New College, University of Edinburgh
“Q” and Christian Origins: Reflections on Kloppenborg’s Visit

“Q” and Christian Origins: Reflections on Kloppenborg’s Visit

(Larry Hurtado):  On Monday (06 December) my long-time acquaintance John Kloppenborg generously gave his time and thoughts to a day-long event here in New College.  Staff and students are very grateful for the chance to interact with this internationally-known figure in Christian Origins, especially famous for his many publications on the Gospels sayings-source, “Q”.  John is one of the clearest and most measured presenters you’ll hope to hear.  He clearly aims to avoid over-stepping the evidence, and shows respect for the views of others.   A few reflections arising from his presentation and the discussion that followed.

Though I’m content to accept the Q-hypothesis as fully plausible, indeed the most plausible way of accounting for the body of common sayings material in Luke and Matthew, and am also ready to accept the basics of efforts to reconstruct what Q might have included and how its contents may have been ordered, I remain puzzled at the inferential moves that Kloppenborg still seems drawn to make.  In the discussion, he acknowledged that Q wasn’t probably a full index of the outlook and traditions of those from whom it sprang, and that a lot of networking characterized earliest Christian circles.  Yet he still seemed to want to refer to Q as a “gospel” (which seems to mean a particular presentation of Jesus reflecting a particular outlook alongside other outlooks), and he also tends still to emphasize the particularities of Q as importantly indicative of significant variation in early Christian beliefs/outlooks.  So, e.g., the absence of a passion-narrative, the treatment of Jesus’ death in connection with OT martyred-prophet tradition, the divine validation of Jesus by way of heavenly ascent/exaltation, these Kloppenborg proposed as indicative of some real alterity of importance.  I.e., he still seems to want to make certain inferences about the social history of early Christianity from the putative contents of Q.  And the specific inferences he favors seem to me curiously less economical and cogent than others.

Let’s accept the following widely-shared views:  (1) Q was a real literary text; (2) it was composed in Greek (not, e.g., Aramaic); (3) it circulated widely enough and with sufficient favor to be appropriated generously and independently by the two authors of Matthew and Luke.

It seems to me that the most economical inferences are these: (1) Q was not likely the product of some significantly different or geographically delimited early Christian outlook (or at least wasn’t perceived to be such), but instead circulated trans-locally and was appreciated widely; (2) those who composed Q were likely early Jesus-followers in touch with fellow believers in other locations, and neither perceived themselves nor were perceived by other believers as holding beliefs significantly at odds with these fellow believers in other Christian settings; (3) the earliest function of Q is probably reflected in the use of the Q-material in our earliest extant instances in Matthew and Luke:  as a valuable body of teaching material that was seen as complementary to other early Christian material and beliefs, not as a rival or alternative.  It is, thus, both anachronistic and potentially misleading to refer to Q as a “gospel” (implying that it functioned as the full statement of how Jesus was viewed by some Christian circles).

As a further basis for my own inferences, the most commonly agreed reconstructions of Q show it as having an implicit narrative structure (at the point of incorporation by Matthew and Luke, I leave aside speculations about putative prior “layers” or editorial “stages” of Q), e.g., with Jesus-material set in a temptation-context early in Q and sayings about eschatological vindication coming later/last.  As Kloppenborg himself has noted, the appropriation of Q material into the narrative gospels of Matthew and Luke was a natural move compatible with the inherent dynamics of Q.  Isn’t the more reasonable inference, then, that Q presupposes and was originally composed to function along with something like the familiar earliest Christian beliefs about Jesus and the narrative-form of these beliefs that we have reflected in, e.g., the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

Let me anticipate responses by emphasizing that I’ve no need to make earliest Christianity monochrome.  Paul’s letters reflect serious issues among earliest Jesus-followers, and sometimes harsh condemnations of one another.  Moreover, the lack of trans-local ecclesiastical structures and the trans-ethnic spread of Christianity made for variations.  But I just don’t find persuasive the specific inferences about Q that Kloppenborg still seems to find attractive.

I give a fuller discussion of Q and what I think it reflects about earliest Christianity in my book, Lord Jesus Christ:  Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003), 217-57, “Q and Early Devotion to Jesus”.

  • CSCO Team,
  • 9th December 2010


  • Ron Price, 11th December 2010 at 11:31 am | Reply

    If one accepts Kloppenborg’s premises, namely that Matthew and Luke were written independently of each other, and that the Double Tradition represents a single document, then I think his conclusions that the text was Greek and that it reflects a locally-held outlook seem fairly reasonable. But there is plenty of evidence which shows that both his premises are wrong, see e.g. the following page of my web site:
    Thus the “implicit narrative structure” of Q is a chimera, a pale distorted reflection of the grand narrative structure of Matthew, and defined solely by the passages Luke chose to copy from Matthew.

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