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Luke, The Gospel According to

The third gospel is “the first volume” (Acts 1.1) of a two‐part work, Luke‐Acts, composed by the same author and dedicated to Theophilus. In content, this gospel is related to the Marcan and Matthean gospels; collectively, these three Gospels form the group usually called synoptic, i.e., the tradition that developed independently of the gospel according to John.


The content of the Lucan gospel may be summarized under eight headings. (1) A brief prologue (1.1–4), written in a stylized periodic sentence, states the author's purpose in writing. (2) Two chapters are devoted to an infancy narrative (1.5–2.52), recounting in studied parallelism the birth and childhood of John the Baptist and those of Jesus. (3) One and a half chapters (3.1–4.13) set forth the appearance of John in the desert, his preaching and baptist career, and his imprisonment by Herod Antipas as a prelude to the events inaugurating Jesus' public career, namely, the latter's baptism, sojourn in the desert, and temptation by the devil. (4) The story of Jesus' Galilean ministry (4.14–9.50) begins programmatically in a synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth, and moves on to Capernaum and other towns and villages, as Jesus preaches the kingdom of God, heals those who are afflicted, and associates himself with disciples whom he gradually trains. This Galilean activity serves also as the starting point for his “exodus,” or transit to the Father through death, burial, and resurrection (9.31). (5) There follows the travel account (9.51–19.27), which has both a specifically Lucan form (9.51–18.14) and another form in 18.15–19.27 that parallels Mark 10.13–52. In this account, Jesus is depicted not only as moving without distraction toward Jerusalem, the city of destiny, but also as instructing crowds of people and especially the disciples, who would become the foreordained witnesses of his ministry, career, and destiny in Jerusalem (see Acts 10.41). (6) At the end of the travel account, Jesus is accorded a regal welcome as he enters Jerusalem itself, purges its Temple, and initiates there a period of ministry and teaching in the Temple (19.28–21.38), which serves as a prelude to the events of his last days. (7) The passion narrative (22.1–23.56a) forms the climax of his exodus, as the Jerusalem leaders conspire with Judas against him, and as he eats his last meal with the twelve and foretells Peter's denial of him. After praying on the Mount of Olives, Jesus is arrested, brought before a morning session of the Sanhedrin, delivered to Pilate, sent to Herod, and finally handed over for crucifixion. This narrative ends with the notice of Jesus' death and burial. (8) The Lucan resurrection narrative (23.56b; nd24.53) tells of the women who discover the empty tomb and of Jesus' appearance as risen to followers on the road to Emmaus and in Jerusalem itself. The Lucan gospel ends with Jesus giving a final commission to the eleven and others and with his ascension (apparently on the night of the day of the discovery of the empty tomb).


Unlike the Pauline letters, which bear the Apostle's name, the third gospel is anonymous, as are the other gospels. Ancient church tradition attributed the third gospel to the Luke who appears in Philemon 24 as Paul's “fellow worker” and is called “the beloved physician” in Collossians 4.14 (cf. 2 Tim. 4.11).

Most modern commentators on the Lucan gospel, however, are skeptical about the validity of this traditional attribution. They regard the tradition as based largely on inferences from the text of the New Testament made when people were first beginning to wonder who had written the Gospels. They further call in question Irenaeus's description of Luke as Paul's “inseparable” collaborator (Adv. haer. 3.14, 1), which he inferred from the “we” sections of Acts (esp. 16.10; 20.6). The nature of these “we” sections has since been questioned. Are they fragments of a diary or notebook that the author of Acts kept as he journeyed with Paul? Or are they, rather, a literary form used by the author to enhance his narrative of sea journeys? A still larger part of the problem is the relationship of the author of Acts to Paul. In recent decades it has become evident that only with considerable difficulty can one reconcile much of the depiction of Paul in Acts with that which emerges from Paul's own letters. Hence, was the author of Luke‐Acts really the “inseparable” collaborator of Paul? The difference between the Lucan Paul and the Pauline Paul is not minor; even though it is largely an issue of Acts and the Pauline letters, it bears on the authorship of the Lucan gospel. The result is that many modern commentators are uncertain about the authorship of Luke‐Acts.

