The general scholarly consensus is that the gospels of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of their sources. But Matthew and Luke also share content that is not in Mark, so it's believed that they both relied upon one more source, dubbed "Q" or the "Sayings Gospel". The idea, as I understand it, is that Matthew and Luke started with Q, a list of sayings attributed to Jesus, and then used Mark to provide supplementary information, like chronology and details of Jesus' life.

My question is, what is the scholarly consensus (if any) about which text is a more reliable source about Jesus' words, Mark or Q? Note that I'm not asking about the accuracy of Mark's account of Jesus' life and the like, simply the account of what he said.

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    Considering there is no actual "text" of "Q" (and some scholars believe there never was), there is no way to make a real comparison as you are asking. We only have the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Additionally, you may want to define "reliable source" in your mind, since there are also some (like myself) that would say all three are equally "reliable." – ScottS Jun 8 '14 at 0:08
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    I may be wrong in thinking it a gratuitous comment to reflect on @Keshav Srinivasan reasons for accepting my answer, but I notice that the other answer currently available did not even attempt to provide a scholarly consensus, but rather a theological/apologetic alternative, which is not what was asked for. Given space available, I only gave one citation, but Crossan is not the only scholar to see a further source prior to Q and GThomas, as well as (possibly) Mark. Also, the view that Mark uses material from Paul is widely held. – Dick Harfield Jun 8 '14 at 21:33
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    @DickHarfield: I found your answer informative, just not demonstrating consensus (thus why I proposed a question change, though you adding further sources would also show a little consensus from that view). For Caleb's answer, the nearly ubiquitous consensus of Bible scholars is that no actual Q document is extant (even by those believing one existed). So "scholarly consensus" is at the core of Caleb's answer: no extant text = no comparison possible = no comparative reliability can be evaluated (only theorized, as Crossan and et. al you mention). – ScottS Jun 9 '14 at 1:00
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    @DickHarfield: But all that is still (quoting article) regarding a "hypothetical written collection of sayings," being "hypothesized ... formulated ... postulated," without any way to prove such a document existed. Having "rejected the traditional perspective of the priority of Matthew" they "speculated." The very "existence of Q has been questioned," and "more than a dozen reconstructions of Q were made" which "differed so much from each other that not a single verse of Matthew was present in all of them. As a result, interest in Q subsided and it was neglected for many decades." [cont.] – ScottS Jun 9 '14 at 4:37
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    Since this Q&A will be seen, important to note: (1) Q is a hypothetical document with no agreed upon text; (2) Crossan is appreciated but isolated in the guild; (3) for more info, see John Kloppenborg's Q articles esp. "Variation", ETL 83, and "Dispensing", NTS 49; also the Synoptic-L articles; (5) from accepted answer: ONE reputable Mark commentary which says Pauline epistles a source, please? (6) for OP: see Caleb♦ on "reliable": is simply nonsensical for Q, as can have neither textual nor historical meaning. – Dɑvïd Jun 9 '14 at 19:59

John Dominic Crossan, in The Birth of Christianity, argues that the Q document, the Gospel of Thomas and some of the sayings in Mark's Gospel are based on an earlier Greek document he calls the Common Sayings Tradition. First of all, to the extent they are based on the same common source, they stand or fall together according to the reliability of that source. Crossan also makes a convincing case that the original text of the common source was redacted towards Gnosticism in the Gospel of Thomas and towards apocalypticism in the Q document. While we are not concerned with the accuracy or otherwise of the Gospel of Thomas, any such redaction militates against the reliability of Q. Furthermore, Q seems to have been developed in three stages, with 'sapiential' material at the earliest level. Plausibly, the later the material in Q, the less likely it is to reflect the actual sayings of Jesus.

On the other hand, Mark's Gospel appears to contain sayings previously used by Paul in his epistles without any suggestion by Paul that Jesus had spoken these words. See, for example, An Introduction to the New Testament, page 162, by Raymond E. Brown, S.S, Ph.D, saying that parallels have been detected between Mark and Paul's letter to the Romans. He says for instance that Mark's "he declared all foods are clean" ( 7:19) resembles Romans 14:14. Any material in Mark that originates in the epistles must be considered not to be reliable as statements by Jesus.


Mark is more reliable.¹

Even if you were to completely discredit Mark², something is more than nothing. You cannot reasonably compare the accuracy of one document that exists with one that is only speculated to exist. Anybody that tries to tell you differently is selling something³.

Answering your stated question is really that simple. In the world of Biblical Hermeneutics we can only make definitive judgments on the reliability on texts that can be examined—however much we may theorize about the existence or nature of other texts. On the other hand, if your real question was, "Is Mark considered reliable?", the thing to do would be to examine the evidence for that on its own merit (sans-comparison with non-extant sources). There is substantial reason for believing the answer to be "yes" as a careful examination with hermeneutical techniques will turn up plenty of evidence that Mark is a reliable witness (whether Q existed or not) but that would be the topic for another question.

¹ For all definitions of reliable I can think of.

² Many have tried, none have succeed.

³ Gratuitous The Princess Bride reference.

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    Perhaps you should add a couple of good links showing the scholarly consensus of the non-existence of an actual extant Q document. – ScottS Jun 9 '14 at 3:24
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    @ScottS Fair enough, that would be needed to make this even a half way decent answer. On the other hand I wrote it as a a kind of canary to see what sort of answer the OP was looking for. At this point I'm not sure I want to sink time into something that is ½ an inch from community closure and the OP has demonstrated that they are fishing for the answer they want to hear, not the actual answer. I'll try to find a few minutes to expand, but I'm feeling like the canary died. – Caleb Jun 9 '14 at 14:11
  • This is a silly non-answer. Since Q is defined as being composed of the common material in Matthew and Luke – both of which are known – the sayings in Mark and those shared by Matthew/Luke (aka Q) could indeed be compared. I understand why someone may want to avoid discussing the relative reliability of biblical sources, but principles of assessment can be postulated and the assessment done (e.g. the Jesus Seminar’s The Five Gospels). As it stands, @Caleb asserts an answer while rejecting the question -- nonsense. – Schuh Apr 8 '15 at 18:12

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