Thursday, June 23, 2011

New Testament Authors, Part II: The Third and Fourth Gospels and Acts

Read Part I


The Gospel of Luke
Date: 90 C.E.
The Acts of the Apostles
Date: 95 C.E.
Textual Claim: Anonymous
Church Tradition: Luke, a Gentile physician and companion of Paul

The Third Gospel is the only text of the New Testament traditionally attributed to a Gentile – that is, a non-Jewish – author.  This is based on the tradition that its writer was Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul who seems to be called a Gentile in one of Paul’s letters.  The book of Acts is a virtual “second volume” to the Gospel of Luke, and it is widely recognized, understood, and agreed that whoever wrote Luke also wrote Acts.  The writing style and theology is the same, and the author himself – though he does not provide his own identity – does state, at the start of Acts, that he is writing a second volume to continue where the story of the Gospel of Luke left off.  He also addresses both books to the same person – someone named Theophilus. 

Perhaps the best place to start here is over the issue of whether Luke was, in fact, a Gentile.  Many who are familiar with this very widespread notion may be surprised to discover that there is virtually no evidence to suggest Luke was a Gentile, other than a somewhat vague statement in the New Testament letter of Colossians.  There, Paul lists the names of three of his companions, stating that they are the only Jews who work with him.  He then goes on to list several others, including Luke.  This, then, appears to be evidence that Luke was a Gentile. 

There are two problems here.  The first problem is that Paul doesn’t actually use the word “Jew” in the passage.  Instead, he refers to that first group of people as “those of the circumcision group.”  In other places, Paul uses this colloquialism as a way of referring not necessarily to people who are Jewish by ethnicity or even by religion, but to Christians who believe one must follow the Law of Moses in order to be a Christian.  This group, then, could be made up of either ethnic Jews or ethnic Gentiles.  As a group, they are usually referred to by historians as “Jewish Christians,” but there would certainly have been plenty of ethnic Gentiles among them. 

As a result, those people – including Luke – who are not, according to Paul, “part of the circumcision group,” are not necessarily Gentiles.  They could be Jews who, like Paul, have stopped following the Law of Moses. 

That’s the first problem.  The second problem involves the authorship of Colossians itself.  Since I will be talking later about Colossians, I’ll simply note that many scholars doubt that Paul actually wrote Colossians.  If, in fact, Colossians is a forgery in Paul’s name, then any biographical detail – like the names and ethnicities and religious persuasions of his personal companions – is historically unreliable anyway.  It is important to note here, as an aside, that Colossians is our only source for Luke’s profession as well – that he was a doctor.  If Colossians is a forgery, then there may be no reason to suppose Luke was a physician either. 

The writer of Luke/Acts shows a remarkably high level of understanding of Jewish culture, traditions, history, geography, and scriptures.  Coupled with the fact that there is virtually no reliable evidence suggesting the writer was a Gentile anyway, the most likely conclusion, in my mind, is that the writer was a Jew.

With that established, we turn now to the author himself – Luke the companion of Paul.  Regardless of whether he was Jewish or Gentile, what is the evidence that he is the author of the texts that bear his name? 

Our oldest evidence for the tradition dates to the late 2nd century.  Around 180 C.E., Iranaeus, Bishop of Lyons, refers numerous times to the texts in question, and states that they were written by Luke, without making any indication that there might be some doubt as to the author’s identity.  Clearly the tradition of Lukan authorship was well-entrenched by this time.

Unfortunately, Iranaeus was writing nearly 100 years after the texts themselves were composed, and we don’t have much evidence for the tradition of Lukan authorship prior to Iranaeus.  At best, scholars can trace the tradition to about 150 C.E.  As such, it becomes necessary to look at the internal evidence of the texts themselves. 

Within the Gospel of Luke, there is very little to go by.  However, in his second volume, Acts, there are in fact some internal clues that might help us answer the question of whether Luke was the writer.

The most famous pieces of evidence are the so-called “we” passages of Acts.  In these passages, the author suddenly switches the narrative from third-person into first-person – that is, he begins using “we” and “us” – as though he was there in the story himself.  These passages occur during the missionary travels of Paul.  This has led a lot of scholars and armchair enthusiasts to conclude that the tradition of Lukan authorship may have a basis in fact.  Early tradition tells us it was Luke, Acts has first-person passages, so Luke must be the author.

