24 votes, average: 4.92 out of 524 votes, average: 4.92 out of 524 votes, average: 4.92 out of 524 votes, average: 4.92 out of 524 votes, average: 4.92 out of 5 (24 votes, average: 4.92 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Problems with Thinking That Luke Wrote Luke (and Acts)

I continue now with my discussion of whether one of Paul’s traveling companions wrote the account of his life in the book of Acts, and thus, by association, the Gospel of Luke.  It turns out to be a really sticky problem — one of those that can’t be solved simply by looking at a couple of verses and applying some basic logic.

In my previous post I gave the logic that is typically adduced for thinking that the Luke 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.  Easy shmeazy, right?  I used to think so.

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.):

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.

This is crucial knowledge for anyone who wants to understand the New Testament from a historical point of view, the kind of thing NT scholars can talk about off the top of their head but that most lay folk have never heard of.  The kind of thing this blog is designed to provide!  Interested in knowing?  Join the blog!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

The More Scholarly Argument that Paul did Not Write Colossians
Did “Luke” Really Write Luke? And the book of Acts?



  1. Avatar
    amonro  January 8, 2020

    My understanding is that critical scholars consider the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) to be clearly non-Pauline but that critical scholarship is somewhat more divided on the authorship of Colossians, Ephesians, and 2 Thessalonians.

    For the latter 3 books, it seems like (based on my limited research; I haven’t read “Forged”) opinions about Colossians are somewhat more divided than for the other two, i.e., there are more critical scholars who think Paul may have written Colossians than critical scholars who think Paul wrote Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians. Is scholarship more divided regarding Colossians than it is regarding Ephesians and 2 Thessalonians?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Yes, that’s right. Well, almost. I’d say more actually go for 2 Thessalonians. I used to accept both, until I dug down deep. I’ll explain about Colossians in my post tomorrow.

      • Avatar
        amonro  January 9, 2020

        Thanks! I’m looking forward to that post.

  2. Telling
    Telling  January 8, 2020


    You are aware I recently released a historical novel about Paul. I was generally familiar with your arguments but, as a non-scholar having done a lot of independent research for the book, I am not convinced by your arguments, and am interested in better learning your thinking.

    Colossians and Philemon are closely linked content-wise, and at surface level I wonder what purpose there was in forging one but not the other. It looks also that historians view Paul as a flat character, making assumption his letters and his theology should all match properly. Perhaps the academic background may work against the scholar here. Paul is not in a cozy heated study referencing book after book. He is on the road, often under terrible conditions, getting beat up, whipped, thrown in prisons, and meeting all kinds of various people under many situations. Under such conditions a person matures quickly, and his theology will likely evolve. Your example in Ephesians of Christians already having been raised with Christ as opposed to his other letters of there being a second coming could be explained as Paul changing his views as he continues to find Jesus not returning so promptly as he had promised, and perhaps for a different audience. In other words, Paul is not a “flat” character, he is evolving through his travels and trials, and may have conflicting thoughts also.

    I further wonder about the longstanding acceptance Paul died in a first captivity in Rome because Acts ends there. I had difficulty placing time and place with his disputed letters until I changed my narrative to Paul being released and continuing a 5th journey whereupon with some effort and struggle I found a way to nicely place them (in my own mind, at least). This would address your issue about these letters seemingly written later, for church organizing. Might it be that Paul did indeed write them — later. Also possible someone else wrote them under his direction, particularly as he aged and grew more in notoriety.

    It is an eyeopener learning the gospels were originally published anonymously, and clearly throws authorship in doubt. But Irenaeus (100 years later) seems to have been well connected to the Pauline church, and likely knew many things we don’t know today. Shouldn’t we thus place Luke as the more likely source of Acts? Is there good reason to not give Irenaeus some benefit of the doubt?

