Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Alternate Interpretation of Q: Some Thoughts

A question that’s been weighing on my mind, as of recent, is whether or not there is any credence to the Q source hypothesis. I think there is, but probably not for the reasons Biblical scholars usually give. What if the Q source isn’t evidence for some illusive artifact or document of ancient history so much as it is evidence for an emerging literary tradition?

In other words, Q may not actually be dealing with any genuine artifact, that is, it may not represent any original sayings at all, but rather, it could represent a type of literary progression. In this case, the progression would be a set of basic logia which have been lifted from an ancient form of oral treaties and philosophical discourses and then seamlessly blended into later literary constructions so that they get transformed. Therefore the sayings, although probably unreliable, may still contain allusions or reference(s) to real historical figures (e.g., Socrates, Pythagoras, Apollonius of Tyana, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.). The problem is, even if they do contain historical information, they may ultimately prove to be little more than imagined dialectics embellished with legend, a real possibility, and one I think my alternative interpretation of the Q hypothesis alludes to.

The Alternative Q as a Literary Tradition
Most people who have looked into the Q source hypothesis will find that it is not without controversy. The Biblical historian R. Joseph Hoffmann has affirmed:

Increasingly, scholars are returning to question whether the existence of “Q” is more a quest for the grail than a quest for a real document… But in my opinion, the search for Q ended with Austin Farrer; its reconstructions have been fanciful. And they have been the greatest distraction in New Testament studies for almost a century.

Although tend to I agree that Q reconstructions do tend to be fanciful, I would not rule out the hypothesis as a means of explaining the Jesus sayings in the Gospels from a literary perspective. After all, if any version of the Q document exists (or ever existed), it wouldn’t be definitive proof of any genuine sayings so much as it would be representative of an earlier literary tradition such as the philosophical treaties in the vein of the Socratic dialogs.

Since we know such dialogs existed in ancient Greece, it is fair to assume that such dialogs may have existed for early Christianity as well, and surely in the periods in-between. Therefore it seems highly plausible that any reconstruction of Q may simply be dealing with layers of logia rooted in much earlier oral traditions which get transcribed into a literary form, not so unlike the Socratic dialogs or, similarly, the collected sayings of Confucius. 

If we were to frame a theoretical model for an oral tradition paving way to a literary one, we could make some predictions about an alternative Q source as a literary tradition. 1) Q reconstructions may have historical referents, but many of the sayings may have originated as earlier philosophical dialogs or ancient hymns and not necessarily historical ones, per se (i.e., something like the Old Avestan Gathas). 2) Presumably, due to various circumstances such as *paper* cost and labor for transcription, only the most popular works would have been collected and preserved, but probably most of them lost, only fragments of which survived for posterity (e.g., the Neoplatonist account of the life of Pythagoras or the equally as fragmented Gospel of Thomas). 3) These latter documents most likely were re-used in later works of religious fiction, and then expounded upon (e.g., the Synoptic tradition leading way to the rest of the NT books). 4) This religious fiction would become so superfluous that we would expect it to spawn genres closely related to it, paving way to the rise of pastorals, hymnals, religious poetry, and theology.

Similarly, New Testament scholar Dennis R. MacDonald has developed a working hypothesis which investigates an alternative “sources” tradition within the Gospels—his new theory being that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all used not Q but a lost "Deuteronomy Gospel" in which the story of Jesus parallels, point for point, the entire book of Deuteronomy (mythically constructing Jesus as a new Moses). MacDonald calls this the “Alternative Q Hypothesis” and shouldn’t be confused for the Q source hypothesis. It’s a wholly independently derived theory which explains the literary devices evident given a thorough textual analysis of the NT. My hypothesis is similar, in that I’m not so much referring to any Q source in particular, but rather any and all alternative reconstructions—all which would be categorized as literary edifices which, when compiled, act as an auxiliary source for a more intricate literary tradition.

This theory dovetails nicely with what we already know about the Gospels and what we find when we deconstruct them. Robert M. Price’s book Deconstructing Jesus (Prometheus Books 2000) takes out all the recognizably mythical elements and shows how these mythemes have archetypes in pagan and non-Christian traditions. Interestingly, such a theory is well supported by MacDonald’s previous work Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? (Yale University Press, 2003), and The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark (Yale 2000), and makes the case that the earliest evangelist extensively imitated the Iliad and the Odyssey.

An Evolving Literary Tradition
Personally, I think the controversy surrounding the Q hypothesis is well deserved. Even so, the problem is a bit more complicated than I am letting on. But due to the sake of argument, I am assuming something like an alternative Q source tradition probably existed, since an evolution from the Greek tradition of a philosophical dialog to a Hellenistic influenced religious compendium like the Gospels certainly lacks a few transitional links—it makes sense for us to think of the Q hypothesis as one of the missing links along the path of literary evolution.

So my question is this: assuming we grant that Q (in any of its forms) existed at all, what is to suggest that the sayings aren’t themselves part of the same budding literary tradition which produced Socrates and, in similar fashion, the Gospel Jesus? What I mean to suggest here is that any Q reconstruction may not be getting closer to any original sayings source, but rather, may simply be part of an ongoing literary tradition involving various textual sources.

Burton L. Mack thinks the Q source was itself built upon layers of sayings traditions, where the document was developed in stages. I feel this observation agrees with what we already know about the literary traditions of the time. Myths usually get transmitted and spread by believers, and then embellished to the nth degree in a relatively short span of time, whereas dialogs were usually part of a popular medium which may have spread with equal fluidity. Regardless of how they were transmitted, we discover there was a multiplicity of myths that saturated the early Roman Empire. Justin Meggitt explores the very possibility that mythmaking in the early Roman Empire is responsible for the overtly mythic qualities of the Jesus narrative (see his essay “Popular Mythology in the Early Empire, Sources of the Jesus Tradition, Prometheus Books 2010).

If there is a hint of truth to this, and I think there might be, this would bolster our confidence that something like an alternative Q source tradition may have existed within the framework of a literary evolution where ancient myths and philosophical dialogs got compounded and forced, by believers hungry for new revelations, into a new genre of religious fiction, seemingly saturated by both.

Basically, what I am arguing here is that we can surmise that such a thing as an alternative Q source is not only plausible, but likely to be real, given the above patterns of a strong progression from oral tradition to a written one—the textual growth arising from an assortment of philosophical dialogs, which then become stripped down logia, and then get reassembled into popular religious works. These works, as they are a collection of smaller works, which are in turn a collection of sayings, which may stem from an earlier tradition of philosophical dialogs, are later amended to fit with popular myths and embellished legend, and often involving realistic historical settings and references to bolster the religious authority of competing ideologies, finally leaving us with a complex literary compendium. Like biological evolution via natural selection, however, the stages leading up to the final product are not easily discernible. In summary, Q may not be a source for the original Jesus sayings of the Synoptic tradition so much as it might be the missing link in a incremental, yet ongoing, literary evolution which, coincidentally, gave rise to the Gospels and rest of the NT.

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