Introduction to Luke

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I want to start reading the Bible. Why start with Luke?

Saint Luc, James Jacques Joseph Tissot, 19th century France
A beautiful painting from the 19th century of Luke. But in reality, we have no idea what Luke looked like. In fact, we don’t even know if the writer of Luke was named Luke!

I chose the Gospel of Luke because it is about Jesus!  But there are four books of the Bible that are primarily about Jesus.  We call them the “four Gospels,” because they all tell the “Gospel,” or “Good News” of Jesus.  Mark, the oldest Gospel, is also the shortest and leaves out a lot of great stories and has fewer of Jesus’ teachings.  John, the newest of them, uses lots of complicated religious language that is meaningful and beautiful, but not necessarily best for beginners.  Mattthew and Luke have a lot in common.  They are about the same length and have mostly the same stories and teachings.  Matthew seems designed for an audience familiar with Jewish religion and tradition in the first or second century.  So that leaves Luke!  I also suggest Luke as a great “beginner Gospel” for teens because of its storytelling.  Luke loves telling the stories of people.  Luke tells stories of  women, of children, of Jews, of foreigners, of powerful people, or impoverished people.  If you want to find a Bible story that you can recognize yourself in, Luke is a great book to look in.

When

Around the mid 80s CE, or about fifty years after the life of Jesus. Luke came after Mark, about the same time as Matthew, and well before John. Luke, like all the Gospels, is later than the Letters of Paul, even though those come after it in the Bible. Some conservative interpreters who believe that Luke was written by the missionary Luke who traveled with Paul or who was an eye witness of Jesus’ ministry say Luke was written earlier, but the book itself never claims to having been written by an eyewitness. The author says right from the start:

1 Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. 3 Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write. – Luke 1

Luke admits that he is acting more like a reporter or historian and never claims to be an eyewitness.

Who

The Book of Luke itself, even though the author uses first person (saying “I” and “me” in the first chapter), never names the author, but he does use a masculine reference to himself in the Greek in 1:3 that “makes it impossible for the author to be a woman” (François Bovon, Hermeneia: Luke 1, p. 8). Raymond Brown says that from how it is written, we can tell that Luke was “an educated Greek-speaker and skilled writer.” We know this because Luke uses better grammar in Greek than some of the other Bible authors! Luke also “knew the Jewish Scriptures (Old Testament) in Greek” (Introduction to the New Testament, p. 227).

So why do we call him Luke? Around 200 CE, or over a 100 years after it was written, Christian leaders like Clement and Tertullian say it was written by a Luke. While we aren’t sure, we don’t have a better name either, so we call him Luke. We know that Paul had a traveling companion who helped him named Luke from Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 1:24. (Luke is also mentioned in 2 Timothy, but we don’t know for sure if Paul wrote that…) By tradition, the author of the book of Luke is considered the same man, but that’s not something we can prove.

Harvard professor Helmut Koester wrote:

Another tradition is that Luke was a physician. Luke, a native of Antioch, by profession a physician. He had become a disciple of the apostle Paul and later followed Paul until his [Paul’s] martyrdom. Having served the Lord continuously, unmarried and without children, filled with the Holy Spirit he died at the age of 84 years (Ancient Christian Tradition, p. 355).

The idea of Luke being a physician is really appealing when you read Luke. He does certainly seem to have a very sensitive attention to sickness and healing, but like other traditions about Luke this one both makes sense and comes too much later to prove one way or another.

As you read the Gospel of Luke, think about which traditions about Luke seem to fit, and which ones don’t.

How

How did Luke write the Gospel? Two popular theories in Christian history are that the Holy Spirit whispered it to Him word for word (this is called “plenary verbal inspiration”) and another is that Luke was an eyewitness following Jesus around. It’s important to notice that the Gospel of Luke never claims to be either! Luke heard other people’s stories passed down, and probably had at least two written sources in front of him, and he retold the story from his point of view.

© Wikipedia

What were the written sources he had? One is the Book of Mark. Mark is agreed by Bible scholars to be older and it seems that both Luke and Matthew had their hands on it when they wrote their books based on similar and even identical stories. But then Matthew and Luke have lots of stories and teachings in common with each other but not with Mark. How did this happen? Most, but certainly not all, Bible scholars think that shows they had a book we’ve since lost that they both were looking at, now called the Q source. We get the letter “Q” from the German word “Quelle,” which means, simply, “source.” Finally, Luke says things that neither Mark nor Matthew say. Where did he get those? They could be from Q and be things Matthew simply didn’t also take, or they could be received traditions that Luke heard in church!

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