Luke’s preface to his Gospel is unique in the New Testament, having its only similarity at Acts 1:1–2. At 3:1–2 there is another preface or introduction, but it is more in the pattern of opening lines of prophetic books, offering nothing concerning sources, method, purpose, or addressee. The Gospel of John has a prologue, but it is a theological summary, without a word about “how I came to write this book and why.” Luke here writes in the style of classical rhetoric, with striking similarities to prefaces found in medical writers and historians of the time. For example, the historian Flavius Josephus begins several of his works in this fashion. “In my history of Antiquities, most excellent Epaphroditus, I have, I think, made sufficiently clear …,” he wrote in Against Apion. This form is all the more striking here, since Luke shifts at verse 5 to a more Semitic fashion, using not only the vocabulary but also the style of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament, for the entirety of chapters 1—2.
Luke’s preface is carefully constructed, consisting of a single sentence in two parts. The first part opens with an introductory clause, “Inasmuch as many” (v. 1), and the second with a concluding clause, “it seemed good to me also” (v. 3). The formality of the writing implies respect for an educated and cultured reader. The recipient is addressed as “most excellent,” an expression used again by Luke to refer to the Roman governor of Judea (Acts 23:26). As to the name “Theophilus” (v. 3), scholars are divided in their attempts at identification. The name means “friend of God” and is taken by some as a literary device for addressing Christian readers in general or in a particular community known to Luke. Others regard “most excellent Theophilus” as a Roman official informed about, if not a convertto, the Christian faith. It is unclear whether “you have been informed” (v. 4) means getting information or being instructed as a Christian. In any case, one does not get the impression that either writer or reader fits the popular image of early Christians as being devoid of education and culture. Unlike Mark, who calls his work a Gospel (Mark 1:1), Luke has chosen a term more historical than theological: “an account” (v. 3).
All this having been said, what does the preface tell us? Do we know who the author is? No. The writer’s self-referencing yields neither a name nor sufficient information to infer a name. However, a general portrait can be sketched. The writer is apparently a member of the Christian community: he writes about what has happened “among us,” accounts of which have passed on “to us.” The writer was not an eyewitness but a second- or third-generation recipient of the tradition. He is a student, a researcher (“having followed all things closely for some time past,” v. 3), and, judging from the literary style, a person of education and culture. Since the writing style was at home in Greco-Roman culture, the writer may have been a Gentile Christian or a convert from Hellenistic Judaism. The remainder of the Gospel reveals such familiarity with the Greek Old Testament that the latter seems more likely.
But does this sketch identify the author as Luke, a physician and companion of Paul (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24; II Tim. 4:11)? Not really, although it does not eliminate him either. The tradition for Lukan authorship is as early as late second century and widespread: Gaul (Irenaeus), North Africa (Tertullian), Italy (Muratorian Fragment), and Egypt (Clement of Alexandria). But it is not the preface which spawns the tradition, although it is used by some to support it. It was popular in the last century to argue from medical terminology in the Gospel that the writer was a physician, but those arguments have been rather convincingly laid to rest. Equally unclear is the evidence involving the diary-like “we” sections of Acts (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5—21:18; 27:1—28:16). Was the writer revealing himself as a traveling companion of Paul or making use of the records of someone who was? Those who approach Luke theologically find a great deal of distance between him and the Paul revealed in the letters. The end of the matter is that we do not know. However, anonymity is easier to live with now that most of us are persuaded that the question of authorship is not a majorfactor in understanding the content and accepting the authority of a biblical text.
And what does the preface tell us about sources for Luke’s Gospel? Quite a bit. The sources were multiple and of two kinds: written (many narratives have been compiled) and oral (“eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,” v. 2). As for the oral sources, Luke’s “having followed all things closely for some time past” (v. 3) very likely included interviews and other contacts with oral traditions. But oral sources are very difficult to identify. The general tendency has been to attribute to oral sources those portions of Luke for which no other known source exists. This material, unique to Luke (and hence identified in some commentaries as L), accounts for approximately 25 percent of the Gospel and consists primarily of birth and infancy stories, some parables, and resurrection narratives.
