The Gospel According to Luke - Introduction
The Third Gospel, traditionally called the Gospel according to Luke, is a unique literary and theological contribution to the story of Jesus Christ. An elegantly crafted account of Jesus’ life and teaching shows him to be “the Lord,” God's son who is the universal savior of humanity. Jesus inaugurates a mission to all humankind as the kingdom of God draws near to the ordinary lives of people in Jesus’ person and work. Luke's version of Jesus’ story presents Jesus’ coming among humanity—in birth, life, ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection—as the fulfillment of God's promises of salvation, which brings peace and well‐being in a definitive way. This saving event inaugurated the final stage of God's dealings with humanity in anticipation of the “Last Day,” “the Day of the Lord.” Jesus himself and, in turn, his disciples call people to true repentance, which means a new relationship to God and to other human beings in a manner of life that embodies God's will for human existence.
In telling this story, Luke demonstrates an ability to write in different literary styles. The initial four verses of the book are a single Greek sentence that forms a highly stylized introductory statement typically found in ancient historical writings. The language is formal and refined in a fashion that would have been familiar to well‐educated citizens of the Roman empire in the first century CE. After this distinctive preface, however, the narrative shifts into a style of Greek reminiscent of the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). (In the annotations, places where Luke's quotations from the scriptures follow the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew are marked with the standard abbreviation for the Septuagint, LXX.) This Semitic‐influenced form of Greek permeates the stories about the birth and childhood of Jesus. The Septuagint‐like style lightens into a more normal (and more typically secular) form of first‐century Greek (called “koine”) in the narrative that comprises the remainder of the Gospel. As situations shift in the story, the language used varies appropriately to suit the locale and characters in the narrative. Luke's appreciation of stylistic variation in narrative communication is apparent from his skilled employment of this technique. Indeed, it seems that the Gospel captures and communicates the universal significance of its story of God's salvation in and through Jesus Christ in the variety of styles that Luke uses to tell the story. Readers from different religious, ethnic, and social backgrounds would find one level or another of the overall account familiar and, thereby, would find a point of identity and entry into the story of Jesus Christ.
The oldest traditions of the Christian church identify Luke, a physician who was a traveling companion and coworker with Paul (Col 4.14; Philem 1.24 ), as the author of the Gospel and its sequel, The Acts of the Apostles. At times the tradition further identifies Luke as a Syrian from Antioch, but practically nothing else is remembered of the writer of the Third Gospel. The earliest of these traditions about the author are from the late second century, and scholarly analysis of the Gospel and Acts raises critical questions about the accuracy of the attribution of the writings to the Luke who was Paul's associate. The strongest argument in favor of identifying Luke the physician as the author of the Gospel and Acts is the relative obscurity of this figure in early Christianity. Yet, even defenders of the traditional identity of Luke recognize difficulties with that connection. Though Luke's familiarity with Judaism is extensive, he seems to have more book‐knowledge than practical experience of its particular rituals and beliefs. Similarly, when Luke provides details about Palestinian locations and practices they exhibit a tendency toward setting the story in an urban environment rather than the predominantly non‐urban village culture that Jesus would have known. Above all, Luke never mentions in Acts that Paul wrote letters nor does he use theological themes from the letters attributed to the apostle. Luke's Gospel is dependent on other earlier writings, especially the Gospel according to Mark. That Luke knew and used still other materials, both oral and written, in composing this Gospel is certain, if not demonstrable. In fact, Luke shares a body of material (probably written in form) with the author of the Gospel according to Matthew that accounts for approximately one‐fifth of the overall Gospel story. Scholars designate this common material as “Q” (German “Quelle,” “source”). Whether Luke had further written sources for episodes and teaching found only in his Gospel such as the account of Jesus’ birth, childhood, certain parables, and some materials peculiar to Luke's account of Jesus’ passion and resurrection is debated though possible. Luke's concern with sources—with acknowledging and using them profitably—is clear from his prologue to the Gospel ( 1.1–4 ). (See further pp. 4–5 NT.)
