Uncommon Sense

November 29, 2019

How Many Angels Can Dance Upon the Head of an Academic Argument

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:35 pm
Tags: , , ,

In discussions of the New Testament (NT) gospels, it is claimed by scholars that a document was used by both Matthew and Luke to flesh out (no pun intended) the gospel of Mark. This document was given the name Quelle, or Q for short, from the German word for source. No evidence exists in the archaeological record for such a document. No one has referred to it, nor have any fragments of it been discovered. The document is claimed to contain sayings of Jesus that include wisdom sayings, prophecies and other things. Some have been so adventurous to reconstitute the contents of the document.

There is a competitor to the Q theory, and that is that both Matthew and Luke copied from Mark, but then Luke “copied” from Matthew, which is the source of the material that Luke and Matthew share that does not come from Mark. This idea occurred to me and I wasn’t surprised that I was not the first.

In any case, there are robust arguments for both of these arguments and the “Q” people seem to be in a majority.

I have not, however, seen an analysis yet that has occurred to me. Here it is.

Both the gospels of Matthew and Luke contain nativity segments (birth of Jesus). Neither Mark, nor John, do this. Scholars seem to have reached a consensus that both nativity segments of those two books are bogus, fictional.

Matthew seems to have been written before Luke, so it could have been available to whoever wrote Luke. (The only thing we know about the authors of the gospels is that they were not the people whose names are on them . . . well, it is also known that there were more than four people writing them, but possibly some of those may have just been editors/redactors.)

So, what are the odds that both the writer of Matthew and the writer of Luke had the same thought that what the gospel of Mark needed was a (fictional) birth narrative and each wrote one? Let’s look at what they wrote.

There are a handful of similarities between the two. Obviously Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have to show up. The others are: conception by the spirit of god, no donkey shows up, Herod the Great is mentioned, and the birth took place in Bethlehem. On the rest of the details, many, many details, they differ. One mentions a guiding star, the other does not; one says Jesus was born in a stable, the other says a house; one says there was a visit by magicians (Magi) and the other says the visit was by shepherds, and so on. Surely these seem to be written independently, no?

But, think about someone who is capable of writing such a document and who finds the gospel of Mark lacking, and then who acquires a copy of Matthew, what would come into their mind? For one, it might be “I didn’t know you could just make stuff up and insert it!” Another might be “If Matthew were divinely inspired, if I am going to use his stuff, I better copy it exactly.” And maybe “Jeez, he did a shit job of his additions, I can do better.” Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall for that first writing session?

Matthew was thought to be the first written gospel by the church for a very long time. It includes the Sermon on the Mount and other desirable material. It flows logically and literally better than the other three, etc. But Matthew was not first. It was probably second, and a lot of stuff was added to what he included from Mark (which was most of Mark).

If the writer of Luke knew that Mark existed well before Matthew, he could not have not noticed that a great deal more information had been included. And he cannot have considered those additions as “word of god, divinely-inspired” texts, because he felt free to edit the pieces of Matthew he did include. Pieces got chopped up and moved around a great deal.

So, why would an author, who has decided to plagiarize (a word not used then) and improve upon Matthew have made so many changes, some of which were poorly done? Well, if you are going to plagiarize another’s writing, what would you do? Just lift out whole chunks of the stolen stuff and drop it in? This was done with Mark, but Matthew established that this was okay by doing the same. Luke still made minor changes if the stuff clipped from Mark. But if one didn’t want to be caught stealing wholesale, one had to disguise what they are doing somewhat. Rewrite some of this, reword some of that, cut out this, include that, these are the orders of the day. To do less, then one should just use Matthew, instead of Mark and leave it at that. One wanted to have to change what Mark or Matthew had written to do the project at all. That both Matthew and Luke copied most of Mark, they couldn’t have considered it fallacious, just in need of tightening . . . and expanding.

And, the clear fact that the birth narrative in Matthew was fictional would support my imagined approach of Luke. Well, did Luke know that Matthew’s birth narrative was fictional. If Luke’s sources were just Mark and Q, there is nothing in Q, according to the Q advocates, regarding a birth narrative. So, where would this information have come from? There are no other sources of birth narratives other than Matthew and Luke, period. So, if Luke had enough brain cells to rub together, he would realize that the birth narrative of Matthew was added fiction, serving the purpose of fleshing out the story. And, if it was fictional, changes in it would disguise that the idea for it came from Matthew and also would allow for the correction of some errors perceived. Of course, local knowledge is never perfect, and things Luke thought were the facts, might actually have been errors and “correcting” Matthews factual errors may actually have inserted different errors in place of the perceived ones. (There are errors, oodles of them.)

So, until some concrete evidence for the existence of Q is found, I will continue to think of it as a hypothetical document invented to plug holes in hypothetical arguments over the gospels.

The gospels and the book of Acts of the Apostles are the only place any mention of an historical Jesus are made. (Yes, there are references to Jesus in a few other sources, but those references cannot be distinguished as being distinct from descriptions of the beliefs of Christians.) These earliest gospels were written after the fall of Jerusalem in the early 70’s CE, so way after the claimed birth, death, and rebirth of the main character. And the others are placed after to well after the first gospel, Mark. How likely are the “facts” to have been preserved when the communication system of the region (not counting the Romans) was gossip. More likely was that the gospels were written from agendas that cropped up in the early church and were not intended as historical documents at all.

Many claims are placed at the feet of a robust oral tradition preserving the facts of Jesus’ life, but that belief also has a great many holes in it, so set that on the shelf next to the Q document. (As I have wondered before . . . if you believe your god walked the Earth and you were one of his chosen companions, wouldn’t you get a wealthy believer to pay for a scribe to record everything you could remember about the man-god? And there were over ten surviving people in that situation, possibly over twenty (all of the unnamed women and people Jesus visited and stayed with and . .  and . . .). Oh, the disciples? The only place they are mentioned is in said gospels and Acts. The “pillars” of the church (Peter and James) are mentioned often enough in other works of the NT, but these people were mentioned as leaders of the Jerusalem sect of the nascent Christian church, not as disciples.)

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