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Authorship of Luke's Gospel

Authorship of Luke's Gospel

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Ancient tradition is unanimous in ascribing the third Gospel to a certain Luke.

Who was this Luke? Second-century documents of the Early Church identify the author of the Gospel as the Luke whom we meet in the New Testament as a companion of Paul. The ancient texts also say that Luke was a physician from Antioch in Syria. Since the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke have been written by the same author, we can combine such external testimonies with information gleaned from both books.

It is obvious, for example, that Luke is familiar with the community at Antioch in its initial years and that he shared some of Paul’s travels. Probably Luke was a Syrian from Antioch who became a Christian and who offered his services to the community. If he was a physician, he may have been a slave in a Christian household - since it was usually slaves who were trained to practice medicine. Or he may have gained his freedom in later life, as quite a few did.

Whatever is true of these details, Luke certainly was a man of the world, a Hellenist, who was anxious to introduce Jesus Christ to people like himself.

A long and detailed discussion of all aspects regarding Lucan authorship can be found in J.A.FITZMYER, The Gospel according to Luke, vol.I, New York 1982, pp. 35-62.

The following issues will be discussed here in some detail:

The Tradition of Lucan authorship

Irenaeus (180 A.D) tells us: “Luke, Paul’s companion, put down in his book the Gospel which Paul preached.”

We find more information in an old treatise, known as the “Anti-Marcionite Prologue”: (2nd-3rd cent.)

“There is Luke, a native of Antioch in Syria, a medical doctor by profession, a disciple of the Apostles. Afterwards he was a companion of Paul until Paul’s martyrdom.

He served the Lord with full dedication. He died at eighty-four years of age without wife or children, in Boeotia, full of the Holy Spirit.

Gospels had already been written by Matthew in Judea and by Mark in Rome. Luke, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wrote this Gospel in the neighbourhood of Achaea (near Athens in Greece).

Luke is distinguished from the other evangelists in many ways:

  1. He was not a Jew, but a convert from Antioch.
  2. He was a highly cultured man. As medical doctor he would know Greek science.
  3. He wrote his Gospel in the centre of Greek civilization, Achaea.
  4. Luke learned the Gospel from the Apostles (i.e. Peter, etc.) and shared Paul’s pastoral experiences. He remained celibate.

Similar information about Luke we find in the so-called Muratorian Canon ( 120 A.D.? ), Clement of Alexandria ( 150-215 A.D.), Tertullian (160-240 A.D.), Origen (186-254) and others. It is said that Luke himself was no eyewitness of Christ’s ministry, but that he took great care to find out the facts from the Apostles and from others who had seen the Lord.

Tradition asserts that Luke practiced medicine. ‘Luke, the beloved physician’ (Colossians 4,14); ‘Luke was a physician’ (Muratorian Canon); ‘Luke was a Syrian of Antioch, by profession a physician’ (Anti-Marcionite Prologue).

Luke in the New Testament

From the New Testament we learn a considerable amount about Luke. Both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts were written by the same author. This is not disputed by any scholar today. See B.E.BECK, ‘The Common Authorship of Luke and Acts’, New Testament Studies 23 (1976-1977) pp. 346-352; S.H.PRICE, ‘The Authorship of Luke-Acts’, Expository Times 55 (1943-1944) p.194. We glean much information from both books.

Very helpful are the so-called “we passages” in the Acts of the Apostles, in which Luke writes about events at which he himself was present (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5 - 21:18; 27:1 - 28:16). St. Paul’s letters prove another source of information. An analysis of Luke’s Gospel itself adds details to the picture. Thus Lukes life can be reconstructed in this way:

Luke's personality

Luke belonged to a Greek (Hellenistic) family. His home town was Antioch in Syria (i.e. North of Palestine). His writing shows him to have been a man of good education. He practised medicine perhaps somewhat like ‘Ayurvedic medicine’ in our own days. He may have moved in literary circles. Like educated Greeks of his time, he would enjoy sports, discussions, poetry and art.

From his way of writing he appears to have been a kind, considerate and charitable person.

Luke's conversion

The town of Antioch was one of the first great Christian centres outside Palestine. After the persecution of Stephen, Jewish converts had come to Antioch and they preached the Gospel also to non-Jews and many were baptized (Acts 11:19-21).

