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So: Was Luke Luke?

I started this thread over a week ago on the authorship of the Third Gospe and its accompanying volume, the book of Acts, and would like now simply to bring some closure to it before moving on to other things. To sum up: there is a kind of interpretive logic that can lead one to think that the books were written by Luke, a Gentile physician who was a traveling companion of Paul. This is what I myself thought for years, and it was based on this logic, that:

  • The author of Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke
  • That the author of Acts, and therefore of Luke, must have been a traveling companion of Paul (since he speaks of himself in the first person on four occasions)
  • That this author was probably a Gentile because he was so concerned with the spread of the Christian movement among Gentiles (the whole point of the book of Acts)
  • Paul himself speaks of a Gentile among his traveling companions in Colossians 4, naming him as Luke the beloved physician.
  • Therefore this person was likely the traveling companion of Paul.

After laying out the logic of that position I tried to dismantle it by showing its very weak links, as I will summarize in a second. But first I should say that I completely agree, still, that whoever wrote Acts also wrote Luke. Not only does the beginning of Acts show this (compare it to the first four verses of Luke), but so does the similarity of writing style, vocabulary, theological perspectives, major themes, parallel incidents and just about everything else about the two books. Moreover, I tend to think a Gentile probably wrote these books.

I do not think the fact that he was concerned about a Gentile mission in and of itself shows this – Paul, for example, was *particularly* concerned about the mission, and he was a Jew.  No reason that this author couldn’t be as well. But the the books are not particularly interested in Judaism per se; they instead want to stress that faith in Christ originated in a Jewish matrix as part of the plan of God, but that was just the starting point.   For these books, that gentiles were not merely allowed into the faith (as many Jewish followers of Jesus would allow), it’s that gentiles were the entire *objective* of Jesus’ and Paul’s missions.  The Jewish religion had, as a result, been more or less left behind.

But there’s little reason to think the author was Paul’s traveling companion and virtually no reason, in my opinion, to think that he was a physician named Luke.  (I should point out, even by the time the books were written, near the end of the second century, *most* followers of Jesus were gentile.  So it’s not at all weird that this author would be, but rather it would be expected.)  It is important to stress: no one – not a solitary author – claims that it *was* Luke until Irenaeus, writing in 180 CE.   If the Gospel was written around 80 CE, that means the first time *anyone* of record indicates that the author was Luke was a full century after it had been placed in circulation.   Earlier authors quote the book (e.g., Justin); none of them gives the authors name.

The evidence from Paul is not good evidence, since Paul in fact did not write Colossians, the one book that mentions Luke as a gentile physician.

And the evidence that a traveling companion of Paul did not write the book is found in the circumstance that at virtually every point where what Acts says about Paul can be compared with what Paul says about Paul, one can find discrepancies.  Some of these are minor matters, but some of them are BIG and important – such as whether Paul preached about the importance of Jesus’ crucifixion (in Paul’s letters it is clear this is the one thing that mattered to him; in Acts, as it turns out, he never indicates in any of his speeches or words that Jesus’ death brought about an atonement for sin!); whether he never deviated from the Jewish Law (Paul straightforwardly claims he did; Acts emphatically insists that he did not); whether he thought pagans worshiped idols knowing full well that there was really only one God and that as a result God was punishing them with damnation (Paul’s clearly stated view) or instead whether he thought that they worshiped idols because they simply didn’t know any better and so God overlooked their ignorance (the view put on Paul’s lips in Acts); and … well lots of other things.

As a result, I think it’s relatively clear that Luke, the gentile physician who was a traveling companion of Paul, did not write the book of Acts (and so, the book of Luke).

I should emphasize that if anyone thinks that Luke *did* write the Gospel of Luke he/she bears a very heavy burden of proof.   On what grounds would one want to take that stand??   About the only piece of evidence is a tradition that arose a hundred years after the book was placed in circulation, a tradition spread about among people who were not directly associated with the author or his community, so far as we can tell, living many years and long distances away.

