Joseph Francis Alward
(c) Copyright 2004
This commentary addresses the question of the authorship of the Gospel of Luke. Evidence shows that the gospel was based on stories "handed down" to the Lukan author through several generations.
Were Luke and Acts Written by the Same Person?
The consensus is that the gospel of Luke and Acts were written by the same person1.
Was the Author of Luke an Eyewitness?
The narrator does not say he was an eyewitness. He only says that he investigated the stories that had been handed down, and is reporting his understanding of the events in the life of Jesus:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1:1-4)
Hopeful Christians sometimes point to this self-validating comment by the Lukan author as proof that the stories in Luke must be true because the narrator said he "carefully investigated" the stories that were handed down to him, but he does not say how this investigation was undertaken. For example, did he interview someone who claimed to be the Peter who denied Jesus three times, or did he only speak to someone who heard the story about Peter? Why does he not say to whom he spoke in his investigations?
I think special attention needs to be paid to this author's use of the phrase, "handed down to us." If the stories the Lukan author wrote were told to him by the actual actors themselves—Peter, Andrew, John, Matthew, and the others, then the author would have said so, and would not have said that the stories were "handed down" to him, for that phrase implies that the stories passed through several generations before they arrived in in the Lukan author's time.
Who Was Luke?
The traditional view is that the author of Luke is the "Luke" mentioned by Paul in his letters, below:
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and fellow-worker… Epaphras, my fellow-prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow-workers. (Philemon 1:23-24)
Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas
send greetings. (Colossians 4:14)
Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry. (2 Timothy 4:11)
However, the evidence below suggests that the Lukan
author was not the follower of Paul, who died around 67 AD.
To Whom Was Luke Written?
The author of Luke addresses the "most excellent" Theophilus. The earliest record of a "Theophilus" is Theophilus of Antioch who was an early Christian patriarch who wrote around 180-185 AD2.
When Was Luke Written?
The date of this gospel's composition is uncertain. Some scholars suggests dates for Luke from 80 AD to 150 AD. Traditional views of the date varies from 40-60 AD. I present below a summary of the evangelical argument for early authorship (40-60 AD) first, then provide support for later authorship (80-150 AD).
Christians' traditional belief is that Lukan author repeated Jesus stories he got straight from Paul, who died in about 67 AD. If this were true, then Luke would have to have been written before 67 AD.
1. It seems quite unlikely that the author of Luke got his Jesus stories from Paul. A careful reading of the writings of Paul will show that he nowhere gives any indication he knew about a great many of the alleged central events in Jesus' life3, events which the Lukan author reported.
2. The Lukan narrator addressed his gospel to "most excellent Theophilus." While the believers hopefully suggest that Theophilus, which in Greek means "Friend of God", was not the actual name of the person addressed, there is no evidence of this. The only person named Theophilus who appears anywhere in the literature of the first two centuries is Theophilus of Antioch, a second-century Syrian bishop who sought to promote a moralistic form of Christianity, and wrote around 180-185 AD2.
There is no other reference in the literature to a Theophilus who was contemporary with the time of Paul and his follower, Luke. If this was the Theophilus to whom the Lukan author was writing, it is likely Luke was written much closer to about 150 AD or later, rather than in 40-60 AD. The later dating is consistent with the observation above about the phrase "handed down to us" that the Lukan author used in describing the Jesus stories that he heard.
3. Nowhere in Luke or Acts does it say that the author is Luke, the companion of Paul. In fact, there is evidence that the Lukan text itself was not written by a single person, but instead was was the result of the contributions from multiple sources, such as Mark, and Q.
4. Many contemporary scholars regard Mark as one of the source texts used by the compilers of Luke. Since consensus holds that Mark was probably written around 70 AD, after the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Luke could not have been written until after 70 AD. Based on this, scholars have suggested dates for Luke and Acts from 80 AD to as late as 150 AD.
5. Perhaps because of Jesus' failure to return at the end of the world in the lifetime of some of his listeners, as Matthew and Mark claimed Jesus promised4, the Lukan author apparently glosses over this biblical embarrassment by ignoring what Mark and Matthew had written. Instead of writing—as Mark and Matthew did—that Jesus said he would return in the lifetimes of some of his listeners, the Lukan author, apparently recognizing that too much time had passed since Jesus' ascension, had Jesus tell a parable about servants who worry because their master is delayed in coming, and who then will be severely punished when the master unexpectedly returns.
But if that servant says to himself, 'My master is delayed in coming,' and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant's master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. (Luke 12:45-46)
The message from the Lukan author, put on the lips of Jesus, is obvious: Those followers Jesus promised would witness his return are now long dead, and Jesus has not returned, but you dare not lose faith that he will return, for when he eventually does, he will make those who have lost faith suffer greatly.
If it weren't already decades since Jesus was expected to return, the Lukan narrator would not have had Jesus make such a statement. This is good evidence that Luke was written around 130 AD or later, a few decades after the last follower of Jesus would have died, which is probably sometime around 100-110 AD.
The Lukan author's ignoring the return statements allegedly made by Jesus that were reported by Mark and Matthew would not have been necessary if, at the time of "Luke's" writing, only 60 or 70 years or so had passed since Jesus' resurrection in about 30 AD, for there still might have been followers alive in 90-100 AD. But, writing in, say, 150 AD or later, the Lukan author definitely would have seen that it would be hugely embarrassing to have Jesus say (as Matthew and Mark did) that he would return in the lifetime of those who had followed him.
1. "The extensive linguistic and theological agreements and cross-references between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts indicate that both works derive from the same author" (The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings).
2. Early Christian Writings: Theophilus of Antioch
3. "What Did Paul Know?"
4. "Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28)
"And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand....Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the son of Man be come." (Matthew 10:5-6, Matthew 10:23).
"At that time men will
see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will
send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the
earth to the ends of the heaven… this generation will certainly not pass away
until all these things have happened.