All the narrative books of the New Testament come to us as unsigned, anonymous documents. The first generation of readers probably knew who the authors of the New Testament books were, but oral tradition was not always passed on in the literary tradition.
Scholars speak of “internal” and “external” evidence in support of authorship: clues within the text itself, and evidence from other sources.
The author of the Third Gospel never names himself. All he tells us is that he was not among the “eyewitnesses” to the ministry of Jesus (Lk 1:2-4). In the so-called “we” passages in Acts, he identifies himself as one of Paul’s travelling companions (Ac 16:9-18; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). Craig Keener observes that “If the author simply wanted to insert himself into the narrative, it would be surprising that he does so infrequently and at places of less theological import than one would expect” (1:408).
This is the only direct internal evidence we have about the mysterious author we know as Luke. This is intriguing for someone who wrote a quarter of the New Testament (or more, if we accept that Luke may also have written Hebrews and (less likely) the Pastoral Letters). Perhaps piety precluded Luke from drawing attention to himself.
Definite authorship of the Third Gospel is asserted only in the late second century CE. The oldest extant manuscript of Luke’s Gospel (P75), dated to around 200 CE, has the title “Gospel According to Luke.” John Wenham notes that some patristic texts suggest that Luke may have been one of the 72 (Lk 10:1), or the unnamed disciple of Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), or Lucius of Cyrene (Ac 13:1), or Paul’s kinsman (the “we” passages in Acts). Wenham claims that Luke may have been all of these!
The earliest external evidence identifying the author of the Third Gospel as Luke is Irenaeus (Against Heresies 3.13.1; 3.14.1). Justin Martyr refers to Luke having written a “memoir of Jesus” and notes that the author of the Third Gospel was a companion of Paul (Dialogue with Trypho 10.3.19). The heretic Marcion also viewed Luke as the author of Luke-Acts, and the so-called “Anti-Marcionite” Prologue to Luke also assumes Lucan authorship, claiming that he was a native of Antioch and a doctor.
Tertullian (Against Marcion 4.2.2; 4.5.3) states that the Third Gospel is a summary of Paul’s gospel. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.4.2) identifies Luke as Paul’s companion, a native of Antioch, and the author of Luke-Acts. In the fourth century CE, Jerome held that Luke was born in Antioch, that he was fluent in Greek, wrote his Gospel while in Achaia, and died in Boeotia (Patralogia latina 23.650; 26.17). There is no evidence of early church leaders refuting these claims, and no other name is attached by tradition to Luke or Acts.
What then can we say about Luke?
At the time of writing Luke-Acts, Luke was a mature Christian leader. He may have been Jewish, but was most likely Gentile (see Col 4:10-14). If so, then Luke is the only identified author of a New Testament book who was not Jewish by birth.
Luke’s distinctive interpretation of Judaism and geographical knowledge suggest that he was not of Palestinian origin. His reference to “their language” (Ac 1:19) suggests that Aramaic was not his native language. If the author of the Third Gospel is the same as “Luke, the dearly loved physician” (Col 4:14), then Luke was a doctor, although nothing in Luke-Acts indicates specialist medical knowledge.
Luke’s Greek prose style and vocabulary are the most literary in the New Testament. About 90 per cent of his vocabulary is found in the Septuagint, and his writing reflects the style of narrative sections of the Old Testament such as 1-2 Samuel (Boring, 566). Like Cornelius (Ac 10:1-2), Lydia (Ac 16:14) and Titius Justus (Ac 18:7), Luke may have been a “worshipper of God” for some time prior to his conversion, associating with synagogue culture where he became intimately acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures.
Luke seems to have known Philippi well (Ac 16), and to have spent significant time with Paul in Rome after the close of the Book of Acts. Wenham suggests that 2 Corinthians 8:18 also refers to Luke (1991:4). It is possible that Luke was a generation younger than Paul, perhaps a teenager when they were shipwrecked.
This relationship is important in regard to Luke’s chronology and theology. David A. deSilva observes, “Even if the author of Luke-Acts had personal contact with Paul, he is not therefore merely Paul’s mouthpiece; conversely, just because he tells the story differently and articulates early Christian theology differently does not mean he lacked close acquaintance with Paul” (262).
Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, snorkeling, and reading a good book.
Next study: Did Luke write Hebrews?
Image source: Pemptousia