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Bible readingThis post begins a study of the passages from St Luke’s Gospel which are not found in the three-year Lectionary.

As such, they become part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 1:1-4

Dedication to Theophilus

1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

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Luke’s Gospel is one of the three Synoptic (‘seen together’) Gospels. The other two are Mark (see my Essential Bible Verses page) and Matthew. John’s stands apart from these in its structure and content (for more, see Essential Bible Verses).

The author is Luke the Evangelist, who, like St Mark, was not one of the Twelve Apostles. Luke was thought to have helped St Paul in his ministry. Scholars generally agree that Luke was a physician. Even where more modern ones disagree on his profession, they do say that he was well educated.

Those who study theology and the Bible know that most of the content of Mark’s Gospel is in Luke’s and Matthew’s respective accounts. However, Luke and Matthew have also recorded other aspects of Christ’s ministry and His lineage.

Matthew Henry and John MacArthur say that Luke was Jewish. Other scholars say he was a Gentile. Although our commentators today say that Luke wrote both his Gospel and the Book of Acts, which have a parallel structure, others would disagree.  Furthermore, scholars also differ as to when the Gospel of Luke was written; some place it 10 – 20 years after 70 AD, when the destruction of the Temple took place while others say it was written before then (60-65 AD)  as no mention of the event — which Jesus prophesied — took place.

What can we look forward to in this Gospel?

– Accounts which give us an excellent understanding of Jesus and His teachings.

– More emphasis given to the women who knew our Lord.

– A treatment of the Last Supper in the Pauline tradition — a remembrance to be repeated until Christ returns.

– Making clear, as did John’s Gospel, that Christ was resurrected as flesh and blood.

Matthew Henry’s commentary gives us a brief biography of Luke the Evangelist (emphases mine). The aforementioned controversies were alive and well even in the 17th and 18th centuries:

We are now entering into the labours of another evangelist; his name Luke, which some take to be a contraction of Lucilius; born at Antioch, so St. Jerome. Some think that he was the only one of all the penmen of the scripture that was not of the seed of Israel. He was a Jewish proselyte, and, as some conjecture, converted to Christianity by the ministry of St. Paul at Antioch; and after his coming into Macedonia (Acts 16:10) he was his constant companion. He had employed himself in the study and practice of physic; hence, Paul calls him Luke the beloved Physician, Col. 4:14. Some of the pretended ancients tell you that he was a painter, and drew a picture of the virgin Mary. But Dr. Whitby thinks that there is nothing certain to the contrary, and that therefore it is probable that he was one of the seventy disciples, and a follower of Christ when he was here upon earth; and, if so, he was a native Israelite. I see not what can be objected against this, except some uncertain traditions of the ancients, which we can build nothing upon, and against which may be opposed the testimonies of Origen and Epiphanius, who both say that he was one of the seventy disciples. He is supposed to have written this gospel when he was associated with St. Paul in his travels, and by direction from him: and some think that this is the brother whom Paul speaks of (2 Co. 8:18), whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches of Christ; as if the meaning of it were, that he was celebrated in all the churches for writing this gospel; and that St. Paul means this when he speaks sometimes of his gospel, as Rom. 2:16. But there is no ground at all for this. Dr. Cave observes that his way and manner of writing are accurate and exact, his style polite and elegant, sublime and lofty, yet perspicuous; and that he expresses himself in a vein of purer Greek than is to be found in the other writers of the holy story. Thus he relates divers things more copiously than the other evangelists; and thus he especially treats of those things which relate to the priestly office of Christ.

And:

It is uncertain when, or about what time, this gospel was written. Some think that it was written in Achaia, during his travels with Paul, seventeen years (twenty-two years, say others) after Christ’s ascension; others, that it was written at Rome, a little before he wrote his history of the Acts of the Apostles (which is a continuation of this), when he was there with Paul, while he was a prisoner, and preaching in his own hired house, with which the history of the Acts concludes; and then Paul saith that only Luke was with him, 2 Tim. 4:11. When he was under that voluntary confinement with Paul, he had leisure to compile these two histories (and many excellent writings the church has been indebted to a prison for): if so, it was written about twenty-seven years after Christ’s ascension, and about the fourth year of Nero. Jerome says, He died when he was eighty-four years of age, and was never married. Some write that he suffered martyrdom; but, if he did, where and when is uncertain …

The narrative which this evangelist gives us (or rather God by him) of the life of Christ begins earlier than either Matthew or Mark. We have reason to thank God for them all, as we have for all the gifts and graces of Christ’s ministers, which in one make up what is wanting in the other, while all put together make a harmony

In Luke 1:1, the Evangelist introduces his account alluding to other narratives which ‘many have undertaken’. As you can imagine, various stories about the life of Christ circulated quickly. He continues (verse 2) by acknowledging the true accounts from those men who were ‘eyewitnesses and ministers’ to Jesus’s earthly ministry.

