The church’s year drew to a close with the feast of Christ the King, after which we entered the current year on Sunday 28 November 2021. At that time, we left behind the regular readings from the shortest and earliest account of Jesus: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one”, known by tradition as the Gospel according to Mark.
Now, looking ahead to the year in front of us, we turn to the longer and later version of the story of Jesus, “the orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”, for our weekly Gospel passages. This “orderly account”, offered to a person named “lover of God” (in Greek, Theophilus), we are told, was written so that this Theophilus might “know the certainty concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:1–4).
Of course, we know this as the Gospel according to Luke. And we know that the author of this work (unnamed in the actual text; by tradition, known as Luke) also wrote a companion volume, in which we hear accounts of how the followers of Jesus bore witness to him “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
In the church year that stretches ahead, we are to hear and read selections from that orderly account, as the Gospel for Year C is Luke. It might feel like we are leaving Mark behind—but in reality, the shadow of Mark’s account hovers over our shoulders almost every week, this year.
As we read and ponder stories from Luke’s orderly account, we do well to remember that Mark’s beginning story was one of the sources used by Luke—from one of the “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” which the author “investigated carefully” over an extended period of time, before constructing the “orderly account” designed to “make known the certainty” of this story.
(In making this claim, I am translating the Greek often rendered as “from the beginning” in 1:3 as “over an extended period of time”; and the word rendered as “the truth” in 1:4 as, more accurately, “the certainty”.)
So it will be important, as we hear and reflect on the Lukan account, to remember and make comparisons with the earlier Markan version. The differences we note may well be significant. Has Luke intentionally modified a turn of phrase, or reshaped a story outline, or even relocated a particular incident to a different point in the overall story? Or are the differences just minor, insignificant, of no major importance? Those questions stand, week by week, as we work through the stories offered in the lectionary.
In like manner, we will need to recognise that this Gospel is but “the first book” addressed to Theophilus (Acts 1:1), and so the way that the story unfolds in later chapters, after the time of Jesus, through the actions and words of key followers, as told in the second volume, which we know as the Acts of the Apostles, will inform the way we approach and understand the orderly account of the years of Jesus, told in the Gospel.
So as we read, we would do well to have one eye, as it were, looking back, to the sources used by the author—the Gospel of Mark, and the hypothetical Q source of sayings of Jesus, and perhaps others—looking to see how the author of the orderly account has tweaked and massaged and ordered his material. (This is doing what scholars call redaction criticism; paying attention to the redactional work of the person editing all the material into a cohesive whole.)
And as we read, we would also do well to have the other eye metaphorically looking forward to the second volume by the same author. We do this in order to pay attention to the way that what has happened in later decades, as reported in this second volume, and on up to the time when the author was writing, has shaped and influenced the way the earlier story of Jesus is told. (This is paying attention to the social context of the author and the way that earlier material is reported in ways influenced by that context.)
So reading this orderly account requires attention to a number of elements, with one looking back to sources, to see how they are used in telling the story of Jesus, as the other eye looks forward to subsequent events to see how they influence the story of Jesus . And as we read, and reflect, we may well note a number of key features that characterise this orderly account. I plan to explore a few of them in coming posts.