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In order to hear the distinctive witness of Luke-Acts as a unitary literary composition, it is necessary to gain a firm sense of how it is put together and how its form helps shape its meaning. The best preparation for following the argument of this book is a repeated reading of Luke-Acts in its entirety and in sequence—the way Luke wrote it to be read (see Luke 1:3)—before entering into my examination of specific passages and themes.
This first chapter can serve as a companion for such preliminary reading. It briefly sketches what biblical scholar H. J. Cadbury memorably called "the making of Luke-Acts." The point of this presentation is not to develop hypotheses about Luke's possible sources, but to use synoptic comparison—that is, analyze Luke over against Mark and Matthew—as a way of sharpening our perception of how Luke tells his story. I begin with the most rudimentary sort of material analysis, showing what pieces Luke includes and how he fits them together. I move then to a stylistic analysis, in order to alert readers to the implications of Luke's ability to speak in several dictions. I then consider the question of the genre of the two-volume work and what it suggests about Luke's purposes, before turning finally to one of the ways in which Luke provides specific structural shape to his narrative.
The most obvious source that Luke uses for the first part of his story is the Gospel of Mark. Like Matthew, he uses the basic Markan plot line, extending from the baptism of Jesus by John to the burial and empty tomb. Luke therefore presents Jesus' ministry in the same basic sequence that we find in Mark: he begins in Galilee, travels to Judea, and experiences his passion and death in Jerusalem. We do not know how a copy of Mark reached Luke. But it is clear that he treated Mark with considerable respect; where he follows Mark, he follows him more closely than does Matthew. Because Mark is extant, present-day readers can observe the way that Luke uses this source. More than that, we can compare Luke's usage to that of Matthew, and this added dimension of comparison sharpens our perception of Luke's particular literary and religious interests. If Mark were not extant, however, it is also the case that we could not reconstruct his source with precision. Luke uses his source respectfully but camouflages it thoroughly through his editing. He also alters Mark's account through subtraction and addition of material.
Luke's most impressive subtraction is found in his "great omission" of the material that is found inMark 6:45–8:26. Although it has sometimes been suggested that Luke may have used a copy of Mark lacking that section, the more likely explanation is that Luke deliberately excluded it because of a concern for the contents. Three aspects of this part of Mark may have caused Luke concern: (1) it contains doublets (such as the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-9) in addition to the feeding of the five thousand (6:34-44) and Luke tends to avoid such obvious repetition; (2) it tells two stories (the healing of the deaf man in 7:31-37 and the blind man in 8:22-26) in which Jesus displays techniques that might be associated with magic, and Luke wants to draw a clear distinction between the powerful deeds done by Jesus and his followers and magic; (3) it portrays Jesus' disciples in strongly negative terms (as in 7:17-19; 8:14-21), while Luke's presentation of them tends to be more positive.
Like Matthew, though in a distinctive fashion, Luke extends Mark's story by adding narrative material at the beginning and end of the Gospel account. By their construction of an infancy narrative, both Matthew and Luke connect the story of Jesus more explicitly to the story of Israel. Matthew does this through a genealogy and a series of scenes with Joseph as hero, showing how the events of Jesus' birth, escape to Egypt, and return to Nazareth all were "in fulfillment" of specific prophetic texts. Luke connects Jesus to Israel in a more complex fashion, with a series of scenes that juxtapose John (and his family) and Jesus (with his family), using canticles recited by characters to provide the interpretation of events as the continuation of God's loving care towards his people.
By telling of explicit resurrection appearances, the two evangelists also connect the story of Jesus to the life of the church. In Matthew, the flight of the women from the empty tomb finds its term in an encounter with the risen Lord, and Matthew's final scene has Jesus commanding the eleven to make disciples of all nations, "teaching them all that I have commanded you" (Matt 28:20). Luke has a more elaborate set of appearance accounts, together with reports of other sightings of the Lord. The risen Jesus comes among his followers and interprets Scripture with reference to his suffering and death (Luke 24:25, 44) and promises them a powerful gift of the spirit (24:47-49). He concludes the narrative with a short account of Jesus' departure from his followers into heaven (24:51).