A minority of commentators, however, retain the traditional attribution as substantially correct. They recognize that in this tradition one must distinguish between what could have been inferred from the text of the New Testament (Luke as a physician; as Paul's fellow worker; as one who had not personally witnessed the ministry of Jesus; Luke as an author who wrote for gentile converts; who wrote after the Marcan and Matthean gospels; who began his gospel with John the Baptist and was also the author of Acts) and what could not have been so inferred (Luke as a Syrian of Antioch; who wrote in Achaia, Bithynia, or Rome; who died in Boeotia or Thebes, unmarried, childless, and at the age of eighty‐four). Many of the latter details are legendary and of no value; but the substance of the tradition—that the author of the third gospel and Acts was Luke, an inhabitant of Antioch in Syria and a companion of Paul—is far from being untenable.

In this regard, one must read Irenaeus critically. The evidence he used, namely the “we” sections of Acts, may indeed show that the author of Luke‐Acts was a companion of Paul, but not that he was “inseparably” so. If one accepts the “we” sections as excerpts from a diary or notebook of the author and reads them at face value, one finds that they reveal only that the author was a sometime companion of Paul. He would have traveled with Paul from Troas to Philippi (Acts 16.10–17), i.e., for a short time toward the middle of Paul's second missionary journey (49–52 CE). He would have stayed in Philippi and joined Paul again only as the latter departed from Philippi at the end of his third journey (when he returns to Jerusalem for the last time [58 CE; Acts 20.6), and as Paul sailed for Rome to appear before Caesar (Acts 27.1–28.16). Reading the evidence thus, we see that the author was not with Paul during the main part of his evangelizing endeavors, when he faced the major crisis of his missionary activity in the eastern Mediterranean area (the judaizing problem, as he struggled against those who insisted that gentile converts must observe Jewish legal practices), or when he wrote his greatest letters. Moreover, there is no indication that the author of Luke‐Acts ever read Paul's letters. Yet his brief association with Paul led him to idealize Paul and make him the hero of the second part of Acts. He has painted his own picture of Paul, which may not agree in all details with the Paul of the uncontested Pauline letters. Yet, since Luke is not prominent in the apostolic age, if the gospel and Acts were not originally written by him, there is no obvious reason why they should have been associated with him. In other words, the ancient tradition which holds that Luke is the author of the third gospel and Acts may in the long run prove to be substantially valid.


The prologue of the gospel reveals that Luke depends on other gospel narratives and on information gathered from “eyewitnesses” and “servants of the word” (who may or may not represent two distinct sources for him). From an internal analysis of the gospel, one recognizes that Luke used mainly three sources: the Marcan gospel (in a form more or less as we know it today), a postulated Greek written source, often called Q (some 230 verses common to his and the Matthean gospel but not found in Mark), and a unique source, often designated L, either written or oral (episodes exclusive to the third gospel).

From Mark, Luke has taken over six blocks of material largely in the same order, into which he has inserted matter (from Q and L); he has also omitted some Marcan material and transposed some Marcan episodes. The use of Marcan material can best be seen thus:

(1) Mark 1.1–15 = Luke 3.1–4.15
(2) Mark 1.21–3.19 = Luke 4.31–6.19
Luke's Little Interpolation:
6.20–8.3 (from “Q” and “L”)
(3) Mark 4.1–6.44 = Luke 8.4–9.17
Luke's Big Omission at 9.17
 (=Mark 6.45–8.26)
(4) Mark 8.27–9.40 = Luke 9.18–50
Luke's Little Omission at 9.50
 (=Mark 9.41–10.12)
Luke's Big Interpolation:
9.15–18.14 (from “Q” and “L”)
(5) Mark 10.13–13.32 = Luke 18.15–21.33
(6) Mark 14.1–16.8 = Luke 22.1–24.12
The Lucan Ending: 24.13–53 (from “L”)

