Monday, February 08, 2010

Luke the Evangelist

In Church tradition, the Gospel of Luke (GoL), together with Acts of the Apostles, are two books widely believed to have been written by the same person, a man Church tradition has called Luke the Evangelist (hence, of course, the Gospel bearing his name). This same Church tradition tells us that Luke was both a doctor and a Gentile, meaning that his two volumes, GoL and Acts, are the only books in the New Testament written by a non-Jew. This is more significant than one might suspect at first glance. There are 27 books in the New Testament, so two books might not seem like so much, but in fact those two books are among the longest in the New Testament, and thus make up something like 25% of the entire canon. That makes the author of GoL and Acts the most prolific of the New Testament authors, including Paul (and that’s even assuming that Paul wrote all the letters attributed to him, which is doubted by the majority of scholars).

So as the author of a full one-quarter of the Christian scriptures, the question “Who was Luke?” is an important one for Christians.

The short answer to that question, unfortunately, is that we know hardly anything about Luke, and in fact there are many good reasons to doubt that the historical person known as “Luke the Evangelist” had anything to do with writing either text.

In tackling the question of authorship in regards to GoL and Acts, there are three important questions to ask. First, were GoL and Acts written by the same person? If so, was that person a physician named Luke, a companion of Paul? And finally, was that person also a Gentile?


All the available evidence suggests strongly that Church tradition is correct in saying GoL and Acts were written by the same individual. The most compelling reason to accept this is that the author himself says as much. Consider the prologues to both GoL and Acts:

Gospel of Luke: “I…write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

Acts: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught…”

Both books are addressed to someone named “Theophilus” and the opening paragraph of Acts makes it clear that Acts is a sort of second volume to the story begun in the Gospel of Luke. (Theophilus, by the way, may have been an individual, or it may have been a euphemism meant to refer to any Christian reader, since “Theophilus” literally means “Friend of God” and was routinely used in the 1st century as an honorary title rather than an individual name.)

Of course, just because a writer claims that his present book is a continuation of a former book doesn’t mean it’s true. We know that Christian history, after all, is rife with what are called “pseudonymous writers” – that is, scribes writing in other people’s names. Be that as it may, the linguistic characteristics of GoL and Acts – writing style, grammar, word usage – indicate strongly that, in fact, both books were written by the same person. Furthermore, the general theological thrust of the books is similar, again suggesting that we are dealing with a single writer.


This question can be asked more pointedly like this: “Was the author of GoL and Acts the man known as Luke the Physician in the letters of Paul?”

A man named Luke is mentioned in three letters attributed to Paul the apostle – Philemon, Colossians, and 2 Timothy. In Philemon and Colossians, Luke is mentioned as one of the people with Paul who “sends greetings” to the recipients. In 2 Timothy, which is written as a personal letter from Paul to Timothy, Paul mentions in passing that “only Luke is with me.”

Thus, Luke appears to have been one of Paul’s companions. In Colossians, Paul mentions specifically that Luke is a “beloved doctor,” which has lead, quite obviously, to the conclusion that Luke was a physician, and also has led many to suggest that Luke must therefore have been Paul’s personal doctor.

There are at least two major problems here, however. The first problem is the most obvious: just because Paul had a companion named Luke doesn’t mean this person wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. Certainly nothing in the letters of Paul suggests this, nor is there any indication in GoL and Acts about the identity of the author (those books mention the recipient, Theophilus, as we saw above, but make no mention of the author).

So where did the connection to Luke the Companion of Paul come from? Quite simply, it comes from Church tradition, a tradition that first begins appearing in the historical record near the end of the 2nd century. Does that mean the tradition didn’t begin until the late 2nd century? Not necessarily, but we simply cannot know with any kind of certainty when the tradition began. We know by the end of the 2nd century, many Christian groups were connecting GoL and Acts to Luke the Companion of Paul. But we don’t know if that tradition went all the way back to the actual time of composition, or if it was simply an “emerging” tradition – someone was trying to figure out who wrote it, and decided Luke the Companion of Paul was the best choice.