Matthew and Luke both insert substantial amounts of discourse material — passages that provide explicit sayings of Jesus — within the Markan story line. They do this, however, in distinctive ways. Matthew constructs discrete "sermons" by Jesus (in chs. 5–7, 10, 13, 18, 23–25) that interrupt the narrative flow and enhance the portrayal of Jesus as the teacher of the church. The amount of this material in Matthew can be appreciated when we realize that the contrast between sixteen chapters in Mark and twenty-eight chapters in Matthew is only part of the story: Matthew systematically reduces the number of words used to tell the stories he shares with Mark. This narrative reduction increases the perception of Matthew's Gospel as dominated by the speeches of Jesus. Luke also inserts large amount of discourse material into the story of Jesus. Much of this discourse material is found also in Matthew and is conventionally designated as "Q" material (from the German word "Quelle," or "source"). But a substantial amount of discourse — including the most distinctive and beloved of Jesus' parables—is found only in Luke (and is designated as L material).
Luke follows a different approach to the inclusion of this mass of material than does Matthew. He does not construct formal and internally-organized discourses. Instead, he inserts Jesus' sayings into biographically more plausible situations: Jesus speaks as he walks, as he performs deeds, as he eats with others. There was not room for all Luke's additional material within Mark's framework, however, so Luke fits it into the story by expanding the hints of Jesus' travelling from Galilee to Jerusalem inMark 10:17, 32, 46, into a full-fledged and formal journey, extending from Luke 9:51 to 19:44. This ten-chapter journey narrative plays an important role in Luke's narrative. It serves to portray both the character and destiny of Jesus, as well as his distinctive mode of teaching to disciples, calls of discipleship to the crowds, and parables of rejection of those who reject his message.
Luke's most dramatic narrative extension is found in a complete second volume that picks up the story where the Gospel left off and continues with an account of the birth of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 1–7), its expansion through Samaria and Judea (8–10), and its spread across the Mediterranean (11–28), all this enacting the prediction of the risen Lord in Acts 1:8, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Although many efforts have been made to find specific sources that Luke might have used for this portion of his composition, none have been successful. The narrative in Acts certainly made use of materials available to the author—whether small or large, oral or written — but so skillful is Luke in rewriting such materials (as we can see in the case of Mark) — that everything appears to come directly from him.
Two implications of Luke's narrative continuation can be noted at once. The first is literary: by continuing the story of Jesus into the story of the apostles, Luke provides the first authoritative interpretation of the Gospel narrative. Our interpretation of Luke's Gospel, consequently, requires of us not only attention to the way in which Luke maintains or alters his Markan source, not only attention to the diverse way in which Luke treats Mark in contrast to Matthew, but above all the way in which his second volume drops or develops the themes of the Gospel. This is especially the case because Luke has more literary freedom in the second volume than in the first volume, since, so far as we know, he is the first one to extend the story of Jesus in this fashion and was therefore less constrained by a respect for earlier sources.
The second implication is theological: Luke writes his narrative concerning the church as the continuation of the story of Jesus. He need not have fashioned the account at all — no one had before him — and if he wrote it, he could have shaped it in a variety of ways. His composition reflects a deliberate literary and theological choice. And he has so convincingly connected his account of the apostles to that of Jesus that many readers are convinced that this is the way things happened, indeed had to have happened. A fuller appreciation of his literary and theological choice is developed throughout the book, but it must be noted at once as something startlingly new in nascent Christian literature.
Finally, Luke explicitly connects the two parts of his story—for it is a single story — by means of a prologue to each volume. The very short prologue to Acts (1:1-3) recalls to the intended reader, Theophilus (in all likelihood, Luke's literary patron), the basic elements of the first volume. The longer prologue to the Gospel (Luke 1:1-4), also addressed to Theophilus, actually serves as an introduction to the composition as a whole. The two prologues together make Luke's literary intentions absolutely clear: he wants the two volumes to be read in sequence as parts of a single story.
When Luke follows a source, he treats it with considerable respect. His version of the healing of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8:26-39), derived from Mark 5:1-20, indicates the marked degree to which he adheres to his source, and the characteristic elements he chooses to alter. The passage is particularly instructive because we can contrast Luke's delicate touch with Matthew's more radical redaction. Matthew 8:28-34 is visibly shorter. The evangelist has removed all incidental detail dealing with the condition of the demoniac and his destiny. Rather than a single man with many demons, Matthew has Jesus encounter two demoniacs. Matthew focuses attention not on them but solely on the power of Jesus, so that the exorcism becomes another demonstration of Jesus' power rather than, as in Mark and Luke, a poignant story that draws the reader into a contemplation of the one whom Jesus liberates.
