Palestinian horizon’, (Harnack, The Sayings of Jesus, p. 248) but there are a number of signs that Q was compiled primarily for the instruction of Gentile Christians. It was known both to Matthew and Luke in Greek, and no conclusive evidence has ever been produced for its translation from an Aramaic original, as distinct from its ultimate derivation from Jesus’ teaching in Aramaic; (The view that the differences between Mt. 23:26 and Lk. 11:41 are due to a mistranslation of a common Aramaic source is now discredited.) the Old Testament quotations are few in number and reflect the Greek Septuagint version rather than the Hebrew. The teaching of Q is generally universalist in nature, and the element of polemic with the Jews is comparatively small. The one healing which is given special prominence is that of the Gentile Centurion’s servant, and Jesus’ attitude to the Gentiles here is in sharp contrast with his address to the Syro-Phoenician women in Mk. 7:27 (cf. Mt. 15:26).

The value of Q as a record of part of Jesus’ teaching is shown by its treatment at the hands of Matthew and Luke. Luke in particular often prefers the Q version of a saying to that given in Mark, e.g. Lk. 13:18-21, 16:18. Matthew, although he appears to break up his Q material more, and to conflate some Q sayings with those from other sources, seems to treat the sense of Q’s teaching with great respect. This respect for Q is shared by the great majority of modern scholars, who see in it a generally faithful record of some of Jesus’ teaching.

The date of Q’s composition cannot be accurately determined, but clearly lies within 20 or 30 years of the Resurrection. It does not seem to have been known by Mark, whose gospel, when it overlaps with Q, e.g. in John the Baptist’s teaching, the Temptation, the Beelzebub controversy, follows an independent course. Probably a date between A.D. 50 and 60 would command most general assent for the writing of Q, and the possibility of authorship by one of the original apostles cannot be ruled out. It has sometimes been thought that the tradition of Matthew’s authorship of the first gospel, which is not now seriously defended, rests upon the mistaken application to the whole gospel of a tradition which originally referred to one of his sources, Q. Papias (c. A.D. 120) refers to Matthew as having ‘composed the oracles in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as he could’. The meaning of this passage is much disputed (cf. p. 64), but could be understood as indicating that Matthew made an arrangement of Jesus’ sayings in Aramaic, the interpretation (or translation) of which was left to individuals. It is improbable, however, that Q is based on Matthew’s Sayings; apart from the doubt as to whether Q ever existed in Aramaic, Matthew is traditionally supposed to have written in Palestine for Jewish Christians, and Q, as stated above, is more easily understood as a collection of Jesus’ sayings for Gentile Christians.