Commentary on Luke

Luke 1:1-4

  1. Preface (1:1-4)

Many people have set out to write accounts about the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2They used the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples. 3Having carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I also have decided to write a careful account for you, most honorable Theophilus, 4so you can be certain of the truth of everything you were taught.

Notes

1:2

They used the eyewitness reports.—Eyewitness testimony, often overlooked and under-recognized by form critics (such as Schmidt, Bultmann, and Dibelius), is a basic factor to be reckoned with in understanding the historical basis of the Gospels. If the date of the Gospel is early, the eyewitnesses mentioned here would still be available for interview and consultation in large measure. As time went on, their numbers would naturally decrease. Paul recognized this fact when he wrote to the Corinthians. He noted that the risen Lord “was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died” (1 Cor 15:6).

Eyewitnesses were crucial in establishing the truth of details, and this point is accepted by Luke in establishing and explaining his historical method. In OT times, eyewitnesses were required, for example, in establishing a verdict in criminal cases (Deut 17:6; 19:15). This principle of multiple witnesses was generally accepted and utilized in NT times as well (Matt 18:16; John 8:17; 2 Cor 13:1; Heb 10:28; 1 John 5:7-9). The central events both of the life and ministry of Jesus and of the early church were anchored in eye-witness testimony (cf. 1 John 1:1-4) that was carefully investigated by Luke (Trites 1977:55, 139, 198).

“In particular the prominence accorded to Peter as eyewitness informant behind Mark (e.g., Mark 8:29, 32ff; 9:2, 5; 11:21; 14:29, 33, 37, 54, 66-72; 16:7; cf. Luke 22:54-62)... helps to secure a strong line of continuity between the Gospel... as ‘story’ and Jesus of Nazareth as ‘history’” (Head 2001:293). The relationship between Mark and Peter is also strongly supported by external evidence (e.g., Papias, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue, Irenaeus). Similarly, eyewitness testimony is preserved in the Q material, the roughly 230 verses preserved in Matthew and Luke (e.g., the Temptation, recorded in both Matt 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). For further discussion, see Head 2001.

1:3

a careful account.—Luke was concerned about unfolding the events of Jesus’ life “carefully” or “accurately” (akribōs [TG, ZG209]). He thus described his historical procedure and also noted his interest in providing “certainty” or “truth” (asphaleia [TG, ZG854]; 1:4). For further comment on Luke’s preface, see “Audience” in the Introduction. On the different approaches taken in Germany and Britain to evaluate Luke’s historical work, see van Ommwern 1991. On the use of ancient prefaces to historical works, see Earl (1990), who points out that most ancient historical prefaces do not directly address the one to whom the work was dedicated. This is an unusual feature of the Lukan preface that is worthy of note. For a discussion of Luke’s prologue in appreciation of Luke-Acts as a whole, see Dillon 1981; Alexander 1993; Brawley 1991:86-106.

Commentary

As noted in the Introduction, Luke used a preface to spell out his historical method so that his readers might know the principles on which he worked. First, he noted that other writers had attempted to explain the historical foundation of Christian origins before him. Second, he observed the special role of “the eyewitness reports circulating among us from the early disciples,” who could attest everything “from the beginning,” and made careful use of their evidence. Third, he intended to provide “a careful account” of the Christian movement. Fourth, he claimed that he had made a thorough investigation of the facts of the case. Fifth, he named Theophilus as the intended recipient of his work in his dedication (cf. Acts 1:1); and sixth, he presented the historical evidence so that his readers (Theophilus and other interested persons) might know the solid historical basis of the things they had been taught.

Luke’s preface emulates the formal practice of the Greek-speaking historians of the time. The way Josephus introduced his famous book Against Apion is particularly instructive, for it is a work composed of two parts, with an introduction or preface to the entire work at the beginning of Book 1 and a brief summary and review at the beginning of Book 2:

In my history of our Antiquities, my excellent Epaphroditus, I have, I think, made sufficiently clear the extreme antiquity of our Jewish race. Since, however, I observe that a considerable number of persons discredit the statements of my history concerning our antiquity, I consider it my duty to devote a brief treatise to all these points in order at once to convict our detractors of malignity and deliberate falsehood, to correct the ignorance of others, and to instruct all who desire to know the truth concerning the antiquity of our race. As witnesses to my statements I propose to call the writers who, in the estimation of the Greeks, are the most trustworthy authorities on antiquity as a whole. (Against Apion 1.1-4)

In the first volume of this work, my esteemed Epaphroditus, I demonstrated the antiquity of our race, I shall now proceed to refute the rest of the authors who have attacked us. (Against Apion 2.1)

These two statements of Josephus shed considerable light on Luke’s introduction, which really serves as a historical preface to his two-volume work. There are a number of remarkable similarities between the comments of Josephus and Luke’s preface. In each case, two volumes are closely connected and linked together by the same author, and the same person is addressed in both volumes; in the case of Luke-Acts, it is Theophilus, who is mentioned in 1:3 and Acts 1:1. Furthermore, Josephus directed his book to “my excellent Epaphroditus,” and Luke used the same honorific language to address Theophilus (kratiste; 1:3). Both writers were concerned to teach and instruct their readers, and both were committed to the use of responsible historical methods to arrive at the truth. Both also utilized “the most trustworthy authorities”; in Luke’s case, these included those who were “eyewitnesses” of the events of the life of Christ and of the early disciples. Finally, both were concerned to demonstrate their historical credibility by offering convincing evidence or “proof” (the word tekmērion [TG, ZG5447] being used by both Josephus [Against Apion 1.2] and Luke [Acts 1:3, lit. “with many proofs”]).