As for the written sources, from among the many narratives about Jesus compiled prior to Luke (v. 1), scholars have been rather confident in identifying two, although the relationships among the Synoptic Gospels are so complex as to generate arguments over any single theory that claims to account for their similarities and differences. One is the Gospel of Mark. Mark provides the basic structure for Luke, even though Luke does omit a sizable section of Mark (Mark 6:45—8:26) and insert blocks of non-Markan material (Luke 6:20—8:3; 9:51—18:14). Fully one third of Luke can be found in Mark. The other source is thus far hypothetical and has been called Q from the German Quelle, meaning “source.” There is a large body of material common to Luke and Matthew but not found in Mark. Two examples are Luke 3:7–9 and Matt. 3:7–10; and Luke 4:3–12 and Matt. 4:3–10. Most of the material designated Q consists of sayings. Did such a source exist? The discovery of the Gospel of Thomas in Egypt, a document containing about 114 sayings of Jesus, some of which are not in the canonical Gospels, has encouraged some scholars to think so. More than 25 percent of Luke consists of material in common with Matthew.
To speak of dependence on written sources and the testimony of eyewitnesses is to speak about date in the only way the preface permits. When the writer speaks of the things accomplished among us as being “delivered to us” (v. 2) he uses a verb form of the word “tradition.” The Gospel is, then, the work of a second-generation, perhaps a third-generation, Christian.And if one of the many narratives about Jesus prior to Luke was Mark, then that Gospel establishes a “no earlier than” date. Were we to move beyond the preface to Luke’s record of the fall of Jerusalem (19:41–44; 21:20–24), it could reasonably be argued that unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke reveals knowledge of the Roman siege of that city. Therefore 70 C.E. is a “no earlier than” date. But how much later? The preface reminds us to keep the date within a generation of eyewitnesses. Therefore, between 80 and 90 C.E. seems a reasonable conjecture. We do know that about 140 C.E. Luke was included in the Christian canon of Marcion, an early Christian leader.
We return once more to the preface to ask about purpose. Since many narratives about Jesus were already in existence, why did it seem good to Luke to add another? Several possibilities suggest themselves on the basis of what is said in 1:1–4. Perhaps the answer lies in the address to “most excellent Theophilus.” If he is not a symbolic name but a real person, a Roman official who may someday make decisions affecting Christians, then a narrative making clear the work of Jesus and of the church, especially as it made contact with Roman authority, was of prime importance. One would expect that the text of Luke-Acts would either support or erode such a view. Some attention will be given to this opinion.
Another answer to the question of purpose may lie in the expression “orderly account.” Luke voices no criticism of the earlier narratives, but the thoroughness of his research, his recording the events “in order,” and his desire to give the reader certainty in matters about which the reader was already informed combine to argue that Luke found in the prior accounts something confusing, erroneous, or incomplete.
A third possible purpose may be a literary one, that is, if we take “you have been informed” (v. 4) in the literal sense of “being catechized.” If the reader’s knowledge of Jesus’ life and work came by way of information as offered in a catechism, then Luke may have regarded that as a form less congenial to the nature of the event of Jesus and the church than a historical narrative. Perhaps Luke is putting what Theophilus knew in a more appropriate literary form. Luke must have known what all preachers know: some forms of communication can carry a load of informational freight and still violate the experiences that the writer or the speaker is seeking to create.
A final theory as to purpose suggested by this preface joinedwith the preface to Acts has to do with the continuity of history. If the prior narratives were much like Mark in that they began abruptly and ended abruptly, then what really is the relation of Jesus to his own tradition in Judaism, on the one hand, and to the church after him, on the other? Three stories—Judaism, Jesus, and church—need to be related in some way that is both historical and theological. No writer in the New Testament does this except Luke. And perhaps Luke does so, not simply because some person or persons referred to as Theophilus has a need to know. More likely it is because of two realities that impress themselves on Luke. First, the event of Jesus is receding farther and farther into the past. His life and work are matters of history. Second, the church is now a movement, an institution in the world, and Luke assumes that much more time will pass before Christ returns. After all, one does not research and write an orderly account if one is convinced that the day of the Lord is at hand. Enough time has passed and enough time lies before the Christian community to call for a better sense of history. And with that perspective perhaps many questions will be answered, many purposes served. How does Jesus fit in the larger story of God’s relation to the world? How did Jesus and how does the church relate to the synagogue and other movements in the name of God? Why was Jesus executed, and why are his missionaries imprisoned and killed? How does it happen that a movement that began among Jews becomes increasingly Gentile? Are there signs that God is bringing in a new age and with it the end of the old? When, where, how will God’s purpose for the world be consummated? In the meantime, what sort of persons ought we to be, and what should we be doing?
