History of Christianity—Lecture 7: The Gospel according to Luke (part 1)


This is a summary of the seventh part of twenty-four in the course on the New Testament presented by The Teaching Company.  The lectures in this course are by Prof. Bart D. Ehrman, the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His expertise is in the Greco-Roman cultural environment of early Christianity and the textual criticism of the New Testament.  For those who are interested in purchasing this course and listening to the complete lectures, please go to http://www.thegreatcourses.com.

1.  Introduction

We have not yet begun to ask the question about what Jesus himself really said and did.  Instead, we have been looking at the distinctive portrayals of Jesus in each one of the Gospels.  We have seen that Mark portrays Jesus as the son of God who, contrary to widely held expectations, must suffer for the sins of the world.  Matthew agrees with this perspective, but adds a strong emphasis that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah sent in fulfillment of the Jewish scriptures, a new Moses who expected his followers to keep the Jewish Law.

Prof. Ehrman turns now to the third of the Synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of Luke, who like Matthew and Mark has a distinctive emphasis of his own.  On the other hand, like Mark, Luke will portray Jesus as the son of God whose death fulfilled the Scriptures, but he does not stress the failure of everyone to recognize Jesus the way that Mark did.  In fact, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is worshipped already as an infant.  Like Matthew, Luke will remain that Jesus is the Messiah, but he does not stress that Jesus is the new Moses who demanded that his followers adhere to the Jewish law.  Instead, Luke stresses that Jesus’ salvation comes not just to the Jews, but to all people.

Prof. Ehrman does not mean to say that Jesus is not portrayed as Jewish in the Gospel of Luke, for in fact he is portrayed as a Jewish prophet, that is, a man who knows God’s will and has been called by God to proclaim this will to his people.  Jesus in this Gospel is portrayed as a Jewish prophet sent to the Jewish people who was rejected by them.  Because he was rejected by the Jews, his message of salvation can then go to the non-Jews, that is, to the Gentiles.  That is the overriding thesis of the Gospel of Luke.

2.  Background Information

As with the other Gospels we have considered, this one too is anonymous; the other didn’t tell us his name.  Traditionally the Gospel has been ascribed to a man named Luke who is a Gentile physician who was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul.  This tradition goes back to the 2nd century.  Whether or not we can trust the tradition is a matter of debate among competent scholars.  Like the other Gospels, this one was written in Greek.  Apparently, it was written at about the same time as the Gospel of Matthew, possibly around 80-85 AD.

There’s little to suggest that Matthew and Luke knew of each other’s work, but they do both appear to have had access to the Gospel of Mark, and to the lost source of Jesus’ sayings that scholars have called “Q”.  One of the things that makes the Gospel of Luke distinct is that this author wrote a second volume, the Book of Acts, which we will be discussing later in this series of lectures.  The Book of Acts, which is our only surviving account of the history of earliest Christianity after the death of Jesus up through the ministry of the apostle Paul.  In this later lecture, we’ll look at how this second volume, the Book of Acts, continues many of the themes and emphases of this first volume, the Gospel of Luke.  This lecture focuses exclusively on the Gospel of Luke.

3.  The Preface to Luke’s Gospel

One way of approaching Luke’s account is by comparing it with the narratives that we have already considered, those of Matthew and Mark.  Prof. Ehrman wants to compare these accounts not to conflate them, but precisely to show how they differ from one another, so we can see what the distinctive emphases are.

The first thing that strikes one when making a comparison between Luke and the other Gospels is that he begins in a completely different way from Matthew and Mark.  Luke begins by a kind of preface, an overview of his account.  It is a preface that is very much like that of  prefaces of other works that you find from ancient historians.  Luke begins by saying (Luke 1:1-4):  “whereas many have undertaken a narrative of the matters that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us from the beginning from eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word, it seemed good to me, most excellent Theophilus, to produce an accurate account, having followed all things carefully so that you might know the certainty of the matters that had been fulfilled among us.”

It’s a very interesting preface for several reasons.  First, as mentioned before, this preface is like prefaces found in other works of other historians, which might suggest that Luke was taking the historical nature of his narrative a little more seriously than the other Gospel writers that we have.  He is trying to mimic the style of ancient historians.