    Thanks for your time.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Yes, the author of Colossians almost certainly had Philemon in front of him and used it to establish verisimilitude. I’ll give a fuller explanation about the authorship of Colossians tomorrow. And yes, the idea that Paul was released from prison in Rome and continued to evangelize and write is one of the main ways scholars have reconciled a number of the chronological problems in Paul’s letters. My view is that Irenaeus is indeed basing his view on traditions he heard, but a century later no one had any real idea. It’s striking that no one says anything about it *before* then….

      • Telling
        Telling  January 9, 2020


        I am not convinced by your provided information regarding who wrote Luke. These are the questions to answer, in my view:

        1. Why were the gospels written anonymously?
        2. Why were titles not attached to them until about a hundred years?

        You can better answer #1 than my guess would be. As for #2, I believe there are a couple of likely reasons which I will blunder into here:

        First, there was no well organized church and so there was no one having the authority to title them even if he knows or believes that he knows the name of the author(s).

        Second, the task at that early time would be in conveying the teachings inside the gospels, a common message across the different texts. Justin Martyr, as I understand, was teaching to non-Christians. They may not be so familiar with the names, and they may not be important.

        Irenaeus, however, had a different purpose. It appears he WAS organizing a church and was choosing and limiting the texts that would become the canon. He would have need to see that they are titled. Irenaeus was a student of Polycarp who supposedly was a disciple of the apostles. 100 years seem a long time but is just 2 or 3 generations, not really a long time. Barring evidence to the contrary, I think there was probably information orally transmitted about the origins of some or all of these gospels. Sure, the information could be wrong, but I see no compelling reason to believe that.

        And lastly, Luke and Mark are big names in the New Testament for no reason whatsoever except that they are credited with writing a gospel. Luke’s name appears no more than 2 or 3 times in the Bible; he would be a very minor figure indeed. Mark’s fame is in abandoning Paul while traveling, hardly the name you would want to associate with a gospel. It may well be that greater names were not attached to these two gospels because the real names were indeed known. What reason would a greater figure not be named, if the purpose of the fake name was to bring more credibility?

        Again, I appreciate your taking the time for these discussions.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2020

          Yes, I think they were written anonymously becuase they were meant to be histories of God’s interactions with his people, as found in OT books Joshua thorugh 2 Chronicles, where were always anonymous. These were continuing the story. Names came to be attached to these anonymous works only when readers wanted to know whose authority lay behind them and needed to differentiate one of the books from another, based on whose account it allegedly was. Myview is that Mark and Luke were indeed well known figures in the church. Lots of much later books are assigned to people that we today might think were on the margins, but it’s just because 2000 years later we don’t know who the big names were. In 2000 years from now, Richard Dawkins may well be virtually unknown, rather than a household name.

          • Telling
            Telling  January 11, 2020


            If there is some non-canonical information regarding Mark and Luke I would like to see it. Otherwise I see no basis for the conclusion that the two were so important to be the names falsely attributed to the gospels.

            And I see some contradiction in the assertion that Irenaeus wouldn’t have had any idea who wrote the gospels 100 years after the fact even while he was connected with big church figures like Polycarp, yet you can speculate that two very minor players recorded in Paul’s travels were so highly significant to be named falsely as the authors of two gospels.

            I don’t see anything here but speculation. And I have to wonder if modern historians are being influenced by a 2000 year old bias, because I know you’re taking the majority position here.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 12, 2020

            My point is that there were tens of thousands of Christians in the world and we don’t have any information about virtually *all* of them — i.e., there isn’t non-canonical evidence that *could* have named Mark and Luke! But Mark plays a significant role in Acts and Luke is mentioned 3x in the NT, so unlike tens of thousands of others, they were closely connected with the apostles and so were plausible names to be attacked to writings (just as were Thomas, Philip, Bartholomew, and so on)

          • Lev
            Lev  January 12, 2020

            Telling: “If there is some non-canonical information regarding Mark and Luke I would like to see it.”

