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Did “Luke” Really Write Luke? And the book of Acts?

Here is an important question that I received recently, which I’ve addressed long ago on the blog, before living memory.  Time to address it again!  The basic issue: isn’t there good evidence that the book of Acts, which describes the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman world, especially through the missionary efforts of Paul, was written by an eyewitness, an actual traveling companion of Paul who was with him for a number of his endeavors?   (Whoever the author is, he wrote the Gospel of Luke as well – so he wrote more words than any other author of the New Testament!  Even more than Paul.)

Here’s the question and the beginning of a response, the totality of which will take two or three posts.   In this beginning, I explain how the tradition started that the author was someone named “Luke” the traveling companion of Paul.

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QUESTION:

Acts mentions Luke as a traveling companion with Paul. And in areas where it appears the Luke joined Paul, Acts point-of-view changes from “he” to “we”, and then at points where it seems that Luke may have left Paul or stayed behind, point-of-view then reverts back from “we” to “he”. Some historians believe this is a good indication of when Luke was with Paul, when speaking of “we”. This happens several times and must be significant.

Luke writing as “we” tells me that he is probably taking notes during their travels, or perhaps writing those segments of Acts while on the road, and then filling in the “he” blanks when speaking with Paul and others of his travelers. What is your opinion regarding the curious viewpoint changes, and might this indicate that Luke really is the author of both Gospel of Luke and Acts?

 

RESPONSE:

I made an off the cuff comment in a previous post that there was a certain logic that has led readers over the years to identify “Luke” as the author of the Third Gospe l.   Let me stress again that the book itself is written anonymously; the author never identifies himself in any way. Moreover, we do not have the identification of the author as Luke until some 100 years after he wrote, in a statement by Irenaeus in his book Against Heresies, where he names the four Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So why Luke?  Irenaeus doesn’t tell us, but there appears to be a kind of “exegetical logic” that led to this decision.   The way it works is a bit complicated, but it goes like this:

I mentioned in the previous post that the author of this Gospel also wrote the book of Acts.  It too is anonymous.   But in four passages in the book of Acts, when the author is describing some of the journeys and activities of the apostle Paul, he …

This post deals with a topic most casual readers of the Bible have never thought of.  Surely Luke wrote Luke, right?  And the book of Acts?  And so they must be reliable — OK?  Good questions.  And much harder to answer than one would imagine.  If you want to see how scholars deal with the issues, join the blog!  Costs little, gives lots, all goes to charity.

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Once More on the Credibility of Miracles: Guest post by Darren Slade
Misunderstandings???

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  January 5, 2020

    Being an ‘eyewitness’ – more especially ‘being involved,’ I would suggest makes one more susceptible to writing what one wants things to be, rather than just as they were. As time goes on things generally become clearer as they become less intense and less personal and less involved. I think investigations of big happenings (say, Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations; Vietnam War; Who-Said-What around the time of Roe vs Wade – any INTENSE period) get clearer and less manipulated over time, IMO. To think that an eyewitness is more likely to be accurate is, I believe, wrong. Tempting, yes; Very human, yes – but wrong.
    Read the minutes of any contested meeting. The chairman or secretary’s viewpoint will be clearly and sympathetically outlined. The guy in the audience – who you thought made a really good point – may not even be mentioned.

  2. Avatar
    J.J.  January 5, 2020

    Titus was a Gentile (Gal 2:3).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2020

      Paul actually names others.

      • Avatar
        J.J.  January 17, 2020

        Ok. I was puzzled because you said above there were only three gentile companions of Paul explicitly mentioned in the surviving Pauline letters. Wasn’t sure where you were going with this. Titus is the one that always puzzled me. He’s a gentile, a significant friend of Paul, and is not mentioned in Acts. But Irenaeus dismissed Titus from consideration due to 2 Tim 4. No, I don’t think Titus is behind the we sections of Acts. I just didn’t remember why patristic writers didn’t give him any consideration, but only Luke. It’s because of 2 Tim 4:10-11.

  3. Barfo
    Barfo  January 5, 2020

    Regarding the book of Luke, my NASB Study Bible reports the authorship as Luke……”The author’s name does not appear in the book, but much unmistakable evidence points to Luke.” The NASB also indicates the author was, “Gentile by birth, well educated in Greek culture, a physician by profession.” I guess the NASB using the words “unmistakable evidence” can be close to exegetical logic? They use “external testimonies” and “inferences from the book itself ” as evidence of Luke’s authorship of Acts. A reasonable person can evaluate evidence and draw a conclusion based on using logic. However, if the evidence is weak or absent the answer will continue to be unconfirmed. It’s all about using the preponderance of evidence method to draw a conclusion. Different scholars place other/additional evidence on the scale, that other scholars may discard or ignore, to reach a conclusion. It is up to me, the average Shmoe, to consider the evidence presented and make a determination. A Christian apologist would use faith that God had a hand in assembling the Bible and place that on the scale for their conclusion. I no longer do that.

