Κατα Λουκᾶν    According to Luke  

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  detail of the 31st folio of Bodmer papyrus 14 (P75) containing Luke 24:51-53 with appended title
[public domain image]

What's in a name?

Luke is, strictly speaking, not a "gospel" (Greek: εὐαγγέλιον, lit.: "good news") but rather the first volume of the oldest extant history of the early Christian community, the second volume of which was later dubbed "Acts of the Apostles" (πράξεις ἀπόστολων).  Thus, this work might better be called the "Acts of Jesus."  But even that does not cover its whole scope. It is rather, according to the author, a "detailed account" (διήγησις) of the deeds "fulfilled among us" (Luke 1:1).

In good classical Greek literary style, Luke opens with a prologue in which he introduces himself (anonymously) and his purpose in writing to a particular patron, whom he identifies as Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1). While that name, meaning friend or lover of God, may be -- and has often been -- interpreted as a polite reference to any pious reader, Θεόφιλος was a perfectly normal given name in the Hellenistic world. It was the name of the Judean Sadducee who succeeded his brother-in-law Caiaphas as high priest (37-41 CE), as well as the name of a Greek geographer and a Bactrian king a century before.  The fact that the author of these volumes addresses Theophilus as "most excellent" (κράτιστε) makes it probable that his intended reader was a high ranking official of some sort. For it is unlikely that any author would call a generic audience "your Excellency."

At any rate, the Theophilus to whom this work is dedicated was probably not the Jew of that name who served as high priest less than a decade after Jesus' crucifixion.  For the  scope of Luke-Acts covers events that occurred over many decades, concluding with Paul, as a prisoner in Rome, warning Jews that the apostolic mission would turn to gentiles (Acts 28:28). Besides, the author of this work does not pretend to be a first generation Christian. Rather, he admits that "many" (πόλλοι) wrote accounts before him, and even these were dependent on earlier oral traditions from eyewitnesses (αὐτόπται) and preachers alike (Luke 1:1f). Without claiming to have access to other sources of information, much less to have been a personal companion of any early apostle, this author presents himself as a careful researcher, who followed "everything" closely so that Theophilus could be assured of the "unshakeability" (ἀσφάλεια) of things he was told (Luke 1:3f). In other words, his avowed reason for composing this work was to set the record straight and dismiss doubts that previous accounts of Christian origins might raise.

Allusions and Manuscript Evidence

The earliest extant reference to a gospel of Luke is from Irenaeus who (ca. 180 CE) -- irrespective of the author's own statements --  identified him as an "associate" of Paul who recorded "the gospel that Paul used to preach" (Against Heresies 3.1.1).  Yet, Irenaeus was not the first to call this work a "gospel" or associate it with Paul. For half a century earlier the radical Paulinist, Marcion of Sinope, used an anonymous expurgated edition of this work as the only "gospel of the Lord" in the first proposed canon of Christian scripture (Against Heresies 1.27.2). Decades later Tatian used Luke in compiling his gospel harmony Diatesseron ("According to the Four").

The oldest surviving fragment of Luke is a damaged papyrus folio (P4) containing much of the text from 1:58 (birth of John the Baptist) to 6:16 (commissioning of the twelve), which was discovered in the binding of a 3rd c. codex of Philo. Script analysis and the fact that this ms. was scrapped and partially recycled in publishing that codex show that it was from a copy of Luke written before 200 CE. Comparison with other papyri indicates that it was probably produced by the same scribe who penned P64 & P67, fragments containing portions of Matthew.  If so, then it would be a remnant of the earliest codex known to contain more than one gospel.

A better preserved 3rd c. papyrus codex (P75) contains almost the whole Lukan narrative from 3:18 (imprisonment of John the Baptist) to its conclusion (24:53), as well as most of the gospel of John. The complete text of Luke, however, is found only in parchment codices, like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, produced after the council of Nicaea (325 CE).

Style, structure, and sources

Luke-Acts is the most elegant example of literate Greek in the New Testament from the standpoint of syntax. Its author -- more than any other evangelist -- shows himself adept at composing grammatically correct complex sentences with sophisticated vocabulary. His prologue alone is a single sentence composed of 41 words -- several used just here -- in a network of interlocking subordinate clauses. Yet, the Lukan version of material paralleled by other synoptics usually has simpler syntax (cf. Luke 3:21ff, 4:31ff, 6:1ff, 8:9ff), showing this author to be a conservative editor of his source(s).  Narrative transitions and passages that are uniquely Lukan, however, often have the polish of a well educated scribe.

