from jesus to christ - the first christians

The Gospel of Luke

A novel for gentiles.


Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School

What do we know if anything about Luke?

Traditions report that Luke was a companion of Paul, a physician and therefore someone learned in Hellenistic literary and scientific culture. All of those are secondary traditions and most scholars view them as somewhat unreliable. What we can infer from the evidence of the Book of Acts and the third gospel is that the author was someone who was steeped in scripture, in the Septuagint, and who was aware of Hellenistic literary patterns, historiographical and novelistic. And these kinds of patterns certainly have an impact on his literary products.

What did Luke write?

Luke wrote two works, the third gospel, an account of the life and teachings of Jesus, and the Book of Acts, which is an account of the growth and expansion of Christianity after the death of Jesus down through close to the end of the ministry of Paul.

What's the picture of Jesus that emerges from Luke's writing?

In Luke, Jesus emerges primarily as a teacher, a teacher of ethical wisdom, someone who's confident and serene in that ethical teaching. Someone who is very much interested in inculcating the virtues of compassion and forgiveness among his followers.

What do we know about the context in which Luke was writing?

Luke was probably writing in the latter decades of the first century, probably in a thoroughly Hellenistic environment. Scholars speculate on whether the gospel was written in Antioch, which would have been a significant Hellenistic city, or in Asia Minor, in places like Ephesus or Smyrna. In either case, Luke would have been in touch with, and very heavily in dialogue with, Hellenistic culture broadly conceived.

What would have been the great concerns of the other Christian churches that he might have been addressing?

One of the major concerns that the composite work of Luke and Acts addresses is whether Christians can be good citizens of the Roman Empire. After all, their founder was executed as a political criminal, and they were being associated with the destruction of Jerusalem, and some people would have thought of them as incendiaries, as revolutionaries. And Luke in his portrait wants to show that Jesus himself taught an ethic that was entirely compatible with good citizenship of the empire. And that despite the fact that one of the heroes of the Book of Acts was himself executed, namely Paul, although that was a serious mistake and had nothing to do with the political program, it wasn't in any way dangerous....

Holland Lee Hendrix:

President of the Faculty Union Theological Seminary


Luke/Acts is a very interesting example of evolved early Christian literature because the author now is undertaking this work... commissioned by a benefactor. And he goes about it very, very methodically as a good Roman author would. He sets the stage historically as you would expect in some kind of sort of almost historical novel, and then he tells a perfectly wonderful story. In fact, it's such a good story that many scholars have compared it to the novelistic literature of time, and have interpreted Luke/Acts as really an early Christian romance, with all the ingredients of romance, down to shipwrecks and exotic animals and exotic vegetation, cannibalistic natives - all kinds of embellishments that one finds in the romance literature of the time. But it's done in a very historically disciplined way, or at least one that seems to be historically disciplined, by a very careful author who identifies himself as an artist under the economic sphere of a particular benefactor. So Luke/Acts does represent a very interesting stage in the evolution of early Christian literature. It's now become thoroughly Romanized.


The Jesus of Luke is an enormously powerful figure. I mean he comes on the scene as a prophet straight out of the Hebrew Bible. At his first appearance in his hometown synagogue he quotes the prophet Isaiah and it's the passage that talks about freeing those who are oppressed and letting those who are blind see. Jesus is a powerful figure and comes across as a liberator, a great miracle worker. But also, and this is interesting in view of the authorship of Luke, also as the quintessential benefactor. He is the one who dispenses the great gifts of God and God is viewed again as a great benefactor figure in Luke/Acts. So Jesus is probably at his most powerful in the gospel of Luke, from a variety of perspectives, as prophet, as healer, as savior, as benefactor.

Helmut Koester:

John H. Morison Professor of New Testament Studies and Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Harvard Divinity School


Luke portrays Jesus in the gospel in essentially according to the image of the divine man. The person in whom divine powers are visible and are exercised, both in his teaching and in his miracle doing. The image of the divine man also belongs in Jesus' travel narrative. The gospel of Luke is the only one that has a long travel narrative of Jesus.... The travel motif has been a very important motif in antiquity to describe the life of great divine men, miracle workers, teachers....

The divine man motif is important even through Jesus' suffering and death, because Jesus dies the perfect martyr's death, an exemplary death. There is no crying, "my God, my God, why has Thou forsaken me?" But Jesus dies commending his spirit into the hands of the father, as a pious martyr really should do in a suffering death. So the image of Jesus is one that is fully developed out of the image of the divine human being....

L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


In contrast to either Mark or Matthew, Luke's gospel is clearly written more for a gentile audience. Luke is traditionally thought of as one of Paul's traveling companions and it's certainly the case that the author of Luke was from those Greek cities in which Paul had worked. Luke's gospel is a product of a kind of Pauline Christianity. And so it tells the story in some slightly different ways than do the other gospels. It has different interests. It has different thematic concerns. It probably also has a different political self consciousness because it's writing predominantly for gentiles in the Greek cities of Asia Minor or Greece itself.