Luke's respect for his source does not mean that he does not seek to improve Mark's version stylistically. He corrects what he regards as inaccuracies: Mark's "sea" becomes for the more cosmopolitan Luke a "lake" (8:22). He seeks clarity, making sure the reader understands that Jesus reaches shore before he steps from the boat (8:27) and that after the exorcism the man was no longer a "demoniac" but "the man from whom demons had come out" (8:38). He also is concerned for consecutiveness: Mark has people come from a city without establishing that the man lived in the tombs outside a city; Luke establishes the location at the beginning of his account (8:27).
Luke's own stylistic tendencies are more evident in passages for which he has no source. In some parts of his narrative—most of all in the infancy account—Luke clearly imitates the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible carried out ca. 250 B.C.E. The scenes of annunciation and birth, as well as the several canticles spoken by the characters, resonate with septuagintal diction and follow the patterns of biblical prototypes: the annunciation to Mary is a pastiche of biblical annunciation accounts and prophetic language; Mary's Magnificat echoes Hannah's triumphant song. So dense is Luke's biblical diction in his first two chapters that they can accurately be described as a kind of haggadic midrash based on the Septuagint.
It is not only in the infancy accounts that we find biblical imitation or septuagintal language. Luke has shaped the sequence of stories in 7:1-17 to resemble the respective healing stories of Elisha and Elijah (see 2 Kgs 5:1-15; 1 Kgs 17:17-24). The second report of Jesus' ascension in Acts 1:9-11 recalls the ascent of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 2:9-12). The language used for the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 resonates with the account of the punishment of Achan in Joshua 7:10-26. Stephen's lengthy speech in Acts 7:2-50 uses the specific diction of the Septuagint even as it provides a fresh structure to the biblical story.
Luke is equally adept, however, at appropriating the rhetorical devices of Hellenistic literature. The prologue to the entire composition (Luke 1:1-4) is written in a style and form that identify the author as a writer familiar with Greco-Roman conventions. Luke writes speeches for his characters in the manner of Hellenistic historians and composes concise summaries that provide a sense of amplitude to the sparse details he has to relate. Paul's defense speeches in the last part of Acts follow precisely the form prescribed for forensic rhetoric. Especially in Acts, Luke's narrative makes use of the full repertoire of Greco-Roman romances, with trials, prison escapes, sea voyages, storms at sea, and shipwrecks.
In short, Luke shows himself to be a writer of unusual stylistic range, fully capable of producing scenes and speeches according to the ancient rhetorical ideal of prosopopoiia, or writing in character, speaking as if another person. When Paul addresses the synagogue audience in Acts 13, Luke makes him sound just like Peter when he preaches to Jews in Jerusalem, but when in Acts 17 Paul addresses a crowd including Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Athens, Luke makes him sound like a wandering Greco-Roman philosopher, and when Paul addresses the elders of the city of Ephesus in Acts 20, Luke makes him sound every bit the pastor of the flock. The opening prologue, together with such stylistic versatility, suggests that Luke was, among early Christian writers, the most literarily self-conscious and deliberate, and that in his composition, we see Christianity's deliberate entry into the Greco-Roman world as a form of Judaism.
There is every reason to think that Luke's two-volume work, which according to conventions would be called simply To Theophilus, constituted the author's version of "the good news." In response to the question, "What is Luke's Gospel?" then, our literary analysis suggests that the correct answer is "the two volumes called Luke-Acts." It is not inappropriate, however, to inquire into the specific genre within which the two volumes together would fit, according to the standards of antiquity. If Luke is literarily self-conscious and deliberate, then how did he craft his work in order to create a specific impression and response among readers? Asking about the genre of a literary work is asking about authorial intentionality and reader expectation. Determining genre does not by any means exhaust the process of interpretation, but it sets interpretation within a realistic framework. To some extent, genre analysis is a process of elimination. Luke-Acts is clearly not epic or lyric poetry, nor is it gnomic wisdom instruction. It is a story. We begin, then, by seeking to place Luke-Acts among types of ancient narrative.
Excerpted from PROPHETIC JESUS, PROPHETIC CHURCH by Luke Timothy Johnson Copyright © 2011 by Luke Timothy Johnson. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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