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Origins of Christianity

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The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins

by Burton Mack

Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel is a look at the world of Q and its impact on the origin of Christianity. Mack recounts the history leading up to Q’s “discovery,” its content and history of composition, the peculiarities of the group responsible for it, and finally the necessary revisions to our understanding of Christian origins.

If you’re not familiar with Burton Mack, he’s Biblical scholar who taught at the School of Theology at Claremont, California (long since retired, I believe). He’s definitely on the liberal edge of things and he brings a distinctly left-wing sensibility to his scholarship. In this book, he gives us a portrait of Jesus as a Cynic-like sage, not at all like the traditional portrait in the gospels. Of course, a Jesus figure that isn’t like the one portrayed in the gospels is nothing new. Biblical scholars have been coming up with historical Jesuses for at least a century. Schweitzer’s apocalyptic prophet, Crossan’s social revolutionary, etc. Q presents us with a new picture: a Cynic sage who bears no relation to the messiah of the gospels.

Q seems like something that should appeal to so-called “red-letter Christians,” those who try to emphasize what Jesus said, rather than the theology of the New Testament as a whole. Q is such a task on a radical scale. Taking the simple observation that Luke and Matthew share many sayings, scholars deduce a sayings source must have existed prior to composition of those two gospels. Pulling the sayings out of their gospel context puts them in a whole new light. Layers of composition emerge (that I find a little sketchier than the rest of this, but I’m hardly an expert) and we can pare down the sayings until we have an early core. This is where Jesus looks rather different than in the gospels. The line of authority from Jesus to the apostles to the early church is completely severed. Jesus appears to be a simple teacher of Cynic-like wisdom. Is this the actual historical Jesus? I must say, it’s the most convincing picture I’ve seen. The making of the rest of Christian mythology is traced through additions to Q and then its absorption into the other gospels.

Mack regards the revelation of Q to be earth-shattering. It’s hard to disagree that this is a massive revision of the gospel histories. Mack also wonders if Q will prompt a rethinking of our society’s myths (and wanders into some rather leftist social theory). Fourteen years later, we have good answer: nope. Q is still a relatively unknown theory of Biblical scholarship. Partially, this is because we don’t actually have a copy of Q. The Gospel of Thomas gives a glimpse of the genre, but we have no concrete evidence of Q, just the arguments of scholars based on careful readings of the gospels. Until we discover a copy, Q will have a limited impact. That’s too bad, because Q is an interesting document and Mack’s book does an excellent job of laying out just how important it may be.

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Categories: 26 in 52, Religion
  1. March 26, 2007 at 6:35 am

    Maybe, but then most likely the people who take the Gospels as, well, gospel, are going to discount this entirely because it’s not canonical (nor will it ever be). I’m struggling to agree with “earth-shattering,” however interesting a concept it may be.

  2. March 26, 2007 at 11:51 am

    I think that Heliogue makes a good point here. I was listening to a commentator on NPR last week and they made the point that regardless of any ‘discoveries or revelations, it was unlikely to shake the beliefs of any Christians. I tend to agree.

  3. March 29, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    I have three of Mack’s books. If you enjoyed The Lost Gospel:

    Burton Mack also wrote the interesting Who wrote the New Testament?.

    If you are (or were) seriously interested in the Gospels, Mack also wrote A Myth of Innocence about the Gospel of Mark. It’s especially interesting since Good Friday is near.

  4. March 29, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Who Wrote the New Testament? is pretty good. I’ve been meaning to read A Myth of Innocence and The Christian Myth (the MSU bookstore had that one, oddly enough, so I’ve read part of it).

  5. April 1, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    IIRC, A Myth of Innocence is summarized in the “Mark” chapter of Who Wrote the New Testament. Of course, the “myth” book is quite a bit longer, and very detailed.

    I would find zero interest in a fundamentalist commentary on the New Testament. However, I did enjoy reading Raymond E. Brown’s commentary. As a Catholic priest, he approaches the text quite a bit differently than a fundamentalist or a skeptic.

  6. April 1, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Raymond Brown seems well respected by most scholars. From what I know of him, he’s definitely on the conservative side of things. I have a book by John Dominic Crossan that’s essentially a response to Brown’s theory on the resurrection.

  7. April 3, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    I know I’ve read some Crossan, but can’t find any of his books in my library (it’s not alphabetized). I did find another book by Brown: “New Testament Christology”. My most boring theology book is by Tillich.

    I also have Karen Armstrong’s book on Genesis – kind of a “Bible as Literature” explanantion which I found enlightening.

    If and when the Bozeman bloggers meet again, you are welcome to borrow any of these.

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