Luke's audience seems to be a much more cultured literary kind of audience. Luke's Greek is the highest quality in style of anything in the new testament. It reads more like a novel in the Greek tradition, rather than Mark's gospel, which has a kind of crude quality at times to the Greek grammar. So anyone on the street of a Greek city picking up Luke's gospel would have felt at home with it if they were able to read good Greek....Tradition holds that Luke was actually a traveling companion of Paul. He's often called Luke the physician which means he's portrayed as a kind of educated person from the Greco-Roman world....

Now the concerns of Luke's gospel are a little different, therefore; there are political as well as social concerns that we see in the way the story is told precisely because it's writing for this much more cultured kind of audience.

Luke's audience seems to be predominantly gentile.... when they talk about the story of Jesus there's more of an emphasis on the political situation of Jesus today. Jesus is less of a rabble rouser, and so is Paul, for that matter, in these stories. And this suggests something about the situation of the audience, that they too are concerned about the way that they will be perceived, the way that the church will be perceived by the Roman authorities. It's sometimes suggested that Luke's gospel should be seen as a kind of an apologetic for the beginnings of the Christian movement, trying to make its place in the Roman world, to say, "we're okay, don't worry about us, we are just like the rest of you: we keep the peace, we're law abiding citizens, we have high moral values, we're good Romans too." ...


It's also important to recognize that Luke's gospel has a companion volume. Luke is by the same author as the Book of Acts in the New Testament, the book that tells the story of the beginnings of the Christian movement and down through the time of Paul's career. And it's very clear from the way the two books open up, and the prologue to each one, that we're working with the same author and that the narrative continues from one to the next. So the author of Luke/Acts, and that's what we call them now, that's a two-volume work, the author of Luke/Acts is telling us a bigger story, a grander story, a story that starts with Jesus and is concerned with how his life played out , but then sees the story continuing with the founding of the church and with its spread and with the eventual travels of Paul that take him to Rome itself. It's a story with a much greater political self consciousness. It's a story told from the plateau of history. Indeed Luke/Acts is the first attempt to write a history of the Christian movement from the inside.


Jesus in Luke's gospel comes across differently, he's much more like a philosophic teacher, kind of like Socrates: he's reasoned, he's dispassionate, he's a critic sometimes of society but he's certainly concerned about the way his teachings bear on society. And in the end he dies very much like Socrates. The death of Jesus in Luke's gospel is more like a martyr's death, it's much calmer, he goes inexorably to the cross, knowing that it is what must happen. Pilate isn't at fault at all. Pilate tries to get rid of the case by sending Jesus away to Herod.... Pilate isn't the enemy of Jesus, he isn't the bad guy. And once again this may reflect the kind of political concerns of Luke's gospel. Jesus also isn't a source of concern because he's not a kind of rebel figure now, rather he's a teacher, a philosopher, a social critic, a social reformer. He's a good member of the Greco-Roman world.


Now ...the counterpart to the realization that Luke is telling the story for a Greco-Roman audience with a kind of political agenda is what happens to Luke's treatment of the Jewish tradition. Luke is much more antagonistic toward Judaism. And so the gospel of Luke and its companion volume, Acts, are also reflecting the development of the Christian movement more away from the Jewish roots and in fact ...developing more toward the Roman political and social arena. This political self consciousness and ethnic self consciousness that's being reflected by Luke/Acts is beginning to say that we, the Christians, the ones who are telling this story, are no longer in quite the same way just Jews. And so there's a growing antipathy toward at least certain elements within theJewish tradition and within Jewish society.


One of the places we see this most clearly is in the way that Luke tells the parable of the prodigal son. It's a very familiar story. And it's a story about repentance. The younger of two brothers who runs away, squanders his inheritance living a vile life and only after he goes into the depths of depression because he has no money and doesn't know where he's going to live, he decides to go home and be just a slave in his father's house. But when he returns, his father welcomes him with open arms and says, "Let's have a great banquet to welcome you back." Now the older brother who had stayed at home all this time becomes jealous because he had been faithful to his father's wishes and desires. He had been doing what his father wanted all along. It's the younger brother who had squandered everything and gone against his father's wishes. This story is really about Luke's perception of the relation between gentiles and Jews in the household of God. It is Luke's description of the church as being willing to accept both the older brother, the faithful brother, the Jews, alongside of the prodigal son, the gentiles, who had lived a terrible life away from the father for so long but now in the church are being welcomed back with open arms. Luke's vision is of a unified humanity in the church that brings all of God's children back together.

Read more on the Gospel of Luke in this essay by Marilyn Mellowes.

symposium . jesus' many faces . a portrait of jesus' world . storytellers . first christians . why did christianity succeed?
maps, archaeology & sources . discussion . bible history quiz . behind the scenes
teachers' guide . viewers' guide . press reaction .  tapes, transcripts & events

published april 1998

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