Luke The Gospel Writer

In Luke 10.25–37 Jesus has a conversation with a lawyer about loving God and neighbor. This conversation is found with remarkably similar wording in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yet it is only in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus’ discussion about loving God and neighbor includes the parable of the Good Samaritan. Why is this so?

What is unique about Luke? How is Luke similar to and different from the other New Testament Gospels and related ancient writings? What do we know about the person who wrote the Gospel of Luke? How do we understand the context of Luke’s passage about loving God and neighbor with its Good Samaritan parable as it fits into a larger section of the Gospel, the Travel Narrative (9.51–19.27)? What is happening to lawyers and Samaritans in this context?And how does this passage fit into the even larger context of this author’s two-volume work, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles?

Consideration of issues about the person who wrote these materials will be quite brief, while consideration of issues about the shape and thrust of Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles will be more detailed. These discussions will include reflections on Luke’s method and style of writing. Issues about the the date, location, and author of these writings will be subordinated to consideration of how the writings themselves present their own purpose. The aim of these reflections on the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles is simply to introduce the context of the story of Jesus’ conversation about love of God and neighbor with his parable about the Good Samaritan.

Luke: Who Was This Person?

We do not know precisely who wrote Luke and Acts. In these materials we may see some of the remarkable skills in storytelling and writing that this person had, we may discuss some of the historical images this person unfolds, and we may glimpse some of the Christian convictions this person had, but these materials themselves do not state who the person was who wrote them.

Like many ancient types of writing, gospels are a genre in which the author normally does not identify himself or herself. It was the duty of the communities that copied and recited these gospels to provide additional titles and names to help distinguish them from each other. Among the New Testament writings we find evidence of four different names attached to the four Gospels that may come from the end of the second century. Although Papias (about A.D. 130) discussed Matthew and Mark, he did not mention Luke. The Muratorian Fragment’s comment on Luke may be as early as 180–200 or, as some argue, 300–400.

The common Greek name Luke had appeared in several New Testament letters (Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11; and Phlm 24). Information from these verses is included in the ancient assertion about the author of the third Gospel in the Muratorian Fragment, lines 3–8: The third gospel according to Luke. After the ascension of Christ, Luke, whom Paul had taken with him as an expert in the way, wrote under his own name and according to his own understanding. He had not, of course, seen the Lord in the flesh, and therefore he begins to tell the story from the birth of John on, insofar as it was accessible to him.

Assertions like these about the author of the third Gospel have been repeated and analyzed from ancient times to the present. Was Luke a companion of Paul? Especially in modern times, those who believe the author was a companion of Paul have sometimes pointed to language in the Gospel or Acts that a physician would use; more often they have pointed to some of the passages about Paul in Acts that use the term “we” instead of “they.” Some persons who believe the author was not a companion of Paul point to central theological emphases of Paul not found in Luke or Acts, and they also point out that not one of Paul’s letters is ever quoted or mentioned in the Lukan writings. The arguments on both sides of this issue do not appear to be decisive. Therefore it seems best to admit that we are not sure whether the author of the Lukan writings was ever a companion of Paul.

When the Lukan writings are carefully read with an eye to the society of their time, do we find evidence that may clearly peg their author as Jew or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor, slave or free? The answer is no. Yet each of these categories has raised some degree of controversy about the author of this Gospel as well as the authors of other Gospels. Although many more scholars have claimed the author of the third Gospel to be a Gentile rather than a Jew, this is by no means certain. With an eye to ancient society it is not certain, but it is likely, that the author was male rather than female. An author educated well enough to produce these writings could have been either slave or free, and either rich or poor. Along with the church since at least the second or third century, we may refer to this author as Luke.

While we do not know who the person was who wrote Luke and Acts, we can analyze some of the ways that modern students have seen this author as a theologian, an historian, and a literary artist. To do this, it is helpful to focus primarily on the text of Luke and Acts, and then to compare these writings with other New Testament materials and other ancient writings.

The Lukan Writings: An Overview of the Gospel and Acts

The first verses in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles indicate that they were both written by the same person for Theophilus (Luke 1.1–4 and Acts 1.1–11). What happens in the Gospel, and then what happens in the Acts?