This author's dual claim (Luke 1:1-4) that many accounts preexisted his and that he followed everything "exactly" (ἀκριβῶς) invites investigation of his sources of information. Comparison with other synoptic gospels reveals general agreements and striking differences in both structure and details.  For instance, like Matthew but not Mark, Luke presents a genealogy for Jesus (Luke 3:23ff) and accounts of his conception (Luke 1:26ff) and birth (Luke 2:1ff). But the only details in which their accounts agree are that Jesus' mother, Mary, was a virgin, engaged to Joseph, a descendent of David, and that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born in Bethlehem. Otherwise, the information presented by the Lukan account is totally independent of and in stark contrast to information in Matthew.  Also, like Matthew but not Mark, Luke reports Jesus' resurrection appearances (Luke 24:13ff); but again these are not the visions recounted by Matthew. Moreover, while Luke presents many of the same non-Markan sayings of Jesus as Matthew, his version always differs from Matthew's in wording and/or context.  Therefore, if Luke used Matthew as a prime source, he did not follow that account "exactly" as he claims (Luke 1:3), but edited it thoroughly: revising, reorganizing, discarding and even contradicting Matthean material. The most plausible reason that an acknowledged latter-day scribe could expect to get away with such literary butchery of an available text was that he had access to other sources, which he considered more reliable than Matthew, some of which may even have been used by Matthew himself.

In triple tradition texts -- that is, material reported by all three synoptics -- Luke usually agrees more with the order and wording in Mark than in Matthew (cf. Luke 4:38ff, 5;12ff, 8:17ff, 8:22ff, 8:26ff, 8:40ff, 8:43ff, 8:49ff, 9:26, 9:27, 18:18ff, 18:35ff, 19:28ff, 20:9ff, 22:7ff). At two points in his narrative, however, Luke makes a significant departure from the story line of both other synoptics. He has no parallel to any of the material those gospels present between the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:44 par) and Peter's identification of Jesus as Messiah (Mark 8:27 par) except for a few sayings which he scatters in other contexts (Luke 6:39, 11:29, 12:1 & 54). So, if he was using Mark and/or Matthew as a source he must have deliberately dropped most of this section. Thus, modern scholars have dubbed it Luke's "great omission."

Even more important for source analysis is the Lukan account of Jesus' journey from Galilee (Luke 9:51) to Jerusalem. While Matthew and Mark report only a few incidents and related sayings before Jesus reaches Jericho (Mark 10:46 par), Luke's account is more than six times as long.  Much of this extra material, including several parables, is presented just by Luke (e.g., Luke 9:52ff, 10:1, 10:17ff, 10:29ff, 10:38ff, 11:5ff, 12:13ff, 12:16ff, 12:35f, 12:37ff, 13:1ff, 13:6ff, 13:10ff, 13:31ff, 14:1ff, 14:7ff, 14:12ff, 14:28ff, 14:31ff, 15:8ff, 15:11ff, 16:1ff, 16:10ff, 16:19ff, 17:7ff, 17:11ff, 17:22, 17:28ff, 18:1ff, 18:9ff). Where he got all this information from is unknown. So modern scholars call it simply "L" and refer to this nine chapter section of the Lukan narrative as the "great insertion."

Interspersed throughout this section, however, are sayings Matthew reports in other contexts either before or after Jesus' trip to Jerusalem (Matt 8:18ff, 9:37f, 10:7ff, 11:20ff, 10:40, 11:25ff, 13:16f, 6:7ff, 7:7ff, 9:32f, 9:34, 12:25ff, 12:43ff, 12:38ff, 5:16, 6:22f, 23:25f, 23:23, 23:6f, 23:27f, 23:4, 23:29ff, 23:13, 10:26f, 10:28ff, 10:17ff, 12:32, 6:25ff, 6:19ff, 24:43f, 24:25ff, 10:34ff, 16:2f, 5:25f, 13:31f, 13:33, 7:13f, 7:22f, 8:11f, 20:16, 23:27f, 22:1ff, 10:34f, 5:13, 18:12f, 6:24, 11:12ff, 5:18, 5:32, 18:6f, 18:15, 18:21, 17:21, 24:26, 24:27, 24:37ff, 10:39, 24:40f, 24:28). While Luke groups many of these pericopes in clusters, the Lukan sequence (above) is seldom the same as the Matthean.  So if Luke's primary or only source for this material was Matthew, he would have radically reedited that work, plucking sayings from their Matthean context, paraphrasing many, thoroughly shuffling them, and inserting them randomly between passages not found in Matthew (see preceding paragraph) even though the context in which he records them is often less fitting than that in Matthew. Is such cavalier reconstruction of a primary source by a 2nd or 3rd generation scribe who insists he has "followed everything exactly" (Luke 1:3) really credible?  If Luke used a copy of Matthew, would it not also be available to Theophilus?  And if it were, would Theophilus not notice how Luke's account differed? In such a situation, how could Luke defend his new account as more "unshakeable" than the older?

The most plausible answer to such questions is to take Luke seriously when he reports that there were many sources -- not just Mark and Matthew -- in circulation before his.  He could be confident in claiming his account was trustworthy because he put things "in order" (καθεξῆς) -- an order he found in a sayings source he trusted more than the other synoptics. The fact that Matthew reports the same sayings in a variant order indicates only that he knew the same source but reorganized its contents to fit his own narrative agenda. For lack of a name, modern scholars call that source simply "Q" -- short for Quelle, "source" in German. [For another possible Lukan source see Anointing anatomy below].

