Do Manuscripts of Q Still Exist?

A favorite argument against the existence of Q is simply that no manuscripts of Q have ever been discovered. No more than this bare assertion is usually made. But a little probing shows that this argument has some serious weaknesses to it. In particular, three come to mind: (1) If Matthew and Luke swallowed up Q in their writings, why would we expect to find any copies of Q? Or to put this another way, Luke says that he used more than one source, presumably more than one written source. If so, why haven’t we found it/them? The fact that we haven’t surely doesn’t mean that Luke was not shooting straight with us, does it? (2) Even the Gospel of Mark has few copies in the early centuries, yet it was endorsed as an official Gospel by Ireneaus. Yet this is a canonical Gospel, which apparently was regarded in some sense as authoritative before the end of the first century, or at the latest in the first decade or two of the second century, because of its association with Peter. Yet if there are only two copies of Mark in Greek before the fourth century still in existence (at least as far as what has been published to date), what chance do we have of finding a non-canonical gospel-source in the early centuries? And as the centuries roll on, the likelihood that such a document would continue to be copied becomes increasingly remote. (3) Apart from having the text of Q, as it has been reconstructed, what other criteria should scholars demand of such an alleged discovery? Do they expect the document to have a title such as “The Gospel according to Q”? That neologism won’t wash. Perhaps just such manuscripts have been discovered but were mislabeled. The burden of this short essay is to examine that possibility.

Eight papyri are known to exist that contain portions from only the Gospel of Luke. On the assumption that Luke is closer to the wording of Q than Matthew is (an assumption that all two-source theorists embrace, I believe), it is at least hypothetically possible that one or two of these papyri are actually manuscripts of Q rather than of Luke. A closer examination, however, severely limits this possibility. The eight papyri are:

P3 (VI/VII): L 7.36–45; 10.38–42

P4 (III): L 1.58–59; 1.62–2.1; 2.6–7; 3.8–4.2; 4.29–32, 34–35; 5.3–8; 5.30–6.16

P7 (III–IV?): L 4.1–3

P42 (VII/VIII): L 1.54–55; 2.29–32

P69 (III): L 22.41, 45–48, 58–61

P82 (IV/V): L 7.32–34, 37–38

P97 (VI/VII): L 14.7–14

P111 (III): L 17.11–13; 17.22–23

In order for these to be manuscripts of Q, we might expect the following: (1) an early date, probably no later than the fourth century; (2) exclusively double-tradition (with Matthew) material; (3) no original-hand markings that identify the text as from Luke (e.g., title, Eusebian canons); (4) the order of the material might be other than what we see in Luke or (a) at least each fragment involves only intra-pericope material rather than inter-pericope material, or (b) the inter-pericope fragments of a single manuscript do not have the same order as is found in Luke; (5) perhaps some slight differences between Luke and this papyrus, with this manuscript displaying a somewhat more primitive text.

In reality, almost none of these expectations is a requirement, though if all are present in a manuscript they increase the positive identification of that manuscript as from Q. The reasons these expectations are not ex hypothesi necessary are as follows:

(1) There is the possibility that Q was copied for centuries; we have some evidence of ‘The Gospel of the Hebrews’—a first-century gospel, most likely (it’s mentioned by Papias)—existing for centuries, judging by patristic comments (see James Edwards’ The Hebrew Gospel and the Development of the Synoptic Tradition [Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2009]). If that document can exist, why not Q?

(2) Q can conceivably be found only in Luke rather than in Luke and Matthew. That there are 235 verses found in both Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark gives a solid basis for the existence of Q, but it does not equally argue that Q is no more and no less than these 235 verses. Such a conclusion would, in fact, be bizarre. Analogously, if the only way we could tell if Mark existed was its use by Matthew and Luke in double-tradition material, we would have to say that Mark was about half as long as it really is! Further, we would expect there to be some overlap between Q and Mark, so it can also be found in triple tradition material (the ‘blessed overlap’).