It is significant to point out that many early manuscripts of GoL do not use Luke’s name in the title. While that’s not a “silver bullet” argument against Lukan tradition, it does seem to indicate that the tradition was not known in certain areas of Christendom until much later.

Those who argue that Luke the Companion of Paul wrote GoL and Acts can point to a number of arguments. First, roughly 66% – or two-thirds – of Acts centers on the life of Paul. Paul is the main figure in that text. This would seem to indicate that the writer was especially partial to Paul – thus probably a follower or companion.

Second, there is a portion of Paul’s story in Acts were the writer suddenly, and seemingly inexplicably, switches into a first-person narrative. Instead of “they” and “them,” it suddenly becomes “we” and “us.” A few paragraphs later, the narrative switches back to third-person again, just as abruptly. This actually happens several times throughout the narrative. This occasional switching into first-person has been seen as evidence that, in fact, GoL and Acts were written by a companion of Paul – thus leading the writer to write in the first-person whenever he was actually present during an event he was describing.

This seems to make sense on the surface, and certainly seems to suggest strongly that the Lukan tradition must have a basis in reality – whether it was Luke or not is up for debate, but it seems that these books must at least have been written by a companion of Paul. There is one problem, however. This problem involves literary techniques frequently employed in the ancient world by Greek writers. In Greek literature, it was common for a writer to switch into the first-person when narrating stories involving sea voyages. This may seem odd to our modern literary sensibilities, but it was a well-established poetic technique among Greek writers of the ancient world.

If you read the book of Acts, you’ll find that every time the perspective switches into first-person, the narrative centers on a sea voyage. In fact, every sea voyage discussed in Acts is written in first-person.

Thus, the first-person narratives of Acts may not, in fact, indicate any implication on the part of the writer that he was there himself – that he was among Paul’s companions in these scenes. The writer may simply have been using a tried and true Greek literary technique.

The second major problem regarding the character of Luke from the letters of Paul is that only one of those letters – Philemon – is one of the so-called “undisputed” letters of Paul. Among New Testament scholars, there is wide agreement that at least seven of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul actually came from the historical Paul. Philemon is among these. Three others, however, are widely debated, with some scholars accepting Pauline authorship, and others rejecting it. Colossians falls into this category. Furthermore, there are an addition three letters attributed to Paul on which there is wide consensus that the historical Paul, in fact, did not write the letters, and 2 Timothy is one of these.

Since Luke is mentioned in Philemon, we can be fairly confident that Paul did, in fact, have a companion named Luke (though that tells us nothing, of course, about whether this Luke wrote GoL and Acts). However, the designation of Luke as a physician comes from Colossians – one of the disputed letters. If Colossians was indeed pseudonymous, is there any reason to suppose that its personal data about Paul’s life (such as commenting that his companion Luke was a doctor) can be trusted as historically accurate? Maybe, but also maybe not. In either case, it casts some doubt on the supposition that the author of GoL and Acts was a physician.


Putting aside the questions about whether Luke the Companion of Paul actually wrote the books attributed to him and whether or not this Luke was actually a physician, we move on to the issue of whether GoL and Acts were written by a Gentile.

That these two books were Gentile-authored has been an assumption on the part of scholars and theologians for centuries. But that assumption is primarily based on the presupposition that Luke the Companion of Paul was the author of these books. If he wasn’t, then the remaining discussion is moot. For now, then, we’ll assume that Luke the Companion of Paul wrote GoL and Acts.

Why is Luke called a Gentile? The primary reason is rather convoluted, but it involves an interpretative reading of Paul’s greetings in the book of Colossians. Recall that many scholars doubt Colossians was actually written by Paul. So again, for the moment, we will presuppose that Colossians was, in fact, an authentic letter of Paul.

In Colossians, as we saw above, Paul mentions that Luke is a “beloved physician” and that he sends his greetings to the Christians at Colossae. Prior to this, however, he had mentioned a few other companions, namely Tychicus, Onesimus, Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus (no, not that Jesus). After mentioning these people, he notes that “these are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God.” After this, he names several more people, including Luke. This, therefore, has led to the assumption that Luke, and the others mentioned with him, were Gentiles.

