Introduction to the Gospel of Luke


The Gospel of Luke is unique in at least two ways. First, it is the longest Gospel. In NA, Matthew occupies 87 pages, Mark (through 16:8) 60 pages, and John 73 pages, while Luke takes up 96 pages. A comparison of verses reveals a similar count: Matthew has 1,071 verses, Mark has 678 verses, John has 869 verses, while Luke contains 1,151 verses. Second, it is the only Gospel with a sequel. As such Luke not only introduces Jesus and his ministry, but also shows how that ministry relates to the early church era. This linkage enables Luke to discuss how God brought his salvation in Jesus, how the earliest church preached Jesus, and how they carried out their mission to both Jew and Gentile. The two volumes and their message are virtually inseparable, despite the canonical division. Luke’s Gospel often lays the foundation for many of the issues whose answers come in Acts.

Luke-Acts highlights God’s plan. It explains how Jew and Gentile could end up as equals in a community planted by God, even though that community’s roots were originally grounded in a promise to Israel. Four issues were particularly problematic in the church of Luke’s time.

First was the question of salvation. How could Gentiles be included as God’s people on an equal basis with Jews, extending even to matters like table fellowship and the exclusion of circumcision? How did the hope of God open up to include all races—to the exclusion of so much that was related to law and Jewish tradition? Luke answers these questions largely in Acts, as he explains how God directed this entire process.

Second, the seeming paradox exists that while God’s plan was at work the most natural audience for the message, the Jewish nation, was responding largely negatively. Indeed Jews even persecuted Christians who preached God’s hope to them. Why was God’s plan meeting so much hostility? Was this new community cursed for being too generous with God’s promise or was it blessed? If blessed, where was evidence of such blessing? Had God ceased to reach out to Israel? Had the new community withdrawn itself from the old community of faith? The Lucan answer to this question is that the church did not separate itself from Israel; it continued to preach to the nation and did not withdraw. Rather, Israel turned the church out, forcing it to form a new community. Luke’s Gospel lays the groundwork for this reply in detailing how the nation and especially its leadership reacted to Jesus.

The third issue was how the person and teaching of a crucified Jesus fit into God’s plan. How could Jesus, despite his physical absence, continue to exercise a presence and represent the hope of God? How could the church exalt such an “absent” figure and regard him as the center of God’s work? How could a slain figure bring the consummation of God’s promises? How would and could consummation come through him? Acts supplies the major answers to these questions by emphasizing the exaltation of Jesus, but the Gospel lays the groundwork by presenting the Christology that underlies the exaltation.

Fourth, what does it mean to respond to Jesus? What is required, what can one expect in making such a commitment, and how should one live until the day Jesus returns and the hope is realized? In short, what are believers and the new community to be? This is a major burden of the Gospel of Luke: to define Jesus’ mission and that of the disciples who follow him. The bulk of Luke explains how Jesus prepared the disciples for his departure and prepared them to minister in his absence. This is where the crucial Lucan section of chapters 9-19, the Jerusalem journey, fits into the Gospel and controls its purpose. Accordingly, one should not separate the teaching of this Gospel too greatly from the period of the church. In Luke 24:44-49 (see also Luke 5:31-32) Jesus equates his mission with that of the church. The ethic of the Jerusalem journey section and of the Sermon on the Plain comes into view because of the realities of impending rejection. Luke records them for Theophilus so that he can be reassured about what God’s plan is, what a disciple is called to be, and how a disciple participates in the community’s task to identify and proclaim Jesus, not only through the message that the new community delivers about Jesus, but also by the way that disciples live in a world hostile to that declaration.

Luke’s Gospel and his sequel cover these questions. So Luke’s task is to reassure Theophilus (Luke 1:4), especially concerning the disputed presence of Gentiles in a new community. Acts develops this question; the Gospel points out the hostility believers face, especially from Judaism. Jesus faced similar hostility, as did the faithful prophets of old. Most important to Luke’s Gospel is the role of Jesus in God’s plan and promise, while Acts describes the nature of the new community that emerged from his ministry. This new community has historical roots in Jewish promise but is under intense pressure from the ancient Jewish community. Additional pressure comes from Jewish Christians who want Gentiles to relate more favorably to some matters of the law. Much of Judaism rejected Christian claims of fulfillment in Jesus. Does a Gentile really belong in this new community? Can God really be behind a community that faces so much hostility and rejection? What was Jesus really about in his life and teaching? How do Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection really reflect divine “events fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1)? These questions about God’s plan, his Chosen One, and the emerging new community are at the heart of Luke’s Gospel.