(3) Original-hand markings that identify the papyrus as from Luke is the one piece of evidence that would exclude a particular manuscript. The reason is simple: the original scribe of such a manuscript would have copied out the whole of Luke rather than writing fragments. Of course, if the text is an amulet or some other snippet from the Gospels, the scribe may have claimed that such a text was from Luke mistakenly.

(4) We really have no idea what the order of pericopae in Q was—assuming that it was a single written document (an assumption that has not yet been satisfactorily demonstrated). Thus, if parts of two or more pericopae are found in sequence in a given papyrus, this does not necessarily rule out that the manuscript is a copy of Q. But if multiple fragments from one Luke papyrus seem to be rearranged from the order found in Luke, this could argue for such a document being a copy of Q.

(5) Textual differences, especially if the papyrus in question displayed a more primitive form of text than that found in Luke, would signal the possibility of the papyrus being a copy of Q. But if Luke did not alter the text of Q in a given pericope, then we would expect to see no differences, apart from the usual corruptions, between the established text of Luke and the text of the papyrus in question.

In light of all these points and counterpoints, we would nevertheless conclude that the surest way for scholars to detect a fragment from Q would be for the five guidelines to be in place. Thus, of the eight Lukan papyri listed above, do any meet most or all of these qualifications? The five guidelines will again be enumerated, but this time with the best candidates for each category.

(1) Date: five of the papyri are from the fourth century or earlier: P4, P7, P69, P82 (fourth or fifth), and P111. The rest of the criteria will be examined only for these candidates.

(2) and (4) Of the five earliest Luke papyri, P4 is not restricted to double-tradition material and it also has fragments that encompass more than one pericope (at one point it has text in sequence covering five pericopae in Luke); P69 involves more than one pericope and has parallels in both Matthew and Mark (thus, triple-tradition); P82 involves two pericopae, with the second being in the triple tradition; P111 has one single-tradition pericope followed by a triple-tradition pericope.

The best candidate is P7, which has only Luke 4.1–3, one of the double-tradition texts. Of course, with only three verses, to claim that we have found one of the copies of Q is far more weight than this slender evidence can bear—unless there were strong corroborative evidence.

(3) I have not yet examined P7 to see if there are telltale signs that the original scribe thought that he was copying Luke.

(5) According to the Nestle apparatus, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the text of P7 for Luke 4.1–3.

Altogether, the evidence thus far presented can hardly be said to build confidence that any missing Q fragments have actually been discovered. But at least, ex hypothesi, such a discovery has some reasonable expectations laid on it so that papyrus discoveries yet to come may be examined for whether they supply any evidence of being copies of Q. Still, I’m not holding my breath.

For further reading:

Kurt Aland, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, 15th edition (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2007)

Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (T & T Clark, 2002)

John Kloppenborg, Q, the Earliest Gospel: An Introduction to the Original Stories and Sayings of Jesus (John Knox Westminster, 2008)

John Kloppenborg, et al., editors, The Critical Edition of Q (Fortress, 2000)

Robert Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation, 2nd edition (Baker, 2001)


37 thoughts on “Do Manuscripts of Q Still Exist?

  1. Pingback: “The Gospel according to Q” « ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (in Christ Jesus)

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  3. I know very little about this, so I have a lot of questions that will probably be answered when I read more about this.

    Luke “used more than one source”. If one of those sources was Paul, and that source was verbal, why assume the other(s) were written?

    Was Q endorsed by Ireneaus or any other church father?
    Was the Q autograph inspired by God? Was its author carried along by the Holy Spirit?

    If Q were to be found, would it become the 5th Gospel?

    Thanks. Great article (as usual).


  4. Stanley Bridgeford

    My dear Dr. Wallace,

    Thank you so very much for sharing this posting with me. Yes, I know it was not written with me in mind, but I found it all so very well thought out and presented! I’ve only heard about Q in passing in some reading over done some time ago and always thought I’d do some reading up on this someday. Your posting made today that day.


  5. Gordon

    Good stuff.

