Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
So begins the Gospel according to Luke. This post explores some questions about this Gospel and its companion volume, the Acts of the Apostles.
Who wrote the third Gospel in the New Testament and the book of Acts? Luke, beloved physician and companion of Paul in his missionary travels, has been the traditional answer; but nothing in either the Gospel or Acts specifically indicates this. The name “Luke” is a convention used to designate the unknown author of this Gospel. The tradition that “Luke” was a medical doctor is not explicitly substantiated in this work either—it relies on a connection between the author and the “beloved physician” mentioned at Colossians 4:14.
It is clear that the author was an articulate Christian, well educated in Greek culture and thoroughly familiar with Hebrew scripture. “Luke” was highly motivated by a desire to tell the Good News to his contemporaries, represented by Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), a name symbolizing the “friend of God”, who may well have been an individual person who provided practical support for “Luke” in his writing enterprise.
When were these two volumes published? It seems most likely that the two volumes were written at around the same time, and intended to belong together from the start. They appear to have been written to a second or third generation of believers, who knew the story of Jesus (1:1–2) but needed to have it retold in orderly fashion (1:3–4).
Further clues in the Gospel suggest that it was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE (because of the detailed descriptions of 19:43–44; 21:20–24), at a time when the early expectation, that Jesus was soon to return, had failed to happen (12:35–40; 21:34–36). The consensus is that “Luke” was writing in the 80s or 90s CE.
Where were these volumes published? Early tradition suggested Achaia, in Greece; or in Antioch. There can be no certainty on this. The way that “Luke” retells the teachings of Jesus suggests that the community which received the Gospel included both rich and poor (14:7–24) as well as Jews and Gentiles (4:16–30).
The influence of well-to-do people can be seen at many points in Acts (10:1–2; 13:50; 16:14–15; 17:4, 12, 34). They seem to be engaged—or should have been engaged—in missionary activity, as this is often modeled in the text (Luke 9:1–6; 10:1–20; 24:46–49; and in Acts).
Why were these volumes written? “Luke” seems to be encouraging his readers in their faith (17:5–6), reminding them of the cost of discipleship (9:57–62; 14:25–33), of the way to love people (10:25–37), and of the faithfulness of God (15:1–32) even in the midst of trials (21:12–19).
The story of Jesus is told in such a way to encourage people to follow Jesus by taking up their crosses (9:23) and being his witnesses (24:48). The story of those who followed on the Way of Jesus, throughout Acts, reinforces the emphasis upon suffering (9:16) and bearing witness (1:8).
What is contained in Luke’s Gospel? Like every biography, this account of Jesus’ life is selective; yet, compared with other New Testament accounts of Jesus, Luke’s Gospel contains a lot of special material. Three sections are important in this account: the birth of Jesus (1:5–2:52), the journey towards Jerusalem (9:51–19:27), and the resurrection story (24:1–49). When Jesus preaches in Nazareth (4:16–30), he sets out the manifesto for his ministry. The Gospel moves, overall, from Galilee (4:31–9:50), through the journey section, to Jerusalem, centre of Jewish faith (19:28–24:53).
What is contained in Acts? Acts is the mirror reverse, as the Gospel spreads from Jerusalem (1:1–8:3) to Rome (28:14–31), the centre of the Gentile world. It, too, is selective, and has a particular focus on the community in Jerusalem, the outreach to Samaria, and then (for the last half of the book) on the figure of Paul, who is portrayed as spearheading the mission amongst Gentiles and establishing many communities of believers with an inclusive makeup of both Jews and Gentiles.
How does Luke tell this story? These two volumes tell of the deliberate and intentional working out of the plan of God in the life of Jesus. Everything that he does and says indicates that his ministry is carrying out the will and purpose of God: Jesus is guided by the spirit, fulfilling the ancient prophecies, working in accord with God’s plan for all people, to bring salvation, hope, healing and joy into the world. His followers continue and develop that mission under the guidance of the spirit, in fulfillment of the prophecies, in accord with what Jesus has foreseen.