So Luke’s Gospel highlights the activity of a mighty and faithful God through Jesus, the Promised One who shows the way. God reveals himself, his elect one, his promise, and his plan through the one who is now the risen Messiah and Lord (Acts 2:36; 10:36). Luke’s Gospel introduces the fulfillment figure and the note of hostility, while Acts chronicles the initial key chapter of the new community. Luke-Acts says Jesus is Lord of all, so salvation can go to all. Salvation comes on the terms the risen Lord sets. A new way, in contrast to official Judaism, had emerged. It was a way promised in the old sacred texts, though the promise’s form was not originally understood. Even Jesus’ disciples during his ministry had to learn how the plan worked (Luke 9:35, 44-45; 18:31-34; 24:44-47). The new community’s separation from Judaism was not the Christians’ fault. Jesus and the church always proclaimed the hope to the Jews. However, the offer met with intense opposition. Such hostility slew Jesus, and Christians can continue to expect such resistance until the end. The need is to be faithful. Nonetheless, God was and is behind this new movement. Jesus’ work, teaching, death, and resurrection show this truth (Luke), while the new era shows the Word’s expansion through the church from Peter in Jerusalem to Paul in Rome (Acts). Both Jew and Gentile are welcome in this new community. Indeed God has directed the entire affair, even down to how Jews and Gentiles should relate to one another in the new community (Acts 10-11, 15). Be assured: Jesus revealed God’s will, way, and blessing. Blessings are available to all who realize they are lost and so turn to God through Jesus (Luke 5:30-32; 19:10). God has kept and will keep his promises to those who turn to him, promises whose roots extend into the hope of the ancient Scriptures (Luke 1:14-17, 31-35, 57-79; 4:16-30; 24:44-47) and whose realization has come and will come in Jesus (Acts 2:14-41; 3:11-26).

The next section in this introduction treats issues that normally belong in technical NT introductions, while the remaining units introduce the message of Luke.

Origin and Purpose


Neither the Gospel of Luke nor the Acts of the Apostles names its author. A combination of external and internal evidence suggests that Luke was the author of both works.

Internal Evidence. The internal features concentrate on two points. First, the author is not an eyewitness to most of the events in his two volumes, especially those tied to the ministry of Jesus (Luke 1:1-2). Rather, he has relied on his study of traditions, which came from “eyewitnesses and servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2-4). Second, Luke presents himself as a companion of Paul in those parts of Acts known as the “we” sections (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). This feature, though debated with respect to its historical reliability, limits options about the author’s identity.

A current debate surrounding the “we” sections is whether they reflect the testimony of an eyewitness (Ellis 1974: 43-44; Hemer 1989: 312-34) or are a literary device that gives the impression of the presence of an eyewitness (Haenchen 1971: 85-90; Vielhauer 1966: 33-34, 47-48). Wrapped up in this question also is the issue of how well the author of the Third Gospel knew Paul, since the “we” sections of Acts portray their author as a traveling companion of Paul. Those who reject such a connection attempt to compare Luke’s picture of Paul with the self-portrait of the Pauline Letters. They argue that the two pictures do not match in historical detail or in theological emphasis. In addition, Luke fails to use the Pauline Letters to describe Paul’s work and position. Vielhauer argues that the portraits are too far apart for the author of the Third Gospel to be a companion of Paul. But Fitzmyer (1989: 1-26) defends the connection, arguing that a creative literary device cannot explain how the “we” units appear and disappear in such an arbitrary manner. He also notes that several “sailing” references, which would be candidates for such literary insertions, lack them (Acts 13:4, 13; 14:26; 17:14; 18:18, 21; 20:1-2). He suggests that Luke may be only a “junior” companion, in contrast to Irenaeus’s famous claim that Luke was “inseparable” from Paul (Against Heresies 3.14.1). In addition, Goulder (1989: 129-46) suggests that Luke may have known and alluded to Paul’s First Letter to Corinth and, to a lesser extent, to his First Letter to Thessalonica. Others defend the compatibility of the two portraits of Paul (F. F. Bruce 1975-76). So internal evidence in Luke-Acts tells us that the writer knew Paul and was at least a second-generation Christian.

