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The Jesus of Q

posted by xscot mcknight

James M. Robinson is perhaps the leading scholar in the world on the hypothetical source of the canonical Gospels called “Q.” He’s also a leading voice in the Jesus Seminar, which Seminar is not hypothetical but is instead the source for many news shows. The Jesus Seminar gathered for years to discuss and vote on which sayings and events in the Gospels were “authentic.” Robinson’s now written a book, The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. In this bold book Robinson sets forth what the real Jesus’ original message was, and it is a message significantly unlike the Church’s message about Jesus. I can think of no better “introduction” to how many in the Jesus Seminar understand both what Jesus was like and how the Church then overlayed Jesus with theological interpretation. While I think Q was a source used both by Matthew and Luke, I find myself in constant disagreement with how Robinson understands Jesus and often how he interprets Q texts.
Here is a brief on this book:
First, Q is a source that we now find behind passages that are nearly the same in Matthew and Luke. A good example would be John’s stinging words to those who wanted to be baptized in which he hauls out the famous image of a “brood of snakes” (see Matthew 3:7-10 and Luke 3:7-9, where nearly every word is identical in Greek). Most of the Sermon on the Mount, on this hypothesis, derives from Q.
Second, according to Robinson, once we get hold of it by careful comparison of Matthew and Luke, Q is the closest thing we’ll ever get to the historical Jesus.
Third, here’s a summary statement of Jesus’ essential message: “trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them. God is somebody you can trust, so give it a try” (viii).
Fourth, the problem Jesus faced is the same one we face today: “most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves” (xiii).
Fifth, our problem is that “we have ascribed to him [Jesus] a different gospel from what he himself envisaged!” (2).
Robinson then provides a readable introduction and complete reconstructed text of “The Sayings Gospel Q” (pp. 27-54). This is based on his massive book, The Critical Edition of Q, so it is an easy way for those so interested to read a translation of critical scholarship’s version of Q. Chapters follow on these topics, all derived from his study of Q:
Jesus was a Galilean Jew
What we do and do not know about Jesus
Jesus was converted by John
Jesus’ lifestyle was underwritten by God himself
Jesus’ trust in God
Jesus’ view of himself
The End as the Beginning
The Gospel of Jesus and the Gospel of Paul
His epilogue is about where we go from here. He addresses those who have “outgrown” the Church first, and he delves into “God-talk” as a form of rhetoric to talk about important things, but little more. He then speaks to evangelicals and asks them to consider that the Gospels show us the impression Jesus made on others.
Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus stands at the end of a long line of historical Jesus books that believe the Church messed up the beauty of a simple Jesus by tampering with the evidence. Everyone, Dan Brown told us, loves a conspiracy, and the favorite target of the long line of conspiracy theorists today is the Church.



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Wade Hodges

posted December 23, 2005 at 1:24 pm


This sounds similar to what Horsley writes about in “Jesus and Empire.”
I like reading these folks because they continually challenge me to look at familiar texts in very different ways. Especially texts that I’ve tended to over-spiritualize.
Even the statement, “trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them. God is somebody you can trust, so give it a try” while not complete, gets me to thinking about the practical implications of Jesus’ message in a fresh way.
Thanks for the summary.



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Bethie

posted December 23, 2005 at 1:28 pm


Sounds like a very interesting book. A review on the Amazon page says it presents a very intense view of the “Gospel of Jesus” rather than the “Gospel of the church”. Jesus’ gospel is a message of love and trust, “It is a “radical trust in and responsiveness to God” that can make society function as God’s kingdom.”
“The kingdom of God is here,
the kingdom of God is now.”
Wishing all a Timeless Christmas!
Blessings.



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Broken Messenger

posted December 23, 2005 at 1:45 pm


Jesus was converted by John
How? If we read passages such as John 3:36, one of many examples that could be offered, we can clearly see that this statement is false.
Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus stands at the end of a long line of historical Jesus books that believe the Church messed up the beauty of a simple Jesus by tampering with the evidence.
What’s new? Yet, these same “scholars” have no problems relying on church documents and the preserved manuscripts they rail against when it suits them.
For example, Dan Brown’s claims that Jesus was only thought a mere man until Constantine conjured up Nicea is absurd and dismisses figures such as Athanasius (who vehemently argued against the Arians) the apostle Paul, Peter and John who argued against the Gnostics, ect.
Robinson appears to have the same back handed, no substance, conjecture going here that makes this type of pop-scholarship and pop-history popular these days because it appeals to political ideology and a resistance to the plain Gospel of Jesus Christ that has been preseved by God through his servants for two-thousand years – all while giving a venere of sincerity and of a desire to “really get the truth.”
Brad



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Ron Fay

posted December 23, 2005 at 2:38 pm


I love having an internet-friendly family!
The problem with the Jesus Seminar, and the Liberal quest in general, has been the criteria of double-dissimilarity. At least this book seems to have gotten past part of that problem. We only need to get the JSers to recognize that the church began because of Jesus, not Paul.