It is reasonable to approach Luke with the expectation that his thorough research, his obvious literary skills, his love of orderly narration, and his strong desire that the reader know the truth will be joined in such a way as to answer some if not all of these questions.
Part One. Infancy and Childhood Narratives
Before we explore the distinctive and easily identifiable units within chapters 1—2, a sense of the whole will help to facilitate our being ushered into the story of Jesus, perhaps in a way not unlike the experience Luke wanted for his readers. The comments that follow will focus on three subjects: the relation of chapters 1—2 to the remainder of the Gospel, the literary features of this section, and its general structure.
1. The relation of chapters 1—2 to the remainder of the Gospel. Luke 1:5—2:52, referred to as the Prologue by a number of commentators, is not, in the opinion of some scholars, integrally related to the remainder of the Gospel. Some have ventured the theory that it represents a later addition, perhaps inserted to satisfy questions that inevitably arose about Jesus’ birth and childhood. The arguments for the separate origin and nature of these two chapters are essentially as follows: These two chapters have their own inner unity, and chapters 3—24 are clear and complete on their own; nothing in chapters 3—24 depends on chapters 1—2 for its meaning; most of the characters in the infancy and childhood stories never reappear elsewhere in Luke or Acts; the virgin birth was not an item in the faith of Jesus’ first followers, nor was it preached in the early church, according to Acts; and 3:1 clearly is the beginning of a narrative.
That 3:1 is a beginning, John and Jesus now adults and launching their ministries, is obvious, but was it the beginning of Luke’s Gospel? It is true that Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon,and Anna do not reappear in the subsequent narratives, but the same could be said of most of the apostles, whose names appear but immediately disappear from the story. And the virgin birth of Jesus is absent from all the preaching recorded in Luke-Acts. However, the birth story could have been told for reasons other than satisfying curiosity or other than establishing a ground for presenting Jesus as divine son of God. The birth of Jesus could have been told as a way of distinguishing him from John whose birth was of God, but in a different way. Luke exalts both John and Jesus while making it quite clear who is the lesser and who the greater. Or the birth story could be presented by Luke as a dramatic entry for the reader, generating anticipation: from this one you can expect new and great things. The way the account comes to the reader, as song, story, and liturgy, with Mary pondering it all in her heart, can hardly qualify as an argument or a proof.
But is there any substantive continuity between chapters 1—2 and 3—24? Most definitely. With no attempt to be exhaustive, I offer the following themes and perspectives in evidence: Luke begins the story in the temple (1:8) and concludes it in the temple (24:53); here, as throughout Luke-Acts, Jerusalem is the vital center; the continuity of Jesus with Judaism begins here and continues through the Gospel; in all of Luke, including chapters 1—2, the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) is used directly and allusively; angels and wondrous revelations are common in all of Luke-Acts; the powerful activity of the Holy Spirit is evident from Jesus’ conception through the life of the church in Acts; the theme of universality so commonly associated with Luke begins here; the social messages of both John and Jesus begin in Mary’s song (1:46–55); the promise/fulfillment motif which dominates in Luke-Acts is no less evident here; that “today” is the time of God’s activity is stated here (2:11) and repeated often (4:21; 5:26; 19:9; 23:43); and these early narratives introduce what becomes the governing affirmation of the whole work: God is the principal character and power in and through all the events of the life of Jesus and of the early church. Luke more than any other New Testament writer reminds us that God is the subject of the entire story, whatever the time, the place, or the cast of characters onstage.