    I look forward to your next post.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      Yes, the “logic” they are using is what I laid out. But there is zero evidence that the author was a physician (as was demonstrated many decades ago); and since most Christians at the time were from gentile stock, that doesn’t get us very far.

  4. Telling
    Telling  January 5, 2020

    Bart,

    That is my post you are addressing here. I look forward to seeing how you will deconstruct the argument of these historians, tomorrow as you present here today.

  5. Avatar
    J--B  January 5, 2020

    Isn’t Colossians a disputed letter? Can “Luke” be found anywhere else?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      Yes, but not as a physician and certainlly not as an author — 2 Tim 4:11. I will be trying to show why Paul did not write Colossians in a later post.

  6. Avatar
    Vlobascio  January 5, 2020

    Bart, apologies that this is slightly off-topic, but I have a question I’ve been waiting for a good post to ask it on and I am too impatient to keep waiting!

    In one of your books (I think Misquoting Jesus) you mentioned the disparity in how Jesus faces his death across the four Gospels. You say that in Mark, Jesus is confused and upset, unsure why he is being abandoned by God (evidenced by Mark 15:33) whereas in Luke, Jesus is more concerned about the people around him at his death (Luke 23:28, 43) and is at peace with his death (23:46).

    In Mark, wasn’t Jesus on the cross quoting Psalm 22 when he cried “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (i.e., the writer of Mark is having Jesus quote Psalm 22 as proof he is fulfilling the other verses in that Psalm as prophecy?)

    Also in the Last Supper in Mark, Jesus announces that he is going to be betrayed, seemingly knowing what is going to happen to him that night. The Last Supper ritual itself also implies that Jesus is fully aware of the suffering he is going to endure and why he is enduring it.

    So why did you argue that Jesus in Mark is unsure of why he is dying? I don’t see that at all.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      Ah — no need for a comment to be tied to a post! Ask at any time.

      Yes indeed, Jesus does quote Psalm 22 on the cross. But I think this is usually misinterpreted. In its context, I take it to be a genuine cry of despair — i.e., a genuine question. Jesus really wants to know why God has forsaken him. He knows it has to happen in Mark, but at the end, he doesn’t seem to know *why*. He genuinely doesn’t understand. Luke changes that (note he gets rid of the Psalm 22 quotation, among lots of oterh things). It’s all part of Mark’s bigger point of no one understanding what jesus’ death is all about — a Leitmotiv of hs narrative. Even Jesus doesn’t get it. But the reader does! And the readers sees that sometimes suffering doesn’t make sense, even when you know God wants you to suffer. But you don’t know why! But it’s all good in the end. God knows what he’s doing. That’s mark’s overarching message. (Not one shared by the other Gospel writers)

  7. Avatar
    b.dub3  January 5, 2020

    Cliff hanger…Way to go Dr Ehrman!

  8. Avatar
    forthfading  January 5, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I have two questions: First, was embedding first-person narrative in a third person history a common literary device to your knowledge? Second, are there any interesting variants among the first person pronoun?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      Yes, in my book I give lots and lots of instances just from the NT, and then from earlier Christianity later. Variants: not too many. Can’t think of any off hand.

  9. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 5, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think the Professor is correct here?:

    Me: When did this “intermediate state” for the soul/spirit begin? Was it with Luke who has Jesus say to the man being executed next to him “today you will be with me in Paradise?” Clearly the thief wasn’t resurrected.

    Professor: Those concepts by Luke there are basically Greco-Roman ideas (not Jeiwsh). The notion of an intermediate state comes only much later. For Paul and Jesus’ early followers there’s no intermediate state for the soul/spirit, and so body and soul/spirit are dead until Jesus returns and ushers in a general resurrection.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 6, 2020

      I agree about Jesus. And about Paul in his *earlier* writings. In my book I argue that Paul *started* to hold to an intermediate state when he realized he was soon to die himself (thus Phil. 1:21 and 2 Cor 5:1-2)

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  January 9, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        Can’t wait for the new book. Just a bit more to follow-up on the Intermediate State:

