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Problems with Luke as the Author of Luke

In my previous post I gave the logic that can be adduced for thinking that the Third Gospel was probably written by Luke, the gentile physician who was a companion of Paul for part of his missionary journeys. The short story, in sum: the author of Luke also wrote the book of Acts; the book of Acts in four places talks about what “we” (companions with Paul) were doing; both books were therefore written by one of Paul’s companions; Acts and Luke appear to have a gentile bias; only three of Paul’s companions were known to be gentiles (Colossians 4:7-14); Luke there is a gentile physician; Luke-Acts appears to have an enhanced interest in medical terminology; therefore Luke the gentile physician was probably its author.

Now, for a couple of posts or so, I’ll try to explain why, in my opinion, this logic is flawed.

In this post and the next (at least) I’ll deal with a lynchpin of the argument, that we know that Luke the gentile physician was a travelling companion of Paul.

The name “Luke” is mentioned three times in the New Testament (I’m still a firm believer in using a concordance; I think there is absolutely nothing better for helping one interpret the NT): Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; and Philemon 24. In all three Luke is named as a companion of Paul’s. But only in the Colossians passage is he called a gentile; and only there is he said to have been a physician. The problem – some of you will have guessed this by now – is that Paul almost certainly did not write either 2 Timothy or Colossians. That means that the only reference to Luke in one of Paul’s own writings is Philemon, where along with Demas he is said to be one of Paul’s fellow workers, but is not called a gentile physician. So why should anyone thing that *this* person, in particular, of all Paul’s acquaintances, wrote Luke-Acts??

It may be useful to show why most critical scholars (leaving aside fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals, who think that there cannot be forgeries in the NT) agree that Paul did not write Colossians. Rather than reinvent the wheel (or rewrite the book), I give here the evidence that I cite in my more popular book Forged (I make a much more detailed assessment in Forgery and Counter-Forgery; maybe tomorrow I’ll cite that discussion to show how scholarship works differently when directed toward scholars and when it is directed toward lay people. Or maybe not! J ):

I include here, at the outset, the concluding paragraph of my discussion of Ephesians, which I also argue was not by Paul.:


In point after point, when you look carefully at Ephesians, it stands at odds with Paul himself. This book was apparently written by a later Christian in one of Paul’s churches who wanted to deal with a big issue of his own day: the relation of Jews and Gentiles in the church. He did so by claiming to be Paul, knowing full well that he wasn’t Paul. He accomplished his goal, that is, by producing a forgery.


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Not for the Faint of Heart (Authorship of Colossians)
Why Luke is Thought To Have Written Luke



  1. Avatar
    stephena  September 2, 2013

    This is great. It has me running to open my eBook version of “Forged” and checking the other books again, and opening e-sword and a concordance to count “becauses”! Can’t wait for the scholarly treatment.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 2, 2013

    With regard to the six “forged” Pauline Epistles, do we think that each one had a different author?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      The normal view is that there was a different author for each of Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians, but that the same author wrote 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.

  3. Avatar
    luke0468  September 2, 2013

    I would like to hear your input and answer on this Mr. Ehrman, 🙂
    Who’s to say that Paul didn’t have more than one dictator over a 20 or so year period and each one wrote a different way, their own style? I mean, It’s a fact that Paul had dictators writing down what he said.
    The letters differ from contents from one another… it may be different, but 20 years could have past as well, when he wrote them. People change. He had supposedly gone to prison as well and he wrote many of his letters supposedly while he was suffering in prison. Does Abraham Lincoln’s letters all contain the same ideas and grammar over his entire life? I would think his personality and style would change over time?

    And also Peter was illiterate according to Acts, and he could have had a dictator. If Paul could write very well, and had a dictator. Surely Peter could have gotten one, if he didn’t even know how to write. He was a fisherman.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      By “dictator” I assume you mean “secretary” or “scribe”? I’ve dealt with that question at some length on the blog already; just do the search function for “secretary” and you’ll find the posts.

  4. Avatar
    Ronck1  September 2, 2013

    Prof. Bart, As you mentioned conservatives in the above post, I’ll ask a question that has been stewing awhile within me. How are you ever able to converse with conservatives? I have a conservative friend who takes scripture extremely literally, does not believe in evolution and thinks that the earth is 10,000 years old. These views are so absurd to me that I find myself getting angry. I do have a sincere wish to converse with him to understand his views, but have a very difficult time doing so. Can you give me some tips? Thanks much. I so enjoy your blog and often wonder how you have the time to accomplish all you do. Ron C-K

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      Great question! I’ll add it to ones to address on my blog, so everyone can see my bungling attempt to answer….