Damage control

It is in those elements which differ from the other synoptics that one discovers how this author sought to keep his reader from drawing mistaken conclusions from what others wrote.  Most significant are the following:

  • Baptizer in context. All the synoptics portray Jesus as the greater successor heralded by a charismatic Jewish reformer named John (Luke 3:15ff), whom "Herod" imprisoned and executed (Luke 3:19f). Luke correctly and consistently identifies this "Herod" -- i.e., Antipas -- as a "tetrarch" not "king" like his father Herod the Great (Luke 3:1 & 19, 9:7; Josephus, Antiquities 17.188, War 2.181ff; cf. Matt 14:9). But, more importantly, he knew that from a Roman viewpoint John was not the martyred religious hero he was to Jews but a rabble rouser silenced by the imperial governor of Galilee & Perea, whose job was to maintain the pax Romana (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18.117).

    So, before introducing Jesus to Theophilus, Luke presents a background check on John, with biographical information found in no other extant source.  He begins by describing John's parents-to-be as upright, law-abiding descendants of priestly lineage -- i.e., members of the conservative Judean aristocracy -- who unexpectedly conceive a son in their old age (Luke 1:5ff). When John is born, his father predicts his son will be a prophet preparing "the way of peace" (Luke 1:76ff). Luke sets John's public career in a broad political panorama of the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius (29 CE; Luke 3:1).  He omits mentioning, however, what any well-informed 1st c. Roman reader could know: that this was the year when Sejanus, the ambitious captain of Tiberius' Praetorian guard, started a reign of terror whose repercussions shook Rome for the next decade.

    Implied or not, Luke's description of John's message and mission stands in sharp contrast to the chaos and oppression Romans themselves suffered under that imperial regime. Rather than creating turmoil, John is portrayed as herald of an era of universal equality in which God's salvation is seen by "all flesh" (Luke 3:5). According to Luke alone, John told those with possessions to share with paupers, and tax-collectors and soldiers not to abuse their positions but content themselves with their wages (Luke 3:10ff). Far from promoting unrest, such ethics, if put into practice, would create conditions for social harmony and civic peace. Such a world should seem ideal to an intelligent official like "most excellent" Theophilus.

  • Agent of peace. A clear sign that Luke's intended reader was a gentile is that he does not introduce Jesus as "Messiah" (Greek: Χρίστος) like the other synoptics. Instead, he subtly integrates Jesus into his account of John by portraying their expectant mothers as kin (Luke 1:39ff).  By crediting Mary with a song of praise (Luke 1:46ff) like the one Jewish scripture ascribed to Samuel's mother Hannah (1 Sam 2:1ff), Luke defuses the victory language of the psalmody of both Israel and the early church. While the lyrics conger images of social revolution (e.g. Luke 1:51ff; I Sam 2:4ff), the voice is just that of a single female celebrating an unexpected pregnancy.

    Even less a threat to the pax Romana is Luke's account of Jesus' birth, which he sets during an imperial census "while Quirinius was governor of Syria" (Luke 2:1). This actually occurred in 6 CE, when Augustus turned Judea into an imperial province under a military prefect charged with collecting taxes from its inhabitants (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18.1ff, 26). Luke does not mention that this census resulted in a prolonged tax revolt led by an independence-minded Galilean. But his account of Joseph taking his pregnant fiancée, Mary, from Nazareth to Judea just to be counted prevents the family into which Jesus was born from being confused with Galileans who revolted against direct Roman rule.  According to Luke, Jesus was born at Bethlehem, not because it fulfilled some messianic prophecy (Mic 5:2ff; cf. Matt 2:6), but because his mother's husband-to-be obeyed a Roman imperial edict!

    Moreover, Luke is careful not to include anything in his description of Jesus' origins to link him to Jewish nationalism. True, he identifies Joseph as a descendent of David (Luke 1:27, 2:4). But unlike Matthew, he does not produce a royal pedigree. Nor does he mention a rising star (Matt 2:2; cf. Num 24:17), much less foreigners bearing gifts for "the King of the Jews" (Matt 2:11; cf. Isa 60:6). Instead, Luke paints a pastoral picture of a child born in a stable (Luke 2:7) with local peasants tending sheep as the only humans other than his parents to learn of this event (Luke 2:8ff).  Their "savior" (σωτὴρ), they are told paradoxically, is not a prince but a helpless newborn (βρέφος) laid in a feeding trough for animals (Luke 2:12). Luke's depiction of a cosmic chorus celebrating this event as a sign of "peace on earth" (Luke 2:14) further distances Jesus from the Jewish rebellion that shattered the pax Romana.

