Did Luke write the first “orderly account” about Jesus? This question arose during a recent lively discussion of the opening verses of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4). In that introductory statement of purpose, provided by the (anonymous) author at the very start of his writing, there is a reference to previous efforts to tell the story of Jesus (1:1), as well as an explanation of the nature and purpose of the writing that follows from the opening statement (1:3-4).
The author makes it clear that he writes with intent and purpose, seeking to evaluate and assess the material available to him, and working to create an account that is clear, structured, and helpful to his audience. He writes in order that Theophilus may know “the truth” or “the certainty” of what he has already been told about Jesus (1:4). Thus, he writes an “orderly account” (1:3).
How does the author characterise these earlier accounts? The translation I was using in this discussion (the NRSV) had him characterise them as “orderly accounts”, using the same phrase that is later applied to his own writing. Luke was not, it would seem, the first to write an orderly account of Jesus. (He may well have been the first to do so about the early church, however; there is no other work comparable to his Acts of the Apostles for some time.)
However, other members in the group were using other translations. “Mine doesn’t say ‘orderly account’ in verse 1”, someone volunteered. “Neither does mine”, another participant stated. “Mine says ‘narrative’”; “mine says ‘report’”; and a third person volunteered, “mine just says ‘account’, with no ‘orderly’ in front of it”.
So I did what I should have done from the very start: opened my Greek New Testament, and checked. Sure enough, as I read the Greek I realised that there should not have been an “orderly” in that first sentence; ‘narrative’ or ‘report’ or just plain ‘account’ are all more accurate.
And in the latter verse, where the author refers to his own work, there is actually no noun equivalent to ‘account’; the literal translation of that phrase is “it seemed also to me, having followed fully all things from the very first, to write to you accurately (and) orderly” (1:3).
Whilst the NRSV characterises the earlier accounts as being ‘orderly’, the NIV sensibly stays simply with ‘account’, along with the Common English Bible, the NASB, the New Jerusalem Bible, and (decades earlier) the Jerusalem Bible and J.B. Phillips, while the Contemporary English Version opts for ‘story’. In earlier translations, the RSV had offered ‘narrative’ and the Good News had used ‘report’. None of these translations described these pre-Lukan works as being ‘orderly’.
All of the translations gave an indication, however, that the work we ascribe to Luke is, indeed, “ordered” (NJB, CEB), in “proper order” J.B. Phillips), or “orderly” (NIV, NASB, Good News, RSV, and NRSV). The CEV adopts a somewhat tendentious line when it has the author describe his work as recounting “ exactly what took place”; that does seem to be stretching things too far!
So why has the NRSV added the adjective “orderly” to the description of these previous undertakings? The patent version of the NRSV, the Revised Standard Version, saw fit not to do so. Why this unwarranted imposition of this errant adjective?
To help me understand this, I went to the work that I consider to the the ultimate in understanding these verses: Loveday Alexander’s scholarly work, The preface to Luke ‘s Gospel (Cambridge University Press, 1993). She discusses the Greek noun used in 1:1, διήγησις (diēgesis). It is an ordinary, regularly-occurring word in Ancient Greek literature, and refers to a work of a narrative style. There’s a more technical, narrow meaning in forensic rhetoric, indicating “the initial statement of facts“ when a case is brought to court, but that’s not the context or the intention as it appears in Luke 1:1. It simply refers to a narrative, or an account, written as a prose piece. So account or narrative, or even report or story, are adequate and accurate translations. (Alexander discusses this word on page 111.)
But there is no hint of something being ordered, intentionally structured, deliberately shaped. Just a free-flowing story line in narrative form.
The adverbs employed in 1:3 are where the notion of order comes into play. Both words are used by many writers of the Hellenistic period—historians, philosophers, mathematicians, dream interpreters, and teachers of rhetoric. These are the types of works that Alexander clusters together into the category of “scientific treatises”, meaning works that address a technical or specialised area of knowledge, in contrast to novels, plays, poems, and creative works of literature. She sees the undertaking of Luke’s author to fit naturally within this category—not necessarily as history, but as a work akin to the “scientific and technical manuals of the Hellenistic and Roman periods”.
The first adverb, ἀκριβῶς (akribōs), was widely used in such works, with the common sense of carefully, accurately, precisely, exactly, or in detail (page 131). The second adverb, καθεξῆς (kathexēs), was less used initially, but became widespread by the time that Luke’s Gospel was being written. It can best be translated as in order, successively, continuously, or one after another. “A regular, connected account is in view”, Alexander concludes (pages 131–132).
So in verse 3 the author of this Gospel provides a clear, somewhat technical, explanation of how he has operated in crafting this work: collecting sources, gaining clear understanding of them, placing them in a reasoned and logical order, shaping his material with precision and care. All of this he claims for his own work. What he says of those sources he made use of (in verse 1) is simply that they are narratives or accounts.
His description is not explicitly pejorative, nor does it praise them as being like unto his work. They are simply there: he made use of them, with care, in appropriate ways. They may have been mere collections of sayings (such as the hypothetical Q source); they may have been oral accounts lumped together by key words, not pressed into a developing plot line; they may have been a connected, developed narrative work, such as the Gospel we attribute to Mark. But they were what they were. And he made good use of them.
So the NRSV has led us up the garden path when it describes these earlier works in the phrase “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account” (1:1). He simply describes them as “accounts”—narratives, stories, reports that he has made use of.
Moral of the story: use more than one translation when working from the English Bible; crosscheck and then explore the differences. Or, better still, learn Greek—and use it when reading biblical texts!!!