There is, however, one significant difference in approach between Luke and Josephus. Josephus was rather critical of some of his historical predecessors who, in his opinion, had done less than justice to the Jewish people. Luke, on the other hand, did not attack or disparage those who had written before him. All the same, he believed that he had something distinctive to contribute and set out to produce “a careful account” of Christian origins, building constructively on those who had gone before him. He wanted to give Theophilus and all his readers or auditors (those who hear the text orally) solid grounds to reassure them of the truth they had been taught (1:4). Luke undertook his historical work with the utmost seriousness—the task of studying the sources, interrogating the witnesses, evaluating the evidence, and arranging the matter in a logical way. For him, responsible critical investigation of sources and evidence was absolutely necessary to the historiographical task he had set for himself. His aim was to provide a narrative or “account” (diegēsis [TG, ZG1456], 1:1) that would offer solid information about Christ and the early church. Luke’s “order” (kathexēs [TG, ZG2759], 1:3) is not precisely defined and should be interpreted as synonymous with “systematic,” as Stein has argued (1983). For instance, the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem is an excellent example of Luke’s principle of order, though incidents in this section are not always presented in chronological sequence (9:51-19:27; so Stagg 1967:499-512). “The ‘main point’ of the Prologue [and the “order” it claims] is that ‘Christianity is true and is capable of confirmation by appeal to what has happened’” (Morris 1974:67, quoting Stonehouse 1951:44).

Luke 1:5-7

  1. The Nativity Stories (1:5-2:52)
    1. The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (1:5-25)
      1. Zechariah’s background (1:5-7)

5When Herod was king of Judea, there was a Jewish priest named Zechariah. He was a member of the priestly order of Abijah, and his wife, Elizabeth, was also from the priestly line of Aaron. 6Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God’s eyes, careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. 7They had no children because Elizabeth was unable to conceive, and they were both very old.

Notes

1:5

Herod was king of Judea.—This was Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 to 4 bc over Judea, Galilee, Samaria, and a large part of Perea and Syria. On the life of Herod the Great, see Grant 1971.

Commentary

This is the first substantial part of the third Gospel. In the preface (1:1-4), Luke outlined the historical method that he would use in both the Gospel and Acts. He now begins his account by telling of two miraculous births (1:5-2:52) before presenting the preparation for the ministry of Jesus—outlining the ministry of John the Baptist and describing the baptism, genealogy, and temptation of Jesus (3:1-4:13). These accounts set the stage for Luke’s major presentations of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee (4:14-9:50), the ministry of Jesus on the journey to Jerusalem (9:51-19:44), the final ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem (19:45-23:56), and the concluding accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (24:1-53).

Luke took pains to locate the family background of Jesus and his forerunner, John the Baptist (see also 3:1-2). There is a deliberate contrast presented between John the great prophet and Jesus the greater prophet. This is exemplified in the account of the two annunciations: note the contrast between Zechariah’s doubts (1:18-20) and Mary’s humble reception of the news (1:38). Luke made it clear that Zechariah was a Jewish priest who lived “when Herod was king of Judea” (1:5). The reference here is to Herod the Great, who ruled from 37 to 4 bc (see note on 1:5). He was a brilliant but ruthless man who put his wife Mariamne and two of his own sons to death because of his fearful paranoia. He was the ruler who cruelly slaughtered the innocents (all children two years of age and under) in Bethlehem and its vicinity, a tragedy noted in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 2:13-18).

Luke placed Zechariah in one of the twenty-four groups that offered priestly service in the Temple, namely, “the priestly order of Abijah” (1:5). The details of these priestly courses are spelled out in 1 Chronicles 24:1-18. These arrangements had been in place since King David’s time, and Abijah was one of the heads of the priestly families (1 Chr 24:10; Neh 12:17). Zechariah had an honorable place in the religious establishment at Jerusalem and each year served on rotation for two weeks in the Temple in addition to his service on the Jewish high holy days.

Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, who was also a descendant “from the priestly line of Aaron,” are presented as devout Jewish people who were “righteous in God’s eyes” (1:5-6). They made it their constant aim to please God, and they were meticulous in their religious practices, “careful to obey all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations” (1:6; cf. Deut 30:15-20). They were earnest and sincere in their profession of faith. But their one great disappointment as a couple was the absence of children. This was a very serious thing for devout Jews, because children were considered a sign of God’s blessing upon the marriage. For example, Psalm 128, speaking of the happiness of those who “fear the Lord,” waxes eloquent on the theme of family bliss: “How joyful and prosperous you will be! Your wife will be like a fruitful grapevine, flourishing within your home. Your children will be like vigorous young olive trees as they sit around your table. That is the Lord’s blessing for those who fear him” (Ps 128:2-4). In the absence of children, there was a sense of falling away from God’s approval. Women particularly struggled with the stigma of barrenness and were often subject to social reproach—something frequently noted in the Old Testament, as in the cases of Sarai, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah (Gen 16:1-3; 25:21; 30:23; 1 Sam 1:1-18). Zechariah and Elizabeth had lived for many years with this perplexing situation; no relief seemed in sight, for “they were both very old” (1:7).