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Luke the Evangelist

One of the four authors of the Christian Gospels and historian of the early church.

The first thought that popped into my head when I read Caroline’s request for Luke in October was ‘Oh, how difficult, how boring, I would prefer to do a real person’. So first I had to spend some time wondering where that thought came from. Clearly Luke (whoever he was) was a real person so why was my instinctive reaction that studying the life of the author of one of the Gospels - a version that is distinctively different from the other three - , the author of the earliest history of the church after the resurrection, (Acts of the Apostles) and a close companion of Paul; is going to be boring, and somehow not real? Perhaps my answer shows up a trap for all of us. We are so familiar with the stories they have lost meaning. We think we know all about them, we don’t realise how our ideas have been shaped by the teaching we have received over the years. Familiarity breeds contempt. We have lost sight of the idea that these were real people with real lives because it was so long ago and they and their lives are both so familiar and so strange to us. They have become like characters in fairy stories or myths and legends. Plus, we don’t know too much about the Twelve and those who knew them. They kept their own personalities and affairs firmly subordinated to the task of talking about Jesus. Apart from their involvement with Jesus they were not important enough to be much recorded in other history. So I thought it would be difficult. We know very little about Luke. He was not one of the Twelve, other early writings do not refer to him much and we do not know how he fell in with the early Christians. Tradition has it he never married.

Something I didn’t know is that he is credited with being the first Christian icon painter. In particular icons of Mary and the infant Jesus. What we know, including his name, is gleaned from internal references in Acts and Paul’s letters with the assumption that the Luke referred to there is the person who wrote the Gospel and Acts. “Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.” Letter of Paul to the Colossians 4:14 The internal evidence of the writings leads some scholars to believe he was not a Jew and therefore the only non-Jewish New Testament author. One source said he was a Greco-Syrian, another a Roman. He definitely had a fluent grasp of the Greek language. Scholars vary in their opinion as to whether Luke’s Gospel and Acts were written by the same person or even by a companion of Paul. This site outlines some of the arguments for and against as does Wikipedia, but there is no other contender, if not Luke then the author is unknown. Wikipediasuggests he was one of the seventy two (Luke 10:1-24). In Acts he makes it clear when he is personally part of the narrative, and in the Gospel that he is recording events he did not witness. I would have thought if he was one of the seventy two he would have mentioned it. Tradition has it he died at the age of 84 in Boeotia (in Greece).

Was he an historian or a hagiographer? “Luke makes many casual references throughout his writings (especially in Acts) to local customs and practices, often with demonstrable and noteworthy precision. …(examples given)…….shows either that (1) he wrote fairly close to the events he described, or (2) he was describing persons and events on which he had good information, or (3) he was an expert historical novelist, with an ear for the authentic-sounding detail.” from this site which makes the case for Lukes authenticity as someone writing very close to the time of the events described. Acts is an account of the early church and its characters but I have just realised, writing this that Luke makes little or no personal comment about any of them. He makes no comment on his own opinions of anyone’s, including Paul’s, character or actions, although he witnessed them and knew Paul and others well. The closest he gets is when he describes Barnabas as ‘a good man, fully of the Holy Spirit and faith’ Acts 11:24, Later, Barnabas and Paul quarrel but all Luke says is ‘They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company.’ Acts 15: 39. Paul was not the easiest person to be around. When we considered Barnabas we saw how Paul fell out with nearly everyone. Yet Luke stayed with him. “Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me.” 2 Timothy 4:9-11.

There is almost nothing of Luke in either the Gospel or Acts. Whatever his motive in writing it was not his own glorification. And yet, how important he must have been in Paul’s missionary journey’s and in the early church. After all it was his Gospel that was included in the authorised accounts. But I have always had a problem with the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Acts 5. Did this really happen? Did God really kill them both on the spot, or was there some other explanation? If it was God, what does it tell us about Jesus/God? Rabbi Lionel Blue had the same problems with this story and it was a part of his decision to remain in his Jewish faith despite his Christian spiritual experience. “The extremism’ (of the New Testament) was also a turn off…..You could either regard it as overblown religious rhetoric, in which case it could mean anything, or politely ignore it.” ‘My Affair with Christianity’ Lionel Blue. Interestingly God didn’t seem to mind and continued to be friends with Lionel!

