This is not a theological work. Its not a defense of the gospel. Its purely my answer to a secular question. Was Luke the first Christian historian?
“A man whose accuracy can be demonstrated in matters where
we are able to test it is likely to be accurate even where the means of
testing him are not available. Accuracy is a habit of mind, and we know
from happy (or unhappy) experience that some people are habitually
accurate just as others can be depended upon to be inaccurate. Luke’s
record entitles him to be regarded as a writer of habitual accuracy.”
The Gospel of St. Luke and The Acts of the Apostles are essential and unique among the Gospel narratives and the other books of the New Testament of the Christian Bible. They are unique because they include so much information that is found nowhere else in the Bible and they are essential, especially with regard to Luke’s life and ministry of Jesus, because, as A.M. Fairbairn said, in 1880, “Knowledge of the historical and personal Christ is necessary to the knowledge and realization of the Christian religion. An abstract theology is but a speculative system, necessary, perhaps, to satisfy the intellect, and be to it, from the standpoint of the religious consciousness, an explication of the universe of nature and man. But religion is concrete and complex, must stand before us articulated in a person, that persons may know what it is, and how it is to be realized.”
My interest in the Gospel of Luke began with the curious fact that in the fundamentalist churches in which I’ve had contact his work is ignored except at Christmas and then only because of the detail he gives of the events surrounding Christ’s birth. The modern day preacher prefers to use Matthew’s Gospel, a distinctly Jewish work, perhaps for its direct linkage to the law given to the Jews by God through Moses and the very spiritual minded ‘Sermon on the Mount’ found there. However, I found in Luke more depth and more appeal, not only for his detail and accuracy as eminent Biblical scholar, F.F. Bruce did, but for his willingness to set the story of Christ and the early church within the time frame of specific emperors and local officials, for the social gospel Jesus presents the multitude with in the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (my term), and for the moral and spiritual power in his parables such as ‘The Good Samaritan’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’ found nowhere else.
But, can Luke, the only Bible narrator who gives us a history of the early church, be considered an historian? Does he fulfill the requirements of a historian of the Graeco-Roman world or of any era, for that matter? Is he an historian or merely one possible source for historians. Jenny L. Presnell makes the statement in The Information-Literate Historian that “historians gather clues and evidence from the past in order to understand and reconstruct an image of a particular person, place, event, or time period.” Richard Bauckham shows that the Gospel According to St. John contains the elements essential to classifying it within Graeco-Roman Historiography such as topography; a knowledge of the geography of the area where the events described in the history take place, chronology; an ability to place the events described in the history in a context of actual coinciding events with actual dates in real history, theology; descriptions of events with theological significance, for instance, miracles, and then selectivity; a careful choosing of things to include and events to leave out, narrative asides which are important to the telling of the story, eyewitness testimony, and, finally, discourses and dialogues.
The question is, again, does Luke the Physician qualify under these terms and these conditions as an historian and is his work history or only a theological statement? Finally, what is the relationship between Luke’s history, if it is such, and the Christian Historiographical tradition?
Among the books written about both Luke’s Gospel and his Acts include William Sanger Campbell’s study about the use of the personal “we” among ancient writers, why it is used and how it links Luke’s work to a greater historiographical tradition entitled The “We” Passages in The Acts of the Apostles: The Narrator as Narrative Character. Daniel Marguerat’s work, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, and Christopher Mount’s Christianity: Luke, Acts, and The Legacy of Paul and others worthy to be referenced in pursuing the quest of discovering whether or not Luke is a bona fide historian. Harvard’s Literary Guide to the Bible offers some interesting incites into the narrative power of Luke’s writing, particularly in comparison to the other gospels and other historical writings. More ancient works that comment on Luke’s work include the aforementioned Studies in the Life of Christ by A.M. Fairbairn, Roberts and Donaldson’s collection of the early church father’s writings and Schaff’s History of the Christian Church from the late nineteenth century, Stokes’ The Acts of the Apostles from the same era, and Deems’ Light of the Nations also from that time frame.
