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Background to the Study of the Gospel of Luke



To undertake any work in scripture, a background study to the book in question is necessary. This will make the superstructure to fall within scope. We set here to give a background to the study of the third Gospel, the Gospel according Luke. Luke together with Matthew and Mark constitute the Synoptic Gospels. The Gospel according to Luke is the first part of a two-volume work, known as Luke-Acts, a magnificent narrative of Jesus (Luke) and the early church (Acts). They cannot be separated either on the theological or on the narrative level and should be read as a continuous whole. Luke's writings make up about one quarter of the New Testament. Therefore, to give a proper background to the Gospel of Luke is to attempt to answer the questions, who is the author of the Gospel? What is his personality? What are his sources? What are the characteristics/literary features? Who are his audience? Why is he addressing them? What is the date and place of composition? How is his theology like? Now, the prologue to this Gospel (Lk 1:1-4) offers implicitly some of the answers to these questions. This will be made evident as we attempt to answer these questions.


In the New Testament, there is no direct testimony of the author of the Gospels, only in the 2nd century when the Gospels were collected and put together forming one volume, in order to distinguish them from one another, the names of the authors of each Gospel was added to them. In considering the authorship of the third Gospel, one must take into account the writing titled "The Acts of the Apostles." Now, several factors demonstrate that both Luke and Acts were written by the same author. Both of these writings are addressed to "Theophilus" (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Reference is made in Acts to "my former book." This can only refer to the third Gospel: they have several common themes; there are general structural and stylistic similarities including the use of chiasm. Hence, in discussing the authorship of the third Gospel, we will make recourse to internal and external evidences.

Internal Evidence

Internal evidence deals with what the Gospel itself says of the author. The actual text of the third Gospel offers no initiation of authorship. But the presence of a dedicatory preface (Luke 1:1-4) suggests that the one addressed would be aware of who it was that he was being addressed by. The attractive personality of the author show through his whole work. When we read the Gospel itself what it presents to us is not the author or the name of the author, but a description of the personality of the author. The internal evidence reveals that Luke is an author of great talent, a most gifted writer and a man of marked sensibility. He is first and foremost a disciple of Christ, a believer who has found salvation in him and want to follow him whole heartedly; he is one who has great veneration for Mary, the mother of Jesus.

In Acts there are a number of sections in which the author includes himself as he tells the story, the so-called "we sections" (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1 28:16). In this "we passages" is the use of the first person plural noun which suggest that the writer was with Paul during some parts of the journey.

External Evidence

The church tradition for the Lucan authorship of Luke-Acts is early and unanimous. Possibly the earliest references to Luke as the author of Luke-Acts are to be found in the Bodmer Papyrus (P) and the Muratorian Canon. The oldest Greek manuscript of Luke (P) dates at the end of the second century and contains the title "Gospel according to Luke" at the end of the Gospel. Tradition has identified the author of the third Gospel with the person of Luke mentioned in the letters of Saint Paul.? Luke's authorship of the third Gospel is affirmed by tradition as expressed by Irenaeus, Muratorian Canon', Tertullian, Origen, Saint Jerome and Eusebius (in the fourth century).

Irenaeus was the first to identify the author of the third Gospel as Luke, "the companion of Paul". The Muratorian Canon agrees and adds that this Luke is a physician. According to the Anti-Marcionites prologue, "Luke, a Syrian from Antioch, a doctor by profession, a disciple of the Apostles, under the impulse of the Holy Spirit wrote his Gospel in the region of Achaia. According to the testimony of early writers, Luke is the author of the third Gospel. Putting these facts together and accepting the universal testimony of the early church, there can be little doubt that Luke was the author of both the Gospel and Acts.