I love Luke’s introduction to his account of the life of Jesus. “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” It all sounds very reassuringly sensible doesn’t it? Perhaps Theophilus is puzzled and needs confirmation of the truth of what he is being told by someone he trusts to be of sound mind and judgement. A person of standing in the community. “An orderly account”, carefully researched, based on eye witness evidence, just what we need. There were a multitude of fantastical rumours and stories flying around which Theophilus might have heard or read about. He didn’t have access to the complete final canon of the Old and New Testaments, in various translations and paraphrases. It was still an incomplete and largely oral tradition. Luke then launches into an unbelievable story of a visit by an angel to an obscure Jewish priest and a miraculous birth to his even more obscure elderly wife. Followed by an even more improbable story of another angel visitation to a young virgin who then gives birth without human sexual intercourse with her fiancé and husband. Luke is a doctor. An educated person. These are not important people. Not the professional or officer classes. Not even B list celebs. Just very ordinary respectable working people like you and me. Well, me anyway. You may be more important than me, it’s not hard. Anyway, hardly pausing for breath we have a few more extraordinary events, followed by the birth of a child to the young virgin girl in a stable, attended by shepherds, an angel messenger, and a large host of angels praising God. It goes on and on like this. It’s a real page turner. The most prosaic, sane prose style, worthy of an old fashioned English GP (I like to think of him having a calm, wise, confidence inspiring bedside manner), describing frankly unbelievable events of the life, death, and resurrection of the man Jesus. Most of them involving very ordinary people. So unbelievable that even many Christians have found all sorts of reasons for not believing Luke really meant a lot of it, factually I mean. Or that he was not really a proper historian, more a hagiographer. See the sites linked to earlier. Rabbi Blue continues ‘many years later I met biblical scholars who tried to explain the Gospels in a different way. Things weren’t what they seemed and you needed a lot of scholarship to discover what they were really trying  to say. I’d heard the same story from Jewish scholars trying to justify every nook in the Old Testament too.’ I don’t believe that the Gospels were written only for very scholarly people to interpret and explain to us. Jesus did not spend his time preaching only to academics, although often his preaching was hard to understand.

Did Luke have his tongue firmly in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye when he wrote that plain no-nonsense, rather academic and formal introduction? And was that because he knew Theophilus was hoping for a more rational account, and wasn’t going to get it, or because he knew that this was not a factual record in the sense that we understand the terms ‘careful investigation’. Luke presents a genealogy for Jesus showing through his father Joseph he was descended from David, Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Noah and finally Adam, ‘the son of God’ (my bold). But he qualifies this by saying that ‘He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph’ Luke 3:23). He finishes with Jesus resurrection after dying a shameful criminal’s death on a cross. Deserted by nearly everyone. Finally Jesus ascends into heaven and his disciples worship him. “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and  was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” I wonder what Theophilus made of it?


Later on Luke writes to Theophilus again. The book of Acts, or ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. He goes straight into a more detailed account of the events surrounding the ascension of Jesus into heaven. No respite from the miraculous. And no reassuring introduction. Just reminding Theophilus of the reason for Luke continuing the story of the disciples, the emergence of the church, and of course the conversion and ministry of Saul or Paul of Tarsus. We don’t know who Theophilus was. In Greek it means ‘friend of God’. Theophilus could be a name of a person. Or it could be an honorary title, meaning everyone who reads the book. And one tradition has it that it was used in that latter sense by Luke. Perhaps in that strange way the Bible has of being both written at and about an historical moment in time and also for eternity; it is both. Luke wrote to someone called Theophilus and it turns out is also writing across the centuries to me, his dear friend of God. He has carefully investigated everything for me. No wonder it gives that sense of being addressed personally when I read the first verses of Luke.


And what about you most excellent friend of God,

what do you make of it?


Luke’s Gospel

Acts of the Apostles

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