Of particular note to me are additional works that shed some insight into the question of Luke’s historian credentials, Unger’s Archaeology and the New Testament and Maier’s new translation of Eusebius’ The Church History. There have been many more volumes written that would add additional information to the question but to keep from writing a book about the subject I must be brief and selective in my references.
To help establish Luke’s uniqueness and to further assert that he probably did not copy from either Mark, Luke, or John let me begin with a statement of the typical scholar’s assumption that he wrote with Matthew and Mark, at least, in front of him. This assumption is based on the belief that Luke wrote his gospel and history of the early church much later than Matthew and Mark wrote and that he would have copied from them as some believe Mark copied from Matthew. Another commonly held belief is that Matthew’s ‘Sermon on the Mount’ is also found in Luke. From The Literary Guide to the Bible, comes this compliment of Luke’s work, “There are space, light, and long perspective in Luke’s Gospel. Like the painter Claude Lorrain, he is a master of the long view. This is noticeable straightaway, in the leisurely sentence which makes up the preface of his first four verses. Between the moment of his beginning the work and the events he is on the point of telling, “those things which are most surely believed [Greek, ‘fulfilled’] among us,” a lot has happened and he knows it. There have been “many” previous narrators. Before them there were “eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word.” And there has been time for him to mature the “perfect understanding” of this large Christian inheritance which he advertises with some complacency. Now he is going to provide the “certainty of those things,” the complete and definitive version. Neither Mark nor Matthew, the previous narrators whose work he builds into his own, enjoyed such calm literary self-confidence and self-consciousness. It is something new.”
The conflict over whether or not Luke’s sermon account in chapter six is simply a shortened and slightly altered version of Matthew’s chapters five through chapter seven is not a new one. Writing in 1884, Deems, speaking mainly of the sermon in Matthew said, “It would require a much larger volume then this to give the literature which has grown around the questions of the time and place of delivery of this “sermon,” and whether Matthew and Luke report the same or different discourses.” The sermon given seated on a hillside in Matthew, chapter five, to a few of his disciples commonly called ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ has some distinct differences than the one in Luke. First, the sermon in Luke is given while standing on a plain, not seated on a hillside. Second, he has chosen all of his closest disciples by the time of the account in Luke, thirdly, he gives his sermon in Luke to the multitude, not just to a few disciples, and fourthly, the sermon in Luke is a socio-political declaration while the sermon in Matthew is of a strictly spiritual nature and goes on for a much longer time.
If Luke had Matthew and Mark in front of him, which I don’t believe he did, then he not only ignored events that they wrote about but added events that they did not. The parables of ‘The Good Samaritan’ and ‘The Prodigal Son’, as well as ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ are not found in any other gospel. Logic would tell us that in any human organization that if Matthew had been first, Mark, second, with Matthew in front of him, and Luke third reading both, then there would have been at least more clear similarities than there actually are. In addition, Luke’s writing is independent of even Paul’s, whom he accompanied on missionary journeys. If he had colluded with Paul his Acts of the Apostles would have been different as he does not include things that Paul did, particularly some of the heated debates within the leadership of the early church. The uniqueness and independence of Luke’s writing’s lends even more evidence to his work as an historian. Luke’s work is not written much later than the other gospels.
He, like the other gospel writers, is quoted by the earliest church fathers. Several early church fathers, the dates of whose works are generally accepted, quote Luke, as well as Matthew, Mark, John, and the other currently accepted New Testament books in writings put down anywhere from AD 68 for Clement of Rome to the early middle of the second century for the writings of Polycarp.
Dr. Carsten Thiede, using the sophisticated technology of a scanning laser microscope, has set the date of the earliest fragment of Matthew to AD 68, before the destruction of the Jewish Temple and within the possible lifetime of the traditional writer of that gospel also reporting the dating of one of the oldest copies of part of Luke to the same time frame.
As Merrill Unger said in his Archaeology and the New Testament, “The Acts of the Apostles is now generally agreed in scholarly circles to be the work of Luke, to belong to the first century and to involve the labors of a careful historian who was substantially accurate in his use of sources.”