  • Pious son. Luke is the only author to depict Jesus as having a proper Jewish childhood. As he tells it, his parents were able to stay near Jerusalem for at least a month after his birth to fulfill the rituals of circumcision and maternal purification as prescribed by Torah (Luke 2:21ff; cf. Lev 12). Then -- instead of whisking him into exile in Egypt (Matt 2:16ff) -- they returned to Galilee where he was raised for the next dozen years (Luke 2:39f), except for annual family trips to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41). Luke's coming-of-age portrait of the twelve year old Jesus seated "among the teachers" (ἐν μέσῳ τῶν διδασκάλων), engaged in a discussion that leaves them amazed at his understanding (2:46f), casts him as a precocious Jewish youth who knows his tradition well. Then by quoting Jesus as calling the Herodian temple "my Father's house" (2:49) Luke prepares the reader to view his later eviction of vendors from its precincts (19:45) as an act of pious house-cleaning rather than an attack upon the shrine itself.  By stressing that Jesus continued to obey his parents (2:51), Luke also keeps accounts of his later controversial behavior from being taken as evidence that he was a born rebel.

  • Epithets explained. Luke reports a Davidic pedigree for Jesus after the baptismal vision in which God tells him: "You are my son" (Luke 3:22).  Strictly speaking, it is not Jesus' own genealogy, since -- like that in Matthew -- it is presented as the paternal lineage of Joseph (Luke 3:23, Matt 1:16), whom both synoptics claim was not Jesus' biological father. But there the similarities stop. Instead of drawing a line  from David through Solomon's descendents, the family tree in Luke is traced back though a cadet branch of David's offspring whose members never occupied his throne (Luke 3:31, cf. Matt 1:6ff).  Moreover, Luke traces David's lineage not just to Abraham but all the way to Adam, whom he identifies as "son of God" (3:37). Far from advertising Jesus' ethnic blue-blood credentials, the Lukan lineage depoliticizes and universalizes epithets that carried messianic connotations in Jewish tradition (cf. Ps 2:7, 89:25ff). For it shows that "son of David" can designate a descendent of that king other than an heir to the throne, and that not just kings and emperors but any offspring of the primordial human could be considered a "son of God."

  • Scripture fulfilled. Unlike the other synoptics, Luke does not open Jesus' public ministry with an eschatological alert and a clarion call to repentance. Instead, he focuses attention on Jesus' return to his hometown (Nazareth), where taking part in the Sabbath synagogue service--like any adult Jewish male--, he is given a portion of scripture to read (Luke 4:16ff). The lection from the scroll of Isaiah (61:1ff) where the prophet identifies himself as anointed to proclaim the Jubilee -- the year of release and redemption when debts were cancelled and property restored (cf. Lev 25:10ff) -- concludes with Jesus claiming this scripture fulfilled "today" (σήμερον). This focuses his mission on bringing relief and hope to the impoverished and oppressed by assuring them of divine favor (cf. Luke 6:20ff).  For proclaiming a Jubilee heralds an era of unconditional forgiveness.

    So, Luke stresses, Jesus did not reject or condemn anybody. Rather, he portrays the self-righteous condemning him for not avoiding those whom they considered unworthy (cf. Luke 7:36ff, 15:1ff, 18:9ff). Far from restricting his mission to Israel alone (cf. Matt 10:5f), Luke's Jesus was rejected by nationalistic neighbors just for pointing out that Israel's greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, helped foreigners (Luke 4:25ff; cf. 1 Kings 17:8ff, 2 Kings 5:1ff). While all the synoptics report that Jesus was widely viewed by Jews as a prophet (cf. Luke 9:8, 18f par), Luke alone backs this rumor by reporting that he -- like Elijah -- revived a widow's son (Luke 7:11ff; cf. 1 Kings 17:17ff). And he has Jesus justify his journey to Jerusalem by claiming that is where a prophet must die (Luke 13:33). Thus, Luke repeatedly insists, Jesus claimed the mantle of an anointed prophet, rather than the throne of a messianic king.

  • Beyond the Law. Like other synoptic authors, Luke shows Jesus could quote scripture when an occasion warranted (cf. Luke 4:1ff, 4:18f, 7:27, 19:45f, 20:17, 20:37, 20:42f, 22:37).  Yet, unlike Matthew, he does not identify the keynote of Jesus' message as fulfillment of Torah (cf. Matt 5:17f). On the contrary, he claims the era of Torah and prophets culminated with John (Luke 16:16). He contrasts Jesus' message with John's by insisting it stressed the presence of the kingdom of God (Luke 17:20f). And that he compares to a feast open to outsiders (Luke 14:15ff).  While the other synoptics show Jesus reciting the Torah commandments to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28ff par), Luke presents this as something any law-abiding Jew should know (Luke 10:25ff). Instead, for him the thing that really distinguished Jesus' teaching from common Jewish ethics was his readiness to view not just observant Jews but an outsider, even an ethnic enemy such as a Samaritan, as a "neighbor" (Luke 10:29ff).