J. Ernst talking about the importance of knowing the author of a book says "Biblical writings acquire their significance only through the personality of their author." Who then is Luke? Knowing who Luke is will lead us to affirm his authorship of the third Gospel. Like all true evangelist, Luke says nothing or little about himself. What we have are scattered clues about his identity, which we gather together to bring out his portrait with some probabilities. Getting to know the personality of Luke can be sieved from his style of writing, his interest, his use of grammatical constructions, his literary structuring techniques and the flow of thought. The author in the prologue (1:1-4), posits that he acquired his knowledge of Jesus' life from research rather than from eyewitness observations. Therefore, he was not one of the disciples who travelled with Jesus.

Three references in the New Testament give us some personalities of Luke, Col 4:11 shows Luke as a Gentile Christian; in Col 4:14 and Philem. 24, Paul calls Luke "beloved physician" and a "fellow worker", who was faithful in a final imprisonment. According to R. Brown, to have won the affection of a man like Paul says much for Luke's personal qualities. According to a prologue outside the New Testament from the 2nd century, Luke was a Syrian from Antioch. Furthermore, because of Luke's control of Greek, many posit that he was a Gentile convert to Christianity. He was also contended to have come to Christ with a Jewish background because of his knowledge of the Old Testament. In fact some scholars probably consider Luke to be a Hellenistic Jew. These two conflicting views about Luke (Gentile context and one with Jewish background) made R. Brown to proffer a solution that does justice to both issues, namely, that Luke was a Gentile who had become a proselyte or a God-fearer, that is, he was converted or attracted to Judaism some years before he was evangelised

From his writing also we can identify Luke as a Historian and a Theologian. Luke is a historian not in the sense of giving us a strict chronological or scientific account of the salvation history, but in the sense that in his prologue he did identify his work as giving an orderly account; a historical account which concerns a great and unique personality- Jesus and the outcome of his earthly ministry. The theological import of Lucan Gospel which qualifies to call him a theologian began with the prologue of the first of his two volume work, where he summarised the purpose of his writing as giving an orderly account of the event of salvation. The salvation event includes both the ministry of Jesus and the proclamation of salvation by the church. The universal offer of salvation is central to his personality as a theologian. In the final analysis, what is certainly true is that Luke is a faithful, loyal, useful, gifted historian, theologian and beloved Gentile Christian.


The author acknowledges his dependence on other witnesses and written sources (Luke 1:1-2). The Gospel frequently looks forward to Acts and that orientation affects the way Luke treats his sources. The compositional sources for the Evangelist include:

A. Mark's Gospel

B. Q Source

C. Special Source "L"

A. Mark's Gospel

The materials of Mark in Luke constitute about 35 percent. About one third of Luke's 1149 verses are taken from Mark. However, Luke does not just reproduce Marcan verses, but represented them with retouches and accentuation in meaning and consonance, in line with his approach and theology. Luke improves on Mark's Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax and vocabulary; this is credence to the fact that Luke states his intention at the beginning that "he has undertaken to write an orderly account" (Luke 1:3). Luke rearranges Marcan sequence to accomplish his goal. Reflecting Christological sensibilities, Luke is more reverential about Jesus and avoids passages that might make him seem emotional, harsh and weak. Luke eliminates Mark's transcribed Aramaic names and words presumably because they were not meaningful to the intended audiences.

B. "Q" Source

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"Q" source represents a considerable amount of gospel tradition not found in Mark and is regarded as the source of the double tradition. More so, the conclusion on Luke's dependence on "Q" source is very difficult to establish. This is because it is a hypothesis which refers to a postulated entity that no one has ever seen, but this does not mean that it is an unnecessary and vicious hypothesis. This source Luke has in common with Mathew which informs Matthew and Luke's agreement against Mark. But the question is who has the original document of the Q since there is no document Q that we can lay our hands on? But Matthew comes before Luke in the canonical arrangement, it is likely that Luke got his Q source form Matthew. To support this claim is the fact that, there is a testimony from the early writers that there was an Aramaic version of the Gospel of Matthew before the present Greek version. It is possible that Luke made use of the Aramaic version of Matthew. R. Brown saw no convincing evidence that Luke knew Matthean Gospel, he says further that, the material taken from Q constitutes just over 20 percent of Luke, which he adapts in many ways to reflect his theological views still preserves the original order of the document.

