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The Composition of Luke's Gospel

The Composition 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).

From a study of the Gospel we know that Luke collected the material for his book from three sources:

  • from the common catechetical teaching, which we also find in Mark and Matthew (call it “source Urmark”, from “Original Mark”);
  • from traditions handed down words of Jesus; also Matthew drew from this source ( it is called “Q” or “Quelle”, from the German word Quelle = source)
  • from some traditions specially known to Luke (it is called “source L”, from “Luke”).

When composing his Gospel, Luke followed the arrangement of the common catechetical teaching (Urmark). As a consequence he has many passages parallel to and in the same order as the Gospel of St. Mark. But in some important places he added series of passages which he derived from other traditions (Q and L).

His most important addition is the “journey to Jerusalem”, which was almost entirely composed from sources Q and L. Luke omitted the smaller journeys of Mark (Mark 6:45-8:26). Guided by the way in which Luke used his sources (Urmark, Quelle and L), we may analyse his Gospel in this fashion:

1:1-4 --- foreword to the Gospel

1:5-2:52 --- Jesus’ infancy. derived from own source(L)

3:1-9:50 --- Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Derived from the common catechetical teaching (parallel to Mark, source Urmark).

9:51-19:28 --- Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Derived from the source on Jesus’ words (Quelle) and Luke's own source (L)

19:28-23:56 --- Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem. Last teachings and Passion. From the common catechetical teaching (Urmark).

24:1-53 --- Jesus’ resurrection. Derived mainly from his own source (L)

We have to consider two elements in detail:

Journey to Jerusalem

As we have seen, the composition of Luke’s Gospel follows the geographical pattern of Mark’s Gospel (Galilee, minor journeys, passion in Jerusalem) except for one major addition: Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. The insertion is known as Luke’s ‘travel narrative’. It spans ten chapters (Luke 9,51-19,48). In this section Luke presents many texts from Quelle and from his own source, stringing them together by the common theme of ‘going up to Jerusalem’.

  • As the days drew near for him to be taken up to heaven, he set his face to go up to Jerusalem --- Luke 9,51
  • (The Samaritans) would not give him hospitality because his face was set towards Jerusalem --- Luke 9,53.
  • He went on his way through towns and villages, imparting his teaching while travelling to Jerusalem --- Luke 13,22
  • ‘I must be on my way . . . . No prophet can die away from Jerusalem’ --- Luke 13,33.
  • On the way to Jerusalem he passed through the border country between Samaria and Galilee --- Luke 17,11.
  • He said: ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem . . . .’ --- Luke 18,31.
  • He went on to tell a parable, as he was near to Jerusalem --- Luke 19,11.
  • After saying this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem --- Luke 19,28.
  • And when he drew near and saw the city of Jerusalem, he wept --- Luke 19,41.

Jesus did make a final journey to Jerusalem. But in Luke’s Gospel it has also become a narrative device. Luke enlarges the journey and makes it the setting for many traditions which actually happened on other occasions. Many of the things Luke makes Jesus say and do during this journey, Matthew reports in other contexts. For example, Jesus’ warning against worldly worries which Luke puts inside the journey (Luke 12,22-31), Matthew presents in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 6,25-34). We can be sure, therefore, that the travel narrative is a literary construction by Luke for a special teaching purpose.

Why did Luke stress the journey? Jerusalem played a central role in salvation history, of course. Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem was God’s last ‘visitation’ of his holy city before its destruction by the Romans. But the image of ‘travelling’ was in itself important for Luke.

He saw our Christian life as a journey with Jesus, a living with him through suffering to glory. That is why the Gospel ends with the beautiful account of the two disciples who walk on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24,13-35). Jesus is with them all the time, explaining Scripture to them so that they understand what God is doing in their lives. Luke tells us through this that the Risen Jesus is with us in the people he gives us as companions on the road.

Read: W.C.ROBINSON, ‘The Theological Context for Interpreting Luke’s Travel Narrative’, Journal for Biblical Literature 79 (1960) pp. 20-31; F.STAGG, ‘The Journey toward Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel’, Review and Expositor 64 (1967) pp. 499-512; P.J.BERNADICOU, ‘Self-Fulfilment According to Luke’, Bible Today 56 (1971) pp. 505-512; id. , ‘The Spirituality of Luke’s Travel Narrative’, Review for Religious 36 (1977) pp. 455-466. H.EGELKRAUT, Jesus’ Mission to Jerusalem: a redaction-critical study of the Travel Narrative in the Gospel of Luke, Frankfurt 1976.

Regarding the disciples of Emmaus, read: A.EHRHARDT, ‘The Disciples of Emmaus’, New Testament Studies 10 (1963-1964) pp. 182-201; R.DILLON, From Eye-witnesses to Ministers of the Word. Tradition and Composition in Luke 24, Rome 1978; J.M.GUILLAUME, Luc interprèt des anciennes traditions sur la résurrection de Jésus, Paris 1979.