  • Anatomy of anointing. Like the other synoptics, Luke describes an anonymous woman with a jar of ointment (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου) interrupting a meal to anoint Jesus (Luke 7:37ff). But aside from calling the host "Simon," his account diverges dramatically from the others. Matthew and Mark locate the incident at Bethany in Judea just prior to Jesus' arrest (Mark 14:3 par); Luke, however, sets the incident in Galilee early in Jesus' career (Luke 7:36). While Luke identifies the host as a Pharisee, the others call him "the leper." But the most significant difference is that Luke describes the woman as anointing Jesus' feet, whereas the other synoptics claim she anointed his head. Thus, if Luke knew either or both of the other synoptics, he replaced their account with a radically altered version. The question is: why?

    The answer to that question is complicated by the fact that the gospel of John presents a version of the anointing that is parallel to the account in Matthew and Mark in both setting and narrative except for three details: (1) the host is identified as Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead and (2) the woman is identified as his sister Mary, who (3) anoints Jesus' feet and wipes them with her hair (John 12:1-3). The last detail closely parallels Luke's description of the anointing (Luke 7:38). Also, Lazarus is the name of a dead man in a parable about resurrection that is presented only by Luke (16:19ff); and Luke alone reports another occasion when a woman named Mary sits at Jesus' feet while her sister Martha serves dinner (Luke 10:38ff). So it is often assumed that the author of the fourth gospel took all these scattered details from the synoptics and combined them to construct his account of Jesus' anointing.

    Though such a scenario may seem plausible in the abstract, it becomes highly improbable when viewed from the perspective of redaction strategies. For why would an author opt to give the subject of a miracle who is raised from the dead (John 12:1) the name of a parable's protagonist who is not (Luke 16:31)?  And why would he confuse the Mary whom Jesus commends for sitting at his feet as a student (Luke 10:39) with an anonymous woman whom Luke introduced as a known sinner (Luke 7:37ff)? Moreover, why would he have substituted Luke's description of a foot anointing for Matthew and Mark's head anointing, when all the other details in his version of this incident parallel the latter accounts rather than the former?

    Not only would such alterations serve no rational purpose, they could cause scandal.  For anointing the head with oil was a sign of blessing and honor in the ancient Near East (Ps 23:5). Israelite kings and prophets were installed with such a ritual (1 Kings 19:15f). But in first century Mediterranean society -- where all respectable women kept their hair covered in public -- the gesture described by both Luke and John would be considered shocking and even disgraceful (cf. 1 Cor 11:5ff). For a woman not just to let her hair down but to use it to wipe a man's feet suggests an intimacy that one might expect of a spouse in private. But doing this to a guest at a meal risked ruining the woman's reputation. According to Luke, Jesus' host even doubts his guest's prophetic insight just for letting such an obvious sinner touch him (Luke 7:39).  So, it is hardly credible from a redactional perspective that any 1st c. Christian author would deliberately turn a description of Jesus' head being anointed into that of the foot anointing found in Luke 7:37f and John 12:3.
    It is not only credible but highly likely, however, that most Christian authors would want to revise a potentially scandalous story about Jesus to remove as much of the social stigma as possible. Thus, the anointing described in Matthew and Mark is easily read as a minimally censored version of the more detailed account preserved by the Fourth Gospel. All the synoptic editor would have done was suppress the name of the woman (Mary) to safeguard her reputation and transform her act into a symbolic gesture reminiscent of the anointing the heads of Israel's ancient kings.

    The clue that reveals the synoptic version of this incident is an expurgated revision of the Johannine rather than the latter being an embellished version of the former is the fact that both accounts conclude with Jesus interpreting the woman's act as a preparation for his burial (John 12:7, Mark 14:8 par). In ancient burial practices bodies were covered with scented oils, particularly myrrh, to mask the odor of rotting flesh. Hair, however, does not decay. So that is the one part of the human anatomy that did not have to be perfumed for burial. Thus, Jesus' alleged interpretation of the woman's act is more relevant to the Johannine than the synoptic description of the anointing.

    The fact that both Matthew and Mark conclude this pericope with Jesus' solemn prediction that wherever the gospel is preached this story will be told "in memory of her" (Mark 14:9 par) is further evidence that the Johannine account is more original.  It is not the act of anointing but the person who did it that this account was designed to memorialize. But the synoptic accounts are poor memorials for a person since they fail to mention her name. John, on the other hand, identifies Mary as "the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair," even before he tells the story (John 11:2) indicating that his intended readers had already heard of her sensational reputation. By telling her story right after Jesus' restoration of her brother Lazarus, however, John contextualizes her act as a self-effacing gesture of gratitude, thereby minimizing the social stigma.