Luke has not slavishly copied this earlier material; he frequently redacts or modifies the Marcan text, improving its Greek style and language. He has also transposed seven Marcan episodes: (1) the imprisonment of John the Baptist (Mark 6.17–18) is moved up to Luke 3.19–20 (to finish the Baptist story before Jesus appears); (2) Jesus' visit to Nazareth (Mark 6.1–6) is moved up to Luke 4.16–30 (to become the programmatic beginning of Jesus' ministry); (3) the call of the disciples (Mark 1.16–20) is postponed to Luke 5.1–11 (to develop a better psychological setting for the call of Simon the fisherman); (4) the choosing of the Twelve (Mark 3.13–19) and the report of the crowds following Jesus (Mark 3.7–12) are reversed in Luke 6.12–16, 17–19 (to improve the psychological setting for the Sermon on the Plain); (5) the episode about Jesus' relatives (Mark 3.31–35) is moved to Luke 8.19–21 (to follow the interpretation of the parable of the seed, thus making Jesus' own relatives examples of the seed sown on good soil); (6) the foretelling of Judas' betrayal of Jesus (Mark 14.18–21) becomes part of the discourse after the meal (Luke 22.21–23); (7) the order of the interrogation of Jesus, his mistreatment, and Peter's denials (Mark 14.55–64a, 64b; nd65, 66–72) is reversed in Luke 22.54c; nd62 (Peter's denials), 63–65 (mistreatment), 66–71 (interrogation).

It is often difficult to distinguish between L passages and those that Luke may have freely composed. It is also a matter of debate whether some of the L passages are related to the material in the gospel of John (e.g., the anointing of Jesus' feet by a woman; the single account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish; the mention of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary; one of the twelve named Judas; no night interrogation of Jesus before the high priest; three nonguilty statements of Pilate during Jesus' trial; postresurrection appearances of the risen Christ in the Jerusalem area). Although there is no real evidence that the Johannine evangelist knew the Lucan gospel, some contact in the oral traditions behind both the Johannine and the Lucan gospels is not impossible.

Attempts are sometimes made to associate L with specific persons from whom Luke would have derived information: Mary, the mother of Jesus (see Luke 2.19, 51); the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19.1–3); Joanna, “wife of Chuza, Herod's steward” (Luke 8.3); Cleopas (24.18). Luke could have obtained information from such sources, but such a list of candidates is based on speculation, more pious than critical, about possible informants.

Date and Place of Composition.

If the Marcan gospel is rightly included among the sources used by Luke in composing his gospel, then the latter is to be dated after Mark. The Marcan gospel is commonly dated ca. 65–70 CE. How much later is the Lucan gospel? One cannot say for certain. Luke 1.1 refers to “many” others who had previously tried to write the Jesus story; even if Mark is included among the “many,” more time must be allowed for the others to whom Luke alludes. Again, since the Lucan Jesus refers to Jerusalem as an “abandoned” house (13.35), this and other references to Jerusalem (21.20, “surrounded by camps”; 19.43–44, with earthworks erected against it) would suggest a date for Luke after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Some have sought to interpret these references as merely literary imitations of biblical descriptions of the fall of Jerusalem under Nebuchadrezzar, hence lacking in historical references to the Roman destruction. But this interpretation is not without its problems. In any case, it is widely held that the Lucan gospel was composed ca. 80–85 CE, even though one cannot maintain this dating with certainty.

Nothing in the Lucan gospel hints at the place where it was composed. The author's knowledge of Palestine is at times defective, which would suggest that it was not composed there. Ancient tradition mentions Achaia, Boeotia, and Rome; modern conjectures include Caesarea, the Decapolis, or Asia Minor. No one really knows where it was written.

Intended Readers.

Details in the Lucan gospel suggest that Luke was writing for a predominantly gentile Christian community. Among such details are the dedication of his two‐volume work to a patron with what is clearly a Greek name (Theophilus), his concern to relate his narrative account of the Jesus story and its sequel to a Greco‐Roman literary tradition, his elimination from his source materials of items with a pronounced Jewish preoccupation (e.g., the controversy about what is clean or unclean, Mark 7.1–23; the substitution of Greek titles like kyrios, “Lord,” or epistatēs, “master” for rabbi/rabbouni, cf. Mark 9.5; 10.51 with Luke 9.33; 18.41; and the omission of other Semitic words). All such details suggest that Luke envisaged his readers as predominantly gentile Christians in a Greek‐speaking setting, but who were not wholly unacquainted with the Septuagint.