            Fragments of Papias (I date c85, but most date c100 or later) discuss Mark and his Gospel: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papias_of_Hierapolis#Gospel_origins

            The Muratorian Fragment (c170) discusses Luke, with some interesting biographical information, and his gospel. http://www.bible-researcher.com/muratorian.html

            The anti-Marcionite prologues also give further information: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/anti_marcionite_prologues.htm

          • Telling
            Telling  January 12, 2020


            Okay, but the logic is indeed “reverse engineering”; that is, Mark and Luke must have been big names BECAUSE they are falsely given the honors as canonical gospel authors 100 years after the fact.

            I suppose there is a logic to that, but some considerable speculation goes with it.

            As an aside, “reverse engineering” is how Paul comes to salvation by the blood on the Cross: Jesus was crucified and he’s the son of God, so he must have died for our sins. The events are not logically supported except by the reverse engineered conclusion.

            In Engineering, the product is already built before you figure out how to design it. It’s rather common in the industry.

      • Lev
        Lev  January 9, 2020

        “It’s striking that no one says anything about it *before* then….”

        I can hear Clement of Rome rotating in his grave!

  3. Avatar
    thelad2  January 8, 2020

    Good morning, Bart. Am I correct to note that the in his opening letter to Theophilus, the anonymous author of Luke never mentions being with or speaking to Paul or any of the Apostles? Instead, he says he “investigated everything carefully from the first” so that he could give an orderly account of the life of Jesus? Seems to me that someone who actually traveled with Paul would mention that in his curriculum vitae. Thoughts?

  4. fefferdan
    fefferdan  January 8, 2020

    Bart, thanks for this enlightening [if a little disillusioning] post. So we can’t say for certain that Luke was a physician or even that he was a Gentile. Would you agree, however, with this? Namely, that while there’s no proof that Luke wrote Luke-Acts, it’s also not preposterous to believe he did, as it is that Matthew wrote Matthew, or that John wrote John. [looking forward to your next posts in case the answer is there.]

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      I’d say it’s not preposterous, no, but that there’s no more good evidence that Luke wrote it than that Mark, Matthew, Peter, James, Andrew, John, George, Silas, Timothy, and …. and on and on did.

  5. Avatar
    Gary  January 8, 2020

    An evangelical NT scholar recently said this about the authorship of the Gospel of Mark:

    “I have a graduate student whose MA thesis I’m supervising. His research is virtually complete. He has consulted literature written by 204 critical scholars from 1965-Present on who wrote Mark, was it based primarily on Peter’s testimony, and when it was written. I can tell you at this point that the majority of critical scholars are saying that Mark’s primary source was Peter.”

    Dr. Ehrman: Do you believe that the majority of critical scholars believes that the primary source for the Gospel of Mark was Simon Peter?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      My guess is that this student is studying at an evangelical institution. If you count scholars who have religious/theological reasons for wanting to think that the Gospels were written by their traditional authors, rather than approaching the question from a strictly historical perspective without caring one way or the answer is, as “critical,” then yes, I suppose so. In my view this is not critical scholarship but theologically directed scholarship. I have nothing against theologically driven scholarship. But it ain’t the same thing as critically historical. Among scholars without a theological reason to care, the balance clearly goes the other way.

      • Avatar
        Gary  January 9, 2020

        But that was not what the evangelical scholar claimed. He claimed that based on a literature search, “the majority of [all] critical scholars are saying that Mark’s primary source was Peter.” After being challenged, the evangelical scholar later conceded that he should not have made this statement without first publishing the data, but the cat was already out of the bag. Every conservative Christian apologist on the planet will latch onto this statement to perpetuate their belief that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts.

        evangelical scholar: Mike Licona
        date: November 17, 2019
        Bart Ehrman blog (in the comment section)

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2020

          Yes, I understand that. But he is considering people as “critical” scholars whom I’m saying are *not* — they are drawing precisely the conclusion that their theological views urge them to. That is not scholarly distance/disinterest. Critical scholars don’t *care* what the answer is: they just want to know what it is. It doesn’t matter to a critical scholar if Paul did or did not write Ephesians. So that scholar could go either way. The confessional scholar has a commitment that pushes the argument in one direction only. It’s not an accident that virtually all evangelical scholars think Paul *did* write Ephesians. Their theology is affecting their evaluation of the evidence (otherwise there would be serious split). That’s not critical scholarship, even if someone says it is.

