Doctor Luke, enter stage left

Luke, famous for writing both the Third Gospel and the Book of Acts, addressed his works to Theophilus. He is unambiguous in asserting that others, not Luke himself, were eyewitnesses of the events he describes:

“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”

Luke 1:1-3

This is important for two reasons:

  1. In legal terms, his account is ‘hearsay’ evidence. This means it has evidential value and weight, but not to the same extent as a first hand eye-witness;
  2. The candid admission that he is not an eye-witness strengthens Luke’s credibility as an author; his claim to have sourced his information from others who were direct witnesses ought to be considered trustworthy.

Although neither the Third Gospel nor the book of the Acts of the Apostles mention Luke’s name as author, we have significant evidence linking Luke to this Gospel. The Bodmer Papyrus P75, dated between 175-225AD, attributes these writings as “The Gospel according to Luke”.

An introduction at the start of the Third Gospel, referred to as the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, written by the late 2nd century, has this to say about the author:

“Indeed Luke was an Antiochene Syrian, a doctor by profession, a disciple of the apostles: later however he followed Paul until his martyrdom, serving the Lord blamelessly. He never had a wife, he never fathered children, and died at the age of eighty-four, full of the Holy Spirit, in Boetia.”

A third source known as the Muratorian Fragment, lists the writings of the New Testament, and is also dated around 170AD:

“The third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, the well-known physician Luke wrote in his own name in order after the ascension of Christ, and when Paul had associated him with himself as one studious of right. Nor did he himself see the Lord in the flesh; and he, according as he was able to accomplish it, began his narrative with the nativity of John.”

In these three texts we see the clear understanding that Luke was the author of the Third Gospel is evidenced within 100 years or so of its composition. Many of the facts asserted above can also be established through the internal evidence of the New Testament scriptures concerning an individual called Luke:

This same exercise, linking the external tradition concerning Luke with the internal writings of Paul, was undertaken by Irenaeus, who also wrote around 180AD:

“…Luke, who always preached in company with Paul, and is called by him “the beloved” and with him performed the work of an evangelist, and was entrusted to hand down to us a Gospel, learned nothing different from him, as has been pointed out from his words…”

Paul confirms that Luke was a Greek speaking Gentile, rather than a Jew, in writing to the Colossians and commenting that Luke was a co-worker with him but not one of the “men of the circumcision”.

In the Book of Acts we have a description of how the message of the early church was being shared with “no one except Jews”. The author then explains how “some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also”, which may well be a comment based on his own personal knowledge as a Gentile hearing the message for the first time in Antioch.

Moreover, when the narrative in the Book of Acts shifts focus to Antioch, the author describes how Barnabus came to rather than went to Antioch. Instead of the activity being centred on the principal character, Barnabus, as it had done previously, the author switches perspective, most likely indicating his own position in Antioch at the time that Barnabus arrived.

Earlier, in Acts 6:5, when a list of seven deacons is given, Nicolaus is noted as being a convert from Antioch — a curious detail to include given that the text is silent on the background of the rest of the men. This again is a strong indication that Luke as an author appears to have particular insight into activity in the city of Antioch, Syria, because this was his home town.

So Luke, the author of the Gospel named after him, was an Antiochene Syrian. What does that matter for our purposes?