Second, he tells us what his sources of information were.  This was a typical move among ancient historians.  His narrative will be based on accounts that he has seen based on written reports that others have made, and these written reports go back to the reports of eyewitnesses.  In other words, Luke has before him written Gospels and oral traditions.

4.  Luke’s implicit criticism of Mark

Third, it is striking that Luke does not think favorably of his predecessors.  He indicates that others have tried to write an account, but now he wants to write one that’s accurate so that the recipient will know the certainty of what happened before.  In other words, he is casting some slight aspersions perhaps on some of his predecessors, which is particularly interesting if in fact Mark was one of those predecessors, because that might suggest that Luke didn’t think Mark had done an adequate job.  Of course that’s implied by the fact that he has changed Mark so significantly.  If he had liked Mark the way it was, he would have simply copied Mark and published it as is.

5.  Luke’s Dedication

He dedicates this book to Theophilus, but we don’t’ know who Theophilus was.  It’s typical for historians to dedicate their work to a patron, someone who provides financial support for the author.  The author may have been a patron of Luke.  Some scholars have thought that Theophilus might have been some kind of Roman administrator who Luke is giving his book to.  The reason for thinking that is because he calls Theophilus “most excellent Theophilus” and that term “most excellent” is used in the Book of Acts for Roman administrators.  So possibly this is a pagan Roman who Luke is writing for.

While that is a possibility, and a number of scholars think that is what is going on here, it seems to other scholars somewhat unlikely that a book of this size is being handed over to some pagan Roman official as if he would have time or the desire to read it.  There’s another explanation of what “Theophilus” is.  The term “Theophilus” in fact comes from two Greek words meaning “beloved of God” or “lover of God.”  It’s possible that in fact Luke has devised a fictional recipient of this book, one who is loved of God.  In other words, he is writing for Christians in his own community who are loved of God or who are lovers of God.  That makes somewhat better sense since most of these early Christian writings, in fact, all of these Gospels, were probably directed to the Christians rather than to outsiders, say, as missionary literature.  And so it may be that Theophilus is simply a “code name” for the Christians who are receiving this book.

6.  Luke’s Genealogy of Jesus

Once we get beyond the preface, we can see other differences between Luke and the other Gospels.  First, let me point out a striking difference between the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew.  It’s not that Luke used Matthew as a source, but they do have some similarities and so it is interesting to look at some of their differences.  One of the striking differences between Luke and Matthew has to do with the genealogy of Jesus that he uses in his Gospel.  Mark doesn’t have a genealogy; Matthew has one and it turns out Luke has one as well.  What is striking is that Luke’s genealogy is different from Matthew’s.

The genealogy that Luke gives is found in Chapter 3.  In Chapter 3 we are told that Jesus was supposedly the son of Joseph who was the son of Heli who was the son of Matthat who was the son of Levi, etc. and it keeps on going back.  Matthew’s genealogy, if you recall, traced Jesus back to King David, and from King David back to Abraham, the father of the Jews.  The stress in Matthew’s genealogy was that Jesus was Jewish, descended from the father of the Jews and the great King of the Jews, and is the Messiah from the Davidic line.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t just go back to David and Abraham; he goes all the way back to Adam.  This is a terrific genealogy that traces Jesus all the way back to Adam, as in Adam and Eve.  But why?  If Matthew’s genealogy was meant to show the Jewishness of Jesus because he’s related to David and Abraham, Luke’s genealogy is designed to show Jesus’ humanity.  He is not just the Savior of the Jews.  He descends from the entire human race; he’s the Savior of all humankind.

This genealogy is different from Matthew’s not simply because it goes all the way back to Adam.  If you read the beginning part of this genealogy, you realize in fact that it is a completely different genealogy from the one in Matthew.  It traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, as does Matthew’s, but Joseph in Luke’s genealogy as a different father and a different grandfather and a different great-grandfather than does Joseph in Matthew’s genealogy.  The names are in fact all different from Joseph back to David.  Some people have tried to reconcile this by saying that Matthew is giving the genealogy of Joseph, whereas Luke is giving the genealogy of Mary.  This would be a clever solution which would explain why you have the different names.  Unfortunately for that thesis, when you read the text itself it is quite clear that Luke’s genealogy is also the genealogy of Joseph.

Apparently Matthew and Luke simply inherited their genealogies from different sources.

The next post will cover the second part of the lecture.

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