Introduction to The Gospel According to Luke

by John T. Quinn

By the middle of the second century CE, four accounts, written in Greek, of the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth were widely regarded by Christians as especially significant -- we know them today as the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (notice, however, that none of these Gospels identifies its author). There are inevitable differences of emphasis in each; and there are also many contradictions of fact between them. Some second-century Christians tried to adopt only one of the written Gospels as authoritative; others tried to smooth out ("harmonize" is the technical term) the differences. But the vast majority of Christians preferred to retain all four. Apparently, they felt that the disagreements between the Gospels was not as important as the bigger picture which emerged from studying the four together.

Modern biblical scholars debate over the dates and order in which the Gospels were written. What few dispute is that all were written many years after the death of Jesus. The earliest converts to Christianity were able to hear about Jesus from eyewitnesses or from those who themselves had been taught the faith by eyewitnesses Only after these proclaimers of the faith began to die out was it thought important to record in writing their witness to the Good News of Christianity. The Gospel according to Mark is generally regarded as the earliest written Gospel -- but even so, it probably cannot be dated earlier than 70 CE, that is, more than forty years after the Crucifixion/Resurrection. The last of the Gospels to have been written seems to be Luke. No Christian author mentioned or quoted Luke before ca. 140 CE, whereas the other three are well-attested by 110. More support for a relatively late date for Luke comes from its ambitious literary project and developed theology. It is for these traits that, since time constrains us from reading all four Gospels, we will be reading Luke in this course.

The Gospel according to Luke does not stand alone in the corpus of the New Testament. The Acts of the Apostles claims to be the second volume of this Gospel, and matters of language (as well as theology) confirm this. Luke focuses on the career of Jesus, while Acts details the development of the Christian community after the resurrected Jesus left this earth. But both volumes are linked by concern for shared themes: the Kingdom of God and the indispensable role of the Holy Spirit. In Luke 4.43, Jesus begins to travel beyond his home territory because he feels that his mission is to proclaim the Kingdom of God; at the beginning of Acts (1.3), the disciples are instructed for forty days about the Kingdom by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. And when this Spirit comes upon the disciples (Acts 2.1-4), they begin their own evangelization of the world, in continuity with Jesus' own work. Indeed, the Holy Spirit plays an important role at the very start of Jesus' earthly existence (Luke 1.35), at his first entry into the Temple of Jerusalem (2.25), and at other crucial times during his ministry.

Luke and Acts are addressed to a man whose title suggests that he was a Roman official; his name, too, is significant, for it means "Lover of God." However, the writings are meant for a wider audience than just Theophilus. It was the custom of the Greek and Roman historians of Luke's era to begin their works with a preface addressed to a single person. Such prefaces also advanced a twofold reason for writing history: that important lessons would be learned, and that somehow this particular book would be an improvement over all others written on the same topic. The author of Luke claims precisely these things in his preface to Theophilus.

Luke is not only concerned with the literary conventions of the Greco-Roman world. The opening chapters demonstrate Luke's familiarity with the form and phrasing of Jewish prayer, as seen in the three "canticles" (1.46; 1.68; 2.29) which are heavily indebted to prayers recorded in the Old Testament. Thus, the first chapters of Luke set the stage for the rest of the Gospel: this is a work aimed at people who are part of Greco-Roman civilization, but who are expected to gain, if they do not already have, a deep appreciation of the Jewish culture from which Christianity developed. In fact, Luke celebrates various continuities, including the connection between Christianity and Judaism, and the compatibility of Christianity with the larger world of the Roman Empire (symbolized, for example, by the declaration of Jesus' innocence by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate). Both continuities needed to be affirmed in Luke's day, for Christianity was being persecuted by the Romans as a threat to their way of life; the legal grounds that the Romans employed was that Christianity was a new, unsanctioned cult, and not part of the historic fabric of religions (as Judaism was).

We may wonder who, in the end, was right -- the persecutors or Luke. After all, Luke itself underscores that the coming of the Kingdom of God through the Holy Spirit requires repentance by Jews as well as Gentiles. And this turning of one's whole being to God is paralleled by another turning: God turns to the world and re-orders it along the radical lines proclaimed by Mary in the first of the "canticles."

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