This may seem like an opened and closed case. Luke the physician was a Gentile, according to Colossians. But there is one major issue. Despite the fact that many modern English translations have Paul explicitly say that “these are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God,” Paul doesn’t actually use the word “Jew.” Instead, he uses a euphemism that translates to “those of the circumcision.” This is typically a phrase that refers in general to Jews, but more specifically to people who follow Jewish purity laws. A Gentile convert, for instance, would have been “of the circumcision,” even though he wasn’t ethnically Jewish. In the same way, someone could be ethnically Jewish but not be part of the “circumcision crowd” because they didn’t follow Jewish law. Paul himself would be among this group, because he gave up adherence to the Torah.

In the book of Romans, Paul makes his views clear: “Circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the [Jewish purity] law; but if you break the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.” He goes on to say: “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.”

In other words, in Paul’s view, whether a person is ethnically Jewish (that is, physically circumcised) or not is irrelevant. What makes a person Jewish is that they follow Jewish purity rituals.

In light of this, it is certainly possible that Paul never meant to imply that Luke, and the others listed with him, where actually Gentiles. He may simply have meant that Luke and the others had – like Paul himself – given up adherence to Jewish law, and were thus no longer part of the circumcision crowd. Still ethnically Jewish, but no longer Jews at heart.

The point, of course, is this: the book of Colossians, despite surface appearances, does not explicitly and unquestionably assert that Luke was a Gentile. That may not be what the passage is saying at all. In the end, we can’t know for sure. But if that’s not what the passage was saying, then there is certainly no reason to assume the writer of GoL and Acts was a Gentile.

Some supporters of Lukan tradition will say that even without the evidence of Colossians, GoL and Acts themselves give indication that the writer was a Gentile. The Gospel of Luke, for instance, seems clearly to have been written for a Gentile audience, and this is widely recognized among scholars. However, Mark and John were both written for Gentile audiences too, and no one supposes that those writers were Gentiles themselves. Furthermore, if Luke was a Gentile, he demonstrates a remarkable understanding and familiarity with Jewish customs that one would not expect of a 1st century Gentile from Roman Asia Minor, far removed from the Jewish homeland.


There is no question that a reasonable argument can be made to support the Church tradition of Lukan authorship. I want to make this clear, lest I be seen as simply trying to buck the trend for the sheer joy of it. It’s possible that Luke the Companion of Paul wrote GoL and Acts, and it’s possible that this person was a physician and a Gentile. It is not outside the realm of historical plausibility.

However, there are so many question marks in this tradition that I think scholars and theologians should take more care when asserting this conclusion. We do not know when, or why, the tradition of Lukan authorship first arose. We know it was there by the end of the 2nd century, but we have no knowledge of whether it began at composition, or arose later as leaders in the Church attempted to attach familiar and authoritative names to all the various texts floating around the emerging Christian world. It does not take a great leap of faith, nor does it constitute unusual criticism, to suggest that Church tradition might have gotten it wrong when it attached Luke the Companion of Paul to the Gospel of Luke and Acts.

Furthermore, as illustrated above, there are a number of question marks about the details of who Luke was – physician, Gentile, etc. The letter of Colossians, which gives us this information, has a disputed authorship, with some insisting it is authentically from Paul and others insisting it is not. If Paul didn’t write it, there is good reason for doubting its historical accuracy when calling Luke a physician (or a Gentile, for that matter). Furthermore, whether Paul wrote it or not, it is not entirely clear that the author intended to imply that Luke was a Gentile. The implication may have been that Luke, like Paul, was an ethnic Jew who had given up Jewish purity customs. Ultimately, it’s impossible to say for sure, but if the writer of GoL and Acts was a Gentile, he had a remarkably intimate knowledge of Jewish history, traditions, customs, scriptures, theology, and eschatology. It’s hard to imagine that a 1st century Gentile who did not live in the Jewish homeland (Church tradition says Luke came from Troas, in Asia Minor) could possibly have known Judaism so thoroughly and intimately.