  6. Avatar
    RAhmed  January 8, 2020

    How did people get away with creating forgeries so easily? I’d imagine if someone decades from the time of Paul suddenly announced that he had found a new previously unknown letter of Paul (which also just happened to address the very problems their local community was facing), people would be a bit suspicious and ask a few questions. Like, where did you find this? Why has no one heard of this letter before? Etc..

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Yes, it might seem weird, but it was remarkably easy. You would simply come up with a story: Look, my friend from Ephesus just sent me this letter — we didn’t know Paul had written this one! Or, I visited Smyrna last week and they’ve been reading this letter of Paul’s for years: I made a copy. Or, I visited a holy man in Jerusalem and he showed me his valuable books, and in them was….” Etc. We actually have stories of “discovery” narratives (“this book was dug up in the house that Paul lived in 300 years ago!)

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 8, 2020

    For those new to the blog, Dr. Ehrman’s “Forged” is a really good book.

  8. Avatar
    Colin P  January 8, 2020

    I’m certainly not saying that Luke wrote Acts, but couldn’t the author of Colossians be drawing on common knowledge or tradition that Luke was a physician in order to help convince readers that his letter was in fact written by Paul? Or do you think he was just inventing and adding some detail to make his letter more believable?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Sure it’s possible. My view is that there are lots and lots of possibilities (one can think of a dozen just by reflecting for a minutes), and the qeustion for the historian is: which of these possibilities has *evidence* behind it that makes it more probable than the others. If any.

    • Avatar
      dvhcmh  January 19, 2020

      Yes, that’s what I was wondering. To persuade people that Paul wrote Colossians, the forger might have mentioned Luke because he knew he was a gentile doctor whom Paul knew.

  9. Avatar
    brenmcg  January 8, 2020

    If Paul wrote Philippians and introduces the letter as from Paul and Timothy, nobody would say he forged the letter in Timothy’s name. They both probably contributed.

    If Timothy wrote colossians, shouldnt we take the same attitude? Timothy possibly composing for the most part but Paul willing to sign off at the end?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Are you asking if a letter that claims to be written by someone but was actually written by someone else is the same thing as a letter that claims to be written by two people, both of whom contributed? Does that seem the same to you?

      • Avatar
        brenmcg  January 9, 2020

        Philemon and Colossians both claim to be written by the same two people. If the contribution of the two authors is different in the two letters it becomes harder to do a stylistic comparison to tell if they’ve been forged or not.

        If Paul wrote most of Philemon and Timothy wrote most of Colossians (borrowing from Phil) it shouldnt be said that Colossians was forged in Paul’s name (nor Philemon forged in Timothy’s name).

        • Bart
          Bart  January 11, 2020

          Two points. (1) You’ll note that the author uses the first person singular. That probably means something: there is one person writing the letter, it is not a committee-job. (2) You may want to look up what we actually know about jointly authored letters in antiquity, that is, what evidence exists for how they were actually done. I can tell you right now: it’s pure guesswork. And as the great Don Meredith used to say, “If if and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas”….

  10. Avatar
    crucker  January 8, 2020

    Do you think there’s any chance Ephesians and Colossians could have been written by the same author?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      Yes, that is often argued. I used to think it was possible, maybe even probable, but I changed my mind when I dug down a bit deeper into it. There are some key differences in style as well.

