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Paper Keys Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Thursday, 04 July 2013

“A paper key?” you ask.  “A paper key could never open anything.”  Precisely.

In The Desolate City (1986), Anne Roche Muggeridge notes the irony that “modernists are in fact mythologizers, not demythologizers,” as they claim.  “The Church,” she says, “experienced and afterwards always taught the events of Christ’s life as history, not as myth, parable, allegory, or epic poetry,” unlike the various ways in which she addressed “the Book of Jonah, or the Book of Job, or the Song of Songs.” 

But “modernists, by means of the mythological language and concepts of the secularized late twentieth century,” have been busy turning Christ into an idea, and the Church into a not-yet-realized dream of the progressive imagination.

The result has been the manufacture of paper keys – keys consisting of nothing more substantial than the paper whereon the modernist Catholic develops his imaginations.  The grooves and projections of these paper keys correspond to little or nothing at all, whether of the Scriptural record, of the teaching and the history of the Church, or of the reality of human beings.

To accept them requires a parodic version of faith.  It is to invert the directive of the psalmist, and to put one’s trust in princes – in professors of theology, in careerist historians, in promoters of “progress” as defined by the promoters, in political structures, and in reconstituted men and women of the future – rather than in the Lord God. 

Over the next few columns, I’d like to examine a few of these paper keys.

Let’s begin by going straight to the source – the Quelle so-called, or “Q,” as it’s affectionately known in theological circles.

For those not conversant with textual criticism of the New Testament, “Q” is a text of the sayings of Jesus, which, along with the narrative in the Gospel of Mark, is said to form the basis of the three synoptic gospels.  Mark is held to be the earliest gospel, with Matthew using material from Mark along with material from Q, and Luke rearranging material from Matthew and adding material of his own.

It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Q existed.  That’s not my point.  The point is rather that learned tomes are written about Q, and ordinary people taking instruction to become catechists are introduced to Q, and students reading annotated Bibles encounter the fact of Q, as if the question were quite beyond query. 

But there’s a problem.  We have no documentary or testamentary evidence of Q.  There’s no manuscript of Q, not a scrap.  There’s no reference to a Q, by any of the New Testament writers, by the early Christians, or by the Church Fathers.  Nor would there have been any reason for them to be quiet about it.  After all, a book containing the sayings of the Lord would be most precious.

Do critics and historians assume, for other cultures and in other circumstances, the existence and the identity and even the contents of a book for which there is not one iota of evidence?  The answer is a flat no.  If anything, their assumptions stray in the opposite direction.

 We have testimony that Homer wrote a comic epic called the Margites.  But most critics assume, as a fact that only the naïve would doubt, that Homer did not write any such thing.  Roman historians refer to the Twelve Tables of the law, inscribed at the insistence of the plebeians so that the patricians would no longer be able to hang them by invented vagaries.  But critics now assume, again as an obvious fact, that there never were any Twelve Tables.

I withhold judgment.  I’m only noting the strange direction taken by the fabricators of Q.  It’s one thing to claim, against rather tenuous testimony, that the Twelve Tables might not have existed.  It’s more dubious to claim that that thing certainly did not exist.  But it is a flight of sheer critical fancy to claim that something certainly did exist, whose existence is confirmed by not one piece of evidence, in an environment, moreover, wherein everyone is writing and talking about its subject! 

We know about the air-headed Gnostic gospels.  We have plenty of pious accounts of the apostles. We have all kinds of precious information passed down from one generation to the next, about when Saint Peter went to Rome, or where Saint John lived in Ephesus.  But we’re supposed to believe in a text of whose existence nobody but the two people who employed it, at quite different times and in different places, seem to have been aware.

We are to do this in this case alone, for there is no similar assumption made about any other text supposed to have existed in the ancient world. 

Someone might object that historical linguists reconstruct languages, or at least putative word-roots, from later developments, so that we have a bank of Proto-Indo-European roots, the ancestors of words in Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, Germanic, Italic, and so forth.  The analogy is false.  What we’re looking at there is the slow organic development or branching of languages whose later forms are well attested, development that follows certain predictable tracks discernible in historical times also. 

We also have plenty of testamentary, documentary, or archaeological evidence for the movements of speakers in this linguistic family.  Saint Paul preached to Celtic speakers in Anatolia (the Galatians), whose cousins had made their way west into the British Isles.  Nor was there anybody in pre-historic times (they were pre-historic!) who might have written down what these speakers of Proto-Indo-European were doing or saying.

So why all the fuss about Q?  Who benefits?  How does the supposititious Q help us understand the words of Jesus, and live a Christian life?  It doesn’t, not at all.  But presented as something both esoteric and certain, it does sow seeds of doubt among ordinary people, redirecting their trust.  “Don’t listen to those teachers, so authoritarian and so far behind the times,” say the modernist theologians.  “Listen to us.”