Here’s what I think the most likely scenario is. We don’t know who wrote the Gospel of Luke and Acts. It was not a man named Luke. It was not someone who was a doctor. It was not someone who had accompanied Paul on missionary journeys, nor was it someone who probably even knew the historical Paul. Instead, the writer was probably a Jew who lived in one of the cities where Paul had founded a Christian congregation decades earlier (perhaps Ephesus). At some point he had become involved with this congregation, converting ultimately to Christianity. He knew Jewish history and theology so well because he was a Jew. He had a special affinity for Paul’s story because he was a member of a congregation founded by Paul (though, as I said, he probably never knew Paul).

I use a lot of “probably’s” there, and that was done on purpose. Any of those suggestions could be wrong. It may be that the writer did, in fact, know the historical Paul, having been a member of the congregation during Paul’s life. It may be that the writer was, in fact, a Gentile, though if that is true, I think it is likely that he was what many Jewish writers of the 1st century called a “God-fearer.” The God-fearers were Gentiles who did not convert to Judaism (that is, they did not become circumcised), but they had an affinity for Jewish customs and religious traditions, and they were generally looked upon kindly by Jews. The Jews considered them allies, as it were. They were essentially doing in the 1st century what a lot of folks still do today – engaging in buffet-style religion. They were taking the best of all the available religions (in this case, Roman paganism and Judaism) and combining them into a highly personal faith system. They didn’t care much for the pagan gods of Rome and liked the idea of Judaism’s monotheism, but they certainly had no intention of circumcising themselves and sticking to all the difficult purity laws of the Jewish Torah. Instead they worshipped a single God, perhaps took part in Jewish holidays, but also no doubt celebrated pagan holidays, and probably still occasionally burned incense in pagan temples and paid their homage to the emperor. This, of course, made them prime targets for Christian evangelists in the 1st century – they were already nearly halfway there. They liked Judaism’s God and Judaism’s traditions, but they weren’t Jews by birth, had no need for Jewish purity rituals, and likely found Christianity’s easy message of faith and grace quite palatable. Scholar J.D. Crossan, in fact, has argued quite well that Paul’s missionary journeys primarily consisted of converting these “God-fearers” to Christianity rather true Jews or true Pagans.

It’s noteworthy to mention that the book of Acts mentions these “God-fearers” more than a dozen times. It may just be that the writer of GoL and Acts was one of them. I still think it’s more likely, however, that he was a true Jew who became a Jewish-Christian.

In any case, all of these things should cause us to take a bit more care when assuming that the Gospel of Luke, or the book of Acts, was necessarily written by a Gentile, a doctor, or a companion of Paul. Maybe all those things are right. More than likely, however, they are not.


Fred said...

One of the big problems with the assignment of the author of Acts to Luke is that the author seems to be at odds with Paul in many instances. For someone who is supposed to be a traveling companion of Paul he seems to know very little about the travels of Paul. I would say that the differences in these accounts are not discrepancies but actual contradictions.
For example Paul is quite adamant about his visit to Jerusalem and is staking his entire reputation on this being true. Gal 1:17 - 1:21. Pauls entire bona fides rests on Paul having very little to do with the Jerusalem based apostles. The author of Acts seems to vastly exaggerates Pauls time in Jerusalem (without going into detail here.)lingers

Scott said...

Yes, I agree with you. Paul's "biography" as it is presented in Acts directly contradicts Paul's own autobiographical details sprinkled throughout his own letters.

This is another layer on the cake of evidence suggesting the writer of Acts was not "Luke the Companion of Paul" or anyone who knew Paul personally.

Now, having said that...this particular piece of evidence could be swept away fairly easily by simply saying that while Acts was indeed written by Luke the Companion of Paul, Luke was trying to write a nice, easy-to-digest account of Christian history, so he intentionally smoothed over some problem areas, particularly in regards to the fact that Paul seems to have been greatly at odds with the Jerusalem Church, its leaders, and some of Jesus' apostles (like Peter). Luke wanted to play down this troubling reality in the name of Christian unity.

That could be true whether Acts was actually written by a follower of Paul or not.