    The existence of Q is one of those things that can be picked apart, but there really is no other explanation that stands up to any type of common sense. Whether the material came from a book or a collection of sayings or whatever it was, certainly Luke and Matthew used a particular written source.

    Beyond that is a lot of speculation, but at a minimum there is no better explantion for the common material than some type of “Q” source.


  6. All those theories which says that even some ppry of Luke might be actually Q, bec Luke was literally plagiarizing or copying Q, is based on strict presupposition of the Q.

    My questions are, 1) Why don’t scholars go for the theory that Other source(s) was rather oral tradition narration as compared to written, which is way more likely to be and plausible hypothesis than imagining about Q. Why don’t we take the first verse of Luke that he is talking about a mere oral compilation of the Gospel by some disciples with their companions(just as Luke was one), that of which “many have undertaken” he mentioned in Luke 1:1. I think the “many” he talked about must not be so many, but perhaps he had Mark, Matthew and/or their oral (compilation) of the Gospel which he used as his source of investigation. So the oral compilation of Gospel as taught by Matthew, Mark, and other disciples, is more plausible than the physical Q.

    2) If Q existed as a written document of Gospel, it must be coming from a reliable person who is greater than Luke, probably a disciple himself. So why no one cared about it for preserving and transmitting it as they did with the rest of NT books? If people knew how significant is the document, such as a Gospel written by an apostle, then the Church must be preserving them, but we have no physical evidence of it at all as compared to rest of NT books which is overwhelming.

    3) What is the theological implication of Q theory? Why did God didn’t preserve it/them? If God didn’t preserve them they were not inspired books. But if they were not inspired and authorized by God, then why God let other Gospels to be copied by those uninspired books? If Luke copied uninspired books then at what level his own Gospel is divine authorized?
    If Luke or any author of the scripture was merely plagiarizing from another document, then what exactly is the weight of divine inspiration in the book of Luke, as he was “merely” copying and writing his own personal investigation of some sources, which may be or may not be fully reliable. If Luke and rest of books are scripture, they are written by divine inspiration thus inerrant and there is strong authority and reliability through divine inspiration to Luke as compared to his human investigation. Positing such source theory makes the inerrancy jeopardize.


    1. Hi Jacob,

      But Luke SAYS he used other sources. If he did not, he was dissimulating about how he wrote his gospel. Since I believe the Bible, I take Luke to be telling us what really happened.

      The fact that Jesus’ sayings (the RED LETTERS) are similar across the synoptic gospels could be attributed to good memories, good witnesses or good written sources. After all, people would tend to remember what Jesus said.

      What nudges me toward the hypothesis of underlying written traditions is how narrative material (BLACK LETTERS) is so similar across the gospels. Sometimes there are rare words that suddenly appear in two or three gospels to describe the same action at the same time in the narrative. I don’t have an example at hand, someone can help us. Plus, there is a description of some action that is not a saying of the Lord, and could have been reported in very different ways by different witness. Yes, often enough these statements are strikingly similar across the synoptics. Here’s one example, from the Bartimaeus story; let’s put aside the two blind men difference for now:

      ὁ δὲ ὄχλος ἐπετίμησεν αὐτοῖς ἵνα σιωπήσωσιν• οἱ δὲ μεῖζον ἔκραξαν λέγοντες• Matt 20:31
      καὶ ἐπετίμων αὐτῷ πολλοὶ ἵνα σιωπήσῃ• ὁ δὲ πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἔκραζεν Mark 10:48
      καὶ οἱ προάγοντες ἐπετίμων αὐτῷ ἵνα σιγήσῃ, αὐτὸς δὲ πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἔκραζεν• Luke 18:39

      All three use the compound verb epitimaō (“rebuke”), siōpaō (“be silent”) in Matthew in Mark, but the related sigaō in Luke. B cried “all the more”, and every time he shouts he uses krazō. When the crowd rebukes him, they always use hina plus the subjunctive. When he ignores them and keeps shouting, it’s always de (“but”), not alla. While these could be a coincidence, we can imagine what other verbs the evangelists could have used to describe that action: B could have begged, implored, shouted: in Louw-Nida I see about 10 verbs that could have worked, let alone other constructions. What are the odds that all three evangelists chose krazō? What are the odds that they all chose a hina subjunctive clause of indirect discourse rather than direct discourse or another form?

