Introduction to Luke’s Gospel: Preparation for Lectionary Year C


Sources: Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2000, Chapter 8; Fred B. Craddock, Luke (Interpretation Series), John Knox Press, 1990, Introduction.

Who wrote Luke’s Gospel?

  • We do not know the identity of ‘Luke’. There is no evidence that Luke was a physician.
  • Most scholars think that the same person wrote Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  Both books have similar writing style, introductions, and format. Therefore Acts is Luke Book 2.  You could also call Luke the ‘Acts of Jesus’.
  • Acts contains many references that “we” travelled to various places.  So possibly, Luke was one of St. Paul’s travelling companions.
  • Scholars of Greek indicate that Luke wrote in a more educated style than Mark or Matthew. Maybe Luke was a Greek-speaking Jew who lived outside the holy Land.

Was Luke a Gentile?

No, Luke was clearly Jewish, as these points show.

  • Luke’s stories about Jesus quote the Hebrew Scriptures extensively. For example, in Chapter 4, Luke adds the quotation from Isaiah 61: 1-2 (‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me …’) to the accounts by Matthew and Mark.
  • Luke’s Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holy city. In Chapter 1, Zechariah is a Temple priest. In Chapter 24, the journey to Emmaus begins in Jerusalem and the two disciples return there.  At the end of the book, Jesus tells the disciples to wait for the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. In the other Gospels, the disciples go to Galilee after the Resurrection.

What sources did Luke use to write his Gospel?

  • Like Matthew, Luke presents large sections of Mark, often almost word for word. This suggests that Mark wrote his Gospel before Luke.
  • The ‘Four Source hypothesis’ is that both Matthew and Luke used Mark, a lost document called Q (short for quelle = source in German), plus their own unique materials.
  • Luke and the other authors wrote their Gospels decades after Jesus lived on earth.   Therefore they must all trace back to oral stories about Jesus.
  • Most likely, the Gospel writers felt the need to write down the oral stories about Jesus so that they would not get forgotten.  Almost certainly, details in these stories, and the words that Jesus spoke, changed as time went by.
  • Not all ancient manuscripts of Luke (or any other Biblical books) are word for word identical.   Unlike printed documents, scribes had to copy the Gospels by hand. That allowed copying errors and also scribal amendments to creep in. No signed originals of any New Testament document exist.

    When was Luke’s Gospel written?

    Most scholars date Luke at ~75-85 CE, similar to Matthew.  This is later than Mark but earlier than John.

What sort of narrative is a Gospel?

  • The Gospels are similar to the ancient world’s ‘biographies’ of heroic figures, whose subjects overcome all difficulties and win all arguments.
  • Gospels are also theological history books.  They are like accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures of the lives and work of Moses, Samuel, Elijah, and King David.
  • All the Gospels have the ‘agenda’ of proclaiming who Jesus was, and the meaning of his life, ministry, death, and Resurrection  for the writer and/or the writer’s community of early Christians.

Luke’s Introduction(s): Luke 1: 1-4 (and Acts 1: 1-2)

No other Gospel has that format.

  • Both Luke and Acts have a dedication to Theophilus.  That word means ‘lover, or beloved, of God’.  It was not necessarily an actual person
  • The reader is considered ‘most excellent’ (as in the expression your excellency).
  • Luke calls his book an account [1: 3], unlike Mark, who began his book by calling it a Gospel/ good news.  Luke specifically called it an ‘orderly’ account.  Perhaps he thought that it was more accurate than Mark’s Gospel.
  • Luke did not claim to have known Jesus personally.  He wrote that events were ‘handed on to us’ [1: 2] in the sense of ‘this is our tradition’.