External Evidence. The Pauline letters name some of the potential candidates who traveled with Paul: Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke (Philem. 24; Col. 4:14). To this list, one could add figures such as Timothy, Titus, Silas, Epaphras, and Barnabas. Yet despite the wide selection of potential candidates available as companions of Paul, the tradition of the church gives attention to only one name as the author of these volumes—Luke. This tradition was firmly fixed in the early church by a.d. 200 and remained so without any hint of contrary opinion. The absence of any dispute about this detail is a strong reason to take the tradition seriously. Allusions to the Gospel appear as early as 1 Clem. 13.2; 48.4 (ca. 95-96); 2 Clem. 13.4 (ca. 100). In addition, a use of Jesus’ teaching, as reflected in Luke 10:7, appears in 1 Tim. 5:18. Numerous texts comment on authorship. Justin Martyr (ca. 160) in Dialogue with Trypho 103.19 speaks of Luke writing a “memoir of Jesus” and notes that the author is a follower of Paul. The Muratorian Canon (ca. 170-180) attributes the Gospel to Luke, a doctor, who is Paul’s companion. Irenaeus (ca. 175-195) in Against Heresies 3.1.1 and 3.14.1 attributes the Gospel to Luke, follower of Paul, and notes how the “we” sections suggest the connection. The so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke (ca. 175) describes Luke as a native of Antioch in Syria (Acts 11:19-30; 13:1-3; 15:30-35). It says he lived to be 84, was a doctor, was unmarried, wrote in Achaia, and died in Boeotia. Tertullian (early third century) in Against Marcion 4.2.2 and 4.5.3 calls the Gospel a digest of Paul’s gospel. The Monarchian Prologue (date disputed: either third or fourth century) gives Luke’s age at death as 74. Finally, Eusebius (early fourth century) in Ecclesiastical History 3.4.2 mentions Luke as a companion to Paul, native of Antioch, and author of these volumes.

Fitzmyer (1981: 40) divides the external evidence handily into two categories: what can be deduced from the NT and what cannot be deduced from it. That Luke was a physician, was tied to Paul, was not an eyewitness, and wrote his Gospel with concern for Gentiles are facts the NT makes clear. That Luke was from Syria, proclaimed Paul’s gospel, was unmarried, was childless, and died at an old age are ideas that are not in the NT. Though the differences about Luke’s age at death tell us that not everything in these traditions is indisputably true, their unity about authorship makes almost certain the identification of Luke as the Gospel’s author. The tradition’s testimony also makes Luke’s connection to Paul very likely.

Luke: A Gentile and a Doctor? Two other questions about Luke require discussion. Was he a Gentile? Was he a doctor? Most see Luke as a Gentile, though they debate whether he was a pure Gentile or a “non-Jewish” Semite. An exception is Ellis (1974: 52-53), who argues that Luke was a Hellenistic Jewish Christian because (1) Luke’s knowledge of the OT was great; (2) Col. 4:10-11, with its reference to those “of the circumcision,” does not suggest that Luke was not Jewish, but merely that he was a Hellenist; and (3) the use of Palestinian language shows Luke’s Jewish roots. But Ellis’s reading of Col. 4:10-11 is not a natural one, since all Jews received circumcision (McKnight 1991a: 78-82) and Luke (4:14) is not listed among the “circumcised.” More recently, Salmon (1988) defends this view, noting that the author (1) distinguishes Jewish groups, (2) discusses Torah observances in detail, (3) is interested in Gentile mission as a Jewish problem, and (4) calls Christianity “a sect” of Judaism. To this can be added the author’s thorough knowledge of the OT. One cannot rule out this ethnic possibility for Luke, but other factors, noted below, along with Col. 4:14, make it less likely.

Fitzmyer (1981: 42-47) suggests that Luke is a non-Jewish Semite because of (1) the Col. 4:10-11, 14 text, (2) the shortened form of Luke’s name, a Greek form of a Latin name, and (3) the details of the church tradition, which place Luke in Antioch of Syria. This view is quite possible. In fact, when one puts Fitzmyer’s points together with Salmon’s, the possibility is that Luke was a former God-fearer or Jewish proselyte.

Most commentators identify Luke as a Gentile without any further detail. They (1) point to Col. 4:10-11, 14, (2) note Acts 1:19, which mentions a field with a Semitic name and then speaks of “their” language, and (3) point out the attention to Hellenistic locales and the concern for Gentiles. This last argument is not strong, since a Jew like Paul could fit into such geographical locales and concerns. In sum, it seems very likely that Luke was a Gentile, though it is unclear whether his cultural background was Semitic. In any case, he probably had religious contact with Judaism before coming to Christ.

Colossians 4:14 refers to Luke as a doctor. In 1882, Hobart tried to bolster this connection by indicating all the technical verbal evidence for Luke’s vocation. Despite the wealth of references Hobart gathered, the case was rendered ambiguous by the work of Cadbury (1926), who showed that almost all of the alleged technical medical vocabulary appeared in everyday Greek documents such as the LXX, Josephus, Lucian, and Plutarch. This meant that the language could have come from a literate person within any vocation. Cadbury’s work does not, however, deny that Luke could have been a doctor, but only that the vocabulary of these books does not guarantee that he was one. Ultimately the issue concerns how one views Colossians and the tradition about Luke that grew up in the early church. Since such a detail was not necessary to note and served no apologetic concern, it can be seen to reflect reality.

So Luke is Paul’s “sometime” companion. He is likely to be a medical doctor, possibly from Antioch of Syria, who is not Jewish, though whether he is Syrian or a Greco-Roman is not clear. The tradition also indicates that he lived a long life.