The time and place of the writing of this Gospel are uncertain. Tradition identifies Luke's account with both Antioch and Rome (where Acts comes to its end), but no firm tradition specifies a precise time and place of composition. Any major urban center in the Greek‐speaking areas of the Roman empire would be a suitable location for such a document to be written and read. As for its date, all one can say with certainty is that Luke wrote this account after Mark composed his Gospel. The typical suggestion that Luke wrote around 85 CE is plausible, though the Gospel could have been completed five to fifteen years earlier or even five to ten years later.
In broad strokes, Luke tells the same basic story that one reads in the other canonical Gospels: Jesus appears, ministers in Galilee, and moves to Judea and Jerusalem where he encounters deadly hostility that leads to his suffering, death, and resurrection. Yet, Luke's story of Jesus has logic and content that distinguish it among the four Gospels. The advent of Jesus among pious Jews, who observed ancestral traditions, highlights the continuity of Jesus’ story with the history of Israel and presents it as the fulfillment of his people's hopes. In Luke's remembrance of Jesus one finds an emphasis on God's compassion as Jesus reaches out to live and work among the marginal members of his society. Women, the less‐than‐pious, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and even noble Pharisees are present and interact with Jesus more prominently in this account than in any other. As stated in Acts, “Jesus of Nazareth … went about doing good … for God was with him” (Acts 10.38 ). Both the coming of Jesus and his ministry of compassion are the direct results of God's anointing Jesus with the power of the Holy Spirit. Such an outpouring of the Spirit was neither unprecedented nor singular, however. The same Spirit of God that was active in the history of Israel is clearly present in the infancy stories concerning John the Baptist and Jesus with which the Gospel begins, and later reappears in Acts as the church spreads the message of salvation to all the peoples of the known world.
Luke has structured the narrative in a deliberate and logical way. A prologue ( 1.1–4 ) prepares readers for the significance of the story that follows. The infancy and childhood of Jesus is told in a series of scenes that alternate with an account of the origins of John the Baptist so that readers understand the role of both these figures in God's bringing salvation to all humanity, though Jesus is clearly presented as superior to the Baptist in this arrangement ( 1.5–2.52 ). As an adult Jesus prepares for his ministry through an encounter with John (then, readers learn Jesus’ genealogy), and he undergoes temptations by the devil ( 3.1–4.13 ); Jesus ministers in Galilee, provoking controversy, calling disciples, preaching, working miracles, teaching, commissioning the initial ministry of his followers, and dealing compassionately with the masses of people ( 4.14–9.50 ). Jesus and his followers journey to Jerusalem and he ministers along the way ( 9.51–19.27 ). Jesus enters Jerusalem, working in the Temple area and teaching about the future ( 19.28–21.38 ). Jesus directs the Last Supper, suffers, dies, and is buried ( 22.1–23.56 ), and Jesus’ empty tomb is found before he appears to the disciples and then ascends to heaven ( 24.1–53 ).
The carefully crafted beginning of Luke's narrative contains anticipations of the story that follows and declarations that highlight the significance of the whole story. The narrative unfolds smoothly. Initial incidents are told in such a way that they anticipate later developments in the narrative. Readers who become actively involved with Luke's account will find hints and signals that provoke questions and expectations that are answered after one has read the whole story. In general, wondering about the nature of salvation, the character of the kingdom of God, the reality of repentance, and the person and work of Jesus as the Lord—God's messiah, son, and savior—will lead readers to ask about the deeper significance of the story that Luke is telling. Luke's primary concern is to inform the reader who Jesus of Nazareth was—and now, who he is as the suffering, crucified savior and the risen, exalted Lord. Furthermore, in the wake of Luke's purposeful presentation of the person and work of Jesus Christ, there is another dimension of the story that preserves and communicates Jesus’ teaching about what it means to be his follower. Discipleship is a secondary theme that is closely related to the primary theme of Jesus’ identity and significance. Discipleship, however, is sometimes a difficult dimension of the story for contemporary readers to grasp, for discipleship is a way of life as a member of the repentant and saved people of God. For Luke, one is not a disciple alone, but one finds profound personal significance in becoming one of the people of God who live as citizens of God's kingdom in a manner consistent with God's intentions for the life of all humanity as brought and taught, shown and known in Jesus Christ, God's son, the universal savior of humankind.