Luke: An unexpected God
Written by Youthworks Editor
In his introduction to Luke: An unexpected God, John Mason explains his purpose in writing the commentary:
"Commentaries on the Gospels are numerous. In recent years the Gospel of Luke has been thoroughly traversed by many scholars; however the fruits of their work are not easily accessible to the average Bible reader. Busy people, including preachers and pastors, do not always have the time to work through lengthy discussion. It is not the purpose of this book therefore to explore the detail of the multiplicity of critical issues and alternatives. Rather, I intend to chart a course through Luke’s Gospel using the tools of older and recent scholarship to focus on its essential teaching. The title of the series, Reading the Bible Today, provides the framework for this commentary. It is concerned with two horizons: the horizon of the text and the horizon of today’s readers.
With that in mind, we hope you enjoy this excerpt from Luke: An unexpected God.
Is it true?— Luke the historian (1:1–4)
A credible witness
In recent times novelists, some commentators, and scholars have poured doubt on the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament. So Dan Brown in The Da Vinci code insisted that the New Testament claim that Jesus is the Son of God was a later invention of the church; some scholars produce the Judas document to substantiate this. From the beaches to the ski slopes, from the boardroom to the factory floor, the view persists that the New Testament is a book of myths.
But it is not just our age that finds difficulties with the Gospel accounts. Similar questions were asked even in Jesus’ lifetime. Jewish leaders wanted Jesus to demonstrate his unique power at their bidding, ostensibly so that they too might believe. The writer of the biography we know as the Gospel of Luke was aware of these kinds of issues. In his opening sentence he anticipated these questions.
Luke’s prologue is similar in form and style to the histories in his day. In one long, tightly constructed, balanced sentence, Luke lays the foundation for his work. He tells his reader(s) that he has done his research well: he is aware of other accounts, he has verified his work with eyewitnesses and ministers of the word who have passed on the story about Jesus. Furthermore, he tells us that he has written up a careful account of all that he has learned.
In this way Luke wants to draw us from our world into his. And his world, he wants to assure us, is not a world of fiction. He speaks of things that have been accomplished, or taken place, among us. From the outset, he wants us to understand that he is writing a history of people who lived, and of events that actually occurred. His work is not simply an epic, a myth or legend having the appearance of a history, such as Tolkien’s Lord of the rings. His work is a history. To help us understand this he sets out a number of points.
Luke notes that others have also written accounts (literally, put their hand to the task). This suggests that there were concrete observable events that people had witnessed and could speak about. So, as his contemporaries did, he identifies reference points with other sources, texts and ideas that his readers would have known and understood. However, unlike his contemporaries, his introduction is not long and flowery. He does not poke holes in the work of his predecessors, and he is self-effacing. Unlike his contemporary historians, Luke is not patronising or negative about their work. His words, Inasmuch as many have undertaken ... me also ...’ (1:1, 3) are positive and inclusive. Now he himself is writing his account of these same events (it seemed good to me 1:3—a common Greek expression).
The accounts of the events had been passed on by eyewitnesses (1:2). This is most important, for despite what we might think about ancient historians, the evidence of carefully checked eyewitness accounts was just as important in the ancient Greek and Roman world as it is today. For example, the Greek historian, Thucydides, in his introduction to his History of the Peloponnesian War commented:
"Where I have not been an eyewitness myself, I have investigated with the utmost accuracy attainable every detail that I have taken at second hand".
As we would expect, Luke made it his business to become personally acquainted with the details of what had taken place (hence, having followed all things closely, 1:3). Not beingan eyewitness himself, Luke suggests that he received and checked this material with those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (1:2). One commentator, WC van Unnik, has pointed out that Luke is describing Greek historical method:
Lucian wrote: ‘A historian must not be careless about the collection of facts ... If he can, he should go to the site, and see with his own eyes. If this is impossible, he must pay close attention to the most impartial informants ... Having collected all or most of his material, let him first construct an aide-memoire (hypomnema) out of it, and compose a text as yet unbeautified and unarticulated. He can then add the order and the ornament, colour and language, give it figures and rhythm.’
Luke’s reference to eyewitnesses is not mere literary convention. His intention is to underline the trustworthiness of his account. Although he himself had not seen Jesus in the flesh (this is the implication of his words in 1:2), he had checked the details of his material with those who had observed the recent events that had so profoundly changed the course of the world. His first readers would have the same need as we do today: they learned of events outside their own experience through the reports of people who had personally been present.
So Luke specifically draws our attention to the reliability of his sources. It is most likely that there were two stages in the handing on of the account of events surrounding Jesus— oral and written. The conjunction just as (1:2) points back to the accounts that lay behind those sources which Luke has used. These original sources he describes as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (1:2).