Who Wrote the Gospels, Part 2
Hi. Welcome back. Last week I discussed who wrote the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. This week I’m going to discuss Luke. Actually, I’m going to discuss both Luke and Acts, as they have the same author and to fully understand one, you need the other. This should be kind of fun, as it’s my special area of study.
Once again, Before we begin, I want to point out that I’m a Christian, but I’m not a literalist. While I’m not a preacher, a teacher, nor clergy. I not have any degrees in these matters. Don’t take anything I say on faith. For all you know, I’m Satan’s cabana boy, sent to bring umbrellas and misinformation to mislead the faithful. I don’t think that I am, but I’m capable of being wrong.
This is a HISTORICAL discussion of the origins of the Gospels, not a theological one. We’re just talking about how the books came in to their present form. For my own part, I believe they are true in every meaningful sense, I just think God used a rather more convoluted editing process to get them to their modern state than most people realize.
I do not want to challenge anyone’s faith, nor make them question the validity of scripture, so if you have a fragile faith, you should leave now.
OK: On to business.
Who wrote Luke and Acts? “Luke,” you say, “Don’t be an idiot. Everyone knows that.” Well, no, he didn’t. I’ll explain why below. Unlike Matthew and Mark, however, we do at least know how Luke/Acts came to be associated with him. It’s convoluted, but interesting:
Luke and Acts are clearly written by the same person. They are volumes 1 and 2 of the same story. They are written in Third Person. In Acts, a “Lucius” is introduced, and after that, Acts switches from third to first person. “We went here,” “We did this,” etc. It is assumed that this is because Lucius joined Paul’s party at that point. Everything up until then was stuff he’d learned about, everything after that point is stuff he’d actually taken part in. Because he has a similar name, “Lucius” is assumed to be the same as the “Doctor Luke” that Paul mentions in several of his epistles. He might be, he might not be. There’s no way to be sure. First century church records outside of the Bible itself are basically nonexistent.
In any event, since people assume that Luke wrote Acts, and the author of Acts expressly states that he wrote the Gospel of Luke, it follows logically that it was Luke that wrote Luke. Again: Duh. This is, unfortunately, flawed reasoning, as I’ll explain. Suffice to say: this Gospel, like the previous two, is anonymous.
“Many people have attempted to write about the things that have taken place among us. Reports of these things were handed down to us. There were people who saw these things for themselves from the beginning. They saw them and then passed the word on. With this in mind, I myself have carefully looked into everything from the beginning. So I also decided to write down an orderly report of exactly what happened.” (Luke 1:1-3)
Right from the git-go, the author is telling us that he’s using pre-existing accounts and sources to compile his tale. We can tell pretty conclusively that the Author of Luke/Acts is using the Gospel of Mark, the Septuigint, and the hypothetical Q document that I told you about last week. In addition, he is certainly using Flavius Josephus’ history, “The Antiquities of the Jews,” which wouldn’t have been available to Matthew’s author. Those are pretty much beyond question. In addition it’s a sure bet that he’s using some kind of diary written by one of Paul’s traveling companions (Though not necessarily that of Lucius and/or Luke himself). This hypothetical document is called the “We Source” or “We Document” by scholars. It’s almost a certainty. There were undoubtedly some other sources – oral or written – that we have no idea about. Remember: The guy was trying to do a thorough job, and he did do one.
It’s also possible that he had the Epistle to the Hebrews and First Peter, to cull from, as well as the non-Canonical “First Epistle of Clement.” It’s possible he may have been aware of the Gospel of Matthew to work off of as well. These are by no means certain. In the case of Matthew, it’s particularly contentious and hinges on when Luke/Acts was actually written.
Curiously for a traveling companion of Paul, the author clearly does not have any access to the Epistles. He doesn’t quote them, even when it would provide a lot of personal details about the Apostle’s personal history (Such as Galatians), or otherwise help his case. He seems aware that Paul maintained correspondence, since there’s a brief mention of Paul “Sending a letter he wrote,” but the author is clearly vague about how extensive this was, or wasn’t. This argues against Luke being the author. An actual traveling companion would know this stuff.
It’s also worth noting that Acts isn’t entirely in first person after Lucius is introduced. It actually weaves in and out of first and third person, implying that the author is using bits of the “We Source,” where it fits, and not continually.
So our boy poured through all these, and cranked out his narrative, and it must be stated that he did a good job. Luke/Acts is far and away my favorite part of the New Testament.
Now: When was it written?
No earlier than 93 or 94 AD.
Why? Because that’s when Josephus’ history was published. Actually, it was probably at least a few years later than that. Books were prestigious and expensive in those days, and copied by hand. “Antiquities of the Jews” is an enormous book, and copies would have been very expensive, and slow to circulate. If the author of the Gospel lived in Rome, it’s possible he could have gotten access to a copy fairly early in a library or something. If he was anywhere else, then it could have taken a very long time for him to get access. That pushes the date of authorship back.
