Chapter 9: The Gospel of Luke

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 9: The Gospel of Luke


The Lucan authorship of the third gospel has been occasionally challenged by those critics who find it impossible to accept Luke as the final author of the Acts of the Apostles, which is generally agreed to be the work of the same hand as the gospel. The problems presented by the Acts of the Apostles are discussed later, but it may be said here that they are not such as to justify the attribution of Acts to another than Luke, ‘the beloved physician’ (Col.5:14) and companion of Paul.

The tradition of Luke’s authorship of the gospel remained undisputed till modern times, and can be traced back to the second half of the second century A.D. An early prologue to the gospel survives, which was perhaps written to stress the genuineness of the full gospel against a garbled version which Marcion, a second century heretic, edited to propagate his own views. In this prologue are given a number of details about Luke which may well preserve much genuine tradition.

Luke is a Syrian of Antioch, a doctor by profession, who was a disciple of apostles, and later followed Paul until his martyrdom. He served the Lord without distraction, unmarried, childless, and fell asleep at the age of 84 in Boeotia, full of the Holy Spirit.

He, . . . impelled by the Holy Spirit, wrote this whole gospel in the regions of Achaea . . . and afterwards the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.

The tradition finds confirmation in the Preface to the gospel and the general character of the gospel itself. In the Preface (Lk. 1:1-4) the author of the gospel claims to have followed all things from the first, and that he is in a position to let Theophilus know the truth of the instruction which he has received; at the same time he distinguishes himself from those who ‘from the beginning were eye-witnesses and ministers of the word’. The most natural interpretation of these statements is that the author of the gospel comes from among those who have been in intimate contact with Christian disciples of the first generation. In the same way the author combines the use of written sources, e.g. Mark and Q, with an attitude, at least towards Mark, of confident independence, which leads him to treat Mark’s text with considerable freedom and, in a number of places, to prefer his own version, e.g. of Peter’s call, of the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, of the Anointing of Jesus by a woman that was a sinner.

Two other arguments in favour of Luke’s authorship may be mentioned. The gospel has some literary pretensions, and it is at least possible that the author’s name was attached to the original copy, as seems to have been the case with most ‘literary’ works of antiquity. Nor is Luke’s name one which would have been likely to have been attached to the gospel and the acts, unless he was in fact the author; many names that would carry greater weight were available, and Tertullian (c. A.D. 200) goes so far as to depreciate the value of this gospel as being only by the follower of an apostle, and that apostle behind Matthew, Peter, and John in importance.


The theory has already been mentioned that Luke had composed a gospel before he came into possession of a copy of Mark, and that our present gospel is a revised and enlarged edition of his earlier work. This theory, which is particularly associated with the names of the late Dr. Streeter and of Dr. Vincent Taylor, is based on the fact that in large sections of Luke, Mark is not employed as a source, and that it is possible to reconstruct from Luke, omitting all his borrowings from Mark, a gospel-like document of considerable extent.

Streeter thinks that the passages most probably to be assigned to Proto-Luke are as follows (Dr. Taylor’s reconstruction, on similar lines, has been published [in English] as The First Draft of St. Luke’s Gospel [S.P.C.K.].

3:1-4:30 John the Baptist’s Preaching, the Baptism of Jesus

Genealogy, Temptation, Arrival in Galilee and

Rejection at Nazareth.

5:1-11 The Call of Simon Peter.

6: 14-16 The Names of the Twelve Apostles.

6: 20-8:3 The Great Sermon, Healing of the Centurion’s

Servant, Raising of the Young Man at Nain, TheBaptist’s

Question and Jesus’ Answer, The Anointing of Jesus, The

Women who accompanied Him.

9:51-18:14 Jesus’ Journey towards Jerusalem, the Sending

Out of the 70, the Good Samaritan,

Martha and Mary, the Lord’s Prayer, the

Beelzebub Charge, the Sign of Jonah,

Denunciation of Pharisees and Lawyers,

the Rich Fool and other Parables and

Sayings, the Healing of 10 Lepers, the

Days of the Son of Man, The Unjust

Judge, the Pharisee and Publican.

19:1-27 Zacchaeus, the Parable of the Pounds.

19:37-44 Entry into Jerusalem and Lament over the


21:18, 34-36 Sayings about the End.