C. Special Source "L"

One can say that whatever is not Mark or "Q" in Luke's Gospel is derived from Luke's private source designated for convenience, "L"; this means free creative activity on the part of the evangelist which is dependent on a previous source oral or written. Raymond B. says "between one third and 40 percent of Luke's gospel is not drawn from Mark or "Q". R. Brown also identifies two difficulties on the certainty of the source; first, since Luke is a very capable rewriter, it is extremely difficult to decode how much material the evangelist freely composed himself and how much he took over from already shaped traditions or sources. Second, where the author has taken over materials, it is not easy to distinguish Pre-Lucan traditions from possible Pre-Lucan sources. The confusion in terms of certainty of Lucan use of the source is envisaged since, he said in the prologue (Luke 1: 1-4) that he made use of everything which had been written before him.



According to Henry J. Cadbury, experts of Greek literary styles acknowledge Luke's style and structure as superb. Talking about Luke's literary characteristic features, a French rationalist Ernest Renan called the Gospel of Luke "the loveliest book in the world." William Barclay corroborating this claim says "if ever I had to choose to keep one book of the New Testament and one book only, the book I would choose would be Luke's Gospel, for in it I believe that we have Jesus at his most beautiful and the Gospel at its widest." According to the Lucan preface (1:1-4), the author himself categorizes his work as a "narrative" or "orderly account" (and not as a "Gospel," as the tradition has it). This immediately invites a mode of reading appropriate to "narrative" especially one that pays due respect to "order." As interesting and consequential as greater precision in genre identification might be, though, in terms of our task of "reading the Gospel of Luke," this area has become problematized in recent years by the growing recognition that, from the standpoint of our reading of narrative, the line separating historical narrative and non-historical cannot be sustained. Since the seminal work on the preface of Luke by Henry J. Cadbury, and largely based on it, a broad consensus has emerged that Luke 1:14 belongs squarely within the literary tradition of ancient historiography. In addition to the preface, Luke's work shares many other features of Greco-Roman historiography-for example, a genealogical record (3:23-28); the use of meal scenes as occasions for instruction; travel narratives; speeches; letters; and dramatic episodes, such as Jesus' rejection at Nazareth (4:16-30) and Paul's stormy voyage and shipwreck (Acts 27:1-28:14). This and other data have led to the identification of Luke-Acts as historiography.

In spite of this consensus and the momentum, it has fed for discerning in what sense Luke might be called a "historian," the identification of Luke-Acts as historiography in general and of Luke 1:1-4 as typical of prefaces in Greco-Roman historiography in particular has rested on uneasy ground. For some, Luke has always seemed too motivated by his theological agenda to be regarded as a historian. This is hardly the objection it once seemed, since no ancient historian was without motive, be it theological, apologetic, pedagogical, or whatever. Hence, the modern dichotomy that pits history over against theology has grown out of problematic commitments and is rightly being abandoned.

Of the four Gospels, Luke has the best control of Greek and clearly uses several Greek styles. His Hellenistic education is demonstrated by the use of rhetorical conventions: the use of chiasm; the unique use of medical and theological terms; use of Semitic idioms. His proficiency in the Torah is shown in his dense scriptural allusion and the structure of his narrative. Luke-Acts shows the author as a synthetic imaginative thinker who brought into a continuous narrative the story of Jesus and the story of Christian beginnings.


Early church tradition suggests that Luke did his writing in the large and important city of Antioch, the home base for Paul in his mission journeys." It was in this city that the disciples of Jesus were first called "Christians" (Acts 11:26). This tradition does not tell us to whom the Gospel was written. The tradition that Luke was a companion of Paul raises a likelihood that Luke-Acts was addressed to churches descended from the Pauline mission. Luke, no doubt, intended his writing especially for the people whom Paul had reached in his mission journeys. These were predominantly Gentiles. Some were quite wealthy; many were women, identification of the "we" passages make it likely that the addresses were somehow connected with the apostles proclamation of the Kerygma. But these are all guesses. That Luke and Acts were addressed to a single audience is no issue, but who are (is) the audience?