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest books are Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story Is God’s Story and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by petebrown, July 04, 2013
Sorry for the length of this comment but there are several points raised here that demand a response.

Tony writes: There’s no reference to a Q, by any of the New Testament writers, by the early Christians, or by the Church Fathers.

pb: Well St. Papias from the early 2nd century (who is the earliest witness we have concerned with the question of how the gospels were written) speaks of Matthew composing not necessarily a narrative but logia (sayings?). True, he also says this was in the Hebrew dialect while Q (if it existed) would have been in Greek but this only heightens the mystery. Holding that Matthew contributed the sayings of Jesus fits Papias as well as the data of the synoptics themselves. No one else bothered to remember the list of sayings because they were forever immortalized in Matthew’s and later Luke’s enhancement of Mark’s gospel. Why is this so implausible?

Undoubtedly the evidence for Q is almost wholly circumstantial. But very often in life this is the only kind of evidence available to us. See God, existence of.

Tony continues: We are (to accept a hypothetical document) in this case alone, for there is no similar assumption made about any other text supposed to have existed in the ancient world.

pb: People only care immensely about the synoptic problem, Tony because people care immensely about the gospels and how they came to be. There;s no getting around that basic fact. No one much cares about how Dante wrote the Inferno or how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet because at the end of the day these works just are not nearly as important as the gospels. And no one is forcing you to accept the 2 source solution to the synoptic problem. But without recourse to “Q” or something like it,, you’d be hard pressed to explain how the gospels came to be. Which is why the large majority of NT scholars either hold to it or at least are unable to dismiss its existence out of hand.

Tony again “How does the supposititious Q help us understand the words of Jesus, and live a Christian life? It doesn’t, not at all.”

pb: This is not a very telling criticism. The theory was not primarily intended to explain these things. It’s intended to tell us how Matthew and Luke went about putting together their respective gospels from their available sources. I care very deeply about how these evangelists did this because understanding how they used their sources tells me a great about them as authors and theologians---and as inspired Biblical authors their theology is normative for everyone else. And I dare suggest penetrating into the mystery of how and why they wrote what they did does shed light on what they think is important about Jesus and how his disciples should live.

Finally Tony writes, “It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Q existed.”

pb: Likewise you are free not to care whether the builder of your house used wood or bricks or stone or straw or whether the furnace is gravity, oil, or forced air. Or whether your hamburger is made of ham or beef. But your understanding of your own dwelling space and food will be artificially impoverished with such lack of intellectual curiosity. Since you distrust “modern” thinkers consider Aristotle. As I recall one needed to know all four causes (material, formal, efficient and final) to fully understand a thing. Research into the synoptic problem properly done sheds a great deal of light on the first three causes where the gospels are concerned. Thomas Aquinas would have enthusiastically approved.
written by Peter Northcott, July 04, 2013
"So why all the fuss about Q? Who benefits? How does the supposititious Q help us understand the words of Jesus, and live a Christian life?"

- It probably provided PhD fodder when research material started drying up, combined with a thirst for a novum to make a name for oneself. :)

Despite loving Weigel's book, 'Evangelical Catholicism', and finding it's insights/critique brilliant, it struck me whilst reading it, that 'EC' (as it'll probably start being called) is actually a ruse.

Why? Because he's simply describing what it is to be Catholic. That's all. It doesn't need the magical adjective 'Evangelical', but it is that modifier that's selling the book like hot cakes.

There's no such thing as 'Evangelical Catholicism', yet to be 'Evangelical Catholic' is the latest fad that every Catholic seems to be associated with.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 04, 2013
No one, to my knowledge, ever claimed that Q was a text. It is simply the name given to material common to Matthew and Luke, not found in Mark; the inference being that they are drawing on a common source (or sources), written or oral.

I do, however, rather like the incomparable Mgr Ronald Knox, when he wrote

“Twelve prophets our unlearn’d forefathers knew
We are scarce satisfied with twenty-two
A single Psalmist was enough for them
Our list of authors rivals A & M [Hymes, Ancient & Modern]
They were content Mark, Matthew, Luke and John
Should bless th’ old fashioned beds they lay upon
Whilst we, for every one of theirs have two
And trust the watchfulness of Blessed Q”
written by Joe Mulvihill, July 04, 2013
I personally believe that "Q" is the Oral Tradition of the Church and therefor no written record exists outside of the Gospels.
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, July 04, 2013
The first steps in holding back the heresy of progressivism are in understanding their agenda and modus operandi. Thank, Tony.
written by Stanley Anderson, July 04, 2013
I find it wonderfully appropriate that the letter "Q," particularly as portrayed in the illustration accompanying your article, gives the appearance of looking along the hollow barrel of a paper key. The barrel is of course a sheet rolled up into a paper tube and the extension at the bottom that forms the "unlocking code" bar of a key swashes to the side, being paper after all, with no force of position available to its construction, rendering it useless in function. How apt.
written by Meyrat, July 04, 2013
I've always wondered at this Q! I'm glad someone writes about it because the commentary in the New American Bible is filled with references to Q.