        In 1 Thess 4:15-17 Paul appears to be describing the order of ascension between the dead and the living at the coming of the Lord. The living will not have precedence over the dead, but the dead are raised first; they rise and then the living will be caught up together with them—as Paul said, to meet the Lord in the air. (and by this, does Paul mean literally? I remember NT Wright saying that “meeting someone in the air” was just an expression meaning that you run to the person because you’re very happy to see a certain person).
        Paul’s final statement that we “will always be with the Lord” begs the question where were the dead before they were resurrected if they were not with the Lord? Shouldn’t a deceased Christian have already been with the Lord when they died?—as Paul said: “absent from the body; present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6-9). Of course, if Paul was right in the 2 Cor statement, why wouldn’t the dead have been coming back with the Lord appearing with him already in the air—like he has it in 1 Thess 3:13? Paul’s statement in 1 Thess seems to be a direct contradiction of 2 Cor.
        So where are the dead believers if not now with the Lord? This question prompted by such disagreement as between 2 Cor and 1 Thess have prompted some to speculate that the soul of believers “sleeps” till the resurrection occurs.
        How do you see it? Is this exactly what you meant by juxtaposing Paul’s earliest writing 1 Thess. vs. a later writing such as 2 Cor.?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 9, 2020

          Yes, I’ll be dealing with all this in my book. My view is that Paul didn’t have a clear notion of where the dead “were” early on, when he wrote 1 Thessalonians. I suppose “sleep” might be the best way to think of it. But when time passed and there were more and more, nad Paul realized he might soon be one of them, he couldn’t believe there wwould be a period of waiting, and came to think that in fact there must be some kind of existence with Christ *before* he returned in glory, hence the intermediate state.

          • Avatar
            Brand3000  January 10, 2020

            Dr. Ehrman,

            When Paul said, to meet the Lord in the air. Does Paul mean literally? Or “meeting someone in the air” was just an expression meaning that you run to the person because you’re very happy to see a certain person?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 11, 2020

            That wasn’t a turn of phrase that we know of. He meant in the air — up above. Jesus is coming from heaven above, his followers will rise up to meet him in the air, and they’ll come down together for the utopian kingdom.

  10. Avatar
    FireBrand  January 6, 2020

    How certain are we that Luke and Acts were written by the same person?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2020

      Yeah, just about everyone is. Compare the first few verses of each account. The vocabulary, writing style, theological interests, views, perspectives, and so line up almost entirely. So this is one thing that the vast majority of everyone, from hard-core fundie to wide-eyed atheist pretty much agrees on. (Though there are a few scholarly exceptions. How could there not be?!)

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 6, 2020

    Well worth reviewing again. Really interesting. Thanks

  12. Avatar
    fishician  January 7, 2020

    Luke…I am your father!

    • Avatar
      mortensend  January 12, 2020

      More like, “Luke… I am your author!”

  13. Avatar
    gusloureiro  January 7, 2020

    Dear Bart,

    One question: how do we know that these texts were written at any given time, since the original texts no longer exist and have no “publication date”? I see this problem with other texts of the ancient world too, say, Plato´s or Aristotle´s writings. How historians know that this work is from that author, written around this or that year? To my mind, when a text is of anonymous authorship, this problem is even greater. How can one can say that the text was not written by other person (or persons!). This question always bothered me, if you could help me understand it it would be much appreciated. Thanks a lot.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 8, 2020

      Yes, it’s an entire field of study, how to date ancient texts. It is really involved, but once you see the evidence, it all makes sense. Just to give you a taste. If you have a manuscript of a writing and can give an accurate date of the manuscript, the writing had to be produced earlier than that. If the writing mentions an event or person whose date you are already sure about, then it had to be produced after that. If the writing is mentioned by someone who can be dated accurately, then it had to be written before that. And so on. So, for example, the book of Acts had to be written after the life of Jesus and after the missionary work of Paul. (so sometime after, say, 60 CE) But it was definitely known by writers who can be placed in the middle of the second century, such as Justin in Rome, from around 150 CE. So it had to be written between 60 and 150 CE. And you start narrowing the dates from there.

  14. Robert
    Robert  January 8, 2020

    Bart: “These are called the “we passages” of Acts, and it appears on first reading that the author is including himself as Paul’s companion at these points. The passages – you can look them up – are Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16. … The most obvious theory (which happens to be one that I think is highly problematic!) is that the author starts speaking in the first person at these points because he has joined Paul for some of his travels, left, joined again, left again, etc.”

    First, I agree with you that the author is falsely attempting to create the impression that he was a travelling companion of Paul. But, the impression is more artfully created than your characterization as the putative author joining, leaving, joining again, leaving again, etc. True, in Acts 17,1 Paul and Silas go off to Thessalonica without the putative author, who presumably stayed in Philippi or traveled elsewhere until they meet up again in Troas in 20,5, which is the same place where they first met in 16,10. There is no separation between 20,15 and 21,1; Paul is just giving a long farewell discourse in Ephesus. Likewise, between 21,18 and 27,1, the author is merely describing the events in Jerusalem, which he is implying that he witnessed, at the end of which they were no longer traveling together because Paul was arrested and in Roman custody.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      I’m not sure I follow. The events he narrates didn’t happen in Jerusalem. But I will note that you have now made 888 comments. Surely that’s significant?? 🙂

      • Robert
        Robert  January 9, 2020

        Bart: “I’m not sure I follow. The events he narrates didn’t happen in Jerusalem.”