      I’ve often noticed that genitive absolute constructions appear in the same point in the action across two or three synoptics. This construction too is typically found in gospel narrative, not sayings of Jesus.

      A bit technical, but my point is: How could oral tradition account for grammatical similarities in the “black print” portions?

      I’m not a true believer in Q, but if they prove it existed, it wouldn’t bother me.


  7. Gordon


    1 – I’m no expert, but I think the similarity in the wording of the Q passages in Matthew and Luke argue against oral tradition. The same argument holds for those authors’ use of the written Mark. You would never get such close parallels with oral traditions.

    2 – Your question involves a lot of assumptions. We don’t know who wrote it or whether there was an attempt to preserve it, but certainly the vast majority of written materials from antiquity have been lost to time.

    3 – This point gets at the objections to Q, that it gets in the way of the preferred theological narratives of many. Logic dicatates there was a Q. The facts are the facts, and I think you have to develop theology based on facts, not the other way around. No, the authors of the gospels were most likely not actual disciples and eyewitnesses, they were people who made use of other written material.

    Maybe you have to adjust your view of divine inspiration to fit the overwhelming probability of Q and not reject the overwhelming probability of Q because it doesn’t square with what you wish to believe.


  8. @Gordon
    “Logic dicatates there was a Q. The facts are the facts”??
    The fact is that the story of Adam and Abraham was oral (memorized) before it was documented.
    The fact is that people of antiquity used to memorize flawlessly whole books/narratives/stories. For impressive more modern examples, take a look at the muslim Hadiths (ALL oral traditions and some of them exact on multiple compilations) or google ‘quran memorization competition’.

    Jacob’s statements are not the ones “involving a lot of assumptions”. He is not assuming anything. There is no evidence of Q (just as there is no evidence of the Q of Q, it’s own common source, and so on…).

    “preferred theological narratives”, “develop theology based on facts”, “adjust your view of divine inspiration”?!?!?!
    Brother, the facts are that: ‘Every scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16 NET)’, and that ‘men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God (2 Peter 1:21 NET)’…


  9. Gordon

    Sure stories about Abraham and Adam were passed along. But flawless? Funny thing is that the literary evidence is that the stories were shaped based on the ideology of the writer. For example, diverse creation and flood stories were blended together.

    Or one says Moses struck a rock and was the right thing to do. Another says Moses did that and it made God mad. Stories passed down by people who lived near the temple say it was central to worship. People who lived far away said God was most concerned about justice and righteousness.

    That some individuals may have memorized ancient scriptures is not evidence in any way that the “Q” stories were part of such a tradition. But it is a handy explanation if you start with a conclusion and need an explanation to back into.


  10. Percy gave my answer to what I would have replied to the points of Gordon. It is a fact that the authors of NT and those of that culture were having memorized whole scriptures like anything; we would not see such examples living today. The reason for their strong similarities is only because they memorized the narration— and they differ in some instances were they had other perspectives. For how do we find alleged discrepancies btw Luke and Matthew and Mark when someone was literally plagiarizing from another or a common physical source? The differences among them is a big hurdle against this theory.

    I don’t think any single author ever held the LXX before them to check for quoting anything. I’d like to know whether the authors even had their personal copies of the scriptures; perhaps they didn’t. They only learned and memorized from the common book. But we today have our own Bibles, the scripture is on our fingertips. If I just copy the verse reference, it gives me the popup on clipboard via a software. Their oral tradition through memory was extraordinary. Stop thinking for a moment that the authors were guys like us living in west countries in 18th or 21st century, but go in their time, culture and skills then perhaps you can make clear sense as to why we see strong similarities in synoptic Gospels.


