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CORNERSTONE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY The Gospel of Luke Acts
By Allison A. Trites William J. Larkin
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2006
Allison A. Trites
All right reserved.
The Gospel of
ALLISON A. TRITES
The Gospel of Luke, which has been described as "the most beautiful book in the
world," is the first part of a two-volume work devoted to the life of Jesus and the
opening years of the Christian church. In Luke's Gospel, we are introduced to "everything
Jesus began to do and teach" prior to his ascension (described in 24: 50-51;
Acts 1:6-11). In the second volume, the book of Acts, Luke picks up the story of the
years following the Ascension, showing the growth of the Christian movement and
noting the stages of its expansion from Jerusalem to Rome. These two books, when
taken together, constitute about 27% of the New Testament. Thus, Luke's perspective
on the life of Jesus and the early Christian movement is vitally important if one
is to gain a good grasp of the overall message of the New Testament. Our attention
will be devoted primarily to Luke's Gospel, although similarities and points of contact
with the book of Acts will be noted where appropriate.
Though Luke's Gospel doesn't name its author, most scholars today acknowledge
Luke asthe author of both the third Gospel and the book of Acts. Luke was certainly
not the most prominent person in the early church, so it is difficult to believe that
his name would be attached to the Gospel unless he were actually the author. There
is a strong and persistent tradition in the early church that Luke wrote the third Gospel
and the book of Acts. This view receives support from the Muratorian Fragment
(which reflects the view of the church in Rome c. AD 170-190); from Irenaeus,
bishop of Lyons (c. 185); and later, from the influential church leaders Eusebius
(d. 339) and Jerome (d. 420). This traditional view was the general consensus until
the rise of modern critical biblical scholarship in the last two hundred years and indeed
has continued to be widely held to the present day. Most scholars still attribute
both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts to Luke, the beloved physician and
traveling companion of the apostle Paul (Harrington 1968:13).
The "Gospel according to Luke" is the title given at the close of this Gospel in
P75, the oldest surviving Greek manuscript that contains nearly all of Luke (dated
about AD 175-225), but this tradition is not certain and has been attacked in
modern times. However, two features from the internal evidence of Luke-Acts must
be carefully noted. First, the author does not present himself as an eyewitness
of most of the events in the two-volume work, particularly those related to the life
and ministry of Jesus (1:1-2), relying instead on his own study of the traditions
taken from eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (1:2-4). Second, he appears to
view himself as a companion of Paul in the "we" sections of Acts (Acts 16:10-17;
20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). This latter feature reduces the search for possible
Some critics view the "we" sections simply as a literary device designed to create
the effect or impression of an eyewitness (Haenchen, Pervo). The picture of Paul
in Acts is also contrasted with the self-portrait drawn in the Pauline epistles, both in
terms of its historical accuracy and its theological characteristics. Such arguments
have led a few writers to deny that the author of the third Gospel was a companion
of Paul (Vielhauer, Robbins). However, the connection of Luke as a traveling companion
of Paul has been ably defended by Fitzmyer, who has argued that a creative
literary device does not offer an adequate explanation of the appearance and disappearance
of the "we" sections in such a capricious manner (Fitzmyer 1989:16-22).
In addition, some "sailing" references lack the "we" terminology, though they
would be suitable insertions if the aim were just to increase the impression of vividness
(e.g., Acts 13:4, 13; 14:26; 17:14; 18:18, 21).
In fact, a strong case has been made that the portrait of Paul in his epistles should
be seen as compatible with that presented in Acts (Bruce 1962:24-27). According to
the internal evidence of Luke-Acts, it is reasonable to conclude that the author was
personally acquainted with Paul as a traveling companion and was most probably a
second-generation Christian. He was committed to the task of communicating the
Good News in an accurate and responsible manner.
His prologue is unique among the Gospels and displays an elevated literary style
that is clearly reminiscent of the classical historians of the ancient world like
Thucydides, Polybius, and Herodotus (Talbert 1989:7-11; Winter and Clarke
1993:1-29). However, the most illuminating parallels to the prologue are probably
the prefaces of Josephus in his two-volume work Against Apion, discussed in the
notes on 1:1-4. To sum up, Luke stacks up well against his contemporaries as a
responsible historian of Christian origins.
For the modern reader of Luke's Gospel, it is interesting and significant that
there are three helpful references to Luke in the New Testament. He is mentioned
in Philemon when Paul sends greetings to Philemon from Epaphras, a fellow prisoner,
and then adds similar greetings from Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke,
who are described appreciatively as "co-workers" (Phlm 1:24). The second reference
is found in Colossians, where greetings are given from a group including
Epaphras, Luke, and Demas (Col 4:10-14). There, Luke is explicitly described as
"the beloved physician" (Col 4:14, KJV) and is listed with Christian colleagues
who were Gentiles (the Jewish believers are listed in Col 4:11), making it probable
that he, too, was a Gentile. The third reference to Luke appears in 2 Timothy, where
once more Paul is in prison and notes rather plaintively, "Only Luke is with me"
(2 Tim 4:11). Evidently, Paul valued the help and support of Luke as a trusted
confidant and aide.