Luke's Preface

Luke’s Gospel differs from Matthew’s and Mark’s by the declared intention with which it begins.

Since many people have undertaken to compose a report about the events which God has brought to fulfilment among us, in harmony with the traditions of those who from the beginning have been eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I too have decided, after carefully checking everything from the start, to write a systematic account of it for you, o excellent Theophilos, so that you may know the reliability of the words about which you have been instructed. Luke 1,1-4

The preface makes immediate sense in the light of what we have seen in previous chapters. Luke who knows Urmark (or Mark itself) and the collection of sayings we call Quelle, feels that another written account of the teaching about Jesus will be helpful. He indicates his sources: the traditions handed down by the eyewitnesses and catechists. He declares his aim: to check everything carefully and prove the reliability of the ‘words’ passed on in the instruction.

Scholars used to compare this introduction to prefaces written by Greek or Roman history writers. Recent research, however, has shown it fits in best with prefaces at the beginning of practical handbooks written for people who were learning a skill. Hellenistic society produced a wide variety of manuals, which were intended to pass on the skills and traditions of particular trades. This ‘professional prose’ encompassed books on principles of mathematics, the construction of water mills for irrigation, navigation by the stars, herbal medicine, the art of correspondence and similar specific skills.

Luke wrote for practical people who were used to this kind of manual. By his preface Luke indicated that his book was similar in purpose: to help students assimilate a course of instruction.

The earlier view was expressed by H.J.CADBURY, ‘The purpose expressed in Luke’s Preface’, The Expositor (June 1921) pp. 431-441; ‘The knowledge claimed in Luke’s Preface’, The Expositor (December 1922) pp. 401-420. New findings are presented by: M.FURHMANN, Das systematische Lehrbuch: ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Wissenschaften in der Antike, Göttingen 1960. L.ALEXANDER, ‘Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-writing’, Novum Testamentum 28 (1986) pp. 48-74.

Luke’s purpose is confirmed by the particular kind of Greek used. The New Testament writers did not employ classical Greek, the Greek used by official speakers and literary authors. Neither did they use the vernacular koine (means: ‘common language’) of everyday talk, a popular slang found on papyri that contain correspondence or invoices. They used a kind of language in between, ‘literate but not literary’, a sort of professional koine that was designed to convey practical information.

Luke, whose style is so good that he must have known Homer and other great classics, deliberately omits the poetic allusions and quotations that pervade literary writings. By his preface and his style Luke firmly puts his Gospel within the professional stream of factual, instructional communication.

Read about this New Testament use of Greek: L.RYDBECK, Fachprosa, vermeintliche Volkssprache und Neues Testament, Uppsala 1967; G.GLOCKMANN, Homer in der frühchristlichen Literatur bis Justinus, München 1968, pp. 59-65; J.A.MALHERBE, Social Aspects of Early Christianity, Louisiana 1977, esp. pp. 16-19.

Who was the ‘Theophilos’ to whom Luke dedicates both the Gospel and the Acts? (Luke 1,3; Acts 1,1) Was it a literary fiction, since theophilos means ‘beloved by God’? Probably not. Theophilos must have been some actual person, a prominent Gentile convert in Greece or Asia Minor. But through him Luke addressed the thousands of men and women who, like himself, strove to make their world a part of Jesus’ Kingdom of God.

See about this: M.A.MOSCATS, ‘Current Theories regarding the Audience of Luke-Acts’, Currents in Theology and Mission 3 (1976) pp. 355-361.

From this prologue we may draw some conclusions:


In this respect Luke’s Gospel differs much from the editions of Matthew and Mark. Matthew’s Gospel was the catechetical hand-book of the Early Church. Mark’s Gospel was nothing else but the written form of catechetical instruction, perhaps reflecting Peter’s teaching. Matthew and Mark were intended for catechetical use (teaching Christian doctrine) and for liturgical use ( reading God’s message in Church ). But Luke wrote his Gospel for the sake of further personal reading, of further personal reflection and study. That is also why he dedicates it to one person, Theophilus, and through that one person, to each of us individually.


Theophilus was a Greek. He had been instructed in the faith with the common catechetical preaching such as we find in Mark and Matthew. But this was not enough. As a non-Jew Theophilus would have special difficulties and he would be wondering how the teaching of Jesus Christ and the preaching of the Apostles could solve those difficulties.

Luke, himself a convert from a non-Jewish background, wanted to meet those difficulties by showing how the traditional teaching contains the solution. In other words: He does not want to oppose thc old teaching, but he wants to explain and confirm it. To achieve his purpose, he wrote a new Gospel which Greek converts could read after their instruction. In this they would find both the ancient preaching and an explanation which they, as non-Jews, would understand.

John Wijngaards

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