What is the Q Source Hypothesis?

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series What are the Gospels?

In my last two articles I’ve researched What is the Synoptic Problem? and Which Gospel was Written First?. It is frequently accepted by modern scholars that Mark was written first, and the Gospels of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source. 

There is material common to both Matthew and Luke which is not in Mark, so where did they get that material? It is generally believed Luke was written third, so either Luke copied the material from Matthew, or Matthew and Luke used a common source in addition of Mark. The hypothetical common source which both Matthew and Luke used is frequently called the Q Source, Q Hypothesis or Document Q, from the German word Quelle, which means “source”.1

To be more specific, there are…four different kinds of minor agreements between Matthew and Luke that are not shared by Mark: (1) agreement in omission of details found in Mark; (2) agreement in addition of details not found in Mark; (3) agreement in expressions and wording against Mark; and (4) agreement in divergence from Mark’s expressions. Altogether, scholars have detected between 272 and 770 minor agreements.2

Scholars have several theories about the origins of Q, but all of them are guesswork. Q could have been a full Gospel (lost to us), or it could have been a few of the sayings of Jesus. I want to highlight some ideas I’ve come across.

Jesus’s Teachings

Q may have used a narrative form to introduce Jesus to the readers, but focused on the teachings of Jesus, rather than his actions. Put another way, his sayings rather than his doings. Some material which is common in Matthew and Luke are some parables and the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, when an attempt is made to isolate the document underlying the ‘Q’ material in Matthew and Luke, it appears to have been constructed very much on the lines of one of the prophetical books of the Old Testament. These books commonly contain an account of the prophet’s call to his distinctive ministry, with a record of his oracles set in a narrative framework, but no mention of the prophet’s death. So this document, when reconstructed on the evidence provided by Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, is seen to begin with an account of Jesus’ baptism by John and his temptation in the wilderness, which formed the prelude to his Galilean ministry, followed by groups of his sayings set in a minimum of narrative framework, but it evidently did not tell the story of his passion.3

Oral Teachings

Q could be teachings which were passed on orally. In my article Could the Gospel Message have been Accurately Transmitted Orally? I showed it’s reasonable to believe the Gospels could be accurately transmitted for years before being written down. At some point, both Matthew and Luke could have written down those oral teachings.

This theory does raise the issue of the order of the events in the Gospels, which are fairly consistent. Oral teachings are less likely than written documents to keep the same order of events. People are more likely to memorize and repeat several short stories rather than one long narrative. In the process of reciting them, the order is much more likely to change.

Matthew Wrote in Hebrew

In my last article, Which Gospel was Written First?, I quoted a work of Irenaeus of Lyons, written about A.D. 175-190:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church.4

The church father Eusebius of Caesarea quotes Papias5, a student of the Apostle John:

But concerning Matthew he [Papias] writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.”6

We have two of the early church fathers who indicate Matthew wrote something in Hebrew (or possibly Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew, and was commonly spoken in first century Palestine and Galilee). As I wrote last week, the style of writing indicates the Gospel of Matthew was likely originally written in Greek, not in Hebrew and later translated into Greek.

Hebrew Matthew has been lost to us, but it’s possible it was the common source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, or Document Q. The disciple Matthew was a tax collector, so he was likely better educated than most people. It is not unreasonable to think after the resurrection he wrote down as much as he could remember.7

After the Gospel of Mark was written in Greek, the author of Matthew may have wanted a Greek version of his own writing, if he felt Mark had left out some important information. The author of Matthew may have chosen to copy the Gospel of Mark as much as possible rather than translate what he had written earlier, then added parts he had written in Hebrew Matthew.8

The beginning of Luke9 states the Gospel is based on eyewitness testimony, so it would make sense Luke would use Hebrew Matthew, if he was aware of it.

Written and Oral Testimony

 It is quite likely Q includes both written and oral testimony. Some of the passages in Matthew and Luke, but not Mark, are almost identical, and a written source most likely accounts for those. Other passages are very similar, but different enough that it’s unlikely they were copied from a written source; oral teachings best account for those passages.


The entire hypothesis of a Q source is based on two assumptions which are rigorously debated: (1) the Gospel of Mark was written first; (2) The author of Luke wasn’t aware of the Gospel of Matthew. If Matthew was written first, and Luke’s author knew of the Gospel of Matthew, there’s no need to explain the similar passages in Matthew and Luke with a hypothetical document. Many of the differences between Matthew and Luke can be explained by Luke’s author using additional resources, or simply choosing words or phrases he thought better communicated the message.

A smaller but influential group of scholars claim that Q was unnecessary. There is no ancient record of it, and we can adequately explain the similarities between Matthew and Luke by a direct connection between them. Though Q could be used just as a neutral label designating material common to Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, it tends to be used to refer to the idea of a specific unified written source. We can call this the Q Hypothesis, which is often called the Two Source Hypothesis, because Mark and Q are claimed to be two major sources of Matthew and Luke.10

Last week I didn’t answer the question Which Gospel was Written First? because I wanted to do more research on the Q Hypothesis. Although the arguments for believing Mark was written first are reasonable, I think the church fathers were in a better position than modern scholars to determine the order the Gospels were written in.



Series Navigation<< Which Gospels was Written First?What are the ‘M’ and ‘L’ Sources? >>


  1. This postulated document was called Q independently, but almost simultaneously, by two scholars at the beginning of this century. In Germany, Julius Wellhausen called it Q because that is the initial letter of German Quelle, meaning ‘source’; in Cambridge, J. Armitage Robinson, who designated the Markan source of the Synoptic material P (the initial of Peter, whose authority he believed to underlie Mark’s Gospel), found it most natural to designate this second source by the following letter Q. (Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) Location 1085. (Amazon))
  2. Wallace, Daniel B. The Synoptic Problem (Bible.org, June 2nd, 2004) Accessed 01-Jun-2019.
  3. Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) Location 709. (Amazon)
  4. Irenaeus of Lyons. Against Heresies (On the Detection and Overthrow of the So-Called Gnosis) (A.D. 175-190) Book III, Chapter I, Paragraph 1. (Early Christian Writings)
  5. Papias’s original works have been lost, but some of them have been quoted by later church fathers.
  6. Eusebius of Caesarea. Church History (A.D. 310-325) Book III, Chapter XXXIX, Paragraph 16. (CCEL.org)
  7. There is evidence in the Greek of this ‘Q’ material that it has been translated from Aramaic, and possibly from an Aramaic document, not merely from an Aramaic oral tradition. (Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) Location 700. (Amazon))
  8. Thus the great German scholar Theodor von Zahn held that Matthew first composed his Gospel in Aramaic, that our Greek Mark was then composed in partial dependence on the Aramaic Matthew, and that the Aramaic Matthew was then turned into Greek with the aid of the Greek Mark. (Bruce, F. F. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Nashville, TN: Kingsley Books, 2018; Kindle) Location 651. (Amazon))
  9. Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4 (ESV)) (Emphasis added.)
  10. Williams, Peter J. Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018; Logos book) 45. (Logos)

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  1. […] been writing about the Gospels, and last week I wrote about the Q Source Hypothesis (a.k.a. Document Q). The Q Source Hypothesis proposes the Gospel of Mark was written first, and the […]

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