  11. Avatar
    forthfading  January 8, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    One point (as I am sure you are aware) made for supporting Pauline authorship is a potential connection between Philemon and Colossians by the space given to the slave code in Colossssians. It makes entirely more sense if one connects it to the unique situation of Onesimus and Philemon. Do you feel this argument holds water like some scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Douglas Moo do?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Bart
      Bart  January 9, 2020

      I think it’s definitely an argument worth considering — as are all reasoned arguments! But there are other reasons for doubting the authorship of Colossians, and the similarities with Philemon are just as easily attributed to the author of Colossians having it in front of him, using it to established some level of verisimilitude (a phenomenon that we know happened on other occasions as well, not just in Christianity)

  12. Avatar
    Gron49  January 9, 2020

    Quick question about the early churches. The letters of Paul are the earliest writings of Christianity, and were written to churches that Paul had set up and then left to go form other churches, make some tents, or what-have-yous. These first churches didn’t have any source material to rely on to maintain themselves after Paul left – Scripture of this new Way of believing this and that, hymn books, Bible study calendars, potluck signups, etc. The churches wouldn’t have the Gospels for quite a few years later to let them know the foundation story of what they believed, or copies of the letters to the other churches.

    Apparently when the churches went astray, Paul had to write them a letter telling them to straighten up, writing something like “I told you not to do that!” and the church members looking at each other, going “When did he say that? He didn’t leave me a note, did he leave you a note?” and then after 10, 20, 50 years or so they’d get something in the mail that was a written down piece of work that they could then go back to, to help them figure out what was what.

    So, my quick question is: What did the early churches use for reference material?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 11, 2020

      Great question. They apparently used oral traditions they had heard from other outsiders who came into the community — other apostles, traveling Christians, and the like. And letters sent to and from other Christian communities. Or they made stuff up. I think those are the only three options (that I can think of).

  13. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 9, 2020

    With regard to “The Case Against Miracles,” the 11th chapter written by David Madison is a particularly good chapter describing five inconvenient truths about the Bible.

  14. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  January 9, 2020

    “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”
    Yes please.

  15. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 10, 2020

    Luke called Jesus was a prophet and emphasized Paul following the Jewish Law. Was the author of Luke Jewish?

  16. Avatar
    Restituto Z. Apostol Jr  March 31, 2020

    Hi sir Erhman, if i may just ask, is there a possibility that the anonymous author of Luke-Acts was writing to Theophilus, Bishop of Antioch in the 2nd century C.E.? thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2020

      No. Luke’s Gospel was in circulation many decades before Theophilus of Antioch. The name Theophilus was reasonably common in antiquity; it meant “Beloved of God” or “Lover of God”

  17. Avatar
    MichaelM  April 27, 2020

    Do you think that “Theophilus” was an actual individual, or was this intended as a generic greeting, in the sense that the author was addressing it to those who were ‘lovers of God’ or ‘beloved of God’?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 28, 2020

      I’ve long thought it was a symbolic name for the Christian audience.

  18. Avatar
    Adamantius  May 14, 2020

    I have an insuperable problem with all arguments drawn from style and vocabulary. I wrote a book about the British Invasion of Kenya with an African co author. Some chapters viewed the conflict from the British perspective others from the Kenyan viewpoint. We used different styles and vocabulary for the two types of chapter. A dryer historical style for the “British” chapters and a more poetic style for the African ones.
    Asking a friend his opinion he said he liked the book but he felt that the very distinct voices of the two authors failed to gel. He assumed, naturally enough, that the African author wrote the “African” chapters and the British author the “British” ones. However that’s not how we divided the labour. Each chapter was a joint product, the stylistic differences were a conscious choice by both authors not the product of the division of labour. Authors vary styles and vocabulary from work to work or even, in this case, from chapter to chapter. There may be many good reasons for doubting Paul wrote all the “Pauline” letters but style and vocabulary are the least persuasive them in my view.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 15, 2020

      Yes, they are problematic. But most arguments are! The question is whether they are *ever* helpful, and to that i would say absolutely. the stylistic issues that scholars look at are not the obvious surface ones that a reader might think represent differences. They involve aspects of style that people almost always implement without thinking about it (e.g. the choice of conjuntions; parataxis; levels of embeddedness; use of infinitives; and so on)

      • Avatar
        Adamantius  May 15, 2020

        Thank you for the reply. I appreciate it. You are right it would be silly to say style and vocab never matter. It has to be one of the tools. And I take your point about the unconscious differences.

You must be logged in to post a comment.