There have been many suggestions about the shape and flow of the Gospel of Luke. It may be heard as a sequence of four large sections:

  • Preface (1.1–4)
  • Jesus’ birth and preparation for ministry (1.5–4.13)
  • Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (4.14–9.50)
  • Jesus’ travels to Jerusalem (9.51–19.27; considered more carefully below)
  • Jesus’ final days, crucifixion, and resurrection (19.28–24.53)

Similarly the Acts of the Apostles may be heard as a sequence of three large sections:

  • Preface (1.1–11)
  • God’s mission with Peter and others in Jerusalem (1.12–8.3)
  • God’s mission to Samaria and to Antioch (8.4–15.35)
  • God’s mission with Paul’s travels to Jerusalem and to Rome (15.36–28.31)

In the Lukan writings, this whole story and its many sequential stories are unfolded with the focus on what God has accomplished through Jesus Christ in the Gospel and what God has accomplished through the first generation of witnesses to Jesus in the book of Acts. The tensions in these stories reveal Jesus and his witnesses in conflict with the forces of evil and death. The teaching woven throughout the stories emphasizes the foundations of God’s plan with Israel in the past and the flourishing of God’s power and salvation now and in the future resurrection.

Jesus’ conflict with evil powers intensifies throughout the stories in the Gospel. And as God’s own Son, Jesus continues to teach about God’s kingdom and to show the power of God’s kingdom in his healings and in his ministry with various outcasts. A “great reversal” is already beginning. In one of Jesus’ stories, for example, poor, sick Lazarus has yearned for crumbs that fell from the rich man Abraham’s table, but in death God brings Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom; the rich man has feasted sumptuously, but in death God sends him to agonizing thirst and torment (16.19–31). Both in conjunction with this reversal and beyond it, the Gospel of Luke explicitly shows how Jesus’ ministry and God’s kingdom also break down barriers between groups of people and include both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, the healthy and the sick, the respected and the outcast. Luke emphasizes the uniting of these people as the fulfillment of God’s plan. He also emphasizes people’s repentance as a key step in the divine plan. For the sake of God’s plan, Jesus must suffer and be crucified. But when God raises Jesus from the dead, a new era for God’s mission begins.

The titles chosen above for the sections of the Gospel and Acts indicate that the stories in these two volumes embody a theological geography. This is particularly expressed in two key verses. The first verse is about Jesus: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51). The second verse is about God’s mission through Jesus’ witnesses: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). With this theological geography, the focal point of God’s saving plan is Jerusalem; the goal of God’s saving plan is the ends of the earth. The stories in these two volumes also embody a theological drama in which the focal actors are the precursor, John the Baptist, but first and foremost Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The secondary actors are Peter, Paul, and all the witnesses of the crucified and exalted Jesus. And the final actors in this drama are all the people at the ends of the earth who hear and joyfully respond to this witness. Ultimately that includes Theophilus and all who hear these stories recited and proclaimed as God’s own message.

The Travel Narrative: Jesus Heads for Jerusalem

Within the whole sequence of stories in the Gospel and Acts, where do we find Jesus’ discussion about loving God and neighbor with his parable about the Good Samaritan? This episode in Luke 10.25–37 occurs early in the large section often called the Travel Narrative (9.51–19.27).

At the beginning of the Travel Narrative and again near its midpoint, Jesus expresses his determination to go to Jerusalem in spite of the increasing conflict (9.51–56; 13.31–35). The entire Travel Narrative emphasizes Jesus’ continuing ministry of teaching: his sayings, warnings, parables, and instructions. Very few healings and conflict episodes occur in this large section. (See below under Method of Writing how Luke uses various sources in this Travel Narrative.) Immediately after the Travel Narrative is Jesus’ festive but fateful entry into Jerusalem (19.28–40).

In Luke 10.25–37 Jesus’ discussion about loving God and neighbor is with a lawyer who wants to undermine Jesus and justify himself. Jesus’ conflict with Pharisees and especially with lawyers is explicit in the Travel Narrative: here at 10.25; then 11.42, 46, 52; and 14.3. But Luke has already introduced the theological dynamics of this conflict by showing the responses to John the Baptist in 7.29–30: “And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.”

In this Travel Narrative there is material about Samaritans that has thematic importance in Luke’s story and theological importance in Luke’s proclamation.