    Luke, on the other hand, obviously adopted a different strategy.  Rather than repeat the version of the anointing presented by the other synoptics -- perhaps because of its implicit political symbolism -- he divorced it from its pre-passion context in the other gospels, eliminating any association with burial, and restored Mary's reputation by splitting her part of the story from that of the anointing. According to  Luke she sat at Jesus' feet as an attentive student without touching him (Luke 10:39). But Luke also accounted for a scandalous foot anointing -- which the other gospels suggest was widely rumored -- by interpreting it as an uninhibited gesture of gratitude by an unnamed sinner woman -- i.e., prostitute -- responding to Jesus' message: the announcement of a Jubilee with its unconditional forgiveness.  Without condemning his Pharisaic host, Luke's Jesus simply points out that, since the former thought of himself as upright, he did not value the blanket forgiveness heralded by Jesus as much as one who recognized her sins (Luke 7:40ff). Thus, Luke could echo elements of the Johannine account of the anointing by dissecting and re-signifying them.

    To argue that it is more plausible to read all synoptic versions of the story of Jesus' anointing as revisions of the Johannine account than to interpret the Johannine version as a pastiche of elements mined from the synoptics is not to claim that any synoptic author knew the gospel of John in its current canonical form. It is rather to suggest that the Fourth Gospel preserves a more problematic and therefore less edited earlier version of a story that circulated widely in early Christian circles.  Johannine scholars have dubbed the earlier source from which the author of our Fourth Gospel got its version of the anointing and other stories the "Signs Gospel" because it focused on events it claimed were signs (σημεῖα) that Jesus was the Messiah (John 20:30ff). Luke's version of the anointing is best explained by concluding that this was another of the "many" accounts that he claimed were composed before his.

    The most likely reason that Luke did not mimic the other synoptic versions of the anointing is that they did not adequately defuse the scandalous implications of rumors of this event that threatened to tar the reputation of not only Mary, but of Jesus who defended her. Instead of trying to sanitize the incident by altering the problematic description of the foot anointing he turned it into an illustration of Jesus' mission to proclaim forgiveness of all sins.

  • Friend of tax-collectors. Like other synoptic authors, Luke reports that Jesus recruited a Galilean toll-collector (Luke 5:27f) and associated with others of his ilk (Luke 5:29ff), noting that this made him notorious among Pharisees, who regarded tax-collectors as contaminated for ignoring Torah (cf. Tosefta, Toharoth 7.6). Both Matthew and Luke claim Jesus parodied this notoriety (Luke 7:33ff). But only Luke fastened on the motif of Jesus' fraternization with tax-collectors to illustrate his message of forgiveness. He even presents a parable which compares a tax-collector favorably to a Pharisee (Luke 18:9ff).

    In the ancient Mediterranean world tax-collectors (Greek: τελώναι; Latin: publicani) were private contractors rather than salaried civic servants.  Rulers sold the license to collect taxes to the highest bidders, who then had the chance to profit on their investment by taxing the populace.  Since that system was unpopular and ripe for abuse, Augustus replaced it with a flat poll tax based on a periodic census. Yet client rulers -- like the Herodian dynasty -- who paid annual tribute to Rome continued to use tax farming to raise revenues in their domains. In 6 CE, however, after a tumultuous decade of Archelaus' misrule, Augustus turned Judea into a Roman military province and ordered a census of its populace, sparking a tax-revolt by Jewish nationalists who refused to pay tribute to a pagan foreign ruler (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 18.1ff, 26). Though this revolt was eventually crushed by the Roman army, tribute to Rome remained a source of popular Jewish unrest for decades. All the synoptics claim Jesus dodged efforts to trap him on this issue (Luke 20:20ff). But Luke alone claims he was turned over to Pilate for publicly opposing tribute to Rome (Luke 23:2), which amounted to sedition: a capitol offense.

    Luke preemptively falsifies such a charge, however, by claiming that on his way to Jerusalem Jesus deliberately chose to stay at the home of Zaccheus, the chief tax-collector (ἀρχιτελώνης) at Jericho, a thoroughly Romanized urban complex built by Herod the Great on the largest oasis in the Jordan valley (Luke 19:1ff).  Zaccheus (Hebrew
    זכאי: Zakkai) was patently a non-observant Jew who got rich collaborating with Roman occupiers and ignoring Torah regulations against usury (cf. Deut 13:19f). Yet, as Luke tells it, he volunteered to repay anyone he ever overcharged, just because Jesus did not shun him (Luke 19:8).  That is, Jesus did not make this sinner's forgiveness conditional upon his repentance but rather moved him to reform simply by not condemning him. This recurring Lukan emphasis on Jesus' acceptance of tax-collectors is another sign that his intended reader ("most excellent Theophilus") was not an observant Jew but rather a supporter -- probably even an official -- of the Roman imperial order.

  • Death undeserved. From a Roman perspective, however, the mere admission that Jesus was crucified meant he must have been seen as a political threat by the ruling authorities. For in the 1st century crucifixion was a form of public execution that the Roman military used primarily for those who rebelled against Roman rule (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 17.295, 20.102; Jewish War 5.449ff). While all Christian gospels claim Jesus was wrongfully crucified and divert blame for such a miscarriage of justice from Roman to Jewish authorities, none is more insistent than Luke on Jesus' innocence of any wrongdoing.