Luke fits Presnell’s characteristics of what an historian does in his portrait of Jesus as a worker of miracles, in his birth and early life, and in his relationship with his apostles. Luke’s description of the early church is direct, plain writing about events and people. He describes the missionary journeys of Paul and, in describing the church he slowly narrows his focus down from the church’s main characters to Paul alone as he struggles to bring the Christian message to the pagan, Roman world. Without criticism he shows how Paul’s own willfulness results in his imprisonment and that fateful and final trip to Rome. His descriptions of Jesus’ miracles and Paul’s final journey and shipwreck are interesting and exciting. He places himself in the story as he journeyed with Paul, perhaps, not only as a companion, but as a minister to the physical ailment that Paul suffered, probably trouble with his vision, as a consequence of his first encounter with the vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus to persecute Christians.
Using Bauckham’s criteria for John, it is important to note that Luke is appears very familiar with the topography of his story. He gives geographical references as general as “the hill country…into a city of Juda” and as specific as “if by any means they might attain to Phenice, and there to winter; which is an haven of Crete, and lieth toward the south west and north west.” , as general as “and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria..” and as specific as “two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.”
Luke brackets his writing with drawing back from the, at that time, seemingly unimportant lives in the Holy Land to the larger geopolitical situation. He mentions emperors and kings, governors and tetrarchs which place his subjects in the broader frame of history although the Bible, in the Old Testament, presents the great men of history as secondary players in the drama of God’s relationship with man, reducing Alexander the Great to the mere “prince of Grecia”, of whom most fundamentalist Christians believe the title in Daniel, chapter ten, verse twenty is a reference. Luke names Caesar Augustus as the emperor when Jesus is born and Tiberius Caesar as the emperor when Jesus begins his ministry. He also names Pontius Pilate as the Roman governor of Judea, Herod as the tetrarch of Galilee, and when Paul is taken prisoner in Jerusalem, Luke gives the name of the governor in Caesarea as Felix. Luke mentions the Feast of Unleavened Bread and Passover and specifies the changing of governors in Caesarea. He doesn’t overburden the reader with information but gives enough to establish the time frame in which his history is set. As it is not my purpose to contrast and examine the accuracy of Luke’s details here but merely to establish him as an historian I’ll move on to theology.
Luke, being a faithful Christian historian, can’t help but stress the theology which is central to the meaning of his work. G.T. Stokes said while writing in the 19th century that “A man born to be a poet will consciously display his tendency. A man born to be a historian will be found, even when he has formed no definite project, note-book in hand, jotting down the impressions of the passing hour or of his current studies. So probably was it with St. Luke.” I would also say that Luke was compelled as well to express his theology, that Jesus was the Son of God and the Son of man, that he did many miracles, spoke words that freed the poor and the sick, raised the dead, and stood calmly and confidently before Pilate, was crucified and rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, leaving the vibrant body of followers, many of whom also performed miracles and who would believe on his name and die for him, if need be. In fact, Luke’s Gospel is essential to Christian evangelical theology, that Jesus was fully man and fully God.
Luke’s Christian church grows with suffering and flourishes as a persecuted faith, a minority among minorities, a religion of martyrs and suffering servants whose blood waters the faith. Even Paul is destined for the chopping block but we don’t know that from Luke. Paul himself made Christian martyrs when he was Saul working diligently for the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem. With his conversion he becomes the target for Jewish wrath, themselves subject to historical persecutions of the most vicious sort in histories with which we are all familiar. Luke’s Christian church lives in the shadow of the civil authority of Rome and the spiritual and civil power of the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. It is in this persecution and potential for martyrdom that the faith flourishes as the Christian faith. Only later, when it is adopted as the state religion does it become the persecutor as all religions do when adopted by a state. But, with regard to the growth of the early Christian church, it is not a faith that is triumphant by wielding a sword. It must suffer as its Lord suffered on the cross in order to grow. Marguerat says “Even in weakness, the Word comes through and causes faith to blossom. However, this rhetoric has nothing to do with triumphalism. Success for the Word does not grow independently of the suffering of the messengers, but because of it.” Luke’s status as an historian is not to be judged on whether a reader believes his theology or not. The God of the Bible would not subject himself to scientific experimentation and observation. He is the author of selective revelation and even if one rejects outright that Luke’s theology is true, Marguerat makes it clear that a history must not be judged on bare facts alone but “it must be evaluated according to the point of view of the historian which controls the writing of the narrative, the truth that the author aims to communicate and the need for identity to which the work of the historian responds.”