22:14 to the end of the Gospel, except for such verses as are derived from

Mark, the identification of which is very problematical.

This hypothetical ‘gospel’ has incorporated material from Q, and some at least of its other material, according to Streeter and Dr. Taylor, can be ascribed to Luke’s activity in Caesarea during Paul’s imprisonment there (c. 56-57). Its general framework is similar to that of Mark, the Baptism and Temptation prefacing a ministry in Galilee followed by a journey to Jerusalem through Samaria (9:51-52), Galilee itself (17:11), and Jericho (19:1); there is more teaching than in Mark, and although there appears to be the same distinction as in Mark between Jesus’ enigmatic teaching about himself to the multitudes (cf. 7:16-17) and his private teaching to the disciples (esp. 10:21-24), the distinction is sometimes blurred (3:22, 4:18-21, 7:22, 34, 11:29 ff., etc.). Within the framework the order of many incidents is different (e.g. the Rejection at Nazareth, the Call of Peter, the Anointing), and their details are often hard to reconcile with those of the parallel accounts in Mark. Thus the Last Supper may have been distinguished from the Passover meal (22:14-16), there is an additional trial before Herod (23:8-12), and the Resurrection Appearances are all in or near Jerusalem.

The importance of the Proto-Luke theory, if it be accepted, lies in the evidence which it provides for the existence of a tradition about the course of Jesus’ ministry, independent of Mark but confirming much of the substance of Mark, and of a date possibly earlier than the writing of Mark. On the other hand, the existence of such an earlier ‘gospel’ of Luke is denied by many critics who maintain that, especially in the Passion Narrative, Luke has used Mark as the foundation of his narrative. It is possible to account for Luke’s use of Mark largely in separate ‘blocks’ as due to his methods of utilising his sources, for he apparently treats Q in the same way, inserting Q material in separate sections which are edited but not conflated with other sources on a large scale.

Luke’s Treatment of Mark

In using Mark, Luke frequently abbreviates, and he leaves out a number of passages, some because he prefers another account, e.g. the Beelzebub Charge, some for reasons at which we can only guess, e.g. the Seed Growing Secretly, the Cursing of the Fig Tree. His greatest omission is to leave out everything in Mark from Mk. 6:45 to 8:26. It has been thought by some that his copy of Mark did not contain these verses, or that Luke left them out accidentally, but the most probable explanation is that he left them out deliberately. This part of Mark includes the Walking on the Water, Summaries of Healings, Disputes with Pharisees, a second Feeding; the Healing of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk. 7:27) is in sharp contrast to that recorded by Luke in the story of the Centurion’s servant. The Healing of the Deaf-Mute, involving the touching of the affected parts (Mk. 7:33), and that of the Blind Man of Bethsaida, involving material means of healing (Mk. 8: 23) and stages of healing (8:24-25) were both omitted by Matthew as well.

This explanation fits in with Luke’s rather cavalier treatment of Mark as a whole. He treats the general framework of Mark with respect, and preserves, with some significant exceptions, his order, but whether he is fitting Mark into Proto-Luke or not, he does not hesitate to omit Mark’s stories and sayings when he has what he considers a better version. Thus he prefers Q’s version of the Temptation and the Beelzebub Charge, although he incorporates two Mission charges, one from Mark, and one, in greater detail, partly at least from Q, and two Discourses on the End, one from Q, and one much edited, but partly at least from Mark. He prefers different versions of Peter’s Call and the Anointing to those given by Mark, and makes many alterations in Mark’s account of the Passion. He omits one of Mark’s references to Jesus’ promise of a Resurrection Appearance in Galilee (Mk. 14:28), and completely alters the sense of the other to suit his own account of the Appearances at Jerusalem (cf. Mk. 16:7 with Lk. 24:6).

There is a double significance in this. Luke knew Mark (Col.4:10,14), and he could hardly have treated the gospel of Mark as he did if he had known it to be Mark’s record of Peter’s teaching. Luke’s attitude to the second gospel is perhaps the strongest argument against its traditional authorship. On the other hand Luke himself writes with a certain authority. Although he was a Gentile, and does not seem to have spent more than a few weeks at most in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17 ff.), he stayed some time in Caesarea (Acts 27:1) and had met many men who were closely connected with the Christian communities in Palestine, e.g. Mark, Silas (Acts. 15:40, 16:10 ff.), Philip (Acts 21:9-10) Mason (Acts 21:16), not to mention his close association with Paul and the possibility of his having been a member of the church at Antioch. It would be too much to claim for his gospel complete accuracy and freedom from exaggerations and mistakes, but the claim of his Preface (Lk.1:1-4) is at least partly justified.