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Dana Ames

posted December 23, 2005 at 6:26 pm


From what I have heard of the Jesus Seminar output, it seems that there is not much that examines Jesus in the context of his Jewishness, and the connectedness of his and Paul’s Jewishness to what Jesus and Paul say/write. Am I wrong about this? If I’m right, why do you think this is so?
This is one of the major reasons I am so fond of Wright’s work- he lays out the Jewish connections in such a way that makes me gasp sometimes.
Dana



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franklin

posted December 23, 2005 at 11:19 pm


Scot,
I have heard Marcus Borg’s named dropped quite a bit so I picked up his “Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time”. I thought it was a good read…and I liked some of his conclusions, although, overall, I wasn’t on the same page. Can you comment on him, and perhaps his view in relation to Robinson’s view?
Thanks.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 23, 2005 at 11:24 pm


Franklin,
Borg’s view of God, Jesus, and the Christian faith has to be set into a panentheistic theory of God and Jesus as a powerful, spiritual, religious person. All of this is quite clear in the footnotes of his Jesus: A New Vision. His view is different from Robinson in that Borg is focused, instead of on justice, on the spiritual nature of Jesus.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 23, 2005 at 11:53 pm


Dana,
Some of those in the Jesus Seminar have discounted the Jewish context, but not all. Robinson is moderate on this one.



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Dan Reid

posted December 24, 2005 at 9:42 am


Here’s a little known fact: Robinson in his youth was an evangelical. His father was the evangelical (Southern) Presbyterian NT scholar William Childs Robinson, who taught at Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. Robinson attended Columbia, and my father, who was a student there in the late 1940s, says that James Robinson gave a “senior sermon” at graduation, and it was a powerfully evangelical message (so says my mother too). From there he went to Germany and Bultmann and all that (and for some that explains everything!). So Robinson is, shall we say, a “post-post-evangelical” (and there are other prominent figures in the “quest” who have similar biographies, as Scot knows).
I’m not a promoter of or believer in “slippery slope” arguments. There is much we do not understand about the reasons and impulses that drive people to their conclusions. But it’s safe to say that Robinson has been where many of us are or have been–something I find both intriguing and cautionary (though with no easy list of intellectual “safety procedures” derived). And here’s a little food for thought: Might Robinson have taken a different trajectory if during his doctoral studies there had been the options available in some of the evangelically-rooted and critically-engaged Third Questers of today? Scot, take it away . . .



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Scot McKnight

posted December 24, 2005 at 11:20 am


Dan,
In addition, Dan, is this: Murray Harris says James Robinson wrote a sparkling defense of the deity of Christ in his master’s thesis, I believe. If you look at his book, Jesus as God, you will see one entry by James M. Robinson, in which W.C. Robinson edits an Eerdmans book of 1949 on the deity of Christ.
Nor am I a promoter of the slippery slope — people shift for a variety of reasons, not all that many of them theological or even critical/historical. Sitting here I could give a list of a dozen or so like this.
I agree: had there been a more robust form of evangelical scholarship, which arose in the 60s and after…. Whatever we think of the rise of neo-evangelicalism in the 50s and 60s, it has produced much fruit for evangelical scholarship, and that is why it disappoints when certain questions are not permitted at the table.
The Emerging movement is determined to let those questions be asked.



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Ron Fay

posted December 24, 2005 at 1:06 pm


Scot,
What do you think of Dunn’s contention that much of Q is more likely a form of oral transmission rather than literary? I am just reading Jesus Remembered right now (about 350 pages in) and I noticed that he said you helped clarify some points for him.
What did you think of his take on Q?



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Kim

posted December 24, 2005 at 1:40 pm


His book is tripe and heresy.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 24, 2005 at 3:51 pm


Ron,
Guessing about the literary/oral nature of a speculative source is pretty difficult business, but there are bright minds on both sides — Allison’s work is admirable here. I think Q was written, mostly at least, but I’m not certain Matt and Luke had access to the identical copy of Q. Thus, some changes could be explained as Q/Matt vs. Q/Luke.
Jimmy, in my judgment, works against his own theory by contending for two views simultaneously: if Matthew and Mark and Luke are the result of an oral tradition (that’s his first theory) then that theory is undercut for proof by suggesting, simultaneously, for Matthew’s and Luke’s use of Mark. Do you see this? How do we know the Synoptics come from an oral traditioning process if we also explain the same things that are explained orally by use of a literary theory (Matt’s use of Mark, etc)?
Jimmy and I have spoke of this to one another since he sent me the rough draft of Jesus Remembered.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 24, 2005 at 3:52 pm


Kim,
I doubt any reasonable person in the world would think Robinson’s theory is orthodox.



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Kim

posted December 24, 2005 at 5:05 pm


Phewww, I feel better now.



