Background of Luke


Over the next few weeks—through the end of May—we will be working through the Gospel of Luke I wanted to provide a bit of context for our study by looking at some background issues like genre, authorship, date, points of emphasis, and so forth as they pertain to Luke. I know that many people are interested in this kind of information. I hope you find this useful. I invite you to reply to this post with any questions or comments that arise as you read.

Note that most of this material is taken from The New Interpreter’s Bible, which is my commentary of choice for personal biblical scholarship.

Genre

During the Enlightenment people began to realize that knowing the genre of a writing gave one additional ability to interpret it. Prior to this time most interpretations tended to simply be allegorical. Since then we realize that if you know something is a poem you should properly read it differently than you would a recipe or a fiction novel.

Interestingly the gospels don’t appear to follow any recognizable genre. The closest we come might be biographies, but if this is the case then the gospels seem to be very bad biographies. They focus on only three years of Jesus’ life and ignore what biographies tend to view as crucial information about childhood, education, young adulthood, and so forth. We get only the vaguest hints of these things in the gospels.

That said, it is possible that the gospels borrowed some features of ancient biographies while ignoring other features in order to communicate their own unique message of Jesus. At the end of the day this doesn’t help us establish a genre that’s capable of guiding our interpretation.

Authorship and Date

While the Gospel itself is anonymous and doesn’t provide a date of authorship, very early Christian tradition (early 2nd century) associated this book with Luke, the physician and sometime companion of Paul. There’s no real good reason to contest this tradition, though we also recognize it doesn’t exactly tell us very much.

We know next to nothing about Luke or the extent to which he may or may not have been influenced by Paul’s theological perspective. What we do know about Luke comes mainly from analysis of his own writings. We know he was a skilled writer and possessed a great deal of awareness of both Jewish and Hellenistic literary style. This suggests he was well-educated.

As for date, it appears as if the Gospel of Luke borrowed heavily from the Gospel of Mark which is ordinarily dated around the year 70. That and other technical evidence leads scholars to date Luke around the mid-80s.

Parallels

There are many parallels between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. This is why they are called the “Synoptic Gospels”. Synoptic means “to see together” and, in this case, it suggests the three gospels present a similar perspective.

The dominant scholarly opinion is that Mark was the first gospel written. Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark. Because there are stories common to both Matthew and Luke that are not found in Mark, it is also the dominant opinion that Matthew and Luke borrowed from another unknown source (usually called “Q”).

Themes

As you would expect, the major emphasis of the Gospel of Luke is the identity of Jesus. People are always asking: “Who is this guy!?” Beyond that major emphasis, biblical scholar Alan Culpepper points out that “Luke is noted for its richness of themes. No other Gospel develops so many themes as fully as does Luke….Seeing the relationship of a particular verse to others that develop a common theme is vital to gaining appreciation for any given passage in the Gospel” (Culpepper 1995, 20).

Culpepper suggests six major themes of significance:

God’s Redemptive Purposes

Luke seems to focus on the events in the life of Jesus in the Gospel and the Church in Acts that reveal God’s redemptive purposes for humanity. This plays out in three sub-themes: “the sovereignty of God, the fulfillment of Scripture, and the scope of Jesus’ redemptive work” (20).

God’s sovereignty means that the events in human history are influenced and sometimes necessitated by God’s purposes. In the Gospel it particularly means that the things Jesus is about are the things that God is about.

God’s sovereignty leads to the next subtheme which is the fulfillment of Scripture. Luke views Scripture as “an expression of God’s purposes” so that “the disciples do not fully understand the events that have transpired among them until they understand them in the light of Scripture” (21).

Finally God’s redemptive purposes are revealed to be for all people in all times and in all places.

Salvation for All Alike

The scope of Jesus’ redemptive work is universal. Luke makes this point more radically than any other Gospel. Jesus transcends social customs, gender divisions, economic positions, and ethico-religious identities (e.g. Gentiles). This may be an example of Pauline influence upon Luke.

Women particularly have a prominent role in the Gospel of Luke. Culpepper notes that “Luke often features male and female characters in pairs. The infancy narrative features the role of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and Simeon and Anna” (23). Jesus’ own interactions with women are noteworthy. And even if the status of women isn’t as liberated as contemporary Western culture would prefer, it still represents a revolutionary break with ancient times.

Blessings of Poverty and Dangers of Wealth

As much as women have a prominent role in Luke, so also do the poor. “Luke refers to the poor and the rich more than does any other Gospel” (24). Whereas Matthew might spiritualize poverty in his beatitude (“blessed are the poor in spirit”), Luke does not (“blessed are the poor”). Luke emphasizes the salvation of the poor and judgment against the rich.

Table Fellowship

Luke connects Jesus’ teachings with his inclusive table fellowship which is to be replicated in the community of believers. In Luke Jesus is said to be either at, coming from, or going to a meal. Meals were highly structured by social customs and boundaries. When Jesus welcomes outcasts, sinners, and women there is a repetition of his universalized redemptive work. Jesus’ table fellowship indicates that the spiritual teachings of Jesus are to be concretized in things like who we eat with.

Role of a Disciple

The role of a disciple begins with understanding the teacher. Luke’s Jesus utters the call to “Follow me” in imitation of Jesus obedience to the Father, empowerment of the Spirit, and devotion to prayer. Other than the meal settings, the prayer settings may be the next prominent scene in Luke. Discipleship should culminate in “joy and praise among those who see God’s power at work” (27). This insight, then, is the first step in being a disciple.

Importance of an Accurate Witness

There’s a very strong link between the witness of the disciples and the witness of the Spirit. The purpose of a witness moves from the testimony of the eyewitness (perhaps in a courtroom) to the witness of a martyr. Accuracy then is about more than getting one’s facts straight. It is about the path towards martyrdom.

Bibliography

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Luke.” The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes. Volume 9. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995.

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