    1. See my comment above.

      You say “they memorized the narration.” Very well then: Who composed/wrote the narration? Narration, unlike oral teaching, does not come out of thin air, someone has to “narrate” it.


  11. Gordon

    Wow, so you know the authors of the NT books and can state with certainty their individual cognitive abilities? That’s utterly amazing, since nobody knows who actually wrote the gospels and most of the other epistles, other than a half-dozen of Paul’s core letters. And we can only guess when and where they were written.

    But since this is officially getting silly now, I’ll bid you good day.


    1. Kyle

      Way to wuss out by closing off a discussion. That’s when you let everyone else know that you lost. I am not for either side but I just wanted to point it out in hating when people think they can “close off” the discussion.


  12. Supporting Jacob and Percy it is also probable that clay tablets were produced and fired (hardened) to preserve the record of Genesis. See tablet theory of Genesis.

    In some ways it doesn’t matter what will be published or found archaeologically concerning the texts since God promised divine revelation through the early Christians by the Paraclete. The canon is complete and authoritative. The Christian can be confident and stand on the text. Much scholarship is available within this constraint.


  13. David Smith

    My question is quite different. Why should we care? That possible original manuscript, inspired or not, is lost. If found, it will hardly teach us anything we don’t already know, and if a few more stories will change our lives, then one may question why God’s Holy Spirit is in us. I admit that I would be excited if it was found, but I would much rather hear that an entire gospel of Mark was found in the desert that goes back to within a decade of the original writing down.


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  15. cynthia curran

    Not certain if Q exist but how could you being informed of the early church still be an evangelical since the chruch writings tend to support a Catholic Church even FF Bruce mentions this.


  16. Pingback: Daniel Wallace on Manuscripts of Q | Participatory Bible Study Blog

  17. Good analysis, thanks!

    Can Daniel or anyone help me on these two hypotheticals:

    1. We usually define Q as material that is (1) common to Matt/Luke, and (2) absent from Mark. That seems needlessly reductionistic. Could not some pericopes that appear in all three synoptics have come from a Q tradition; that is, must we assume that Mark did not possess or chose not to use Q? Could it be that Mark used Q, even extensively, but just not to the extent of Matt/Luke? Could, for example, the Parable of the Sower be from an earlier Q tradition?

    2. Similarly: could material that is sometimes labeled as M or L (Matthean or Lucan special tradition) actually be Q tradition? Could not the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 be from Q, and Matthew (or Matthew and Mark) chose not to use it?

    It seems to me that in order to have the most neatly-packaged Two-Source Hypothesis, people assume that Mark did not have Q, and that Matthew and Luke both exhaustively used Q. That seems a stretch.


  18. Nicholas

    There is no such thing as “Q”. St. Mark’s Gospel is largely the preaching notes of St. Peter, of whom Mark was a disciple. St. Matthew, on the other hand, was actually present during Christ’s ministry, as he was one of the Twelve.


  19. Dr. Wallace, do you believe a potential document Q changes the character of who Jesus was, like Kloppenburg would suggest. Or even along the lines of Mack who would say that Q presents Jesus as more of a Hellenistic sage?


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  21. Pingback: Dan Wallace and Q | Southern Reformation