Lucan Teaching.

Even a brief summary of Luke's interpretation of the Jesus story must cope with its sequel, for details in Acts sometimes bear on the message of the gospel itself. Though the Lucan picture of Jesus may not be as radical as the Pauline or the Marcan, or as sublime as the Johannine, it is nevertheless one of the major testimonies to Jesus in the New Testament.

The Lucan picture of Jesus is kerygmatic. The Christian “kerygma” has been defined by Rudolf Bultmann as the proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as God's eschatological act of salvation. Luke clearly depicts Jesus proclaiming himself in this way, not only as God's agent of promised salvation (4.16–21) but also as the preacher par excellence of God's kingdom: “that is what I was sent for” (4.43). Luke further depicts, no less than the other evangelists, Jesus' disciples sent out to announce the kingdom and to heal (9.1). Later, in Acts, Peter proclaims Jesus Christ not only as crucified and risen but also as “Lord and Messiah” (2.36). Indeed, Peter announces further, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to human beings by which we are to be saved” (Acts 4.12). Although Luke's gospel has become more of a “Life of Christ” than either Mark's or Matthew's, it has not lost its proclamatory character. It accosts Theophilus, and other readers like him, with God's eschatological salvation achieved in Jesus Christ. Luke's picture of Jesus, now rooted in history in a way that none of the other evangelists root it, has played the kerygma in another key; but it still utters a time‐transcending, ever‐present, existential challenge to its readers to put personal faith in, and to make a deep commitment to, Jesus the risen Lord and “the Messiah of God” (9.20).

The Lucan picture of Jesus is also drawn in a distinctive historical perspective. Luke's concern is evident from the remark that he has Paul utter before King Agrippa, “None of these things has escaped his [the king's] notice, for this was not done in a corner” (Acts 26.26). Jesus' story and its sequel, intended by God's providence to challenge human beings to Christian faith, has been rooted in human history. This is the reason that Luke has not written a “gospel,” as does Mark (1.1), a term he never uses in the first part of his work (but only in Acts 15.7; 20.24), preferring instead to designate his two‐volume work as a “narrative account” (diēgēsis, Luke 1.1). In this account he roots the Jesus story in a threefold synchronization, connecting it with Roman history, Palestinian history, and church history. Its relation to Roman history is shown by the connection of Jesus' birth with a decree of Caesar Augustus ordering the registration of the whole (Roman) world during the governorship of Quirinius (Luke 2.1–2). The ministry of John the Baptist (and of Jesus, by implication) is connected with the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius (28–29 CE) and with the prefecture of Pontius Pilate in Judea (26–36 CE; Luke 3.1). Luke further connects events in the early Christian community with the famine in the days of Claudius (ca. 46 CE; Acts 11.18), with Claudius's expulsion of Jews from Rome (49 CE; Acts 18.2), and with the proconsulship of Gallio in Achaia (52 CE; Acts 18.12). Again, he connects the birth of Jesus with Palestinian history by linking it with the days of King Herod the Great (37–4 BCE; Luke 1.5); and John's and Jesus' ministry to the time of the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, to the reigns of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, of Philip, tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and of Lysanias, tetrarch of Abilene (3.1)—even though only Galilee further figures in the Jesus story. Finally, he connects the Jesus story with Christian history in a way that no other evangelist does, by recounting its sequel in Acts. All of this historical perspective, which is exclusively Lucan, is in the long run related to his view of salvation history. Luke sees all of human history divided into three phases: the period of Israel (see Luke 16.16), the period of Jesus (from the coming of John the Baptist to the ascension), and the period of the church under stress (from the ascension to the parousia). This historical perspective is central to the unique Lucan presentation of the Christian kerygma.