        Sure they did. Paul and the author (and putative traveling companion) arrive in Jerusalem and together they meet with James and the elders (21,17-18). Surely one should expect that the author, this putative companion of Paul was a continuing witness to the following events that took place in Jerusalem until Paul is taken in Roman custody to Caesarea, where his own (companions) were allowed to take care of his needs (24,23). Thus one can easily imagine that the author would have us believe that he continued to remain with Paul until it was decided that “we” were to sail for Italy (27,1).

        Likewise, one should not imagine that Paul and the author and putative companion were separated between 20,15 and 21,1; rather the author implies that he himself was a witness to Paul’s long farewell discourse in Ephesus.

        There really is only one time of separation of Paul and the author in this very long section of Acts, when Paul and Silas go off to Thessalonica (17,1) without the putative author, who himself eventually went back to Troas in 20,5, which is the same place where they first met in 16,10.

        The author would have us believe that he was a witness to almost all of the second half of the book of Acts.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2020

          Ah, I thought you were saying that all the we sections occurred in Jerusalem.

  15. Avatar
    TeresaKChou  January 10, 2020

    Can you point me to where you detail why the Gospel is anonymous? A friend of mine with whom I debate asked me to read The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre. Dr. Pitre is not an evangelical, he’s Catholic. In The Case for Jesus, he puts forward several arguments for why the gospels are not anonymous. To a novice like me, they look convincing, but I’m sure you have a reply. (For example, he claims that the oldest manuscripts we have are not anonymous; i.e., they claim to be the “Gospel according to Luke” in Papyrus 75. And that there are no “anonymous” manuscripts”.) How do I respond to that?

    Thank you!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2020

      Actually, if the title is “The Gospel according to Luke,” then technically the book is still anonymous. No author signs his book by saying who it is “according to”. That is someone *else* telling you who the author is. In other words, if I write a book I call it something, and put my name on it (or in it). If someone else says, “this is the views that Ehrman has” — it is not *me* saying it, it is someone else. See what I mean? Within the books, the authors never identify themselves or write in their own names. The books themselves don’t identify the author. later copyists wanting the reader to know which version it is added the title: This Gospel is the one “according to Luke.” Make sense?

      • Avatar
        TeresaKChou  January 11, 2020

        Thank you for responding! It does make sense; thank you. Very helpful. In short, Dr. Pitre has a more expansive (and I think you would say incorrect) view of what anonymous means. As I mentioned, he has a few arguments. Another is that we would expect there to be different titles attributed to the same Gospel if they weren’t titled as such from the beginning. He contrasts the Gospels, for example, with the Letter to the Hebrews, which is all over the map (with respect to titles) and why there is no consensus over authorship (at least among his Catholic peers). When it comes to the Gospels, the earliest manuscripts are (he alleges) all consistent with the naming convention in the title (i.e., the Gospel of Mark always says something about Mark). He offers that as a proof of authorship, noting that consistency over this period of time adds weight to an argument that there was a single, original source. I’m not sure if that conflicts with what you’ve said or not. It’s not necessarily inconsistent with what you’ve said in your reply. He believes this conflicts with the argument that they are anonymous.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 12, 2020

          Yup, I’m familiar with his arguments. Hebrews is not a good point of comparison. For centuries there were debates about whether it should be even considered part of the Bible and if so who it’s author was. By the end of the second century both questions had been resolved for the Gospels. Everyone agrees they were called Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by, say 185. The question is what they were called, if anything, in 125.

          • Avatar
            TeresaKChou  January 12, 2020

            Thank you!

  16. Avatar
    Zak1010  January 14, 2020

    Dr Ehrman,

    If a book was deemed forged today, scholars would not reference it nor quote from it unless they wanted to prove its falsehood or its art in forgery.

    The example of your students at Chapel Hill who all or vast majority of them raise their hands when asked if they read Brown’s book the Da Vinci Code then lower their hands when asked who read the Bible after claiming they believe it to be God’s word.
    Yet, there is another book out there that claims to be God’s word and… well you know the answer, nobody wants to read it. This book if read, would / could answer unanswered questions.

    Debate after debate proving the Bible forged, unauthored and inauthentic. With all its alterations, modifications, additions and deletions….. Why would one quote or reference it ?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 15, 2020

      Most people forge today for a different reason — to make money or to advance their own well-being in some way. In antiquity it was much more common to forge a document because it contained a view that an author thought would do other people good, to help them see things in a new way. The ideas/views/thoughts might be worth considering, even if the author lied about his name.

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