Eta Linnemann’s article on the Q hypothesisa takes Burton Mack and me to task not only for our scholarship, but also for what she takes to be our attack on traditional Christian beliefs. It’s a clever exercise in apologetics. However, this attempt to undergird her own very conservative understanding of Christian faith by discrediting the Q hypothesis (and anyone who dares discuss it) is misleading, misinformed and misguided.
Her case against Q is misleading. Take, for example, the point that since Paul does not mention Q, we should assume that it did not exist in his day. Aside from the obvious problem that we do not know what Q was called by early Christians (hence, the modern designation “Q”), Paul never refers to his sources by name. This is understandable. Many ancient documents carry no title; if they were referred to at all, it was by recalling the first few words in the document. In short, we do not know whether Paul ever refers to Q.
More egregious, however, is Linnemann’s assertion that since Paul had no conflict with James and Peter, ostensible Q folk, we cannot assume that there were different understandings of the significance of Jesus’ life and death among early Christians. But there were decisive differences in the way early Christians understood Jesus, precisely between Paul, on the one hand, and Peter and James, on the other. The basic split between Petrine and Pauline Christianity belongs to the very rudiments of New Testament scholarship. The dimensions of this difference occupy tomes of research, well known to Linnemann, who, prior to her conversion to Christian fundamentalism a decade ago, was well versed in the history of New Testament scholarship.
Some of that knowledge emerges in her discussion of the history of the Q hypothesis. Here again, however, her remarks are misleading. She must surely know that the case for the existence of Q is not grounded on verbal agreements between Matthew and Luke, nor on residual cases of common order in these gospels. Rather, the Q hypothesis arose as a necessary corollary to another, widely accepted hypothesis used to explain the peculiar relationship of Matthew and Luke to Mark (an issue mentioned only in passing by Linnemann). Hermann Christian Weisse and others noticed that Matthew and Luke agree in their sequence of events in the life of Jesus only when they also agree with Mark. This peculiar pattern has led almost all scholars of the New Testament to the conclusion that Matthew and Luke must have made use of Mark as a kind of outline for their respective works, but quite independently of one another.
This hypothesis of “Marcan priority,” however, leaves a good deal of material shared by Matthew 040and Luke, but not found in Mark, unaccounted for. How could Matthew and Luke have included these several sayings, parables and occasional stories—sometimes offering versions that are very close in wording—independently of one another? The Q hypothesis arose as a way of accounting for the material common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark.
As with most complicated historical problems, the persuasiveness of the hypothesis lies in the way it can account for the details. The Q hypothesis, together with Marcan priority, is the most efficient way of accounting for the myriad details in the relationship of these three texts to one another. Over the years, various solutions to this problem have had their champions: Matthean priority, Lukan priority, proto-Marcan hypotheses, proto-Lukan hypotheses, and the list goes on. But, in the judgment of most New Testament scholars, none can account for the details as well as the hypothesis of Marcan priority together with the Q hypothesis. But the reader should not accept this appeal to authority as the final word. He or she should find a synopsis of the first three gospels and make a comparison of these texts for him or herself.
Linnemann also dismisses the Gospel of Thomas as irrelevant to the discussion of Q and Christian origins. On this matter she is misinformed and out-of-date. Her assertion rests on the grounds that “recent scholarship dates its earliest possible composition to about A.D. 140.” This, presumably, is a reference to the work of Bernard Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt (LOGIA IHSOY: Sayings of Our Lord [Egypt Exploration Fund, 1897]), who based their dating on a fragment of the Gospel of Thomas known as Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 1 and proposed A.D. 140 as a terminus ad quem (the latest possible date) for the Gospel of Thomas. Linnemann mistakes this assessment for a terminus a quo (the earliest possible date). The more recent discussion of this point includes dating Thomas to around A.D. 50, though I think this is too early. My own proposal is to date it near the end of the first century, roughly contemporaneous with Matthew and Luke. This would indeed make it relevant to the discussion of Q, not as Q’s precursor, but as a document analogous to Q in form. It shows merely that early Christians could create a document like Q and think it a meaningful way of discussing the significance of Jesus.
These are all matters for legitimate scholarly discussion. But that discussion will not get very far in the atmosphere established by Linnemann, with her insinuations of heresy and threat. She accuses those with whom she disagrees of “preaching a contrary gospel” and of “despising God’s Word in the gospels.” I believe that at one point she even intends to pronounce a curse (on me?), citing Paul’s words in Galatians 1:9! This is not scholarship. It is an inquisition. For her part, Linnemann counsels that we simply “abide by what the texts themselves and the documents of the early church tell us: The Gospels report the words and deeds of Jesus.” This is not an argument. It is an invitation to have faith.
If my point here were to reply to Linnemann’s charges of heresy with counter-charges of my own, I might point out how misplaced and shallow this faith is in comparison to an authentic faith in Jesus Christ. But this is not my point. I do not wish to use scholarship to impugn her, or anyone’s, faith.
Furthermore, Linnemann’s assumption that through this work I am trying to create a “biblical basis” for a different understanding of Christian faith is false. The basic premise is false. Christian faith is not grounded primarily in texts, but in what Christians have for centuries described as “life in the Spirit.” Texts can tell us a great deal about this life, and that is their value. When I look at all the early Christian texts at my disposal, I see variety in early Christianity—even within the limits of the New Testament canon itself. This leads me to conclude with Walter Bauer, Helmut Koester, James M. Robinson and, most recently, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza that early Christianity was a diverse movement. This diversity, I have suggested, might embolden us to embrace our own diversity today. (I have not suggested, incidentally, that Q and Thomas ought to be lifted out of that diversity as the basis of a new orthodoxy. My own theological predilections happen to lie elsewhere.)
But I suspect that it is precisely this—the tolerance of theological diversity—that Linnemann ultimately finds to be so threatening about this work. In this sense, she presents us with a choice. Linnemann sees the truth of Christianity only within a narrowly defined range of acceptability. This narrow range is authorized by an equally narrow reading of scripture. I do not see it that way at all. In my view, God has made an impact on people in a variety of human circumstances, calling forth a variety of legitimate responses to that experience. The validity of one experience does not depend on the invalidation of another. This is the heart of the matter. Christian fundamentalists, like Eta Linnemann, are always posing us with a simplistic choice: truth or falsehood. But sometimes we have a choice between truth and truth. This is because God is larger than the smallness of human imagination, broader than the narrow range of human comfort. So, for my part, scholarship will always be more meaningful when it is used to press the limits rather than to reinforce old boundaries.
Eta Linnemann’s article on the Q hypothesisa takes Burton Mack and me to task not only for our scholarship, but also for what she takes to be our attack on traditional Christian beliefs. It’s a clever exercise in apologetics. However, this attempt to undergird her own very conservative understanding of Christian faith by discrediting the Q hypothesis (and anyone who dares discuss it) is misleading, misinformed and misguided. Her case against Q is misleading. Take, for example, the point that since Paul does not mention Q, we should assume that it did not exist in his day. Aside from […]