Monday, August 17, 2009

Review: The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins by Burton L. Mack

I wrote this review back in 2002 and posted it on my web page. I decided to delete that web page since I don't use it anymore. I'm posting the review here just so I don't lose it. I suppose nobody is interested in this book anymore since it's so old, but since my review discusses the synoptic problem, it may be of interest to some people. Here ye go...

Not all scholars agree with Jesus’ Jewish roots. Some of them think Jesus started off as a kind of cynic-sage in the Greek tradition. They imagine that the earliest Christians were very syncretistic, borrowing freely from neighboring religions, especially the mystery cults. Burton Mack, for example, argues that, “The Jesus movement began as a home-grown variety of Cynicism in the rough and ready circumstance of Galilee before the war” (p. 120). In his reconstruction of the origins of Christianity, Jesus’ earliest followers did not think of Jesus as the Jewish messiah. They did not believe that Jesus died for sins or that he rose from the dead. Nor did they worship and honor him with hymns, prayers, and rituals (p. 4).

To arrive at his reconstruction of Christian origins, Mack begins with a particular solution to the synoptic problem. The synoptic problem is the problem of determining how Matthew, Mark, and Luke are related in terms of literary dependence. John’s gospel is different from the first three, but the first three gospels are so similar in their stories and even in their wording that they can be placed side by side and compared. (See Gospel Parallels.) Mack uses the most popular solution, which is the two-source hypothesis (2SH). In the 2SH, Mark was written first. Matthew and Luke both wrote their gospels using Mark as a source and then adding other material. In much of the additional material not found in Mark, Matthew and Luke still agree with one another, which has led scholars to think they shared a common source besides Mark. The hypothetical source they shared is designated Q, which comes from the German word quelle, meaning source. Mack takes Q quite seriously as a document in its own right and believes that, “Q is the best record we have for the first forty years of the Jesus movements” (p. 245).

Mack further relies on John Kloppenborg’s division of Q into earlier and later layers (Kloppenborg, John. The Formation of Q: Trajectories in Ancient Wisdom Collections. Studies in Antiquity and Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). “The earliest layer consisting of ‘sapiential instruction’ was now referred to as Q1, and the ‘announcement of judgment’ as Q2. Kloppenborg has also identified a small amount of material that had been added later than the composition of Q2, such as the story of Jesus’ temptation. These later additions were referred to as Q3” (p. 44). The first and earliest layer consists of pithy sayings that tend to be somewhat counter-cultural, which one would expect from a cynic-sage. They consist of sayings such as, “Give to anyone who asks, and if someone takes away your belongings, do not ask to have them back,” and, “Don’t judge and you won’t be judged,” and, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear.”

Based on a few sayings that are found in Q1 and the maxim that there is always a community behind a text (p. 41), Mack reconstructs a highly speculative scenario of what the earliest Jesus people were like, how they lived, what they believed and what they didn’t believe. They were nothing like Jews. Jewish elements, such as apocalyptic pronouncements of judgment, didn’t enter into the Q tradition until the Q2 layer. Based on the three layers, Mack tells the story of an emerging and developing community who eventually merged with the Christ cult as Mark wrote his gospel (p. 178). The Christ cult itself emerged from some of the original Jesus people who migrated to Syria (p. 216). The message of the Christ cult was that Jesus died and rose from the dead, but the message was placed in a mythological once upon a time, and not a specific time and place (p. 219). It wasn’t until Mark’s gospel was written that Jesus was placed in a specific historical context.

Mack’s reconstruction of Christian origins is problematic on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. He weaves an elaborate scenario of the developing thought of the first Jesus people based on the scant evidence he is left with after a highly speculative reconstruction of its literary history. Without blushing, he arrives at a Hellenistic group of counter-cultural cynics formed around the memory of Jesus without the slightest corroborating evidence that such people ever even existed. No hint of their existence has ever been forthcoming. The evidence we do have of the earliest Christians completely contradicts Mack’s scenario. Yet Mack dismisses the positive evidence we do have as myth while thinking his own reconstruction to be sober history. It would seem that Mack has created a myth of his own, and one cannot miss the irony that he begins his reconstruction with the words, “Once upon a time…”(p. 1).