In verse 3, Luke justifies his own account as being from someone ‘closely’ following events for some time. He states that he will give an orderly account of our Lord’s life — although he was not among the Twelve. Luke affirms that this account is credible and that Theophilus can believe it unconditionally (verse 4).

To add greater credibility, Luke writes this brief introduction in learned Greek. MacArthur says that the rest of Luke’s Gospel is written in everyday Greek, possibly so that more people can understand it. However, the overriding objective, it would seem, is to be as credible as possible, particularly to more educated and highly placed Greeks as well as other Gentiles and Jews who understood the language.

It is important for Luke to write this prologue because this is the classic way of writing in the Greek world. Any philosopher, any theologian, any educator, any historian in the ancient world who was of high quality who wanted his volume to stand on the shelf with the classics would start his writing with such a prologue. Herodotus did it. Thucydides did it. Polybius did it. Even Josephus did it. And Luke does it.

These four verses, in fact, are one long unbroken sentence, one sentence, written in Greek originally and written in the polished style of Greek that is known as literary classical Greek. The rest of the gospel of Luke is written in the common Greek, but not the prologue. Luke did this, I think, because he wanted to establish the lofty literary character of this work. It is such a high quality of Greek, by the way, that it was obvious that Luke was highly educated. If it didn’t tell us in the Bible that he was a physician, we would assume that he had had some kind of high level education because of his handling of the classical form of Greek.

By using this kind of Greek as he introduces his gospel, he is claiming a place for the gospel as a classic. He is claiming a place for the gospel as a serious work, as a true work of literary, historical worth to be given attention by the most sophisticated and highly educated Gentile or Greek reader. Luke is claiming a place for Christianity among the classics. He’s claiming a place for Christianity on the stage of world history. And while much of the New Testament literature was written for the church and therefore the common people, Luke had in mind the world and he wanted to make sure that he included those who were at the very highest levels of education. As I said, other Greek writers used a very similar prologue. In fact, the format here is very, very common to ancient Greek classical writing …

He talks about other accounts that have been compiled. He talks about eye witnesses and servants of the Word who have handed them down. This is not something He has invented. He has…carefully investigated, verse 3 says, and researched everything carefully from the beginning. He is concerned about actual history. He is concerned about precision as he says in verse 4, “exact truth.” And so, this prologue is very important in establishing Luke as a legitimate writer.

By now, you must be wondering who Theophilus is. This, too, is contentious. Theophilus translates as ‘lover of God’. Some scholars say this was a pupil, a convert, of Luke’s. Others say that Luke was referring to all lovers of God. The Coptics say Theophilus was a Jew from Alexandria. The Catholic Church says he became a Bishop of Antioch who wrote a Christian apologetic. Other scholars say Theophilus was a Roman officer. Still others point to his identity as being that of the Sadducee Theophilus ben Ananus, who served as High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem between 37 and 41 AD.

What scholars do agree on is that he — or they — were from an educated class or had an important position. We know this from the words ‘most excellent’ preceding the name. St Paul used the same words when addressing the Roman governor Festus in Acts 26:25.

Matthew Henry believed Theophilus was Luke’s pupil who was also a convert and a friend:

St. Luke dedicates his gospel to his friend Theophilus, not as to his patron, though he was a man of honour, to protect it, but as to his pupil, to learn it, and hold it fast. It is not certain who this Theophilus was; the name signifies a friend of God; some think that it does not mean any particular person, but every one that is a lover of God; Dr. Hammond quotes some of the ancients understanding it so: and then it teaches us, that those who are truly lovers of God will heartily welcome the gospel of Christ, the design and tendency of which are, to bring us to God. But it is rather to be understood of some particular person, probably a magistrate; because Luke gives him here the same title of respect which St. Paul gave to Festus the governor, kratiste (Acts 26:25), which we there translate most noble Festus, and here most excellent Theophilus. Note, Religion does not destroy civility and good manners, but teaches us, according to the usages of our country, to give honour to them to whom honour is due.

I look forward to rereading Luke’s Gospel. John MacArthur assures us that we will see the Evangelist as pastor, physician and historian.

The next few posts on his Gospel will look at events preceding Jesus’s birth.

Next time: Luke 1:5-17

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