Samaritans in Luke’s Travel Narrative and Other New Testament Writings

In Jesus’ discussion and conflict with the lawyer, he tells a parable in which it is not a proper Jewish priest or Levite but a hated foreign Samaritan who shows compassion for a person in dire need. Since the ancient time of exile after the destruction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem (586/587 B.C.), the people whom the Jews sarcastically called Samaritans worshiped God especially on Mount Gerazim. During the following centuries the Samaritans’ conflicts with the dominant Jewish culture occurred particularly when Jewish pilgrims would travel through towns in Samaria on their way to worship God at the reconstructed temple in Jerusalem. During the time of Jesus’ boyhood, Jews even accused Samaritans of the abomination of strewing human bones in the Jerusalem temple. Luke shows how severe this conflict is, especially at the very beginning of Jesus’ Travel Narrative. As soon as Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem (9.51), this episode occurs: “And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village” (9.52–56).

Near the end of the Travel Narrative (17.11–19) Jesus is again on the way to Jerusalem, “passing along between Samaria and Galilee.” When ten lepers are cured here, only one returns to praise God—a Samaritan, “this foreigner!”

Beyond the Travel Narrative, it is in his second volume where this author continues to unfold the important motifs of Samaria and Samaritans. This occurs in Acts 1.8 as quoted above, and especially in Acts 8.1–25, as well as 9.31 and 15.3. Luke shows both in Jesus’ ministry and in the mission of Jesus’ followers that God breaks down the barriers between Jews and Samaritans as a key example of God’s salvation being offered to all nations, all peoples, to the ends of the earth.

Only one other New Testament writing mentions Samaritans and includes them as a key group in God’s offering of salvation. It is neither of the first two Gospels, which are most closely related to Luke, but the fourth Gospel. In John 4.1–42 and 8.48 the conflict between Jews and Samaritans is explicit, especially in 4.9: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” This Gospel emphasizes that Jesus’ conversation at Jacob’s Well was with a triple outcast: a Samaritan, a woman, and someone living with a man who was not her husband. The impact of Jesus’ ministry among Samaritans is a startling example of God’s saving power reaching beyond human boundaries.

Luke’s Method of Writing

In the preface to the third Gospel, Luke states that a variety of sources have been very carefully utilized in order to present what God has accomplished “among us,” that is, among the followers of Jesus such as Theophilus and Luke, as well as others who eagerly hear and tell this message of good news. Recognizing some of the ways in which these sources may have been utilized in Luke’s method of writing can help one to understand the flow of this story.

Modern students of Luke most often take note of three likely sources used by the author. The clearest source is the Gospel of Mark. Much less clear is a Sayings Source, materials that focus on some of Jesus’ teachings and are utilized in different ways primarily by Luke and Matthew. A very puzzling third source or group of sources is the material found only in Luke. Luke may have either heard or found this material in oral or written form; in many passages it is difficult to say which form may have been predominant.

Except for the Travel Narrative, much of Luke’s Gospel follows the basic order of events and teachings in Mark. Luke 9.51–18.14 includes only a few statements from Mark and a great deal of the Sayings Source and Luke’s own sources. At the end of the Travel Narrative (18.15–19.27) the order again basically follows Mark. When Luke does follow Mark’s narrative, Luke often takes the rough and ready language of the source and molds it into a more flowing style of Greek.

Luke 10.25–37 proves to be an excellent example of the way that Luke can use a discussion from Mark (the law of loving God and neighbor) to provide a setting in Jesus’ ministry for one of Luke’s parables, the Good Samaritan, that we do not find in any other source.

Luke’s Style of Writing

While the Letter to the Hebrews probably contains the New Testament’s most elegant Greek style, it is Luke and Acts that probably have the New Testament’s most versatile Greek style. Luke is a literary master in the use of a variety of styles of Greek writing, where each style accomplishes an additional purpose in communicating the stories and teachings that Luke presents.

Luke uses stylistic techniques typical of Greek discourse in symposium discussions, in farewell addresses, and in a range of other kinds of speeches. Luke’s preface is a typically literary period often compared with other ancient Greek authors. Luke may be most well known for the use of what is often called Greek biblical style. Many of Luke’s readers were constantly living with the recitation of Israel’s Scripture in Greek translation, the Septuagint. The Septuagintal style especially permeates the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. The Greek biblical style occurs as well in 10.25–37 in the recitation of Torah, the Law of Moses, and in commentary on Torah.