    Every gospel reports that when Jesus was arrested a follower maimed the high priest's slave with a sword (Mark 14:47f par). Luke, however, must have realized that such an attack upon the personal representative of the highest Judean official provided justification for Jesus to be turned over to the Roman governor as a threat to civil order. For he alone claims that Jesus intervened to heal the wound (Luke 22:51). So Luke insists that, when Jesus was turned over to Roman authorities, the governors of both Judea (Pontius Pilate) and Galilee (Herod Antipas) did not find him guilty of any crime that merited the death penalty (Luke 23:4ff, 13ff). Without echoing Matthew's claim that Pilate publicly abdicated responsibility for crucifying Jesus (Matt 27:24ff), Luke minimizes the role Romans played in torturing him by failing to describe a flogging or crown of thorns and crediting the mocking to soldiers of the Galilean tetrarch (Luke 23:11). While he had to admit that Jesus was crucified with two "bad guys" (κακοῦργαι; Luke 23:32f), he uses this scene to highlight Jesus' innocence by having even one of the criminals declare that Jesus had done "nothing wrong" (Luke 23:40ff). And when Jesus dies, Luke even credits the centurion in charge of the crucifixion with proclaiming him "righteous" (δίκαιος; Luke 23:47).

  • Risen in deed. Luke's report of Jesus' resurrection is designed to address doubts  left by earlier accounts. Like Mark, he begins with women discovering an open tomb (Luke 24:1f). There, however, they meet not just one messenger but two (Luke 24:3), who remind them that Jesus predicted rising on the 3rd day (Luke 24:6f). Yet, Luke insists, the disciples did not believe the women's report (Luke 24:11).  This portrays them as sensible males not inclined to accept female hearsay. For, in antiquity (at least), women's testimony was widely regarded as unreliable.
    So, Luke insists the Christian conviction that Jesus had been raised from the dead was based on a string of appearances to male witnesses. Yet, oddly, he does not describe appearances reported by other authors (1Cor 15:3ff; Matt 28:16f; John 20:19ff, 21:1ff). Rather, he focuses on incidents in which disciples did not readily recognize Jesus (Luke 24:13ff) or thought they saw a ghost (Luke 24:33ff). It is only  after Jesus performs a familiar act, like breaking bread (24:30f) or eating fish (24:39ff), that they are convinced that what they saw was more than an apparition.

    This Lukan focus on skepticism indicates that his intended reader was probably not convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead just because of claims that people had seen him. The concept of bodily resurrection was a Jewish doctrine based on conviction of God's eventual vindication of the righteous (Dan 12:2,13).  Non-Jews did not readily accept the idea of physical resurrection (e.g., 1 Cor 15:12f). Since Greco-Roman literature was filled with stories of visions of shades of the departed, it was easy for a sophisticated gentile audience to interpret Christian claims of visions of Jesus after his crucifixion as nothing more than that. Thus, Luke stresses that the disciples were not really convinced that Jesus had been raised simply because of a series of apparitions, but only because they had a chance to touch him and witness him consuming food (Luke 24:39ff).

    Yet Luke knew that even this would not satisfy a real skeptic. For if Jesus was bodily resurrected, the inevitable question is: what eventually became of him? Thus, Luke ends the first volume of his account of Christian origins -- and begins the second -- with a scene that is not reported in any other extant source: the disciples witnessing Jesus' bodily ascent into heaven (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:1ff).

Making sense of Luke: Gentile times (καιροὶ ἐθνῶν)

The author of this work was clearly a revisionist who wrote an apologetic history of the early Christian movement for the Greek speaking Roman elite at a time when the latter were apt to confuse Christians with rebellious Jews. Christians were, after all, a messianic sect that worshipped a leader crucified by the governor of the volatile province of Judea just decades before it erupted in a prolonged war against Roman control (66-73 CE). More alarming, from the perspective of imperial authorities, they were a missionary movement winning converts among gentiles across the Mediterranean basin. Thus, many Romans viewed them as a foreign cultural movement that was infiltrating Roman society and undermining Roman civic religion (cf. Pliny, Letters 10.96).  By 65 CE Roman distrust of this spreading "destructive superstition" -- as Tacitus characterizes Christianity (Annals 15.44) -- was strong enough for Nero to stage a mass public execution of Christians on the pretext that they started the fire that destroyed much of Rome. The fact that the Jewish revolt against Rome began just months later compounded popular confusion of Christians with Jewish rebels.