The Apostles at Jerusalem appointed Barnabas and Paul to minister at Antioch. Antioch became the missionary centre for the conversion of the non-Jews. Barnabas and Paul start on their journeys from this town (Acts 13:1-3). Antioch also became the centre of ‘progressive theology’ which insisted that the Law of Moses need not be followed by non-Jewish Christians. In Antioch the famous public discussion between Peter and Paul took place. (Gal 2:11-21) And at the Council of Jerusalem the progressive theologians participated as the delegates from Antioch (Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15:1-19).

When the first Pope, Peter, had settled the matter against Mosaic Law (Acts 15:7-12), the Council sent a letter of encouragement to Antioch (Acts 15:22-33).

It is during this period and in this dynamic Church community that Luke must have been converted. His great missionary zeal, which he was to demonstrate all through life, was kindled by contact with apostolic men, such as Peter, Paul, Barnabas and Mark. From Antioch, Luke must have moved to Troas.

Missionary journey to Philippi - 50 AD

When Paul and Silas proceeded on their missionary trip to Asia Minor, they met Luke in Troas. It is in this city that Paul saw the vision of the Macedonian (a Greek) who begged him: “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” Luke records their enthusiasm: “As soon as Paul had this vision we got ready to leave for Macedonia, for we decided that God had called us to preach the Good News to the people there!” (Acts 16:10)

Luke’s vocation as a missionary must have started at this point. With Paul and Silas he went by boat to Macedonia, and proceeded inland to Philippi, one of the principal Greek towns.

Luke's ministry in Philippi --- 50-57 AD

In Acts, Luke recounts the foundation of thc Church in that town. The first converts were pious Jews who met for prayer on the Sabbath. The Apostles stayed in the house of one of them, a lady called Lydia (Acts 16:11-15). Paul‘s driving out a demon sparked off a persecution. The Apostles were miraculously liberated. They converted the jailer and his family. Afterwards the authorities dismissed them forcing them to leave the city (Acts 16:16-40).

Luke remained at Philippi to serve the new community. For six long years he gained pastoral experience in the apostolate among these Greek people.

Luke's journey with Paul --- 57-61 AD

Paul came again to Philippi during his third missionary journey. Luke joined Paul for the return trip to Jerusalem. With Paul he visited the communities at Troas, Miletus and Ephesus, Tyre and Caesarea (Acts 20:5-21:16). At their arrival in Jerusalem they were heartily wdcomed by James, the Bishop of Jerusalem, and others. They reported on their mission (Acts 21-18f).

Paul ran into difficulties at Jerusalem. The Pharisees accused him of having violated the Temple. Paul was arrested and kept in prison, first in Jerusalem itself and later (for two years) in Caesarea. It would seem that Luke stayed with Paul during all this period, helping him as much as he could (Acts 21:20-26:32; see esp. 24:23).

When Governor Felix finally decided to send Paul to Rome as a prisoner, Luke went with Paul on this dangerous journey. With Paul he underwent the terrible storm, the shipwreck near Malta, and the other adventures of the trip (Acts 27:1-28:14). The arrival at Rome, and their meeting with the Roman Christians, was a ioy and relief (Acts 28:14-16).

Luke's ministry in Rome --- 61 AD

After his arrival in Rome, Paul began to preach Christ in spite of his being a ‘private prisoner’ (Acts 28:16- 30). Luke helped him in this apostolate. Paul writes to Philemon about Luke as one of his fellow workers (Phil 24).

And to the Colossians Paul sends this greeting: “Luke, our dear doctor, and Demas send you their kind regards!” (Col 4:14)

We do not know precisely what happened after Paul’s release from prison (65 AD?). It may be that Luke wrote his Gospel during this period, perhaps while visting the Churches in Greece. Not long afterwards he may have written the Acts of the Apostles, as a continuation of the Gospel.

During Paul’s second imprisonment (66-67 AD?), we find Luke once more at his side. In fact, he seems to have been Paul’s only companion then:

“(Timothy), do your best to come to me soon. For Demas fell in love with this present world and has deserted me; he has gone off to Thessalonica. Crescens went to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me...”

Many scholars think that Luke wrote his two books only after Paul’s death, between 70 and 80 AD.

Tradition is not absolutely unanimous regarding Luke’s last years. According to some sources he died as a martyr. His feast is celebrated on October the 18th.

John Wijngaards

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