May 29, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I’m going into Luke to fill in the gaps in previous reflections. Today we begin at the beginning — 1:1-4.
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
Luke, author of the gospel and of Acts, was a second- or third-generation Christian possibly of Antioch in Syria who wrote these books sometime between 80 and 110 C.E. Marcus Borg in Evolution of the Word points out that texts of the times were written on scrolls generally not longer than about 30 feet. Any longer and they were too heavy and cumbersome to carry, unroll, and read. The scrolls of Luke and Acts are each about 30 feet long. Luke’s gospel and Acts comprise about 30% of the Greek Bible, more than any other single writer.
Luke was likely principally addressing Gentiles and was concerned about the conundrum of a God who could be perceived as failing to be faithful to his chosen people, the Jews. If that were so, Gentiles could wonder about whether He might abandon Christians as well. So, he wrote this two-part volume to show, “[H]ow the Gentile Church of his own day emerged in continuity from a faithful and restored Israel, organizing his narrative as a whole into the pattern of the Prophet and the people,” according to Daniel Harrington in Sacra Pagina. The gospel book is about “God’s divine plan for human salvation [that[ was accomplished during the period of Jesus, who through the events of his life fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies” according to the introduction in the New American Bible. In Acts “this salvation is now extended to all humanity in the period of the church.” Also, a major difference in Luke is that Jesus’ return is no longer expected immediately as so many years have passed. Instead Luke focuses on the day-to-day challenges of being Christian in the world.
Luke’s gospel in the only one of the gospels to have this prologue, which was a literary style of Hellenistic Greek literature. Both the gospels and Acts are addressed to Theophilus, meaning lover of God. So, Luke may have been addressing these to a specific individual or to the body of Christ, the Church. It was common at the time to address a literary work to one’s financial patron and that may have been the case with Luke.
At the time Luke wrote these books a good deal of time had passed since Jesus walked the countryside of Galilee and the alleyways of Jerusalem. Paul’s letters were being distributed and read throughout Israel and the Diaspora, Mark’s gospel had been written and possibly both Matthew’s and John’s. Since so few people were literate, most people learned of the good news through preaching and oral accounts of eyewitnesses passed along from one person to another. The church was not a unified, organized institution yet and theology was being worked out. There were many contending branches of faith and beliefs that were to be branded as heresies. It was a very fluid time religiously against the background of an increasingly strong Roman Empire and the waning of Greek influence.
I can imagine Luke talking of all this with Theophilus and the two of them deciding that Luke should write the “definitive” history of Jesus’ ministry and the faithfulness of God now extended to all people, Jews and Gentiles. I have a need for order in the same way. I like things that are presented logically and consistently. There’s a bit of hubris as well in Luke’s belief that he can bring “certainty to the teachings” that have been handed down by a fresh research of the literature, an investigation of those who had claimed to be eye witnesses, and uncovering or recording events to be added to the historical account of Jesus’ life and ministry. I often think I can do a better job of such things than others as well. I also can imagine myself writing such a prologue to explain myself and why I’m writing such a book. So, I’m immediately open to the story Luke is about to tell; I can relate to him. Good for us that he did so.