Sources of the Gospel. The sources of Luke’s work are a debated part of a complex area known as the Synoptic problem. Numerous approaches to the issue have been suggested.

Some argue for the independence of the Synoptic documents, though the amount of agreement in wording and order between these Gospels is against this approach. In addition, Luke’s mention of predecessors in his preface (Luke 1:1-4) suggests that this approach is too simple.

An old solution, known as the Augustinian hypothesis, argues that the order is Matthew-Mark-Luke. The major problem with this hypothesis is that it cannot explain the contents of Mark, as a summarizing Gospel, without appealing to its use of Luke.

The Griesbach or “two-Gospel” hypothesis argues that the correct order is Matthew-Luke-Mark (Farmer 1964). The appeal of this view is the absence of hypothesized sources and its agreement with early church tradition, which suggests that Matthew’s Gospel was the earliest. Its major problems are demonstrating that Luke knew Matthew and explaining how Mark, as a summarizing Gospel, often has more vivid detail in pericopes that overlap with the other Gospels (C. F. Evans 1990: 17 n. w). Mark’s lack of an infancy narrative or extended teaching, like the Sermon on the Mount (or Plain), is also against Mark coming last, especially since Mark’s use of the eschatological parables or discourses shows that he can report Jesus’ discourses.

Most scholars hold to some form of the “four-source” theory, a view first formalized by Streeter (1924) and defended today by Tuckett (1983) and Fitzmyer (1981: 63-106; Fitzmyer’s defense of this approach as it relates to Luke is the most detailed available). This view argues for the priority of Mark and the use of a “sayings” source known as Q. In addition, Matthew has special source material (M), while Luke has his special material (L). Thus the four sources are Mark, Q, L, and M, and Luke would have used Mark, Q, and L. It must be noted that the most challenged aspect of this approach is the nature and evidence for Q, a document containing only sayings, which has only the Gospel of Thomas as a possible ancient parallel in this genre.

A recent variation of the two-Gospel hypothesis, which maintains Marcan priority, comes from Goulder (1989: 3-71), who argues for the order Mark-Matthew-Luke. He maintains Marcan priority, while dispensing with Q, the major hypothesized source. Thus, his view requires that Luke used Matthew. This connection between Matthew and Luke can be challenged, a challenge that also impacts Farmer’s approach. The argument that Luke used Matthew has several points against it. (1) It has trouble explaining the unique infancy material in Luke and the absence of any indication of knowledge about Matthew’s infancy material. (2) It has trouble explaining the reorganization of Matthean-like material in the central section of Luke (9:51-19:44) and Luke’s distinct use of the eschatological discourse and other Matthean discourses (Fitzmyer 1981: 75). (3) It also must posit significant recasting of several Matthean parables and sayings (pounds, lost sheep, great banquet, unfaithful steward, Beatitudes, Lord’s Prayer). (4) Luke never has the Matthean portions of triple tradition material (Fitzmyer 1981: 75). (5) With two exceptions (3:7-9, 17; 4:2b-13), Luke never has material from Matthew in the same Marcan context as does Matthew. (6) The view is a denial of Luke 1:1-4 with its appeal to many predecessors: both the two-Gospel view and that of Goulder have only two sources, which is not the “many” of Luke 1:1. Goulder notes this problem (1989: 27-37), but argues that the other predecessors were not “authoritative documents which Luke accepted” as equal to Matthew and Mark. But how can this be assured, when Luke ties them to authoritative tradition in the same breath (1:2)?

So in all likelihood, Luke had access to Mark, special material (L), and traditions (which also are reflected in Matthew, though often with some, even significant, divergence). In fact, the Q material is so varied in character that some speak of two forms of Q: a Matthean version and a Lucan version (Marshall often makes this distinction in handling these texts in his 1978 commentary). This means that Q may not be a fixed, written tradition, but rather a pool of widely circulating traditions. Given the amount of teaching and parables that Matthew and Luke share, one cannot rule out that L and Q might have overlapped, with Matthew using Q and Luke using L. While noting that others speak of Q as a bona fide document or set of documents, I understand Q to be a fluid pool of traditions from which both Luke and Matthew drew.

To show how the material breaks down by paragraph units, I provide the following lists of passages and sources, modified from C. F. Evans 1990: 17-18 and Fitzmyer 1981: 67. Those who have another view of Synoptic relationships can still benefit from the listings. The lists follow Lucan order, so rearrangements are easily spotted.

The first list shows Lucan parallels with Mark. Parentheses around a reference indicate that the dependence is subject to some doubt. This means that the Matthean version (and so Q) may have influenced certain texts, though the passion material (Luke 22-23) may reflect L.