The irony is further evident in the fact that Mack claims the kerygma (proclamation) of the Christ cult was itself set in a “once upon a time.” His claim is obviously false, though. In the earliest literature we have from the Christ cult, which is Paul’s letters, we see that Jesus was a real person who died in the recent past. Paul was personally acquainted with Jesus’ brother, James (Galatians 1:19). Jesus was a contemporary of many who were still alive, so the kerygma certainly wasn’t placed in any once upon a time. It was placed in recent history, and he had living followers who had been personally acquainted with him during his ministry.

Mack’s reconstruction is based on speculation upon speculation. He begins with what is most widely accepted among scholars (the 2SH) and gradually piles on the speculation. But even the 2SH is not without its rivals, and Q itself is only a hypothetical source. It isn’t a gospel document that archaeologist have discovered. If it ever did exist, no copy of it has ever been found. The reconstructions of it from the synoptic gospels are themselves speculative. Mack takes this speculative reconstruction of a hypothetical source and further divides it into three layers (more speculation) and then arranges the three layers from earliest to latest (even more speculation). Then, based on what he deems represents the earliest layer of tradition, Mack makes speculative pronouncements of what the Jesus people did not believe.

One of the rival solutions to the synoptic problem is the Griesbach hypothesis (GH). According to the GH, Matthew was written first. Luke used Matthew as his primary source. Then Mark used both Matthew and Luke as his sources. The GH dispenses with Q since it is unnecessary to explain why Matthew and Luke sometimes agree against Mark. Although not widely accepted, the GH has some arguments in its favor. Some of the reasons Mark is more widely thought to have been written first is because almost all of it is found in Matthew and Luke and because Matthew and Luke both agree in their order when they follow Mark but then diverge when they are not following Mark. It seems more natural to think that if someone were to write a new gospel, he would add to his source rather than take away from it, so it’s more likely that Matthew and Luke added to Mark rather than that Mark abbreviated Matthew and Luke. The GH has a somewhat plausible answer to the objection, though. It may be the case that Mark wrote his gospel in order to harmonize Matthew and Luke. Mark’s gospel includes material from Matthew and Luke where they agree in both content and order, and it excludes material where Matthew and Luke do not agree, which is what we would expect if Mark were attempting a harmonization. The case that Mark used Matthew and Luke is strengthened by the fact that Mark contains several explanatory clauses not found in Matthew or Luke. For example, Mark 2:15 says, “Many tax-gatherers and sinners were dining with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following him” (Compare Matt 9:10//Luke 5:29). Mark 3:29-30 says, “’Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin,’ because they were saying, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (Compare Matthew 12:32//Luke 12:10). Mark 7:18-19 says, “’Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him; because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Compare Matthew 15:17). In Mark 11:13, Jesus went to a fig tree and “found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs” (Compare Matt 21:19; see also Matt 17:4//Mark 9:5-6//Luke 9:33 and Mark 16:4//Luke 24:2). Q is unnecessary in the GH because Luke used Matthew.

Another possible solution to the synoptic problem is the Farrer hypothesis (FH), which has been gaining in popularity in recent years. The FH keeps Markan priority but dispenses with Q by maintaining that Luke used Matthew as well as Mark. There are good reasons to accept the FH, not least of which is due to the numerous major and minor agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark in triple tradition material. There is a sliding scale from double tradition (material in Matthew and Luke but not Mark) to major agreements (where Matthew and Luke agree substantially against Mark in triple tradition) to minor agreements (where Matthew and Luke agree in minor details against Mark in triple tradition). Since there is a sliding scale, these categories are artificial. The agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark vary in degree. There are agreements in spelling, wording, and chronology, and there are agreements of omission and addition. The following example has agreement against Mark in three categories: omission, addition, and wording. [I did my best to make the texts line up so you could see the differences more clearly. Where Matthew and Luke agree against Mark, I coloured the words green. Where Mark has something that is omitted in Matthew and Luke, or where Mark's wording is different than Matthew and Luke, I've coloured it in red.]