In addition to these direct references to Luke, there are several "we" passages in
Acts that support Luke's authorship. They suggest that the author was a participant in
the action and a traveling companion of the apostle Paul (Acts 16:10-18; 20:5-15;
21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). They show no marked differences in style or vocabulary from
the rest of Acts, so the whole book appears to be the product of one author. The style
and vocabulary of Acts also seem to harmonize well with the Gospel of Luke, pointing
strongly to a single writer as the author of both books. In addition, the theological
perspective of Luke's Gospel and that of Acts seem to be consistent. Both books
stress the historical matrix of redemptive events, the role of the Holy Spirit, the place
of angels, the importance of prayer, the fulfillment of Old Testament promises in the
life of Christ and in the developing work of the Christian church, and the realization
of God's purpose in holy history. This conclusion is confirmed by the fact that both
volumes are dedicated to Theophilus (1:3; Acts 1:1) and that the second volume
specifically refers to the first one (Acts 1:1), thus linking Acts directly with Luke's
Another element that has been used to support Luke's authorship has been the
medical language of Luke-Acts, and comparisons have been made between Luke
and other ancient doctors like Hippocrates (fourth-fifth century BC) and Galen
(second century AD). Much less stress has been placed upon this element in recent
years in view of studies that have shown that medical language was used in ancient
times by educated people who were not physicians. However, this recent argument
has probably been pressed too far, so that while vocabulary and style do not decisively
prove that Luke was a physician, the evidence of Luke-Acts reveals an author
who was deeply concerned about human pain and suffering (see 4:38; 13:10-17;
14:1-4; Acts 9:32-42; 28:8-9).
Vincent Taylor, one of the great authorities on Luke's Gospel in the twentieth
century, made a perceptive comment:
The objections to Lukan authorship turn mainly upon the historical problems that
meet us in Acts, especially the difficulty of reconciling the account of the Apostolic
Council in Acts 15 with Paul's personal narrative in Galatians 2:1-10 and the
problem raised in Acts 15:23-29. These problems belong mainly to the study of
the Acts and all that can be said here is that the difficulties have been exaggerated,
especially if it is remembered that the aims and circumstances of Luke and Paul
Accepting Luke as the author of both the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles,
we can begin to paint a portrait of the remarkable person who stands behind these
writings. E. P. Blair describes Luke as follows:
He was broad in his sympathies, compassionate toward the poor and outcasts in
society, genuinely pious, self-effacing, radiantly joyful, charmingly urbane, and deeply
loyal. He remained with Paul to the end, doubtlessly serving him in medical and
other ways, and earned the great apostle's gratitude and admiration.
Little is known about Luke's personal life, though the Anti-Marcionite Prologue to
Luke claims that he never married and died at the ripe old age of 84 in Boeotia
(Greece; though some place his death in Bithynia [Turkey] or Ephesus), being "full
of the Holy Spirit." There are a variety of traditions regarding his activities in his
later years and the place and manner of his death. Some writers have connected him
with Antioch in Syria (as does the Anti-Marcionite Prologue) and have noted the
detailed references in Acts to that city (Acts 6:5; 11:19-27; 13:1; 14:26; 15:22-35).
Others, drawing attention to the "we" passages of Acts, have suggested that Luke
had a special link with Philippi. They argue that Luke was the "man from Macedonia"
who appeared in a vision to Paul at Troas, worked with Paul in evangelizing his
native land, remained in Philippi, and later resumed contact with Paul and the
missionary team when they returned to Philippi (Acts 16:8-17; 20:5-6). Certainly,
there are detailed references in Acts to both Antioch (Acts 6:5; 11:19-27; 13:1;
14:26; 15:22-35) and Philippi (Acts 16:8-17; 20:5-6), but any conclusions drawn
from these references remain speculative.
Despite the limitations of our knowledge, much can be learned about the author's
interests and concerns from the study of Luke's Gospel and the book of Acts,
where many of the same themes frequently appear (e.g., concern for the poor, interest
in the stories of women, the importance of prayer), each of which is discussed
Before closing this section on authorship, it must be said that J. W. Wenham
(1991) has proposed that the author of the third Gospel and Acts is Lucius, a
prophet and teacher who came from Cyrene and served as a leader in the church at
Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1). A man by the same name is noted elsewhere in the
New Testament as an associate of Paul (Rom 16:21). However, there is no clear evidence
that either of these two people is the same as the reputed author of the Gospel
of Luke and Acts (Achtemeier 1985:582), despite the creative attempt of Wenham
to connect Lucius with the better-known Luke.
