It should bring an end to the myth, the history, the mentality, of the Gospels. But nobody's going to want to read it!" Burton L. Mack, until his recent retirement a professor of New Testament at the School of Theology at Claremont, in southern California, and the author of a best-selling book about the origins of Christianity, was drumming his palms on a table in his living room not long ago and talking about the publication of a scholarly document that he believes radically undercuts Christianity's claim to be the religion of Jesus of Nazareth. Mack, although he taught future ministers, would not be displeased. He blames Christianity for contributing to centuries of U.S. wrongdoing, from wars against Native Americans to interventionism abroad. "They'll have to read it!" he declaimed.
The document he was discussing is a reconstructed Greek text (with an immense scholarly apparatus) of "Q," as biblical scholars have named a hypothetical first-century work composed mostly of sayings of Jesus. The first installment was published last spring by the Belgian firm Peeters under the series title Documenta Q. Many scholars believe that Q served as a literary source ("Q" is short for Quelle, the German word for "source") for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which contain numerous parallel passages. Other scholars believe it never existed -- there are no manuscripts of Q or references to it in ancient literature. Contained in Q, or at least in the parallel passages of Matthew and Luke for which Q is the hypothetical source, are many of the teachings of Jesus that Christians placed near the heart of their faith: the Lord's Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the Golden Rule, and the famous admonition "You cannot serve God and Mammon." It would therefore seem at first glance as though Q were a thoroughly Christian text, not the threat to Christianity that Mack describes. Believing that something like Q might have existed does not in itself entail a rejection of Christianity. Indeed, many scholars who are Christian believers endorse the Q hypothesis.