Luke frames his account of Jesus with scenes designed to falsify such an equation. His characterization of John as herald for the one who would "guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:79) sets the stage for the proclamation of "peace on earth" when Jesus is introduced (Luke 2:14). That celebration of peace is recalled in Luke's account of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:38). Ironically he follows this directly with a lament over the city of Jerusalem for ignoring "the things that make for peace" (τὰ πρὸς εἰρήνην; Luke 19:42). According to Luke, Jesus recognized that true peace was not a state but a process, a "way" which requires tolerance and forgiveness (Luke 6:37ff). For him the heart of Jesus' message was not about fulfilling the Torah (cf. Matt 5:17) but the paradoxical notion of loving one's enemy (Luke 6:27,35).  From this perspective, it was the failure of Jerusalem's ruling authorities to accept this message that guaranteed their destruction. According to Luke, the fall of Jerusalem was not arbitrary divine retribution for rejecting Jesus but rather the inevitable consequence of its failure to follow his prophetic formula for peace.

Unlike the other synoptics Luke does not name the definitive sign of impending disaster a "desolating sacrilege"  (cf. Mark 13:14 par), probably because he knew a gentile reader would not catch the cryptic allusion to the temple's desecration from Judaic apocalyptic texts (cf. Dan 9:27, 11:31, 12:11; 1 Macc 1:54). Instead, he historicizes the sign by identifying it with the (Roman) siege of Jerusalem (Luke 19:43f; 21:20). Unlike the other synoptics, Luke's version of Jesus' "little apocalypse" does not predict the days of distress after Jerusalem's fall would be shortened (Mark 13:20 par). Rather, he claims the leveling of Jerusalem with the slaughter of its defenders and exile of survivors would last until the "Gentile era" (καιροὶ ἐθνῶν) is over (Luke 21:24). He gives no clue of how long that will be, other than to echo the other synoptics in claiming "this generation" would not pass before the Son of Man would appear in glory (Luke 21:32). So Luke was clearly writing after the end of the Jewish-Roman war (70 CE) but well before the end of the first century: i.e., in the era when the Flavian dynasty was rebuilding and reforming Rome's empire.

In 69 CE, Vespasian left the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the hands of his older son, Titus, and returned to Rome to put an end to the civil war that followed the death of Nero. Rome's most important shrine, the Capitoline temple of Jupiter, was destroyed in the fighting. But Vespasian rebuilt it in the 70s with funds raised by a tax imposed on Jews (fiscus Judaicus; cf. Josephus Jewish War 7.216) after their own temple was destroyed. Vespasian's autocratic younger son, Domitian, extended that tax to gentile converts to Judaism and was aggressive in its collection (Suetonius, Domitian 12) to fund his own construction projects, including a temple in the middle of Rome's forum dedicated to his divinized father and brother.  Jews who complied were tolerated; any who resisted or hid their religion were punished harshly. Domitian even had his cousin and co-consul, Titus Flavius Clemens, executed for "Jewish tendencies" (Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14).

The whole Lukan narrative clearly distinguishes Jesus from those Jews who resisted such Roman taxation. Not only does he portray his parents submitting to an imperial census (Luke 2:1ff), he highlights Jesus' fraternization with tax-collectors (Luke 15:1, 19:1ff) and -- like other synoptics -- echoes his cryptic dictum to pay Caesar what is his (Luke 20:20ff), thereby countering the charge that Jesus opposed paying tribute (Luke 23:2). Moreover, his repeated insistence that those in charge of enforcing the pax Romana did not consider Jesus a serious political threat distinguishes him from Jewish agitators who continued to resist Roman rule even after the fall of Masada in 73 CE (cf. Josephus, Jewish War 7.409ff).

Yet, for Luke, what Jesus himself actually did or did not do was only half the story.  Of far greater concern for a Roman official in the latter decades of the 1st c. CE was how and why a movement devoted to this crucified Galilean was attracting non-Jews and had even reached Rome itself, despite sporadic arrests, trials, imprisonment and, at least under Nero, execution of adherents (cf. Mark 13:9ff par; 2 Cor 11:23ff, Phil 1:7). Therefore, Luke's account of "what has been fulfilled among us" (1:1) does not end with Jesus' resurrection, like other gospels, but goes on in a second volume to detail later events involving his followers. Most of what he reports there focuses less on the activity of Jesus' Galilean disciples than on the journeys of Paul, a Hellenized Pharisee from the Diaspora, whom Luke stresses was a Roman citizen (Acts 13-28, esp. 21:37-22:29). Contrary to Matthew, who claims the resurrected Jesus ordered his Galilean disciples to "make disciples of all nations" (Matt 27:19), Luke concludes by claiming that Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49). As he tells it, it was only after temple authorities launched a persecution there that Christian preachers ventured beyond Judea and won converts among people other than Jews (Acts 8-10). So, for Luke, the spread of the Jesus movement did not result from a deliberate mission to convert gentiles but was the by-product of rejection by Jewish authorities. According to him, it was only after gentiles who happened to hear proponents of the "Way" (Acts 9:1ff) pioneered by John and Jesus proved more open to their message than their fellow Jews that they decided to accept and focus on them (Acts 10:44ff, 15:1ff, 28:28). 

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last revised 28 February 2023

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