Other scholars, however, have noted several alternate theories.  First, the “we” passages might, in fact, indicate that the writer was an eyewitness to these events, but that does not necessarily mean that the author was actually Luke.  Maybe it was some other eyewitness.  Second, the “we” passages might be the result of what textual experts call “redaction.”  That is, the writer was using another text as source material for these passages, and simply retained the first-person perspective.  And finally, some scholars have noted that in Greek travel literature of the time, it was common for writers to use the first-person when describing sea voyages.  Since the “we” passages in Acts all correspond to sea voyages taken by Paul, perhaps the writer was simply employing a common stylistic convention.

All of these alternative theories cast doubt on the significance of the “we” passages.  They might indicate an eyewitness, and that eyewitness might have been Luke, but the passages don’t really represent the evidential “homerun” that they might appear to represent at first glance.

Perhaps the biggest argument against Lukan authorship is the fact that he seems to get so many things wrong about Paul.  We know this, of course, because we have a number of Paul’s own writings in the New Testament.  In many cases, scholars can compare what Luke says about an event in Paul’s life with what Paul himself says about the same event.  More often than not, Luke’s version of the story differs dramatically from Paul’s version.  For the sake of space, I won’t detail all these scenes, but will simply note that they are there, and the contradictions are plain for any reader to see.  If the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by one of Paul’s companions, why would he get so much vital information so dramatically wrong? 

In the end, I think Luke is the most difficult attribution to nail down.  Scholars apparently feel the same way, because the field is fairly well divided, with many good scholars arguing for Lukan authorship, and many other good scholars arguing against it.  Ultimately, the jury is still out, because the evidence is not conclusive in either direction. 

If you're interested in a bit more on this subject, I've written about it more fully in a previous blog post, from last February.  

The Gospel of John
Date: 95-100 C.E.
Textual Claim: “The disciple whom Jesus loved”  
Church Tradition: John, son of Zebedee, a disciple of Jesus

Even though it was the last Gospel written, the Fourth Gospel has perhaps had the most impact on Christian theology through the ages.  Traditionally it is attributed to John, one of Jesus’ most prominent and beloved disciples. 

Scholars across the theological spectrum agree that the disciple John almost certainly did not write this text.  In fact, there are very few reputable scholars out there today who still argue for Johannine authorship.  There are numerous reasons for this. 

To begin with, we know John from the Gospels as an uneducated fisherman from the backwoods of Galilee who spoke Aramaic.  That he might later have learned not only to speak, but to write in highly literate Greek is extremely improbable.

Second, our earliest sources for this tradition are, themselves, vague and contradictory.  Iranaeus, for instance, seems to believe there were two Johns among the early Christian evangelists, and it is not entirely clear which one he thinks wrote the Gospel.  Other early writers provide similarly confusing accounts. 

Third, textual scholars have identified several probable textual sources for the Gospel of John, and this begs the question of why a disciple of Jesus and eyewitness to all the events he describes would need to use other sources for information.

Fourth, textual scholars have also identified multiple layers within the Gospel where the text has been redacted – that is, changed, edited, updated, and collated with other sources – implying that the text we have today is not a single document written in a single time period by a single person, but rather a sort of community effort of several writers writing over the course of a number of years/decades. 

Fifth, since most scholars agree that the text was written near the end of the 1st century, the likelihood that John was still alive and able to write coherently (in another language, no less) is very, very low.

Sixth, much of the Gospel’s content differs dramatically from the stories in the other three Gospels, leading even many early Christian writers to admit that the author had a more spiritual purpose than historical purpose, which would seem odd if it was written by an eyewitness who actually knew the accurate historical situation.

This list could go on and on.  Simply put, there is virtually no evidence to support Johannine authorship, while there is overwhelming evidence to doubt Johannine authorship.  Put together, this is the reason why virtually every reputable scholar on the planet agrees that the Fourth Gospel was the work of a community, rather than any single person, and certainly not John, son of Zebedee.  It may well be that the community in question was a community founded by John, or otherwise devoted to John – that, in fact, is a very common conclusion among scholars – but there can be little doubt that John, himself, did not author this text. 

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