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Ted Gossard,

posted December 25, 2005 at 3:50 am


It’s a given that the synoptics weren’t written out of the sky.
It’s convenient for Robinson and the like to pull out a nonextant source that explains away what books we have. Or it seems like, for them, it provides them an explanation for things they can’t accept in the synoptics and John.
Doesn’t it seem like here that there is more going on in this higher criticism of the text, than merely trying to get to the truth? I mean, are all who are really pursuing truth going to fall out into some like place as Robinson and company? I’m sure: “not”. And if not, then what’s going on here?



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Kevin D. Johnson

posted December 25, 2005 at 10:54 am


Of course, what the Jesus Seminar and other scholars often fail to note for the average guy is that there is no extant Q and that what scholars normally refer to as Q is merely the conjecture of modern-day literary critics that generally have anything but Christian orthodoxy in mind.
I believe it would be more productive to actually deal honestly with the texts we do have (ie. the four gospels) to find out who Jesus was, what He did, and why that is relevant to us.
The Synoptic Problem, for example, is only a problem for those who are stuck in a modernistic line of thinking that they must all agree in every detail and do not bother to allow the four gospels to speak for themselves.
In other words, we ought to be able to come to the point where we accept the stories of the gospels as they are portrayed in the gospels and not try to look behind them omething that isn’t there. I also believe we must come to the point where we can accept the stories of the faithful over the last two thousand years as to how their lives relate to the Christian orthodoxy that is summed up in the creeds.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 25, 2005 at 1:07 pm


Kevin,
Thanks for your comment, but it is not quite as simple as you are saying. There are plenty who have genuine historical questions — why the agreement between Matt and Luke? And, we know Luke says he used sources, Luke 1:1-4. So, the synoptic problem is not simply dismissable as some modernistic act by the unorthodox, for it is clearly not. Augustine wrote about this. I do not dispute with you about plenty of unorthodox who have views that many of us do not share. I dispute that we can simply dismiss synoptic problem issues as the play of the unorthodox. Such a stance is fundamentally disrespectful to those of us who have long studied such matters within the Church and from a perspective of faith.



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Ron Fay

posted December 25, 2005 at 8:53 pm


Scot,
I see your point. However, wouldn’t some sense of oral tradition likely be evident in the first place? At the same time, I think a literary dependance on Mark (by Matt and Luke) to be likely, but I think the oral tradition argument does knock at least some of the wind out of the sails of a Q theory, especially when taking into account how Q is defined as the agreements between Luke and Matthew against Mark when many of those “agreements” are in fact not that close.



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Kevin D. Johnson

posted December 25, 2005 at 9:00 pm


Scot,
I didn’t say the issue was a simple one nor did I mean to infer that we cannot look at issues like the Synoptic Problem within the sphere of orthodoxy. After all, you can only say so much in a blog comment box!
But you must admit that the problem of the so-called Synoptics has been greatly exaggerated in modern times, so much so that it has provided for fundamentalist absurdities on all sides, be they liberal, conservative, or otherwise that has done anything but wage a war against the orthodox understanding of who Jesus is and was and what his work was about.
Of course, careful exegetes throughout the history of the Church have noticed discrepancies between the accounts (even the extant variants of the manuscript histories bear this out, no doubt). However, that does not mean that there is a need to abandon orthodoxy like many did in the last century because they saw issues and problems within the texts of the gospels that they could neither explain away or put to rest within their own hermeneutical grid.
I believe in this postmodern era we have a unique opportunity to see the narratives in the gospels for what they really are–unique perspectives that each tell their own stories in their own ways. I also believe it is high time that good postmodern type folks begin to question the validity of the underlying presuppositions, methods, and work of the last two hundred years in approaching the gospels (on both sides, I might add, since there is completely different and necessary critique needed for conservative approaches that on the surface appear to have a very high view of Scripture and a resultant paranoia about things like Q and the Synoptic Problem).
Part of that critique may very well need to be disrespectful because shaking the foundations of worldviews is often a traumatic issue from all sides. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but long studies and devoted hours looking into these things do not make you or anyone else right about these things. I am hopeful we can all continue to work together in a way that values the contribution of those who are different than us…it just isn’t always possible, sadly.



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Scot McKnight

posted December 25, 2005 at 10:51 pm


Kevin,
I actually have not found the issues as you do: I don’t think many major battles are fought on this front (Syn Prob); in fact, I’m alarmed at the number today who have never underlined their synopses.
It was not the postmodern era, but the modern era that made the “discovery” that the Gospels have different points of view: this was the major conclusion of redaction criticism. Postmodernity has said that the different points of view are inevitable for that is what historians and humans have to do — and can do no other.
What I think postmodernity will contribute is to hack away at the idea that there is only one interpretation and it will show that the faith community of the Christians shaped how the story was told, and it is the only story to be told for the Christian community.
I know not all this can be discussed adequately on a blog.



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