DATE AND OCCASION OF WRITING
Luke's Gospel has been dated as early as AD 59-63 and as late as the latter part of the
second century. The question of dating is a complex one and involves the book of
Acts as an integral part of Luke-Acts. Paul's ministry certainly dominates the second
half of Acts, and the last quarter of the text is occupied with Paul's trip to Rome as a
prisoner awaiting trial. However, Acts ends without telling us the outcome of Paul's
trial, leading some to argue that it had not taken place by the time Acts was complete.
In this view, Acts, and possibly Luke-Acts, is dated in the early 60s AD.
Many scholars have opposed this view (cf. Fitzmyer 1981:54-56; Nolland
1989:xxxix; C. A. Evans 1990:2). They note that Luke himself called attention to the
fact that other Gospel accounts had preceded his (1:1), and Mark's Gospel was
almost certainly one of his sources. Thus, acknowledging that Luke used Mark in
the composition of his Gospel, most scholars opt for a date for Luke-Acts after the
destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, positing a date between AD 70 and 90.
However, a strong case can be made for an early date. William Larkin, in his
work on Acts in this volume, argues for a date for Luke-Acts in the early 60s, and
this view has also been defended by such notable scholars as F. F. Bruce (1962:21-24)
and Richard Longenecker (1981:235-238). Similarly, Carson, Moo, and Morris
would place Luke in the early 60s (a possible date for Acts) and Mark in the late
50s or early 60s (1992:116-117). They draw attention to the lack of mention of the
Neronian persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the deaths of Paul and
James (AD 62). In addition, they remark that Luke would likely have noted Paul's
release from prison or execution if it had taken place before he wrote. They further
observe that Paul's epistles were highly valued in the early church but are ignored
in Acts-a difficult feature to account for in a later dating. In addition, they find
it unlikely that Luke would present as friendly a view of Rome as we find in Luke-Acts
after the Neronian persecution of the mid-60s. Moreover, on the contents of
Acts, Bruce notes how well they fit the premise of an early date: "Prominence is
given in Acts to subjects which were of urgent importance in the church before AD
70, but which were of less moment after that date. Such were the terms of Gentile
admission to church fellowship, the coexistence of Jews and Gentiles to the
church, the food requirements of the apostolic decree [ch. 15]" (Bruce 1990:14,
17). We conclude that such cumulative evidence points to a date for Luke-Acts in
the early 60s.
It is only fair to note that a few scholars have opted for a second-century date.
John Knox and J. C. O'Neill, based on comparisons with writers like Josephus,
Justin Martyr, and Marcion, have advanced a date of the early- or mid-second century.
However, the peaceful situation between the Christian church and Rome
depicted in the book of Acts seems to be different from the climate described by
Christian writers of even the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of
Rome (c. AD 96) and Ignatius (AD 117). Luke presents a relatively friendly outlook
on the Roman authorities, a position that would have been much more difficult to
maintain after imperial persecution became more widespread in the second century
(note, for instance, the correspondence about persecuting Christians between
Pliny, the governor of Bithynia, and the Emperor Trajan). A second-century date,
then, seems to be ruled out as quite improbable. Despite widespread disagreement
on the issue, a first-century date of about AD 62 seems the most reasonable option
The place of writing was probably Rome, though other places have been suggested,
including Asia Minor and Greece. "The Monarchian Prologue to Luke promotes
the latter option, but its reliability is suspect. It was at Rome that Luke could
have used the time profitably to put the finishing touches" on his work. Its destination
would depend on Theophilus's place of residence, and that is unknown.
However, the minute descriptions of places in Palestine seem to point to readers
who were not familiar with that region but were more knowledgeable about other
areas under Roman jurisdiction. Antioch, Ephesus, and Achaia are all possible destinations,
but the matter must be left open in the absence of further evidence.
We have already noted that the Gospel was specifically addressed to Theophilus
(1:3), a name that means "lover of God." While the book is profitable to anyone
who loves God, it is probable that it was directed to a specific individual who bore
that name. The description of the person as "most honorable" (Gr., kratistos [TG2903,
ZG3196]) seems to point to a Roman official or at least a man of high social position
and wealth, as elsewhere in Luke-Acts the name is only associated with Roman
governors (Acts 23:26; 24:2; 26:25). It is quite possible that this man served as
a patron or benefactor of Luke, facilitating the copying and distribution of his
work. Such a dedication to a publisher was a common practice at the time. Some
writers have suggested that there were those in the imperial circle who were friendly
to the Christian message, and the fact that Luke's writings were addressed to a person
in the higher echelons of Roman society might cause these elites to consider
the Christian proclamation with greater seriousness. This idea is drawn from what
is observed in similar ancient dedicatory prefaces (e.g., Letter of Aristeas 1:1-12;
Talbert [1989:7-11] also discusses other examples; cf. C. A. Evans 1990:19).
Excerpted from CORNERSTONE BIBLICAL COMMENTARY The Gospel of Luke Acts
by Allison A. Trites William J. Larkin
Copyright © 2006 by Allison A. Trites.
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