Assuming he makes reference to First Clement – which I find unlikely – then that confirms a late date of authorship. That epistle was written around 95 AD. Assuming he really is referencing Hebrews, then that argues for a late date as well as most scholars consider that late as well, around 100 AD.
It’s not stated in the author’s introduction, but it is sort of implicit that the actual witnesses are dying off, or already had, and he wanted to set the record straight. That, too, points to a fairly late date.
All these argue against Lucius or Luke being the author. Assuming he was 30 when he signed on with Paul, then he’d be in his 70s by the earliest possible date of composition. While old folks were not uncommon in the Empire, life expectancy was generally shorter than ours. Added to which, traveling with a subversive like Paul was dangerous business.
Traditionally, the conservative estimate for the date of authorship was 80-90 AD. A more reasonable modern opinion is that it was somewhere between 100-110 AD. I agree with that estimate. If so, that would make Luke the last of the Gospels to be written.
Ok, here’s where it gets weird. I’ll actually talk about the thematic unity of Luke/Acts and their internal plumbing at some later date, because that’s interesting. For today, though, I’ll discuss the odd circumstances by which the Gospel was conveyed to us.
We don’t know where Luke was composed, however there is no mention of it prior to 144 AD (!). In the late 130s a guy named “Marcion” came to Rome. He was the Bishop of Pontius, and a successful businessman as well. His father is said to have been made a bishop by Paul himself. I’ll talk about Marcion at some later date, as the guy is fascinating, but for right now let’s focus on how he fits in to this particular narrative.
Marcion went straight to the Bishop of Rome (They didn’t really have Popes in those days) and gave him a very impressive gift: a collection of ten of Paul’s thirteen epistles! These were unknown in Rome up to this point. (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus were not included. They don’t show up until late in the 2nd century). He also brought the Gospel of Luke.
Now, it is unclear if Luke was known in Rome at that time, or if Marcion’s copy was their introduction. If it was known in Rome, no one saw fit to comment on it. Or, if they did, no such comments survive.
Understandably, Marcion was the toast of the Christian community, and the church gave him a reward of 200,000 cesterces. (About $600,000) Within a few years, however, he’d worn out his welcome. He was accused of heresy and of “Adulterating and Mutilating Scripture,” and formally excommunicated in 144 AD. Undeterred, Marcion simply started his own cult – “Marcionitism” – and was very successful for the next 400 or 500 years. For a while there, he was even giving real Christianity a run for it’s money.
The scripture Marcion was adulterating was, of course, Luke, and the first mention we have of Luke is actually about this weird guy chopping it up and inserting his own stuff. No copies survive, but if you want to know what he did to it, a guy named Tertullian did an extensive critique a couple generations later that is so detailed you can pretty much reconstruct the whole thing from his comments. (As people have done)
Presumably if Luke came to Rome with Marcion, then Acts must have as well, but nobody ever mentions it. The first mention of Acts is very late, although the exact date escapes me, and I don’t have any of my reference materials around. I can only assume it simply wasn’t considered very important until later on.
So where did Luke/Acts come from?
It is honestly still very unclear. Some say that Marcion himself wrote it, but that seems unlikely to me. The author is unaware of Paul’s letters, and Marcion had a collection of them. Likewise, if Marcion had written it himself, why would he have needed to mutilate it to bring it in to line with his personal theology?
It probably wasn’t written in Rome, as both books are in Greek. Given its late date of authorship, it may not have been taken seriously, or at least not as seriously as the other two gospels. It was regarded as scripture by 144, however, and it was called by its present name by around 208 AD.
My own unverifiable hunch is that it was written somewhere in Asia Minor, though definitely not Ephesus for reasons we’ll get to next week. It was comparatively new, and probably not widely circulated yet in Marcion’s day. Rome may have been aware of it, but may not have had a copy, or may only recently have gotten one from some other source. Remember: In the primitive days of Christianity, communications were unreliable and sparse. Remember: These people didn’t even know about Paul’s letters, which make up about half the New Testament!
As a counter theory, it’s also possible that Rome already had a copy, which is where Marcion first encountered it. If so, this would explain why he’d take the time to rewrite it in Rome, rather than having done so before he got there. This doesn’t really explain why there’s no mention of it before him, but even in the early 2nd century, accurate information is fairly scant. It’s possible information fell through the cracks, and it’s also possible that the details of the story of Marcion’s arrival and departure may have muddled some details.
Personally, this month, I believe the latter theory. I go back and forth, though.
And that’s all I’ve got.
Thank you for reading. Remember: I may be a fool or a devil or simply sloppy in my research. Really none of those are mutually exclusive. Do not quote me, and do not believe me without doing your own research.
I welcome comments below. I’d really like to discuss this.