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 2, 2013

    I’m finding this extremely interesting! Eager to read the next post.

    But…can I ask a question about something else, for your later consideration? When you were writing about Didymus the Blind, I found myself wondering whether scholars believe his given name really was “Didymus” – meaning “twin.’ And that set me to wondering, also, about Jesus’s supposed disciple Thomas. In those days, people presumably knew what the names meant. But I can’t imagne an English speaker today naming a child “Twin” (whether or not he was one).

    I’m wondering whether, for example, the disciple Thomas really was – necessarily – the twin of *someone*, though with no historical reason to think it was Jesus. And whether “Thomas” was his given name or more like a nickname, and he really was identical with another disciple, probably Jude.

    I also find myself wondering whether those Jewish and early Christian cultures might have had prescribed naming systems (e.g., firstborn son typically named for his paternal grandfather, second son for their maternal grandfather). And if the first pregnancy produced two boys, the younger might actually have been named the equivalent of “Twin,” with the second-son name being reserved for the product of a second, separate *pregnancy*.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      Yes, I’ve wondered similar things. I’m sure there’s a good answer to this, but I don’t know it. My *hunch* has always been that the first of twins born was given a name, and the second was called Didymus. But I may well be wrong!

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  September 3, 2013

        I’ve often wondered about that too, but I think it’s possible that Didymus didn’t necessarily literally take his name (nor would anyone else have for that matter) as merely “twin”. As an example look at the origins of surnames. One source of English non-patronymic surnames are professions: John Tailor (Taylor), Thomas Cook, Jane Midwife, etc. Over time those surnames lost their “meaning” to the individuals as meaning *just* a profession. Sure, a cook still cooked, but when it became part of a name, it was just that: a name. So, perhaps originally when an ancient middle easterner had a twin they named one of them “twin” which originally they intended to mean literally “twin” (maybe because of cultural or religious reasons it was considered a blessing), but over time “twin”, or in this case “Didymus” lost it’s meaning as literally “twin” when used as a personal name.

        I used to work for a German company and we had an engineer in Bavaria whose last name was Vogel. I’m sure you of all people know that Vogel translates literally as “bird”. When I and others visited our HQ we always called this man “Birdy” (American’s do love their nicknames!). He of course knew that his name literally meant bird, but always thought it was odd that we would literally call him a bird even if it was in another language.

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

          Good point! although my sense is that this is true more often for last names than first names….

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  September 2, 2013

    And for *another* “later consideration”…

    You say Jesus’s followers came to believe he’d been raised from the dead without *either* (a) his having predicted such a thing or (b) his body’s having “disappeared” from where they’d thought it should be. Assuming that’s correct, they were convinced solely by “visions,” and by their belief in a general resurrection of the dead that would take place in the imminent Kingdom (Jesus being the “first fruit”).

    So why did nothing of the sort take place after the death of his fellow apocalypticist, John the Baptist?

    I can think of several possible reasons:

    (a) His teaching had a different emphasis, didn’t stress that general resurrection.

    (b) He, a modest man, had actually gone out of his way to tell people he *wasn’t* the “Messiah” – perhaps didn’t even *believe in* a human “Messiah” whose coming would precede that of the Son of Man. So his followers were less likely to think of him, personally, as “special.”

    (c) Whatever his followers may have believed, they were just scattered individuals, without even the “organization” of Jesus’s band of twelve.

    (d) His followers knew he’d been beheaded, and couldn’t conceive of someone’s being raised from the dead when his body was no longer intact.

    Do you think any of those explanation are correct?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      Yes, these are good explanations. Mine is a bit simpler. The reality is that some people have visions of lost loved ones and others don’t. Some of Jesus’ followers did and those of John didn’t. Not sure there’s a good reason for it!

  7. Avatar
    Dangelus  September 2, 2013

    Hello Dr. Ehrman,

    I was wondering what the consensus was regarding “Theophilus”. A literary tool or a real person? Since the name literally means “loved by God” it seems a little dubious. I’m assuming that the author of Luke is concluded to also be the author of Acts from textural similarities and writing style and not because Acts mentions Theophilus and the book of Luke?

    Loving the blog! 🙂

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 2, 2013

      I’m not sure there is a consensus. Lots of scholars think Theophilus was a real person (a Roman official possibly, since he is called “most excellent”); others that it is, as you say, a cipher for Christains “loved by God” (or “lover of God”). I lean toward the second option, in part because I can’t imagine a Christian author seriously imagining a Roman official would read his books…. Theophilus *was* a relatively common name, for what it’s worth.