I always disliked the New American commentary, and now I know why. They work of this supposition that the gospel writers connected various scraps of Jesus's life with the intention to promote their own church's style of worship instead of proclaiming the gospel. Every little sentence is now read and interpreted with the notion that the writer had an agenda that was not necessarily the Truth. According to the historian's reading, the gospel writers were selective with their source material and carefully crafted a narrative that would adapt more handily to their environment: they added different dimensions to Jesus' identity since it's impossible that Jesus, the son of God, could be so complex. Moreover, they had to do this and work this way because they themselves knew next to nothing about Jesus and his disciples, so they had to project what they thought Jesus was supposed to be.

This type of redactive history prompted Pope Benedict XVI to write his Jesus of Nazareth series. All modern historians are trying to reconstruct a "historical Jesus," which, ironically, is based on nothing actually historical. We have the gospels; we have early church documents; we have tradition; we do not have Q. Perhaps, we should work with what God saw fit to leave for us instead of inferring a collection of sayings that may have, or may not have, existed, and may have, or may not have, been altered. Pope Benedict boldly suggests that tradition and the gospel writers mostly likely wrote the truth, plain and simple. What they described had no precedent, and could not have even been made up. Their source was Jesus himself; people shouldn't try to look for another.
written by Tony, July 04, 2013
I thank Pete Brown for his considered and temperate response. I wish, however, that people would be a great deal more skeptical about such claims than they are. The plain fact of the matter is that the circumstances could be explained in a wide variety of ways, and, since we're dealing with a one-time occurrence here, and of a most remarkable sort, probability itself can hardly be depended upon.

I've recently read the New Testament at an excruciatingly slow pace, because I was reading it in Welsh (!). I came to see that it was possible that Mark was an abbreviated version of Matthew, with added material and comments from Saint Peter, an eyewitness. Now, I do not know that this is in fact the case. But I do know that textual critics of Homer and of other poems passed down by oral tradition have done a lot of backpedaling in the last decade or so, so that now it's taken for granted that there is a single author of the Odyssey, not more than one; and a single author of Beowulf, and so forth.

I object to Q's being presented as more than a hypothesis; and to any conclusions being based upon it; and to its being presented as more than hypothetical to catechists; and to any ecclesiological or exegetical conclusions being based upon it. I'm guessing that we can agree on that?

Meanwhile, reading John and Revelation in Welsh has struck me like lightning -- there is abundant evidence to suggest that the ancient tradition is correct, and one person is the author of both. It's sometimes hard to prove that the author of A is certainly the author of B; but it is a lot harder to prove that the author of A is certainly not the author of B. If we did not have the name "Shakespeare" attached to his plays, we would assume that there were six or seven different authors at the least ...
written by Stanley Anderson, July 04, 2013
I am reluctant to reply to petebrown’s very well-written post, since Anthony Esolen is obviously best equipped to do that. But heck, what is a comments section for otherwise? So here are a couple quick comments that came to mind as I read petebrown’s post:

petebrown: …Why is this so implausible?

Stanley: But Anthony already wrote, “It doesn’t matter to me whether or not Q existed. That’s not my point.”

petebrown: People only care immensely about the synoptic problem, Tony because people care immensely about the gospels and how they came to be.

Stanley: There are at least two very different ways of caring immensely about a problem and the effects of that “care”. The Pharisees apparently cared immensely about a certain problem too. I’m not at all suggesting a comparison of motives for proponents of Q to the Pharisees – I’m sure many proponents may have a deep love for the Gospels, but rather, as Anthony repeatedly stresses, particularly in his last paragraph, what the actual effects end up being.

petebrown: Likewise you are free not to care whether the builder of your house used wood or bricks or stone or straw or whether the furnace is gravity, oil, or forced air. Or whether your hamburger is made of ham or beef.

Stanley: A wonderfully evocative analogy – and there is no one who loves evocative analogies more than I (a substantial part of my great love of CS Lewis and Chesterton, etc). But its delightful cleverness is, I think, undone by its, well, wrong-headedness. For after all, the owner of this house already knows what the house is made of. It seems that the analogy here would be more about how the builders came to build the structure in the first place, whether by decree of the surrounding city or using slaves for labor or computer-aided plans drawn up and referenced from an iPad. Perhaps useful information in some sense, but probably not as much use when the winter storms come lashing. And if such information unduly occupies the owner's mind during those storms when he should be up and about shuttering the windows and such, it could have a detrimental effect.
written by Achilles, July 04, 2013
Pete Brown, the nonexistent writer of Q as efficient cause? The immaterial Q as material cause? The unsubstantial Q as formal cause? You academic types can be very confusing. Can you really confirm that the Angelic Doctor would approve with your line of reasoning?

