What is ‘Q’?
spoke out: ‘I am indeed a servant of God. He has given to me the Book and made
me a Prophet. Wherever I go, His blessings follow me.’ (Qur’an 19:30)
There is, in
terms of literal content, little for a mainstream Christian to
object to in the passage from the Qur’an you just read. Virtually all Christian
theologies accept Jesus’ role as Prophet, or Messenger of God. If ‘Book’ means
an authentic Divine Revelation, surely no Christian would dispute that Jesus
But that is the content. The context is a
different matter. The very fact that the words in question appear in the
Qur’an, rather than in the Gospels, is enough to give many people pause.
Most contemporary Christians simply do
not believe that Jesus was a practitioner of the same religion practiced by
Muslims. To be more specific: Most Christians do not believe that Jesus’ actual
mission and teachings, by whatever name we may choose to call them, would be
recognizable to a contemporary Christian, or even to a fair-minded neutral
observer, as those of the Prophet Muhammad.
If you were to switch on a time machine
and set out to test the matter, ninety-nine out of a hundred Christians would
probably predict that your journey back through time would prove definitively
that Jesus was not, in fact, a Muslim.
The problem is
that most of those ninety-nine people would have a hard time describing, in
even the vaguest terms, what a Muslim actually believes.
We don’t have a time
machine, of course, and perhaps it would be better for us not to wish for one.
How many of us would actually risk making such a trip for the first time,
risking the possibility that we might never return to the certainties of our present
It might be
safer and more practical to plan a different kind of journey. It might be better—at
least for those of us who are not particularly brave about journeys—if
Jesus could gain access to the time
machine and approach us.
Fortunately, we are in a position to ask Jesus to make just
that kind of journey through time for us.
We can appeal
to a kind of ‘hard evidence’—evidence, at any rate, that should be of
interest to thoughtful Christians. The evidence to which we can appeal, the journey
Jesus makes on our behalf, resides in the Gospels, in words attributed to Jesus
himself. We can evaluate these words on their own merits. Then we can compare
these words to the core principles of Islam.
You will be
reading, in this book, a number of New Testament scriptures. When a passage
like this comes up, it will appear in this
kind of bold type, and indented.
Quotes of prominent Christians are in bold type, italics and
indented, while passages from the Qur’an are in italics style and
Now, it is a common, and probably a fair,
complaint from Christians that Muslims sometimes ‘pick and choose’ their way
through the New Testament in discussions about Jesus. Some Muslims cite the
Gospel of John one moment to prove some prophecy or other, and then, the next
moment, dismiss the sixteenth verse of the third chapter in that same Gospel,
which describes Jesus as the only begotten Son of God. Similarly, some Muslims
appeal with great enthusiasm to St. Paul’s advice to women to cover their heads
in public, but ignore the portions of his epistles that emphasize Jesus’ role
as the sacrificial Savior of humanity.
This kind of
flip-flopping exasperates the Christians and embarrasses Muslims, or ought to.
Selective criticisms like these ignore the question ‘How did you come to prefer
that passage over this one?’ They are demeaning to people of any faith or
tradition, because they suggest that religion is little more than a rhetorical
game in which an opponent’s fundamental beliefs can be uprooted easily—if
only one knows what to ignore. No one, I think, is convinced by these kinds of
Of course, this book relies to a certain extent on my own Biblical
interpretation and arguments. But you should understand
that, for the purposes of consistency, historical authenticity, and clarity,
this book is different from other
Islamic assessments of the Gospels. This book relies primarily on a very
narrowly defined group of verses, verses that are not to be found in the Gospel
of John or in any of the Epistles. So when a thoughtful Christian asks, ‘Why do
you prefer verse X over verse Y?’ the answer can be a clear one: ‘Because
responsible scholars believe verse X to be older in derivation, and therefore
more likely to be authentic.’
The verses in question, known as Q
verses, are the passages many of today’s scholars believe to be the earliest surviving expression of the
oral tradition of sayings attributed to Jesus.
Make no mistake: This is your father’s (and grand-father’s, and great-grandfather’s) New
Testament. Yet the focus here is on Gospel verses that were, in all probability,
compiled long before the text surrounding them was.
