Introduction To Luke

The next destination on our voyage of discovery is the Gospel of Luke. This direction was not inevitable, but for many reasons it seems the best choice. The reason I chose Luke is because of sources. In Luke 1:1-3, he talks about the account handed down to him by the eyewitnesses and the servants. Note that the account is singular, but the eyewitnesses and servants are plural. This means that a single story line was created by multiple witnesses and transmitted by multiple recorders. There is no possibility to know the identity of the former; those who told the story from the time of Jesus are impossible to reconstruct. Two good guesses would be Peter and James, the brother of Jesus. These are the only two names that Paul mentions, and the only two that also occur in the NT. All the others, such as the sons of Zebedee and Andrew and all the rest disappear for several decades, if not forever. The rest are filler, side characters used to bring Jesus out in relief. Let’s face it: what did any of them actually do? Aside from Judas betraying Jesus, none of them are credited with any sort of independent activity, with one exception: the sons of Zebedee arguing about who would be the greatest in heaven. Other than than, basically nothing. Peter plays his role, and Paul attests to James, and a brother of Jesus named James is identified in Mark 6. So Peter and James are the only two eyewitnesses that we can hope to determine.

Do we have any better hope of identifying the “servants” who transmitted the account of the eyewitnesses? We can be reasonably certain of Mark. Luke’s or Matthew’s use of Mark is by no means proven, but there is no theory that explains the Synoptic situation better than that the latter two both knew and used Mark as a source. In a wrinkle, Luke is the first evangelist of whom we can be absolutely certain that he was aware of Paul; at least, we can be certain if the author of Luke is also the author of Acts, which I am going to take on faith. I will be better able to judge that when I actually translate Acts. Now, knowing about Paul’s career is not the same thing as knowing about and having read what Paul wrote. Luke could have known the former without ever having read a word of what Paul wrote. At this point, I’m completely undecided about whether Luke had ever read anything authored by Paul. Regardless, he had a source, or sources, to tell him about Paul’s missionary activities; I am too ignorant at this point to know whether Acts mentions any of the Communities to whom Paul wrote letters. Paul did spend time in Greece in Acts, and that is verified in Galatians and Corinthians. Acts also describes Paul’s time in Ephesus in some detail, but Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians is not considered authentically Paul. The overlap of Paul’s adventures in Acts, and the names of the places that received Paul’s letters will possibly provide clues about whether Luke had read any of these letters.

Note: if this were a proper research paper, which it assuredly and vehemently is not, I would have answered some or all of these questions already. But the entire exercise of this blog represents the preliminary research. Reading the works in Greek and translating them provides a much more intimate knowledge of the texts than I would garner from reading them in English, no matter how closely I annotated the texts. So I hope that this explanation of the thought process I use is useful as a how-to for further historical inquiry. 

The sources for Paul that Luke encountered may have been written, or they may have been oral. Either way, the question is to what level of detail did they record and relate Paul’s adventures? And “adventures” is a proper description for what Paul experiences in Acts: shipwrecks, angry mobs, last-minute escapes, arrests, these are the stuff of an Indiana Jones movie. In fact, I have come across more than one modern scholar who referred to the similarity between Acts and Hellenistic novels. If you take these adventures and add some of the material that only Luke contains, in particular the material leading up to the public ministry– like the birth narrative–I think that an overall picture of how Luke approaches his gospel and its sequel emerges. When I think about the four evangelists and their different approaches to the narrative of Jesus’ life, I categorize them as such: Mark is a journalist, Matthew is a rabbi (albeit one who converted), John is a theologian, and Luke is a novelist.

Because one serious fault (there are more) I find in biblical scholarship is the failure to ask why each of these evangelists decided to write a gospel. What would possess someone to sit down and write out an account of Jesus’ life? But that’s just a variation on the question of why does anyone write anything? Why am I writing this blog? We write because we believe we have something to say. In the treatment of Mark we discussed some of his motivations: that the Temple had been destroyed, the generation that knew him had died, that there were a number of different interpretations of Jesus’ life and it was necessary to record a story of Jesus in order to preserve the stories and create a single narrative that wove the various traditions–in particular the Wonder-Worker and the Christ traditions–into a unified whole. Matthew’s intent, it seems to me, was to take Mark a step further, to submerge the Wonder-Worker tradition more firmly into the Christ tradition, especially to emphasize Jesus’ divinity and his status as the son of (a) g/God. Why did Luke write? It may seem that, to some degree at least, the answer to this might depend on whether or not Luke knew about Matthew; that knowledge of Matthew might have changed Luke’s motivation, but I don’t think this is true. Because I think Luke approached the topic as one needing to be filled out; and, in a sense, I think this is more true if we assume Luke knew about Matthew. In fact, it may make more sense if Luke knew about Matthew.

Here is where we have to talk about Q. It must always be remembered that there is no argument for Q. No one has ever made a case for its existence. The entirety of the case for Q is that Luke butchered the “masterful” arrangement of the Q material that Matthew created. Thus, the “argument” goes, shows that Luke did not know about Matthew, or the former would never have violated the latter’s organization of the Q material. Please note that this is not an argument. It’s an expression of aesthetic preferences. It’s akin to saying, “I can’t believe Dali butchered Da Vinci’s treatment of the Last Supper so badly”. Or, “I can’t believe Picasso butchered the arrangement of nature by putting both of that woman’s eyes on the same side of her nose”.  So Dali obviously never saw Da Vinci’s Last Supper, and Picasso obviously never saw a normal person with only one eye on each side of her nose. That’s ridiculous, but that is the entire gist of the Q argument, and it has been for over a century.  The biggest point the Q people make is that Luke always–always!–changes the placement of the material from Mark relative to Matthew. This alteration, I would suggest, is because Luke deliberately set out to tell the story differently from Matthew. Otherwise, why not just copy Matthew, stick in the Good Samaritan and Prodigal Son and call it a day? That seems to be what the Q people think should have done. Now, there is no real “argument” for this supposition of mine, but there is no argument for Q, either. At least I’m honest enough to admit what I lack.