Dr. Esolen, thank you for another excellent article with real food for thought.
written by Ray, July 04, 2013
The St. Jerome Biblical Commentary has an excellent explanation of "Q". It is not included in the Canon of the Bible and is not a tenet of our faith. It is a possible explanation as to the contents of the Synoptic Gospels. We are bound to believe the message the Gospels impart, but we can take or leave the validity of "Q". Sometime people from academia can get lost in the weeds, as this article and comments prove. Our Church is the final arbiter on what we must do to be saved, and I haven't heard them telling us we must adhere to any version of "Q". This entire topic is pretty esoteric and for my two cents, I'll stick with the explanation in the St. Jerome Commentary.
written by Manfred, July 04, 2013
I commend you for your efforts, Dr. Esolen. Look at all the activity of opinions you hve stirred and this is only the first installment! A briiliant young FSSP priest at our chapel is returning to Australia this month and he preached a sermon he wanted considered as his grateful legacy to the parishioners. He reminded us that Fulton Sheen "ordered" every priest to spend an hour with Christ in prayer before the Holy Eucharist each day. He strongly recommended that every serious Catholic spend an hour a WEEK in the same fashion. We must only focus on God as He does not lie, whereas men do. I would suggest to all the TCT "famiy" to consider the tons (literally) of ink which have been spilled by well-intentioned Churchmen over the last fifty years, and then look at the miserable state the Church is in today.
written by Ernest Miller, July 04, 2013
All that and not a single reference to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit with and for each author of the Synoptic Gospels.

Thus, I think 'Q' as in simply quarrelsome.
written by James Swetnam, S.J., July 04, 2013
The Gospels were written by people of faith about people of faith and for people of faith. They must be read in the same Spirit that inspired them and that guides the Magisterium of the Church. There are many things about the Gospels that we do not understand well or do not understand at all. Resorting to a hypothetical document is an appeal to reason only . If Providence had wanted us to read the Gospels in the light of Q Divine Providence would have given us Q. The Gospels need to be read with the help of reason (e.g., literary criticism, hermeneutics), but reason is to be help for faith, not a substitute. Trying to lift up the text and peek behind it to second guess the Holy Spirit is not the way to try to understand what the Spirit is saying through the evangelists in the texts as they stand.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 04, 2013
Take St Paul's "evil communications corrupt good manners." (1 Cor 15:33)

He appears to be quoting from Meander's lost comedy, "Thais,"

Φθειρουσιν ηθη χρησθ' ὁμιλιαι κακαι·

as the quotation is found in other sources and St Paul does not normally write in Iambic pentameters.

Of course, this does not mean that Meander was inspired, but it does mean that St Paul was inspired in quoting it.

So with the Q material
written by Ray, July 04, 2013
Father Swetnam and I have it right!!!. I hate to be boastful, but most of you are out in the bushes on this including the author. Focus on obtaining the Beatific Vision and "Q" be damned. If it doesn't advance salvation, what good is it?
written by Tony, July 05, 2013
I believe Meyrat has understood best why I've written this piece. I object very strenuously against presenting as truth something which is merely conjectural, and then basing theological conclusions upon it. I see this at work in the notes of the New American Bible (which could be worse, but which are pretty bad), and so I no longer assign the NAB to my students, because I care for their faith.

Let me give you another thing to chew on. It seems clear that Saint Luke wrote both his gospel and Acts, and it seems clear from the prologue and the first chapter of Acts that Acts follows after the gospel -- as would be only natural. Now then, Acts ends before the death of Saint Paul in Rome. A natural conclusion would be that Saint Paul had not yet died. That would put the writing of Acts somewhere at about 60 AD, with Paul's death, or even preparatory events before Paul's death, the terminus ad quem.

All right -- but that means that the Gospel was written earlier than that. And since Luke does seem to depend upon Matthew and Mark, and since tradition holds that his gospel depends upon them, they must in turn have been written earlier.

I hear the objection, "But Saint Paul does not refer to them in his letters!" But that doesn't persuade. We can't conclude anything from the absence of clear allusions (though there are allusions). We simply cannot require Saint Paul to treat the gospels as we expect a literatus of our own time to treat them. The fact is, the supposedly late letters of Saint Peter don't refer to them either, or James, or John, or Jude, or Hebrews, of all things. So we can't say that the gospels could not have existed when Paul wrote Ephesians, using as evidence that he doesn't refer to them, when we know quite well that the other epistle writers don't refer to them either, even though they are supposed to have written much later, when everybody is quite sure that the gospels are roundabout.

Chastity -- that's what I'm asking for here. A little more chastity in drawing conclusions, and a lot more in basing anything theologically substantive upon those conclusions.

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