The preface and purpose of Luke’s Gospel

Matthew begins his Gospel by tracing Jesus’ ancestry to Abraham (Mt 1:1-17). Mark has no infancy narrative and begins with the ministry of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus aged about 30 (Mk 1:1-11). John’s Gospel takes us back to before the creation of the universe where we learn that Jesus created all things (Jn 1:1-5).

Only Luke begins his Gospel with a formal preface (1:1-4), followed by two long chapters about the birth and childhood of Jesus. 

In his prologue, Luke situates his Gospel in relation to other accounts of the life of Jesus, reveals that he is writing with a literary patron in mind, emphasises that serious historical investigation underpins his writing, and suggests a purpose for writing. Luke’s prologue is similar in style to those of other historians of his time such as Josephus (37-post 100 CE).[1]

Clues to the date of composition

We cannot be sure as to when, where, by whom, and for what purpose Luke-Acts was written. The text of Luke’s Gospel gives no firm clues apart from those in the prologue and some later references suggesting an earliest possible date.

It is reasonable to suppose that the “many” in 1:1 refers to Mark’s Gospel, Matthew’s Gospel, the assumed source “Q” (quelle, “source”) on which the Synoptic Gospels appear to rely, other sources shared with Matthew, and additional written and oral material used by Luke alone.

As to the date of writing, the production of “many” accounts of Jesus’ life suggests a lapse of several decades following Jesus’ death. Paul gives no indication in his letters that he is aware of any Gospel writings.

Further, the date of Luke’s composition must be after that of Mark, therefore probably post-65 CE. Luke alludes to details of the siege of Jerusalem during the Jewish War of 66-70 CE, including Jerusalem being “trampled by the Gentiles” (19:43f; 21:20-24). This suggests a date after the sacking of the city by the Roman Tenth Legion in 70 CE. A date between 70 and 125 seems likely, probably around 80 CE. 

Clues to the intended readers

Luke’s intended readers were probably Greek-speaking Christians. New Testament scholar John Nolland adds that  the “ideal reader” was probably a Gentile drawn into the group around the edge of a synagogue, attracted to the Jewish belief in one true God.[2] But Luke intentionally makes his narrative accessible to a wide range of others.

New Testament scholar Michael Wolter suggests that

Luke intends as readers all those Christians and Christian communities who make up the ‘whole flock’ (Acts 20:28) of Christianity, which owes its historical form to the events that he narrates in Luke-Acts. Besides this, however, the manifold anchoring of the story narrated by Luke in the history of Israel … shows that he reckons with readers who are well acquainted with the history of Israel and its Holy Scriptures.[3]

Clues to Luke’s purpose in writing

Unlike many New Testament writings, Luke’s Gospel does not appear to have been written in response to a specific or local crisis in church life. Another scholar, M. Eugene Boring, suggests that, with the arrival of Luke’s Gospel, “For the first time in the development of Christian literature and theology, a Christian author composing instruction primarily for the Christian community also explicitly looks beyond the church to the interested outsider.”[4] Theophilus is just such a person (Lk 1:4; Ac 1:1). 

More broadly, considering the theological themes present in Luke-Acts, David Wenham and Steve Walton suggest five possible reasons why Luke may have written his Gospel:

  1. to provide a defence brief for Paul at his trial or to defend Christianity more generally from the charge that it was politically subversive;
  2. to present the Christian gospel to outsiders in order to persuade them to become believers;
  3. to explain how a Jewish Messiah gave rise to a (predominantly) Gentile church which should be seen as the true Israel, now heirs to the promises of the Old Testament;
  4. to deal with the problem of apparent delay in Jesus’ return to earth by offering a theology of ‘salvation history’ focused on the church;
  5. to defend Paul – and the church more widely – from attacks by later opponents, whether Jewish or gnostic.[5]

Note: Dr John Dickson presented a talk on Luke 1:1-4 at Thornleigh Community Baptist Church, along with a Q&A session, on 13 October 2020. It’s a great companion to this study. You can watch again here.


Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister presently working as Research Support Officer at Moore Theological College, Sydney. He enjoys preaching, cooking, bush walking, and reading a good book. 


References

[1] Josephus, Contra Apionem, 1.1; 2.1.

[2] John Nolland, Luke (3 vols.; Dallas: Word, 1989), 1:xxxiif.

[3] Michael Wolter, The Gospel According to Luke (2 vols.; Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 1:30.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 594.

[5] David Wenham & Steve Walton, Exploring the New Testament. Volume 1: A Guide to the Gospels and Acts (third edition; London: SPCK, 2021), 346.

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