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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"
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
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
(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
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
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
of the Lord" in the first proposed canon of
Christian scripture (Against
Decades later Tatian used Luke in compiling his gospel
("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.
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
P67, fragments containing portions
of Matthew. If so,
then it would be a remnant of the earliest codex known to contain more than
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
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.
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
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
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
Luke 4:38ff, 5;12ff,
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,
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
Even more important for source analysis is the Lukan account of
Jesus' journey from
Galilee (Luke 9:51) to
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,
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
Interspersed throughout this section, however, are sayings Matthew reports in other contexts
either before or after Jesus' trip to Jerusalem (Matt
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"
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
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,
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
Perea, whose job
was to maintain the pax Romana (cf. Josephus,
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
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
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
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
was governor of Syria" (Luke
2:1). This actually occurred in 6
Judea into an imperial province under a military prefect charged with
collecting taxes from its inhabitants (cf.
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
But unlike Matthew, he does not produce a
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
on earth" (Luke
2:14) further distances Jesus from the Jewish rebellion that shattered the pax Romana.
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
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
Luke prepares the reader to view his later eviction of vendors from its
as an act of pious house-cleaning rather than an attack upon the shrine
itself. By stressing that Jesus continued to obey his parents
also keeps accounts of his later controversial behavior from being taken
as evidence that he was a born rebel.
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."
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
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
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.
from restricting his mission to Israel alone (cf.
Luke's Jesus was rejected by nationalistic neighbors just for pointing
out that Israel's greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, helped
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.
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,
22:37). Yet, unlike Matthew, he does
not identify the keynote of Jesus' message as fulfillment of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
- 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.
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
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
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.
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
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
thoroughly Romanized urban complex built by
Herod the Great
on the largest oasis in the Jordan valley (Luke
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.
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
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;
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;
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
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
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
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
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
12:11; 1 Macc 1:54).
Instead, he historicizes the sign by identifying it with the
(Roman) siege of Jerusalem (Luke
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
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
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
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.
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).
28 February 2023