Luke is selective in his choice of what events to include and what to leave out fulfilling another standard mentioned by Bauckham. Luke doesn’t mention the five hundred witnesses of the resurrected Jesus given by Paul or one of the most heated controversies of the early church between Peter and Paul. If, indeed, as many insist, that Luke wrote with Matthew and Mark in front of him, then he certainly was selective in what he included of their statements and what he left out. His account of the birth of Jesus leaves out the visiting wise men and the flight to Egypt. Certainly, all of these things were known in the early church regardless of whether or not Luke had Matthew in front of him. Speaking of things the early church knew or assumed include the fact that Luke was the author of both the gospel and The Acts of the Apostles as stated by Irenaeus writing in the latter part of the second century as part of a written work against heretical figures in the early church. This is also referenced by Eusebius in his Church History , who wrote during the time of the Emperor Constantine. Christopher Mount, in his book Pauline Christianity, doesn’t believe that anyone named Luke authored both the gospel and the church history in Acts although he does acknowledge that Irenaeus and the early church believed it to be so and believed that the person named Luke was that author. He writes “The Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are first specifically identified as such by Irenaeus in his writing against heresies. Prior to Irenaeus, the text known to him as the Gospel according to Luke is attested as part of Marcion’s collection of scripture. Marcion probably used an edited form of the text of Lk for his lone gospel.” William Sanger Campbell also doubts that anyone named Luke wrote either the gospel or the church history but does acknowledge that Irenaeus, and by extension the early church, said he did. The similarity of some verses in Luke with Matthew and Mark can be accounted for by the fact that he was reporting some of the same speeches of Jesus that had been related to him by his own witnesses and historical writings.
Luke makes use of narrative asides, as well, and these are bracketed by parentheses. Such comments to the reader as “(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)” and “(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)” are sufficient to establish that he did use this technique in his work, however, infrequently, and although Luke’s gospel and his church history make up nearly a quarter of the entire New Testament canon they are not tremendously long works.
The eminent Christian historian of the 19th century, Philip Schaff, has written, “Luke used, besides oral tradition, written documents on certain parts of the life of Jesus, which doubtless appeared early among the first disciples.” Luke himself states he used eyewitness testimony as in his gospel where he says “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;..” , and in Acts he uses “we” to describe the events in which he participated such as “And after he had seen the vision, immediately we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, assuredly gathering that the Lord had called us for to preach the gospel unto them. Therefore loosing from Troas, we came with a straight course to Samothracia, and the next day to Neapolis; And from thence to Philippi,
which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony: and we were in that city abiding certain days. And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither.” Campbell, while not believing in the authorship of anyone named Luke does, however, acknowledge that “the effect of first person plural grammatical style at the event level is to cast the narrator character as an eyewitness and, in so doing, to emphasize his narrative authority and his version of the story.” I must also note that Campbell does not believe that Acts is Historiography but more of an historical novel or a romance as he states in chapter 2 of his book. I beg to differ.
In keeping with Bauckham’s line of reasoning, Luke also includes discourses such as his “Sermon on the Plain”, which is again my term for something that many scholars have confused with Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount”, which I have explained is a different sermon given at a different time. Luke starts out with the words “Blessed be ye poor”, as opposed to “ye rich” later in the chapter granting them the invisible kingdom of God found in each believer, while Matthew begins with, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and then granting them rights to the very physical kingdom of Heaven, Christ’s physical reign to come on earth.
In addition, among other discourses in Acts there is Paul’s appeal on the steps of the Temple after he has ignored God’s warnings not to go to back to Jerusalem. Here, Paul is asked if he speaks Greek or if he is an Egyptian known to be causing trouble and obtaining permission from a Roman centurion he begins to give a rather long address to the assembled crowd of hostile Jews.