The remnants of
a lost, but identifiable, ‘sayings gospel’ called Q (from the German Quelle,
or ‘source’) do appear in Matthew and Luke.
What, you may
ask, was a ‘sayings gospel’? This was, scholars believe, an ancient document
consisting of instructions attributed to Jesus, ‘sayings’ that generally lack narrative material.
gospel would have carried material that eventually found its way into the
Gospels we are familiar with—but a sayings gospel would have made no attempt
to tell the life story of Jesus.
A little background is in order. The
Gospel of Mark, most scholars believe, is the oldest extant Gospel. Intriguingly,
Matthew and Luke depend on Mark for much, but not all, of their material. (The
Gospel of John does not depend on any other Gospel in a textual sense; it is independent
in a way that the other three Gospels are not. It is also compiled later.)
When we remove
the influence of Mark and look at what Matthew and Luke still have in
common, we find dozens of obviously parallel verses in Matthew and Luke—verses
that often give us nearly verbatim expressions of the same saying.
feel these parallel verses constitute clear evidence of a sayings gospel that
supplies Matthew and Luke with a substantial amount of their content. These parallel
verses, known as the Q verses, appear to reflect a lost manuscript that is almost
certainly older than even Mark’s Gospel.
This all sounds, perhaps, more complex
than it actually is. The simplest explanation for the situation we are examining
is known as the Two Source Theory. This theory holds that the authors of
Matthew and Luke made use of two important written sources—Mark
and the lost gospel we now call Q—in developing their
own accounts of the life of Jesus.
Here is a
simple visual summary of the Two Source Theory on the next page, which is not
my creation; this theory is familiar to virtually all responsible contemporary
Gospel textual scholars, and has been a topic of scholarly discussion for many
Now, even this
brief summary of Q is enough to stir up any number of intricate scholarly
debates, and this book is not meant to be about scholarly debates. You should
know, however, that the analysis of the development of the Gospels you have
just read reflects the findings of some of the most accomplished researchers
and scholars working in the field of New Testament textual studies. See The Complete Gospels, edited by Robert
J. Miller, HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.
Christian clergy and theologians are
generally hostile to the whole idea of Q. They claim that students of Q are somehow eager to diminish the status of Jesus.
(Actually, we are only eager to learn what he is most likely to have
The hostility of these preachers and
theologians to the proposition that Q was a source for Matthew and Luke is
often palpable. Such a response may have something to do with the many
challenges that the reconstructed text reflecting the (lost) Q manuscript
represents to accepted Christian theology.
One part of this
challenge that has been little noticed by lay Christians up to this point—but feared, I suspect, by
orthodox Christian theologians—has to
do with Islam.
It is the observation, difficult to avoid
for any attentive student of comparative religion that Q tends to support the
most important elements of Islam’s conception of Jesus.
Ó Ó Ó
The Q scholarship suggests that the ways most Muslims have,
down the centuries, envisioned the message, identity, and priorities of Jesus
are, broadly speaking, historically correct.
tends to confirm Islam’s image of Jesus as a distinctly human Prophet.
It tends to confirm Islam’s depiction of
the mission of Jesus as following the
theological principles of the Qur’an.
It tends to confirm Islam’s rejection
of the doctrine of the Trinity.
And it tends to
confirm Islam’s claim that the surviving scriptures of Christianity have been tampered
with in a way meant to dilute an uncompromisingly rigorous monotheism.
This particular variety of monotheism,
Islam has always
insisted, was the driving force of all the great prophetic missions, including
that of Jesus.
particular variety of monotheism allows for no such formulation as ‘Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit’.
These connections between the message of Islam and the
message of Q are my observations, not the observations of the textual scholars
who have done such meticulous work over the years identifying the early Gospel
verses. Those scholars are writing about textual research. This book is about
Jesus and Islam.
You may agree with the evidence offered
in the pages that follow. You may disagree. In the end, it doesn’t really
matter how popular or unpopular the analysis offered here proves to be. What
matters is that thoughtful Christians have the opportunity to evaluate it
fairly and make their own decisions.