Unexpectedly, Luke addresses his work to one "Theophilus"; this lies in the opening lines of Luke's Gospel 1: 1-4 and of Acts 1; 1-3. By careful analysis of these phrases, we have to fill out the portrait of "Theophilus"; is it a person or a people? Or Lucan literary style?

Francois Bovon has it that "Theophilus" to whom Luke dedicate his work, is not an abstraction, but a historical person. Luke envisages three target groups: Educated Gentiles, Hellenistic Jews and Christians unsettled by rumours. John Nolland asserts that, the etymology of the name "Theophilus" "Friend of God" will suit a "God fearer audience". This assumption is based on his thought that the first century reader for much of the Gospel of Luke and Acts is a God fearer, one whose birth is not Jewish and whose background culture is Hellenistic, but who had been attracted to Judaism, drawn to the God of Israel and the worship of the synagogue; one who had taken on from his Jewish mentors many of religious values of faith on whose threshold he stood; but who had not yet taken the final step of circumcision and full incorporation into the national and cultural life of the Jews. Luke's God fearer will have been no stranger to the Christian Gospel. Therefore, for John Nolland, Luke's audience is a "God fearer audience."

According to R.E.O White "Theophilus" means either "lover of God" or "loved by God", and it could be understood as a pseudonym for "the average Christian" or "the typical convert. For Tyson, "Theophilus" may well have been a Gentile sympathetic to Judaism. Furthermore, occasionally in discussing Lucan original audience, an address to Rome is been suggested because Acts ends there, but Rome in the finale of Acts is primarily symbolic as the centre of the Gentile world. By way of narrowing the field, the last lines of Acts (28:25-28) attributed to Paul, indicates that the future of the Gospel lies with the Gentiles. Lucan avoidance of Aramaic expressions, names and vocabulary, features in the representation of Jesus reflecting the Gentile world. The summation to all of these presuppositions is that the Gospel of Luke was written for Gentile Christian audience.



Closely related to the issue of addressees is the highly disputed issue of the purpose of Luke-Acts. The starting point in the discussion of the purpose of Luke-Acts has to be the stated purpose in the prologue of Luke 1:4, the purpose is, so that Excellency may realize what assurance you have for the instruction you have received. For Fitzmyer, Luke writes from the period of the church and intends to assure "Theophilus" and other readers like him that what the church of his day was teaching and practising was rooted in the period of Jesus to strengthen them in fidelity to that teaching" and practice. Hence, assurance to fellow Christian of the received instruction is the purpose of Luke-Acts.

These teaching and practice involve the explanation of how God's salvation, first sent to Israel in the mission and person of Jesus of Nazareth has spread as the word of God (without the law) to the Gentiles and the end of the earth. So Luke's concern is to pass on to a post apostolic age a Jesus tradition that is related to the biblical history of Israel and to insist that it is only within the stream of apostolic tradition that one finds this divinely destined salvation.


There are two evidences on which to date the Gospel of Luke: that Luke wrote his gospel before he wrote Acts and the destruction of Jerusalem. According to Nolland, Since Luke was written before Acts, we can use the date to which Luke's account reaches chronologically in Acts. The narrative in Acts probably takes us to A. D. 62. The Gospel cannot be dated much earlier than this date. Furthermore, talking on the destruction of Jerusalem, Nolland says, if temple loyalty is something that disappeared after A. D. 70 with the destruction of the temple with the city, then, this will give a latest date for the Lucan text. He concluded by saying, taken together the two evidences, they encourage a date for the Gospel between the late sixties and the late seventies of the first century.

We can see from the above that the date the Gospel was written is unclear. Many commentators concluded from these that, Luke-Acts was composed prior to the death of Paul of which Luke make no mention. The dependence of Luke on mark (composed 65-70 A.D) suggest a later date (certainly not 75-80 A.D when Matthew was composed), how much later is the date? Following these three references of hard pieces of evidence, namely, ending of Acts, prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem, and dependence on Marcan Gospel, we cannot find an agreeable date, rather a guess within a chronological range of 70 - 90 A.D. Here, the best date for Raymond Brown would seem to be 85, give or take five to ten years.