  8. Avatar
    hwl  September 3, 2013

    It would be informative get a taste of your “much more hard-hitting approach”.
    Discrepancies in writing styles between two texts should motivate further investigation. However I’m sceptical how much writing style can provide firm evidence against common authorship. First, people’s styles changes over time. Secondly, the context, one’s mood at time of writing (whether in a hurry, leisurely mood, state of one’s health, happy & relaxed or tensed), the target audience, etc. all have an impact on one’s writing style. Have you ever analysed your own writing style, say between your scholarly and popular works, and between those written in your 20s/30s versus present day?
    Of course, content and views change: if the deutero-Pauline works were written many years apart from the undisputed letters, it is possible Paul’s views would have changed. You, for one, changed your views considerably over the decades on religious matters.
    Moreover, we actually don’t have that much extant writings from Paul – compared to say Plato and Aristotle, hence I am not sure we can be confident of the range of literary styles Paul is capable of producing.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Yes indeed, views and style change. That’s why in determining authorship an entire *set* of considerations have to be taken into account: writing style, vocabulary, meanings of words, theological views, presupposed historical context, and so on. No one of these would work, for precisely the reason you cite!

  9. Avatar
    dewdds  September 3, 2013

    Has anyone ever conducted a comparison of writing styles between Luke’s Gospel and Acts? Even if they can’t be attributed to Luke the physician, was it the same author who wrote these two books? What thinketh the esteemed textual critic on this question?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 3, 2013

      Yes, the writing styles, vocabulary, theological points of view, major themes all seem to line up pretty well. I think it’s pretty clear that the same author wrote both.

  10. Avatar
    S.P.  October 8, 2013

    Dear Dr. Ehrman,

    As I consider the arguments given about differences in word usage between the Paulines and Pseudo-Paulines, it comes to my attention that the differences between Colossians and Galatians, for instance, are as great as those between 1 Thessalonians and Galatians. Following the criteria above, shouldn’t this be evidence against 1 Thessalonians being Pauline? I’m just trying to understand the argument. Thanks for the blog!

    • Avatar
      S.P.  October 8, 2013

      *Correction: I meant to say that the differences between Colossians and 1 Thessalonians are as great as those between 1 Thessalonians and Galatians. My apologies.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  October 9, 2013

      This is actually a very complicated question. Short answer: you can’t simply compare one writing with one other. You need to compare the one you’re wondering about (Colossians in this case) with *all* the authentic ones that are undisputed. But the diffrences from one or another letter are not the most compelling arguments for Colossians being forged. If you want to see a fuller argument, see the discussoin in my book Forgery and Counterforgery.

  11. Christopher
    Christopher  September 24, 2015

    I attended an apologetics conference at Watermark Church in Dallas the day after your debate with Justin Bass (you may remember me as the guy who asked a rather off-topic question about if we should think of 1st Cen Christianity as a cult) and Mike Licona was there, presenting an case for Jesus’ resurrection, as he does.

    He made the claim, during the speech, that, “despite what you may hear from Bart Ehrman, the *majority* of New Testament scholars think that Luke was written by a traveling companion of Paul”. I asked him about this claim in the Q&A, noting that I’m unaware of any source for knowing of such a consensus, and he defered me to Darrel Bock, who admitted that it is very hard to know a consensus, while not deflating Licona’s claim, and deferred me further to Craig Keener’s (spelling?) book on Luke/Acts, for further investigation, stating that the latter contains a very comprehensive list of almost everyone’s views.

    Since they named you for a contradition, so specifically, can you please comment? Do we have any idea what “THE MYSTERIOUS MAJORITY” thinks about the authorship of Luke/Acts? Can I get it in writings from somewhere without having to go through CK’s epic books and catelogue it (Why didn’t he just do this himself???)

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2015

      Well, it may be true, but if so, it is because there are more evangelical and other conservative Christian NT scholars than other kinds of NT scholars!

      • Christopher
        Christopher  September 25, 2015

        Haha, but do we have any formal counting of NT scholar opinions on the matter? I’m friends with Justin Bass and he’s told me a couple times that he’s at dinners or conferences for NT PH.D holders. It seems like it’d be easy to pass around a little sheet with questions on it, like, “The author of Luke was a travelling companion of Paul – Yes/No?”. We have this kind of data for scientists and, God believe it, philosophers, why don’t NT scholars get on the ball!?

        • Bart
          Bart  September 26, 2015

          The problem is there are many, many thousands of biblical scholars. Can’t really pass around a sheet!

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