This is all very important because it ties in with the “servants” to which Luke alludes in 1:1-3. A combination of Mark and Paul–or sources about Paul, whether written or oral–puts us into plural territory; with just these two we can talk about “servants” who handed over the tradition of the eyewitnesses. So right off the bat, we know that Luke had some kind of source material that was not available to either Mark or Matthew. What about Q? One of my problems with the idea of Q is that it seems very odd that so much of what Jesus taught should have completely bypassed Mark. The early Church put Matthew first and contemporary scholars still value Matthew over the other Synoptics because Matthew seems to have the complete story. It has the Sermon on the Mount, for heavens’ sake! Try to imagine a Christianity based solely on Mark, and what you get is something very different from what we have received. As such, is it possible to imagine a Jesus who did not say, “blessed are the poor in spirit…”? Most of us could not; ergo, Q. But can we imagine a Jesus who did not tell the story of the Prodigal Son? Or the Good Samaritan? Aren’t those such quintessentially Christian stories that the religion would be very different if they were not part of the corpus? If the Sermon on the Mount came from Q, where did the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son originate? Were these part of source material that bypassed both Mark and Matthew? I find it difficult to believe that a written source like Q completely bypassed Mark; I find it impossible to believe something bypassed both Mark and Matthew.

So did Luke invent these magnificent stories? The Q researchers talk about M and L material–stuff that’s unique to Matthew and Luke respectively–and insinuate, if they don’t blatantly claim that this new material is drawn from an earlier source. Never (as far as I know, anyway) is it suggested that maybe Matthew and or Luke wrote the new material themselves. They can’t do this, because that would be to admit that maybe there was no Q, because the Q material was pretty much all composed by Matthew. And that would, in turn, pretty much scuttle the idea of Q, because Matthew was Q. And that would mean that Matthew and Luke are not independent of each other. As I see it, and from the point of view of historical development, it is pretty much impossible to conceive that any of the new material in Luke and John traces back any further than, perhaps the time of Matthew. It is possible that each Luke and John came across a story here or there, or a detail that belonged to a source from an undisturbed community that had maintained something handed down for several generations. It’s possible. But these would be no more than snippets; certainly there would have been nothing like the Prodigal Son nor the Wedding Feast at Cana. Those are later inventions, much later.

To be clear, I do believe that Luke had more than two, or even three sources available to him. Aside from the Paul source and Mark, there was Matthew/Q–which I believe are the same thing. That brings us to three. I believe it highly likely that he had more. We know that new voices of witness continued to be created for several hundred years after the death of Jesus, so there is little reason to think that the time between Matthew and Luke was any exception. Likely the impetus to new creation picked up steam as time passed: witness the number of letters attributed to the “apostles” that came about in the decade either side of the turn of the century, as well as works like the Didache. Most of these sources would have proved ephemeral; or perhaps “preliminary” is a better word. These are the traditions that coalesced into the Didache or the Epistle to the Colossians and later, much later, into the Gospel of Thomas. If I’m willing to concede the existence of other sources available to Luke, why am I so adamantly opposed to Q? That is a legitimate question. The problem with Q is that it is much too important a source to have come into being as a written document, influenced half of the canonical gospels, and then disappear without a trace, a ripple, or the vaguest, most off-hand allusion to its existence. If it was important enough for Matthew and Luke to use it the way they did, it was important enough for someone else to preserve, or at least remember a decade or two later, when the later epistles or the pieces that ended up being non-canonical were being written. But there is absolutely nothing. I’m not sure of the context I read this, but someone raised the question of “Why did Mark survive?” If all, or the vast majority of his material was absorbed by Matthew, as the Q material supposedly was, why did Mark not vanish along with Q? This question is conveniently not asked, so I have no idea what the “correct” responses would be. Based on what happened with Q, Mark should have disappeared without a trace as well.

We are not finished with Q. It will be a source of discussion throughout Luke. It’s a huge topic, but it’s also something of the elephant in the room: no one really wants to discuss it; everyone does want to repeat reassuring phrases that, Yes, Virginia, there is a Q.

There is one final issue to be discussed. Let’s go back to the whole idea of Luke being a novelist. That is a very bold claim on my part, made in the security of knowing that I will never be seriously challenged on it. My point is this: we noted that Paul’s description of his conversion is very different from the more famous version that we all know from Acts; the one that is so famous that the term “Road to Damascus moment” is a cliché in the English language. What I would ask, however, is if they are really so different? Paul tells us he received the gospel through a revelation (Greek: apocalypsos) directly from God. And what happened on the Road to Damascus? Paul was struck from his horse and converted, as through a revelation from God. In short, the version in Acts is a more dramatic, more highly dramatized moment, but the underlying principle is the same: God/Jesus intervened directly in Paul’s life, changing its course forever, turning him into a follower and a missionary and an apostle, as he calls himself. If Luke can transform Paul’s description like that, what other term than “novelist” would fit? Poet? Sure, the story is told in prose. So this is a description that, I think, is not wholly ridiculous.

We shall see.

On to Luke.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 17, 2017, in Luke's Gospel, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel, Special topic, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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