Concerning the place of composition, for Nolland is quite indecisive. He sees Luke as a man of cosmopolitan outlook. Luke is identified as a native of Phillipi. Another argument identifies Luke with Antioch. Hence, it is almost easier Antioch since Luke is from there, but that cannot be since the Gospel of Matthew was addressed to Antioch. An Anti-Marcionite prologue has it that the Gospel of Luke was written in the neighbourhood of Achaia. Finally, ancient about place of composition varies greatly: Achaia, Bocotia, and Rome


We cannot proceed with our discussion on Lucan Gospel without a synthesis of the Lucan theological focus. Luke's personality, authorship, literary characteristics, original audience, purpose, date and place of composition that we have discussed have been a building up of Luke's theological initiatives. This theological initiative is subsumed in Luke's concern for the church's emergence of itself, of ministry and of order, of developing doctrine, of the effects, of the delayed "Parousia" and of problems of Christian living." These are Luke's theological concerns; which are realised or fulfilled in a number of features in Luke's literary presentation, namely: the Lucan kerygma; Lucan structure; geography; history; Christology; soteriology: eschatology and Christian witnessing.

In the Lucan kerygma, an attempt is made to explain the element of Lucan narrative of the proclamation of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, as God's eschatological act of salvation. The structure of Luke does reveal the author's concern to narrate the story of Jesus from more than an analyst's viewpoints: first is the incorporation of Jesus into Israel, foreshadowing the logical connection between Judaism and Christianity; second is the Nazareth programmatic scene, symbolizing Jesus' rejection by his town people; third is the big omission in chapter 9 and the introduction of lengthy travel narrative; fourth is the travel narrative; fifth is Jesus' Jerusalem ministry as that of teaching in the temple; sixth is in chapter 24, the suffering messiah narrative and the commissioning of the disciples as witnesses through the power of the promise (Holy Spirit); lastly is the Christian or church experience in Acts.

In the Lucan geography, the centrality of Jerusalem is emphasised as the city of Jesus' destiny in relation to the salvation of mankind. Lucan history is understood as the representation of Jesus-story and its sequel in time of human history.

Lucan Christology stresses the centrality of Jesus Christ as the key figure in salvation history; the two volumes, Luke-Acts proclaim Jesus of Nazareth. This theological perspective is largely related with soteriology, for "salvation comes through no one else, there is no other name under the heavens given to human beings by which we must be saved, except by the name of Jesus. The centrality of Jesus in Christology and soteriology is revealed in his titles: Messiah/Christ, Lord, Saviour, Son of God. Son of Man, Servant, Prophet, King and so on.

To be identified in Lucan Christological and Soteriological perspectives is Lucan "Pneumatic" theology, which emphasises the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' life and the life of the future church. The idea of a future church connects to Lucan eschatological perspective in which the future church is not just the "already" but also the "not yet", which is to be fulfilled with the "Parousia". Now, the partakers of this eschatological reality are those who have responded appropriately to the Christian kerygma as a proclamation of Christ and his disciples, response that is experienced in faith, repentance and conversion, prayer, baptism and above all witness by life, word and deed.


Establishing a firm background study to the Gospels allows for proper understanding of the author and his interest. We have seen after all the arguments on the nuances concerning the prolegomena to the third Gospel that: the author is a Gentile Christian who goes by the name Luke. Relying on the available sources for his composition, he addresses a Gentile Christian audience with the sole purpose of bringing them to faith, which is coming to intimate relationship with Jesus, on whose event the theology of Luke is based. Although, the composition is not certain (probably 85 A.D), his theological representation of Jesus remains pivotal. It is this Jesus that will be at the centre of our next chapter and beyond as we consider the resurrection narrative.

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