The third gospel, which comes from the same hand as the Acts of the Apostles, according to a long tradition; the internal evidence of their common dedication to Theophilus and the similarity of their literary style confirms that view. From the time of Irenaeus (c. 190 CE) the author of the two-volume work has been regarded as Luke, the companion of Paul (Col. 4: 14; Philem. 24), but doubt has been thrown on this by scholars who find it hard to explain how so close a companion of Paul should be so ignorant of his fundamental beliefs (e.g. about justification). And how odd that he gives an account in Acts of Paul’s visits to Jerusalem which does not conform with Paul’s own travelogue in the epistle to the Galatians. Nevertheless, objections to the case against Luke can be met; it has to be borne in mind that Paul wrote in the white heat of controversy and naturally made out the best case for his independence and apostolic status, equal to that of the Twelve in Jerusalem, whereas Luke, writing a generation later, about 85 CE, was anxious to paint a picture of the calm and unity of the early Church.
In the prologue of the gospel Luke warns that he was not an eyewitness of the events described, and he relies on various existing sources. One of them is undoubtedly the gospel of Mark, which Luke freely takes over. A theory formerly held by several English scholars was that Luke composed the gospel in two stages: first he combined the source Q with material to which he had access (‘L’); this resulted in ‘proto-Luke’. Later the evangelist came into possession of the gospel of Mark, and conflated the two documents, adding the infancy narratives (chs. 1 and 2) to make the existing third gospel. However, the proto-Luke hypothesis has not won favour, and it is more usually supposed that Luke combined Mark with Q, though those who have doubts about the Q hypothesis suggest that Luke used the gospel of Matthew to supplement Mark.
Luke is a Gentile, possibly a native of Antioch, and that his intended readers were presumably Gentiles is suggested by the dedication (to Theophilus) and his omission of matters of particular Jewish interest which Mark (e.g. 7: 1–23) had included. Luke is more at home in literary Greek than either Mark or Matthew—using, for example, the Greek convention of meals as occasions for Jesus’ teaching. Again, it is Luke, the experienced traveller, who refers to the (mere) lake of Galilee, which for Mark was a (Great) ‘Sea’ (Luke 8: 22; Mark 6: 49). The second volume is the story of the progress of the Christian message from Jerusalem to the centre of the Gentile world (Rome), of which, in the gospel, he can only give hints—such as the narratives which show Jesus as breaking with the traditional Jewish hatred of the Samaritans and as having numerous contacts with non-Jews; all people are to share in salvation, not merely the descendants of Abraham (Luke 4: 25–7). There is a discernible tendency in Luke as compared with Matthew and Mark to release Christianity from any impression that it is merely Jewish: even the census of 2: 1 is held to be (improbably) applicable to the whole Roman world, just as in 10: 1 Jesus sends out 70 disciples, corresponding in number to the nations listed in Gen. 10: 1–32. The future mission to the Gentiles (in Acts) is anticipated and legitimated by the centurion at the foot of the cross (23: 47).
However, the whole story is firmly anchored not only in the mainstream of Roman history, by relating Jesus’ birth to a decree of Caesar about a universal census, but also to the revelation given to Israel. Luke frequently (though not with the obsessiveness of Matthew) intends his readers to understand that all that he records has taken place in accordance with a definite divine plan which fulfils the redemptive history of the OT. Many traditional titles of the Messiah are applied to Jesus, and he is called ‘Saviour’ (2: 11), a term familiar to devotees in search of salvation in the Mystery religions, as well as the suffering Messiah (24: 26). Luke portrays the Church as the New Israel—hence his emphasis on the Twelve ‘Apostles’ as successors of the Twelve OT patriarchs who gave their names to the Twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22: 30). The Church is the heir to the promises to Israel. Jesus’ connection with Jerusalem from an early age (2: 22, 41) is therefore stressed, and the Church is shown to have originated in Jerusalem (Acts 2: 1). Luke answers the question surely asked in the Church—‘What about the Jews and their literature now?’ It was thus important to establish that the crucial events concerning Jesus took place in or around Jerusalem, the place of revelation and eschatological expectation. The eschatology of Luke has received a shift of emphasis compared with Matthew and Mark: the sense of the parousia and all the events associated with the End is much reduced, and instead Luke invites his readers to share in the joy of living in the Spirit-filled community. Luke wants believers to be ready for the End to come suddenly at some incalculable time (12: 39–40) but not necessarily soon. The urgent summons to repentance is replaced by the exhortation to be imitators ‘daily’ (Luke 9: 23) of Jesus.
There are other distinctive themes in the third gospel. It presents Jesus as faithful to Jewish customs, and not the sort of innovator who might justify Roman suspicion of Christianity. Jesus is declared innocent by Pilate (23: 4, 13, 22) and Paul by Festus (Acts 25: 25). More than the other gospels, Luke stresses Jesus’ concern for the disadvantaged and for the despised Samaritans. There is a sympathetic regard for women, although Luke portrays them in traditional roles of prayer and almsgiving and in supporting the missionary labours of men (8: 3). But Luke’s message of hope for the oppressed surely does apply to women (who in most ages have been the poor in the population) and who were the first to assimilate and to transmit the joy of the resurrection (Luke 24: 9–11).