Sometimes it is claimed that Luke’s Septuagintal style reflects Deuteronomic history. The partial truth in this claim may mislead us toward putting too much emphasis on what some may consider to be historical writing. In fact Luke’s use of biblical narrative style as well as the style of psalms, oracles, prayers, and proverbs leads us to emphasize Luke’s claim on a very broadly communicated Jewish heritage. In Luke’s hands this Jewish heritage is directly engaged with very broad Hellenistic forms of communication. Luke appears to be communicating with Jews and Gentiles from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

The issues related to Luke’s style of writing are closely interwoven with the issues related to Luke’s type of writing, the genre of this work. The genre of Luke’s first volume is a Gospel. It is a uniquely Christian type of writing, the story of the good news of Jesus Christ. But how was a Gospel understood in a variegated Greco-Roman culture where both Jews and Gentiles were reading homages to martyrs, ancient novels, histories, biographies, aretalogies, and a host of related types of writing? How is the Gospel of Luke related to these genres of writing? Then, among many various gospels, Luke becomes one of four that the vast majority of Christian communities accept as the writings that present God’s word in Holy Scripture. How is the Gospel of Luke related to the whole New Testament canon of Scripture? Some of these issues may be explored in the articles on the formation of the Gospel genre and the formation of the New Testament.

Date, Location, and Author

The introductory questions about when, where, and by whom the third Gospel was written have been debated by successive generations of scholars for more than three hundred years. (In probing these questions, biblical scholars have never ceased to be children of the Enlightenment!) Speculation about the answers to these questions has too often governed considerations of the destination or purpose of the third Gospel. Here there is an intention to understand the purpose of this Gospel in its ancient communities, but that can best be seen by looking beyond very limited information about the Gospel’s date, location, and author to see how the Gospel expresses its own purpose.

When? In the preface to this Gospel the author proudly claims to stand in the second or third generation of ministers of the word who have been handing down this story. Internal evidence does not contradict this claim. Most students agree that this Gospel was written after the Gospel of Mark and after the Jerusalem temple was destroyed by Roman troops in A.D. 70. A few scholars want to date the Gospel earlier or later than the last quarter of the first century, but it is more likely that the Gospel was completed some time between A.D. 75 and 100.

Where? Antioch, Rome, and other urban centers have been suggested, but there does not seem to be convincing evidence to specify what part of the Roman Empire was the birthplace of the Gospel of Luke.

By whom? Issues about who may have written this Gospel were considered above. While we do not know who Luke was, we can look at the Lukan writings themselves to ascertain their purpose and to ascertain the kind of context they provide for understanding Jesus’ discussion about the law of loving God and neighbor and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Purpose of the Lukan Writings

The preface to the book of Acts refers back to the preface of “the first book,” as Luke calls the Gospel. The intentions of the first preface cover both volumes. The meaning of this preface, even the translation of this preface, is widely debated. Still, the purpose of the Lukan writings can be glimpsed in these verses (Luke 1.1–4): Since many writers have undertaken to compile an orderly account of the events that have come to fulfillment among us, just as the original eye witnesses and ministers of the word passed them on to us, I too have decided, after tracing everything carefully from the beginning, to put them systematically in writing for you, Theophilus, so that Your Excellency may realize what assurance you have for the instruction you have received. (Translation of Joseph Fitzmyer, Luke, p. 287.)

Theophilus has already received Christian teaching, but he needs assurance of the truth of that teaching. Luke understands, of course, that many persons have received Christian teaching, but like Theophilus, they need continuing, substantial assurance of the truth of that teaching. Luke knows of no better way to provide this assurance than to tell the story, to tell very carefully his account of what God has planned and fulfilled “among us.” Among us means first of all those who witnessed Jesus’ life, death, and exaltation and shared the proclamation of that story with people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Among us also means those of later generations who have received Christian teaching, who need assurance of the continuing validity of that teaching, and who still share this story with people from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

The purpose of the Lukan writings appears to be that of confirming the Christian community’s catechesis for the sake of its mission, its life, its proclamation. The Lukan writings present the story of Jesus and the first Christian community as the story of God’s mission. This mission is in conflict with the powers of evil and sickness and death; this mission also breaks down human barriers among people that would keep God’s salvific power from reaching its destination at the ends of the earth.

These writings provide the context for the story about Jesus’ discussion of loving God and neighbor with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The episode of Luke 10.25–37 is an integral part of Luke’s whole narrative about what God has accomplished “among us.”

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