Luke as storyteller

Luke’s Gospel contains some of the best-loved Gospel stories. Examples include:

  • Luke’s birth narrative and early life of Jesus [Luke Chapter 2]
  • Unique parables, such as the Prodigal son; Good Samaritan; Unjust manager; Rich man and Lazarus

Luke considers this world’s problems more than Mark or Matthew

  • In the Beatitudes, Matthew and Luke edited the Q source differently. Matthew [5: 1-12]: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit …’ Luke 6: 20-26: ‘Blessed are the poor/ but woe to you who are rich now …’
  • Luke’s Jesus is more inclusive. For example, the story of the Good Samaritan presents a foreigner in a favourable light.  It also fleshes out the meaning of ‘Who is my neighbour?’ of the second great commandment.
  • In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Luke 16: 19-31], Luke emphasizes the rich man’s lack of caring.
  • In Luke 8: 1-3, and several times in Acts, the author emphasizes the role of women as supporters of Jesus and the Apostles.

Luke and the birth and early life of Jesus

These are not considered by Mark or John.

  • Luke and Matthew have different Christmas stories.  Luke’s is about angels and shepherds; Matthew’s is about the magi.
  • The story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist’s birth [Luke 1] quotes that of Hannah and Samuel [1 Samuel 1].  Luke notes that Jesus and John are cousins [Luke 1: 36].
  • Luke [3: 23] tells us that Jesus began his ministry at ~30 years old.  This is why Advent readings in which John seems to predict Jesus’ birth do not make sense.
  • Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit is announced by Angel Gabriel [Luke 1: 26-38]. Mary’s song (Magnificat) parallels Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2).
  • In Luke 2: 5, Joseph was engaged to Mary, whereas Matthew is unclear whether they were engaged or married [Matt: 1: 19-20; 24-25].
  • Luke and Matthew differ about Joseph’s home town.  Luke ( Chapter 2) says that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home of Bethlehem, from which they later returned home [2: 39].
  • In Matthew Chapter 2, it seems that Joseph lived in a house (not a stable) in Bethlehem [Matt: 2: 2: 1, 5; 11]. 
  • Luke 2: 21-51 is very Jerusalem-centred, see comment earlier. The accounts of Simeon and Anna, and the visit at age 12 both involve the Temple. This material is Luke’s revelation of Jesus’ identity (the epiphany). The revelation progresses from ordinary people (shepherds) to Temple personnel (Simeon and Anna), to Jesus himself, and ultimately to God, at Jesus’ baptism.
  • Matthew and Luke present genealogies of Jesus (though both are actually genealogies of Joseph!). They differ both in scope and detail. Matthew traces Joseph back to Abraham via David [1: 1-16]. This places Jesus in the arc of Judaism. Luke traces him back to Adam via David [3: 23-38], explicitly identifying Jesus as Son of God and a Messiah for all people, not just Jews.

Luke’s passion narrative identifies Jesus more strongly as Son of God than Mark’s

Luke’s Jesus is more confident than Mark’s.

  • Luke’s Garden of Gethsemane narrative begins when Jesus tells the disciples ‘Pray that you not come into the time of trial’ [Luke 22: 40]
  • Before the Council Jesus is silent in response to the question  ‘Are you the Messiah?’ [Mark 14: 60-61].  Luke [22: 67-68] has this exchange: ‘If you are the Messiah, tell us.’  Jesus replied, ‘If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I question you, you will not answer.’
  • When Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross, Mark [15: 21] has no dialogue .  In Luke 23: 28-31, Jesus makes a: long speech starting, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but for yourselves …’
  • Mark 15: 34, quotes Jesus’ words on the Cross as ‘My God why have you forsaken me?’  In Luke 23: 42-43, one of the other condemned men says, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’.  Jesus replies,  ‘Truly today you will be with me in paradise.’

After the Resurrection

  • The journey to Emmaus  is unique to Luke and looks back to the Last Supper
  • Luke 24: 36-43 parallels John 20: 19-31 (Doubting Thomas) and John 21: 9-14 (breakfast on the beach)
  • The Ascension is unique to Luke, and presents Jesus as the new Elijah. It parallels the ascent of Elijah to heaven [2 Kings 2: 11].