2. The literary features of this section. The style of the infancy and childhood narratives is very much that of the GreekOld Testament. This is not simply to say that Luke uses countless citations from the Old Testament but that Luke brings his readers into the world of Judaism’s Scripture. Poetry, hymns, prayer, homily, story, and history combine to create that world, and most of it woven from Luke’s allusive use of Scripture. The sacred past blends into the sacred present rather than being used as proof of the truth of the sacred present. Continuity prevails; discontinuity must wait for the debates and disagreements yet to come in the Gospel. For the present, the reader experiences “the consolation of Israel.”
It is evident that Luke wants the reader not to move too swiftly through the narrative. Hence Luke’s restraint: eighty verses in chapter 1 and the child is not yet born. First there must be visions and angels visitant; mothers-to-be must wonder and talk and sing; history must roll to a particular moment when Caesar Augustus will put Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Hence Luke’s poetry, borrowed, some say, from early Christian liturgies. Poetry slows down thought and invites participation in the experience being created. Luke wants the reader to savor new stories that are old stories: an old childless couple are now to have a child; a routine service at the altar becomes a God-filled moment; God turns to the simple and powerless to bring in an era of justice and mercy; God will again put an heir on the throne of David. To say that these new stories are old stories is not simply to say that they are patterned after Old Testament records; rather, it is to say that the writer apparently assumed that the readers would recognize the old in the new. If this is true, then the readers must have had a background in Hellenistic Judaism, either as Jews in a Greek culture and using the Greek Old Testament or as Gentiles who were proselytes to Judaism prior to conversion to Christianity; or it might have been that as a general practice instruction in the Old Testament was given to early Christians. In either case, reading chapters 1—2 must have been much like entering a sanctuary and finding oneself familiar with the words, the stories, the hymns, even the place.
What could be Luke’s reason for creating such an experience at the entrance of his Gospel? Of course, that cannot be known with certainty, but such a beginning does relax the reader even while generating keen anticipation. The reader is made to feel at home, confident of not being ambushed with some new religion that will contradict and violate every convictionof the parent faith. The new is at the door, to be sure, as new as the young Mary who visits the old Elizabeth. But for now, it is enough to be assured that the new continues and fulfills the old, with the same God remembering covenants kept and making good on promises made.
3. The general structure of 1:5—2:52. This section consists of seven units: annunciation of the birth of John (1:5–25); annunciation of the birth of Jesus (1:26–38); Elizabeth and Mary meet (1:39–56); birth of John (1:57–80); birth of Jesus (2:1–21); Jesus in the temple as an infant (2:22–40); and Jesus in the temple as a boy (2:41–52). There are three noticeable features of this arrangement. First, there are two panels of material: the annunciation of John’s birth and the annunciation of Jesus’ birth. The two panels are, in a sense, united in the meeting of the mothers-to-be. There follow two other panels: the birth of John and the birth of Jesus. At this point there follow two stories about Jesus in the temple, at six weeks and at twelve years. This parallel arrangement of John and Jesus stories (found similarly at 7:31–35) is the most elaborate handling of the relationship of John and Jesus to be found in the Gospels. All the Evangelists have the double task of honoring John as a man of God and at the same time subordinating him to Jesus. Luke affirms both, making it clear from the outset that, like Esau and Jacob, the older will serve the younger.
The second feature of Luke’s arrangement of this section is that the story does begin with John. Not only chronologically but in the plan of God, John was first. Even the Gospel of John, which most vigorously subordinates John, apparently feeling very keenly the “competition” of this powerful and attractive figure who continued to gain disciples as a martyred hero, begins the narrative proper with the testimony of John the Baptist. Mark seems to refer to the ministry of John as “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1).
The third feature of Luke’s structure is that by his very arrangement he gradually moves the camera off John and on Jesus alone. By the time the reader has moved through the sadly beautiful story of Jesus’ dedication in the temple and has been filled with anticipation by the image of the boy Jesus sitting among the teachers, John has receded into the background. John the preacher of repentance will reappear, to be sure, but Luke has already made the shift: the one who was first is now second; the one who was second is now first.