  22. Ricardus Theologus

    Having read John Wenham and others who do not subscribe to the 2 or 4 source theory (and it is a theory), I find it profoundly disappointing that Dr. Wallace follows this theoretical construct to explain the phenomenon of the Synoptic Gospels “problem.” I find it curious that the fathers are so assiduously examined in textual criticism by scholars like Dr. Wallace and yet when it comes to the Synoptic Gospels phenomenon we choose to blithely ignore them. I have also read some from “Beyond the Q Impasse: Luke’s Use of Matthew” and “One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke.” It is the “neo”, if you will, or modified Griesbachian 2 Gospel theoretical approach or evaluative construct used on the Synoptic Gospels phenomenon. I happen to like it because to my mind it presents itself as a highly competent explanatory framework that seriously undermines the claims made on behalf of Markan priority and the existence of Q. However, it does not mean that I subscribe to this “neo-Griesbachian approach without reservation. I go back and forth between this and the Augustinian approach. Lately, some other theory has shown itself to be very intriguing and that is the “The Logia Translation Hypothesis” by Brian E. Wilson.” It refers to an original Aramaic Logia written by Matthew during and shortly after Jesus’ ministry (probably referred to by Papias) and then translated into Greek, becoming the Greek Logia which is in turn the source for the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. My point is that the continuing support for Markan priority and Q among conservative scholars here in the United States when there are more and more scholars on the continent that have questioned its very theoretical soundness, is anachronistic at the very least!


    1. Actually, I don’t ignore the patristic evidence at all. I believe that Matthew wrote the logia Iesou in Aramaic, but not his Gospel, which comports well with Papias’s statement. I also believe that Mark got his Gospel largely from Peter. The Griesbach hypothesis ignores the evidence for Mark’s source, as does the Augustinian hypothesis. It is by no means anachronistic to hold to Markan priority or the four-source hypothesis. This is still the standard view in Germany.


  23. John

    Dr. Wallace,

    If “Q” did exist, would this change anything concerning the gospels? or the gospels claim of inspiration? being God breathed and all


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  25. Dan Moore

    If one were to date both Mark and Matthew to the early 40s, written to their respective audiences while the disciples were still gathered in Jerusalem and enjoying the time of peace and growth after Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:31), and then date Luke to the early 60s, then would a Q document be necessary?

    Let’s assume that Mark was written first, to the Romans in Caesarea Maritima and beyond. Then assume that Matthew was written shortly thereafter, leveraging Mark’s gospel and utilizing Matthew’s personal written notes detailing Jesus’ teachings, capturing both Jesus’ sermons and his teachings relative to prophetic fulfillment. (I can elaborate relative to means, motive, opportunity, etc…)

    Given that Luke had to be selective with his material, given the length of his manuscripts, then is it surprising that Luke did not elect to re-produce significant portions of Matthew, if Matthew was already in general circulation? Besides, Luke’s audience was more closely aligned to Mark’s audience, than to Matthew’s, so it is understandable that Luke would more closely follow Mark’s material for his “update”.

    Thanks for any insights. I am eagerly exploring the proposed solutions to the synoptic “problem”.

    Many thanks, Dr. Wallace, for your Greek language publications, responses to Ehrman, CNSTM efforts, and for your insightful postings here and on



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  27. God inspired or not does not belong in an academic debate. That inserts bias.

    Mark was written first, pretty clear. Those in favor of Q do not speculate that Mark used Q.

    The synoptic problem can be solved by Mathew using Mark for some material, and using oral tradition for other material if not an eye witness.

    Luke then used Mark for some material, Mathew for other material.

    Indeed there is evidence that Luke used Mathew, copying fatigue, where some of the common stories – Luke starts them from a different perspective but ends with the same language as Mathew.

    There thus is no need for Q to explain the synoptic problem.

    Mark first but was rather short.
    Mathew second – written with a Jewish audience in mind.
    Luke sees a need for the gentile audience (he wrote it for an Ethiopian) and to tell the story of Mary’s perspective with the birth of Jesus.

    No need for Q, no mention of Q, no physical evidence of Q.

    Thus logic dictates that Q is little more than academic fairy tail.

    In science, there is a concept of falsification for a hypothesis. A way to test it to the exclusion of other explanations. How is Q tested before it is so blindly accepted by the academic world?


  28. Reblogged this on Bible differences and commented:
    This article by Prof Dan Wallace is absolutely superb. Do enjoy his sound reasoning and the logical outcome. Isn’t it wonderful to have a Gamaliel in this field at whose feet we may sit!
    In the end it is all about the glory of God and the reliability of His Word coming to us through the ages.
    Thank you Prof. Wallace.


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