Ó Ó Ó
What exactly do I mean when I maintain that Jesus called his
people ‘to Islam’?
Let me put it as clearly as I can. I believe
that Jesus was, as a matter of historical probability, calling his listeners to
a faith system whose guiding principle is that the Creator, not the created,
must be worshipped and obeyed. It is a corollary of this belief that God’s
will, not human will, should be done on earth.
I believe later manipulations subverted
that teaching and pointed the religion of Jesus toward the principle of
sacrificial atonement for the sins of mankind. I believe that the Q verses of
the Gospels tend to confirm these beliefs of mine.
Occasionally, people wonder if it is
possible to ‘boil down’ the complex textual issues raised by Q scholarship to a
single sentence. Here is the sentence I’ve come up with:
Today’s best New Testament experts believe that
some Gospel verses appear to present a more historically accurate picture of
Jesus than other Gospel verses do.
That is to say,
today’s scholarship identifies certain passages—the Q passages—as
not only instructive, but historically is
more relevant than other passages. Yet most Christians are totally unaware
of this research, or of its momentous implications.
If you were to
tell the members of any Christian congregation of the existence of such verses
… and then ask them what they believe the earliest layer of Gospel verses
teaches … most of them would answer that the earliest verses must somehow
emphasize Jesus’ status as the only begotten Son of God.
And yet they would be mistaken.
reasonable people may disagree on the age and authenticity of the sayings that
form the centerpiece of this book.
Everyone must agree, though, that the words in question do appear in the
Gospels found in every Bible, and are binding on every Christian. And
for anyone who is truly committed to the task of following the words of Jesus,
that should be enough.
To learn more
about why so many scholars are so insistent now about the early dating of the
passages in question, see Appendix A.
For now, please understand that this book puts forward a very narrow ‘slice’ of
the New Testament, and emphasizes the sayings that appear within that slice. As
you evaluate that ‘slice’, bear in mind that the most accomplished Biblical scholars of our day—none of them Muslims, by the way—regard the Q verses
in Matthew and Luke as the closest we are ever going to get to the teachings of
the historical Jesus, barring the discovery of some previously unknown ancient
Some people who hear my reasons for believing as I do react
with great anger, and many of these angry people attempt to discredit the
scholarship behind Q. They are missing the point.
Whether the Q theory is persuasive to you
depends on your interpretation of the evidence. Yet even if you reject all
the work of all the Q scholars, this book may nevertheless be of interest to
you, assuming two and only two facts:
First, that you are
a thoughtful Christian capable of making decisions for
yourself about important matters (such
as whether or not Jesus preached publicly about his own sacrifice for
the sins of mankind).
And second, that you do not reject the Gospel verses in
This second point is extremely important,
and worth emphasizing. Even if one were to disagree vehemently with the scholars
on the dating of the Q verses, one would have a very hard time indeed disputing
their presence in the New Testament.
They are there, whether or not one
accepts Q as a source for the Gospels, and whether or not they are convenient
to contemporary Christian theology.
It is possible,
of course, that some people may feel uncomfortable with the whole idea of
certain Gospel passages being older or more authoritative than other Gospel
passages. If it is easier to think of the verses that appear in the pages that
follow as simply coming from certain portions of the Bible—portions
that the author happens to prefer over other portions—that
is just as well.
nothing ‘new’ here. There is only an attempt to refocus, or perhaps focus for
the first time, on something very old, on some vitally important parts of
If you consider
the study of the Gospels to be an important part of your spiritual life, I hope
you will consider continuing on to the next chapter. If, on the other hand, you
believe that what we find in the Gospels does not have any bearing on your spiritual
life, you may want to stop here.
most of my adolescence I studied the Christian scriptures on
my own, and I did so obsessively.
When I say I read the scriptures obsessively,
I mean that I was drawn to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John like a
There are plenty of notes and highlights
in that old Bible of mine in Psalms, in Ecclesiastes,
in Proverbs—but most of the notes and
underlining are in the Gospels. But I sensed,
even at an early age, that there were some internal problems with the texts I
loved so dearly.