Sunday, April 11, 2010

Considering "The Source" - Questions about the "Q Gospel" Or Synoptic Sayings Source

Just re-reading and re-considering Burton L Mack's important 1993 book The Lost Gospel: The Book Of Q & Christian Origins.

In the fifteen or so years since I first read the book, I've learned a lot more about modern scholarship on early Christian history and origins, about what we think we know about the formulation of dogma and canon in the early Christian churches. And so my new reading of Mack's book was done with a better educated and thus, perhaps, more critical mind. I certainly have more questions than answers at the end of my reading.

If you're used to my writing about comic books and science fiction this discussion of heavy, esoteric theological and historical deconstruction may strike you as strange - but this stuff fascinates me. Matter of fact, my whole book Neo-Gnosis is dedicated to related exploration, reading and studies. I grew up Roman Catholic, but the more I learned about Christian Origins and the Church the less I wanted to be a part of it.

So I find my own way. And while I'm writing fiction, I have a hard time reading new fiction - just hard to keep so many fictional worlds alive in my mind all at once. So I read a lot of non-fiction, and a lot about early Christianity and the quest for the "historical" Jesus - stripping away the "myth" from the "man" as best we can.

It's not easy to hold discussions about Jesus, who he was, what he did, and how his scattered followers became the Church we know today. The extremists who use his name would like to claim exclusive rights to JESUS CHRIST as a trademark, of sorts, for their brand of religion. The so-called Christianity that calls itself Fundamentalist, or Conservative Evangelical, is actually an anti-Christ system in my opinion - see my "Holy Shit: Or... Pat Robertson is the Anti-Christ" for more. Their fragile "faith" will brook no questioning of the Jesus story they THINK is in their Bibles. Evidently, they don't actually READ their Bibles... or else their supposed "literal" reading of the Book is much more interpretation than they care to admit. 'Cause what they get out of it? I don't see it in there.

These rabid folks on the so-called "Christian" Right and their constant misappropriation of Jesus' name make it hard to talk about him and his legacy in reasonable terms with rational, thinking people. But there are rational, thinking historians, form criticists, and scholars who are looking at the origins of the Jesus movement, and what we can learn from the texts we have and the ones we've found in the last century or so, like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the lost Christian writings dug up in Egypt near Nag Hammadi. Primary source scholars are pouring over the evidence we still have to try to reconstruct what we can know about its evolution, to try to peer back through the veils of history to see what was going on back then, when Jesus was walking around the Palestine and Galilee.

As I cannot read Aramaic, Greek or Latin, I must rely on those who can... I'm more a reading or secondary source scholar, I suppose. The more I read, the less the primary source scholars agree with one another - the nuances of their disunity become more apparent. But reading these various ideas is like mental exercise - like mind candy for me - and so I continue to look for new and different ideas and considerations of the sources.

And speaking of sources... this brings me to my current question about Q.

The briefest background on Q, in case you need it: It is widely accepted that the Gospel in Mark's name was written first, circa 70 AD. Matthew's came next, probably in the 80s, John's and Luke's in the 90's, early 100s. Though the gospel in John's name is very different, when you place Mark, Matthew and Luke side-by-side you see they have similarities and overlapping phrases and stories. It is apparent to many that Matthew and Luke both copied from Mark - the way each borrowed from Mark also showed what each cared to emphasize about Jesus in their versions.

In addition to the material from Mark, Matthew and Luke share other material. Some argue this is because Luke copied from Matthew, end of story. But many more have shown that the "Markan" material copied by both gospel writers came from slightly different source documents, and sometimes Luke's gospel's version of Mark's events or phrasing is of an earlier form than Matthew's, in a more primitive Greek, which is evidence that Matthew and Luke were written independent of one another. That being the case, it appears that Matthew and Luke both used another common source or two, because there is overlapping material in both that doesn't come from Mark. The German theologians who originally figured this out called their hypothetical source "Q" - from the German for "source" - "quelle".

Over the last 100 years or so, scholars using form criticism and other textual redaction techniques have attempted to draw this lost source out of the gospels. They found it was probably not a narrative book, but instead a collection of sayings. The discovery of the lost "Gospel of Thomas" in the mid-twentieth century bolstered this viewpoint - though it was not Q, it was a collection of the sayings of Jesus, and showed that his followers did indeed create such collections. In addition, Thomas also shared some of the previously identified Q material with Matthew and Luke!

Others went further, and argued that textual criticism showed that Q had to be a unified whole of its own, even though an original document has never been found. Still others took that hypothetical whole and broke IT down even further, suggesting that 3 layers of development could be perceived in the the text. The most strident of this group went so far as to then say you could deduce who the earliest followers of Jesus were from what was included in the earliest layer, or strata of Q, which they called Q1. This is Burton Mack's point of view, and he hammers it home in The Lost Gospel: The Book Of Q & Christian Origins.

As I read Mack's confident stratification of Q (advancing his arguments from another scholar's, John Kloppenborg',s stratification), and once again encountered his gleeful stripping away of the apocalyptic overtones from the earliest layer of his Q material, I now understood he's arguing directly against others who cast Jesus as a Jewish Apocalyptic Prophet, from Albert Schweitzer down to modern scholars like Bart Ehrman.

But another question bothered me. Mack suggests - actually, he insists... he doesn't really ever just "suggest" anything - the Hellenization of the Galilee and Q's location in Galilee argue for the possibility - for Mack the "fact" - that Jesus was a Cynic Sage. But when we strip away the apocalyptic overtones of the Q2 strata to get at Mack's sage, we also strip away ALL the references in Q to the places of Galilee. Q1 not only has no apocalyptic phrasing, it also lacks any locations and thus any possible certitude of its locale of origin. No?

Mack argues audaciously not only for the reality of Q, but also for the ability to stratify the work chronologically in order to deduce from the earliest "layer" the character of the group of Jesus' followers who compiled the earliest form of the work. But part of his argument stems from the character of the Galilee at the time of Jesus and his earliest followers - even though the earliest layer is as bereft of references to places as it is apocalyptic proclamations. How can he have it both ways?

I don't have the answer. But it is an interesting question to ponder...