Finally, Luke reports dialogues between Christ and his apostles in Luke’s gospel such as in the passage mentioned earlier when two disciples were walking to Emmaus and he appeared to them, only they didn’t know it was him, and a conversation ensues, then a lecture by the risen Jesus, which ends in his revealing himself to them. In Acts he reports, among other dialogues, a conversation between King Agrippa and Governor Festus concerning the handling of the prisoner, Paul, which eventually includes Paul’s response.
As Bauckham attempted to show that the Gospel of St. John fit the criteria of Graeco-Roman Historiography and by the terms he proposed I have attempted to show that Luke’s writings can, for whatever else they were an attempt to do, be properly called history in the same genre. Also, I believe his writing fit’s the proper purpose of the historian as defined by Presnell.
To further underscore my assertion that, while being a part of the Christian Bible, Luke’s writings do not fit in with what is considered Christian Historiography, Ernst Breisach refers to Eusebius’ theology as “imperial theology” as his Christianity and the Roman Empire are inextricably linked. This is apparent as Eusebius is concerned that Tiberius knew about Christ and even brought up a motion for the Roman Senate to declare the risen Christ a god, which was turned down by them for technical reasons. He quotes an earlier church “father”, Tertullian in this statement who goes on to say that Tiberius supposedly threatened with death anyone who made a charge against the Christians. This attempt to justify Christ’s existence or deity by telling a questionable story about an emperor bringing a motion before the Senate, thereby linking a Roman sovereign with Eusebius’ sovereign of the universe is far different from Luke’s simple naming of who the emperors were at the time of Christ’s birth and at the beginning of his earthly ministry. At no time does Luke attempt to rationalize his story or justify it by such methods.
Again, as Breisach relates, Christian Historiographers such as Eusebius were obsessed with fixing dates for things like the beginning of creation and placing everything Biblical in a fixed time frame. Eusebius even goes on at length rationalizing Luke’s genealogy and comparing it with Matthew’s. He then quotes Africanus with a rather long explanation for differences between the two. The author of the Gospel According to St. Luke and the Acts of the Apostles doesn’t seem like he could care less about rationalizing his genealogy, expanding on it, or explaining it. He also has no interest in setting dates.
Now, certainly, a more thorough study could compare Luke with two dozen or more Christian Historiographers of varying periods and certainly, I could probably come up with a few who might resemble Luke’s writing but I think that these few important examples underscore the difference is apparent. Christian Historiographers were very much concerned with time frames and date setting as Breisach has noted as well as adding things such as how Tiberius was supposedly very impressed with the resurrection accounts. Luke appears to not be interested in the least and only gives the names of emperors for the sake of placing the events he relates in a general context. Outside of that no emperor gets a place in his work except Nero, who is not mentioned by name by only as “Caesar” when Paul demands to be heard by him.
In conclusion, what I have not done is to try to argue any point concerning whether or not the writings of Luke in either the Gospel of St. Luke or The Acts of the Apostles are truth or fiction. My purpose here was to argue that his work can properly be called historiography. As per Bauckham’s criteria it is more properly of the Graeco-Roman Historiography genre and does not fit in with the later Christian history writing as such. Luke attempts no grand scheme of history nor does he attempt to draw or compare his life of Christ with the greater Roman world around him. There are no parallels made to great heroes, military or political. What Luke does is to present history, as he sees it and believes it, in its simplicity, the life and death of a man whom he believes to be God in the flesh as well as the life of the early Christian church and its chief proponent, Paul. He does not praise Paul or condemn him but honestly portrays his successes as well as his shortcomings and failures such as the constant insistence on pressing the Jews in their synagogues when he has been told that he is to be the minister to the Gentiles, the trip to Jerusalem which God warns him not to take, his dispute with Barnabas over John Mark, and his causing a man’s blindness which is just the reverse of everything the apostles and Jesus did, and the opposite of the things that he does later in his ministry. This is not the writing of a propagandist but of someone trying to honestly deal with the material he has been given by eyewitnesses and by his own experience with the people involved. Luke was the first Christian Historian.
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