Luke’s other sources

It is unlikely that Luke, with all these opportunities for gaining information, depended for the bulk of his information, outside what was provided by Mark and Q, on written sources. He may, of course, have kept a diary or have recorded material in notebooks, but there is no way of proving or disproving this. Nor is there any satisfactory means of determining from which of many possible informants he derived any particular incident or parable.

The first two chapters, with their accounts of the birth and childhood of John the Baptist and Jesus, stand apart in the gospel both because of the close connection they assume between John and Jesus and of the Semitic style in which they are written. Luke may be using a written Palestinian source here, but it is quite possible that he has himself recorded the narrative in the style of the Greek LXX version of the Old Testament to suit its general nature and the hymns, which are clearly of Palestinian origin.

In the main non-Marcan section, 10:51-18:14, much of the material peculiar to Luke gives the impression of having been fitted by him into a loose and at times artificial narrative, e.g. the grouping of a healing, teaching, and a parable round a meal (14: 1-24) and a collection of three parables on the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son in a context where the Pharisees are murmuring against Jesus for receiving sinners (15:1-32). The comparatively unsystematic arrangement of this material with matter from Q is consistent with the view that Luke derived most or all of it from oral tradition and not from documents.

The Lucan changes in Mark’s Passion Narrative, e.g. in his variant accounts of the Institution of the Eucharist (22:15-21)), of the Trials (22:66-71, 23: 4-16), and of the details of the Crucifixion (23: 34, 39-43, 46), also seem to indicate that, while Luke shared Mark’s general view of the course of events, he was able to supplement it and correct it (e.g. by the transference to another context of the Anointing Mk. 14:3-9) from familiarity with different and fuller versions that circulated orally in communities which he had visited. His account, too, of the Resurrection Appearances in and near Jerusalem would have been influenced by the oral information which Paul (I Cor. 15: 3-8) and many others were able to give; his limitation of these appearances to the neighbourhood of Jerusalem must rest on what he considered to be the best authority, although it must be remembered that he gives only a selection of the appearances known to him (cf. his own variant account in Acts 1:1-11) and that he knew of the tradition of appearances in Galilee.

Circumstances of writing

Luke’s purpose in writing is sufficiently explained in his preface to Theophilus (1:1-4). It is to give to Theophilus -- and other Gentile Christians -- in a period when original ‘eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’ are no longer available, an accurate narrative to confirm them as to the truth of what they have been taught. Luke refers to predecessors who have taken this task in hand, but writes in the consciousness that he is able to offer a more complete and accurate account.

The tradition that he wrote in Greece need not be doubted and it is probable that the date of the gospel is to be put after the disastrous Jewish revolt against Rome that culminated in the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 (cf. 19: 42-44). This date marks a watershed in the history of the Church; the Christian community at Jerusalem had fled from the city before the siege to the little town of Pella across the Jordan, and from now on the Jewish element in the Church became insignificant and the Jerusalem Church no longer enjoyed the position of being, as it were, the headquarters of Christianity. Most of the original apostles seem to have been already dead, and with them leaders like Paul and Barnabas. The need for preserving in writing what was still remembered of the life and teaching of Jesus had become imperative, and Luke, with his previous special opportunities for acquiring information, set himself to supplement and improve upon the earliest documents.

While his gospel is in some ways the most important historically of the four, it is probable that he wrote under the handicap of being no longer able to check the value of some of his material. With the example of Paul before our eyes we are perhaps inclined to exaggerate the ease with which travel was possible for other Christians; Luke himself, after accompanying Paul from Troas to Philippi (Acts 16:11-17), is apparently still there six years later (20:6) when he rejoins Paul for a longer journey. It seems likely that, when he wrote the gospel, he did so on the basis of his own recollections and some written sources, but without a further visit to Palestine or consultation with such of the oldest disciples as were still living, but were not within reach of Luke, living as he did in Greece. This would account for some of the defects of the gospel, as Luke’s earlier intercourse with Palestinian Christians accounts for many of its great merits.