The Lucan picture of Jesus is also drawn in a geographical perspective. Luke is preoccupied in his gospel to depict Jesus as moving resolutely from his Galilean ministry, once the travel account begins (9.51), toward Jerusalem, the city of destiny—where his “exodus” is to be achieved (13.32–33). Such a perspective gives Jerusalem a distinctive centrality; towards it, all in the gospel is aimed. Then in Acts it becomes the focal point from which “the word of the Lord” (8.25) goes forth as Jesus' disciples are commissioned as “witnesses” to carry it from Jerusalem to “all Judea and Samaria” and “to the end of the earth” (1.8). Since the last expression can mean “Rome” (see Ps. Sol. 8.15), and since Rome is where the story of Acts ends (see 28.16), Paul becomes the one who in effect carries the word “about the Lord Jesus Christ openly and unhindered” (28.31) from Jerusalem to that “end.” Both the historical and the geographical perspectives enhance the status of the church as the sequel to Jesus' ministry in the Roman world of its time.

The Lucan picture of Jesus' ministry and its sequel also has an apologetic perspective. This is Luke's secondary purpose in writing his “narrative account,” for he wanted to show that Christianity had as much right to legitimate recognition in the Roman world as did Judaism. Hence, he was concerned from the outset of the gospel to depict Jesus, the founder of Christianity, as born into a pious Jewish family, circumcised, and faithfully observant of Jewish customs. Later on, it emerges in Luke's account that Christianity, a “sect” of Judaism (Acts 24.5, 14), is the logical outgrowth of Pharisaic Judaism. He depicts Paul as stoutly maintaining his Pharisaic connection, by siding with the Pharisees against the Sadducees with respect to “the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23.6). He further portrays Paul, once he has been taken captive at the end of Acts, as being declared innocent on several occasions (23.9, 29; 25.12, 18–20, 25; 26.31–32). These declarations of innocence imply indirectly that Christianity likewise stands in the same relation to the Roman government.

The key figure in Lucan salvation history is Jesus himself, about whom the evangelist makes not only christological but also soteriological affirmations about who Jesus is and what he has done for humanity. Certain aspects of Jesus, who is otherwise portrayed as a human being, hint at his transcendent condition: his virginal conception through the power of the Holy Spirit; his ministry under the auspices of the holy Spirit; his special relation to his heavenly Father; his resurrection and exaltation to glory. Luke applies many traditional christological titles to Jesus: Messiah (or Christ), Lord, Savior, Son of God, Son of man, Servant, Prophet, King, Son of David, leader, Holy One, Righteous One, Teacher. Particularly noteworthy are the distinctive Lucan use of “Savior” (2.11; Acts 5.31; 13.23), “suffering Messiah” (24.26, 46; Acts 3.18; 17.3; 26.23), and the retrojection of the title “the Lord” (originally used of the risen Christ) even into the infancy narrative (2.11; cf. 1.43) and the ministry account, when the evangelist himself is speaking (7.13, 19; 10.1, 39, 41; 11.39; 12.42a; 13.15; etc.). When Luke speaks of the soteriological function of Jesus Christ and the effects of what he has done for humanity, he depicts them as “salvation” (1.69, 71, 77; 3.6; 19.9; Acts 4.12; 13.26, 47; 16.17; 28.28), “forgiveness of sins” (24.47; Acts 2.38; 5.31; 10.43; 13.38; 26.18), “peace” (2.14; 19.38, 42), and “life” (10.25–28; 24.5; Acts 11.18; 13.46–48), and once even as “justification” (Acts 13.39, where the context provides the interpretation of it as “forgiveness of sins”). In a way that surpasses that of the other evangelists, Luke portrays not only the ministry of Jesus itself but even the movement begun by him as especially Spirit‐guided. In at least seventeen instances in the gospel and fifty‐seven in Acts the influence of the Spirit is seen both on the activity of Jesus himself and on that of his followers.

Hence, though Luke may have introduced a historical perspective in the gospel tradition, he did not simply imitate Flavius Josephus, who composed the Jewish Antiquities, by writing merely annalistic Christian Antiquities. He has preserved the proclamatory aim of the gospel tradition, and that is why we refer to it as “the gospel according to Luke.”

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J.

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