This is the fifth post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
For earlier letters, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/17/i-make-prayers-on-your-behalf-letters-to-luke-1-year-c/ and https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/19/i-rejoice-in-the-gift-of-writing-letters-to-luke-2-year-c/ and https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/21/how-exciting-it-was-letters-to-luke-3-year-c/ and https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/23/i-write-briefly-letters-to-luke-4-year-c/
Theophilus to Luke, greetings.
I give thanks to God, etc., etc. But I must turn swiftly to the matter at hand!
After the success of my earlier reading from your narrative at table with my companions, I am happy to report that we have held another reading. I was of the opinion that we ought to pick up at the point where we had stopped last time, but two of my companions indicated that they were about to leave the city, and they strongly desired to hear the conclusion of your story before they left.
I, of course, was grateful for the opportunity to convey more of the story to my fellow-diners; and I was anxious that they hear the good news about how, even after Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, God was able to raise him from the dead. So together the company of diners agreed that I would read two selections from the later part of your work.
The first selection was of the teachings of Jesus in the temple (Luke 20:1– 21:4). I chose this so that my audience might appreciate the wisdom of God which was manifested in the words of Jesus, and hear how he was able to refute all objections placed in front of him. How I admired this capacity to better any opponent!
The second selection was of the death and burial of Jesus (23:26–56) and of the way the good news of the risen Lord became known (24:1–53). By this means, I was able to avoid difficult questions about some of the final teachings of Jesus, when he predicted the destruction of the temple and spoke about the cosmic catastrophes yet to come; and about the precise status of Jesus, for he was crucified as a rebel under the Roman authority of Pilate.
Instead, I was able to focus on the valiant and stoic manner in which he faced death, as you especially emphasise in your narrative of that sombre moment. And, of course, I was able to convey the essence of the good news about Jesus, that God raised him from the dead in a sovereign act of grace.
However, I must recount to you the striking turn which was taken in the course of our discussion. I had not realised at the start of our meal that there was a person at table who was present with us for the first time in this group. I suspect that he had been properly introduced to the group before I arrived; to my shame, I confess, I had been delayed and did not arrive until the group was already eating.
It was by sheer grace that my host welcomed me to the table and that those present agreed to the reading from your work, as we had earlier agreed. I was afraid that my late arrival might have prejudiced this agreement. But I digress. It turns out that this visitor was not only a learned man (as was soon evident from his contributions to the discussion) but also a man very familiar with the scriptures of the Jewish people.
Here I must make another confession. In your narrative, you make many references to such scriptures (as I now recognise). Sometimes these are direct references, which you occasionally signal as such; elsewhere, as I have learned, you subtly allude to portions of these scriptures. Indeed, I now appreciate the depth of your learning; for not only do you show a profound understanding of Greek history writing, but also a fine knowledge of the prophecies of the ancient Jews.
Of course, I had always understood that it was natural for Jesus to make reference to these scriptures, for they were his sacred books. He was, as you so clearly demonstrate, a Jew. But now, I am happy to say, I also have an appreciation (I believe) of how you have made appropriate use of these scriptures in your work.
What I learned from our visiting scholar can be traced to the explicit references to these scriptures in the final section of your work: your description of the conversation about the scriptures which Jesus had at table with the travellers in Emmaus (Luke 24:25–27), and especially the words of Jesus spoken to the group of his followers who were gathered in Jerusalem: “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled” (24:44). Aha—there it is again, that potent little word, “must be fulfilled”! At any rate, our discussion this past evening ventured into new fields for me.
The learned visitor was struck with these references to the prophets, and asked me no end of questions about this matter. As I had the whole of your manuscript with me, I was able, with only a little difficulty, to find other instances where Jesus, in your narrative, had referred directly to the prophecies in those scriptures, and also to the prophecies which he himself uttered. I must say, I was surprised just how many such instances there were throughout your work!
What was of fascination to myself, and I hope to others at the meal, was the way in which this scholar drew comparisons with the scriptures of Israel. Apparently, the idea that a prophecy such as an oracle bought from an oracle monger, or the reading of entrails, or the explanation of an omen, might be fulfilled. This idea is not at all strange to us; it is also to be found in the narratives of the Jews.
This information was not known to the company as a whole, and so the visitor found that he had acquired a platform for explaining the history of the Jewish people to an interested audience. This was not what many of us would have anticipated at the start of the evening! Indeed, what struck me as the man expounded his theme, was just how familiar some of this was to me.
Strange, for I am not known as one who religiously reads the Jewish scriptures! Yet I realised that the patterns and structures of the stories told and analysed by our learned companion were very close to some of the patterns and structures that I had encountered in my reading of your narrative.
The way that Jesus uttered prophecies and they came to pass later in the narrative—this is very close to the Jewish pattern. So too, the explicit note of scriptural prophecies coming to fulfilment in the narrative itself—this formulaic patterning of events is also akin to the Jewish pattern. I began to wonder just how much of this you might have been aware of. Were you consciously writing in the style of the Jewish historians?
Towards the end of the evening, the visitor spoke of the work of an acquaintance of his, who is presently writing in Rome, in an attempt to tell us gentiles about the Jewish people. Apparently this writer, one Flavius (Josephus) by name, makes abundant use of this pattern of prophecy and fulfilment in the course of his narrative.
And, I should tell you, he also deploys the motif of divine providence to interpret the story of the Jewish people to the learned Romans. What a striking coincidence; the very same features that we find in your work! Do you, perchance, know of this Flavius? Or is it simply that you and he have both been trained in the same manner, with due attention to the essential features of Greek history writing and Jewish scripture interpretation? A fascinating question, I dare say, even if I have posed it myself!
Incidentally, it must be noted that it was with no little surprise that I learned, at the conclusion of our dinner and discussion, that the visiting scholar at our table was himself a Jew. I had imagined that he was, like you, a gentile scholar who had made a special study of the Jewish scriptures; but apparently he was raised himself as a Jew, and he bears the bodily marks to prove this. (I must assure you that this last statement is made on the basis of a statement made by the man himself, not on any personal inspection which I carried out!)
Although I had long heard of such a phenomenon, this was in fact the first time that I had encountered a Jew who displayed no clear sign of his religion in the way that he behaved. To all intents and purposes, he acted like one of us—until the discussion turned to prophecies from scripture, I must add. Back home, the Jews in our city are much more distinctive; and even those of Jewish origin in our own group are quite noticeably so, I believe.
Well, I must conclude. I confess that I had not before thought so hard about the matters which I have canvassed above. I am glad, now, that we were able to discuss these things around the table in the house of Themistocles. It has shed a new light on your work.
I wonder, now, just how much of this was your intention as you wrote your story of Jesus? Perhaps we should add this to our list of things to discuss when we are able to meet face to face in Achaia.
Greetings to all.
Question for discussion: what is the importance, for you, of the parts of scripture that say, “this fulfilled the scriptures”?
These “letters” were part of my presentation at a conference held at St Hilda’s College, University of Melbourne, in November 2000. The conference was entitled “Preaching and Teaching in the Year of Luke: a national conference on preaching, teaching and learning”. It was sponsored by the national Uniting Church agency, Uniting Education, in association with Otira, the Continuing Education agency of the Synod of Victoria. The keynote addresses were subsequently published as AT TABLE WITH LUKE (UTC Publications; UTC Bible Studies 2, 2000) ©John T. Squires 2000