Matthew 8:2-4Mark 1:40-44Luke 5:12-14
And behold a leper came
to him, and bowed down

him, saying,
if you are willing, you
can make me clean.”

he stretched out his
hand and touched him,
“I am willing; be cleansed.”
And a leper came to him,
beseeching him and falling
on his knees before him,

saying to him

“If you are willing, you
can make me clean.”
moved with compassion,
he stretched out his
hand, and touched him,
and said to him,
‘I am willing; be cleansed.”
And it came about that
while he was in one of
the cities, behold, there
was a man full of
leprosy; and when he
saw Jesus, he fell on
his face and implored
him, saying
if you are willing, you
can make me clean.”

he stretched out his
hand, and touched him,
“I am willing; be cleansed.”

It would be a remarkable coincidence if Matthew and Luke redacted Mark independently of each other and yet their redactions agree with each other, so these agreements are best explained by the fact that Luke used Matthew and sometimes chose Matthew’s wording over Mark’s. If Luke used Matthew, that also accounts for the material shared by Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark, thus dispensing with any need to postulate a hypothetical source such as Q.

To account for the major agreements, Q theorists suppose that there is some Mark/Q overlap. Either Mark and Q happen to contain the same material, or Mark used Q as a source. Using Mark/Q overlap to explain the agreements is problematic for Burton Mack’s case, though, for three reasons. First, minor agreements appear in almost every case of triple tradition material, and there are far too many of them to brush off as coincidence. Second, Q would have to contain substantially more material (including narrative) than Q theorists (and Burton Mack in particular) are willing to admit. Third, some of what Q would have to contain completely contradicts Mack’s thesis. Mack argues that the Q community had no belief or interest in Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, but there are agreements between Matthew and Luke against Mark both in the passion narrative and in Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection.

Matthew 16:20-21Mark 8:30-31Luke 9:21-22
Then he warned the
disciples that they
should tell no one that
he was the Christ.
From that time Jesus
Christ began to show
his disciples that
he must
go to Jerusalem, and
suffer many things
the elders and
chief priests and
scribes, and
be killed, and
be raised up on the third day.
And he warned them to
tell no one about him.

And he began to teach

the son of man must

suffer many things
and be rejected by
the elders and
the chief priests and
the scribes, and
be killed, and
after three days rise again.
But he warned them, and
instructed them not to
tell this to anyone,

“The son of man must

suffer many things,
and be rejected by
the elders and
chief priests and
scribes, and
be killed, and
be raised up on the third day.”

Matthew and Luke agree in wording against Mark on their prediction of Jesus’ resurrection. Whether we account for this agreement by saying Luke was using Matthew (which dispenses with Q) or by saying this is an example of Mark/Q overlap (which means Q has a resurrection prediction), Burton Mack’s thesis is in trouble. The following agreement is also problematic for Mack’s thesis because it is part of the passion narrative.

Matthew 26:67-68Mark 14:65Luke 22:63-64
Then they spat in his
face and beat him with
their fists; and others
slapped him and said,

to us, you Christ;
who is the one who hit you?”
And some began to spit,
at him, and to blindfold
him, and to beat him
with their fists, and
to say to him,

And the men who were
holding Jesus in custody
were mocking him, and
beating him, and they
blindfolded him and
were asking him, saying,

who is the one who hit you?”

Given the above two alternatives to the 2SH, the Q hypothesis appears to be ad hoc. It is not necessary to postulate a hypothetical document to explain the agreement between Matthew and Luke when it is more simple to suppose that Luke used Matthew. (See The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem by Mark Goodacre.)

Let us suppose the 2SH is correct, though, and there was a common source used by both Matthew and Luke other than Mark. Even if that were the case, it is impossible to reconstruct the document from the synoptic gospels with any degree of certainty. Because of the sliding scale from major to minor agreements between Matthew and Mark, it is impossible to tell what Q said, for where do we draw the line? Mack thinks that Mark actually used Q in writing his gospel (p. 178), but if that is the case, then anything found in all three gospels could have been in Q. That includes all the elements of the Jesus movement that Mack denies were a part of the Q community, such as the notion that Jesus was the messiah, that he died for sins, and that he was raised from the dead. Mack’s whole thesis depends on an argument from silence. It is based on what a speculative reconstruction of a hypothetical document did not say rather than what it did say.

Let us continue, though, and assume that we have a fairly accurate reconstruction of what Q said. Doing so still causes Mack some problems. The division between the three layers of Q basically just amount to dividing them up according to categories—moral teachings in Q1, apocalyptic pronouncements of judgment and the coming kingdom of God in Q2, and miscellaneous in Q3. One could arrive at a different result just by using different categories. The reason for dividing moral teachings from apocalyptic pronouncements is because of the difficulty in reconciling the two. If the end of the world is about to happen, so the argument goes, there’s no reason for Jesus to prescribe how people ought to live their lives (pp. 29-39). If understood from a Jewish perspective, though, morality and apocalyptic are inseparable. The Jews believed that “defection from the paths of Torah had caused persecution and exile. Fidelity to its commandments would be rewarded by an ingathering of the dispersed and Yahweh’s special providence” (Goldberg, David J. and John D. Rayner, The Jewish People: Their History and Their Religion, (London: Pinguin Books, 1987), 52). The whole basis of the pharisaic movement was that personal piety would result in a return from exile and an independent nation with God’s kingdom established on earth. With that background in mind, there is no problem reconciling ethical teachings with apocalyptic pronouncements of judgment. In fact, it would be odd if predictions of judgment were not accompanied by ethical teachings since judgments were coming on those who were living immoral lives. Most of the pronouncements of judgment in Q2 are accompanied by admonitions of repentance. For example, in Q2, Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment and condemn this generation. For they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and look, something greater than Jonah is here.” Jesus expected the people of his own generation to repent at his preaching just as Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching, and the reason was the same in both cases: judgment was coming.

Let us continue to be generous and assume that Q1, Q2 and Q3 represent legitimate layers of tradition. Mack’s thesis is still not salvaged, for he also relies on Kloppenborg’s chronology, placing Q1 earlier than Q2, and that assumption is questionable. Logically speaking, pronouncements of judgment ought to come before ethical teachings because it is the impending doom that gives the ethical teachings their force. It is because judgment is coming that we ought to be moral, so Q2 is logically prior to Q1. Mack knows that apocalyptic pronouncements of the coming kingdom of God is thoroughly Jewish, so he needs to place Q2 sayings later than Q1. But Mack acknowledges that “The kingdom of God is mentioned in seven sayings at the Q1 level.” Mack attempts to salvage his thesis by pointing out that none of the kingdom of God sayings at the Q1 level speak of the kingdom of God in an apocalyptic sense and then triumphantly announces, “Thus the old apocalyptic hypothesis can safely be set aside” (pp. 123-124). The circularity of his argument is hard to miss. The reason Mack finds no apocalyptic references to the kingdom of God in Q1 is because by definition apocalyptic sayings belong to Q2. If there actually were apocalyptic sayings in Q1, Mack would have placed them in Q2 simply because that’s the way he has defined his categories.

If we continue to be generous and assume that Q1 is the earliest layer of Q, and if we assume that Mack’s reconstruction of what they did not believe is accurate, will we be granting Mack the day? No, we won’t. At this point, Mack faces an insurmountable problem because he has no basis upon which to claim that the Q1 community is earlier and more authentic than the Christ cult. He simply asserts that “Q reveals what Jesus people thought about Jesus before there was a Christian congregation of the type reflected in the letters of Paul, and before the idea of a narrative gospel was even dared” (p. 245). Even if we grant the entire house of cards its legitimacy, we end up with the realization that Mack’s conclusion is actually worse than speculative; it is completely arbitrary. But that may itself be too generous, for the actual evidence shows that the earliest followers of Jesus were thoroughly Jewish, and they actually did believe Jesus was the Christ, that he died for sins, and that he was raised from the dead.