In any event, my conclusion itself leads to two very important questions, though, which I have not touched on here but which I’ll put off for a while, since I’m getting a sense that some of my fellow travelers on this blog are getting restless and would prefer I move on to other things.  But still, there are two residual questions: (1)  if the “we-passages” do not indicate that the author was a companion of Paul, how do we explain them?  What are they doing there? and (2) relatedly, is it possible that the author *wanted* his readers to think he was a part-time companion of Paul, even though he wasn’t?  And if so, should we consider that a false authorial claim?  That is, should we think of Acts as a forgery?

If that’s the case, Luke itself would not be a forgery, since the author makes no claims about his identity and does not give and “hints” to make his readers suspect that he is anyone on particular.   That’s not true of Acts though.   So for my money, the Third Gospel is anonymous.  But is the book of Acts forged?  If so, it’s one of those books — we have others — that is forged by someone who doesn’t tell us his name.   That is, he wants you to think he is someone he wasn’t (Paul’s traveling companion), but he doesn’t identify himself.  In my book I called this an instance of non-pseudepigraphic forgery, i.e., a forgery that ironically is not written under a false name.

This post is free and open to the public.  Most are for blog members only.  Do you want a steady diet of this kind of thing, a serious historical investigation of the New Testament?   Then join the blog!  It doesn’t cost much and everything you pay goes direct to charity.

 


How Ancient is the Idea of Christ’s “Incarnation”?
Does the Book of Acts Accurately Record Paul’s Teachings?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    mannix  January 19, 2020

    Some years ago I asked our parish priest what source Luke used to relate what Jesus said at the crucifixion. His reply was Christ’s mother Mary…(I’m not making this up) because Luke was her physician! I guess he forgot that Luke stated the women with Jesus “watched at a distance”.

    You’ve discussed this elsewhere, but I think some Catholic clergy are afraid their parishioners would be mentally traumatized if informed of the change from traditional thinking vis-à-vis authorship of the Bible. Consequently they remain silent, thinking “what they don’t know won’t hurt them”. Ironically, The introductions to all 4 gospels in the NAB indicate in so many words their authorship is not what had been previously thought.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Wow. OK then!

      • Avatar
        Damian King  January 23, 2020

        I do think that the above comment was *slightly* anti-Catholic. Roman Catholics have a strong tradition of scholarship. I disagree with portraying them as backwards people

        • Avatar
          Theintegrator  February 9, 2020

          The church has a proud history scholarship. It also has a history of telling parishioners not to worry about what the Bible says. Priests in my youth told me specifically I was better off letting them interpret the Bible for me.

  2. epicurus
    epicurus  January 19, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, are you aware of any examples outside of Acts that state that a Roman citizen could appeal to Ceasar and be shipped to Rome at I assume state expense from anywhere in the empire? I can’t find any, but I’ve only read general introductory Roman history. I’m wondering if Acts is our only source for this.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Good question. I don’t know. I don’t know of any hard evidence. But I haven’t looked into it.

  3. Robert
    Robert  January 19, 2020

    “I should point out, even by the time the books [Luke, Acts] were written, near the end of the second [=first] century, *most* followers of Jesus were gentile.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Ha! Well, some late-date the book, but not *that* late!

  4. Avatar
    smackemyackem  January 19, 2020

    Side question:

    If Jesus went around claiming to be God…could the Sahnedrin/Jews have gone ahead and stoned Jesus (as called for by the law of Moshe) with out Roman approval?
    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      They could have done, but the Romans would not have approved and they’d be in deep trouble.

      • Avatar
        Silver  January 21, 2020

        If it wasn’t permissible for the Jews to stone Jesus why was it ok for Stephen to be stoned, please?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 24, 2020

          It woudln’t have been. But in any case, the story is probably a fiction.

          • jckourvelas
            jckourvelas  January 27, 2020

            Dr. Ehrman, is it possible Stephen was executed under a context not dissimilar from the execution of James the brother of Jesus? I.e., that a more flippant prefect or perhaps even an outright power vacuum was in effect? A quick stoning of one unknown radical, especially one that was a follower of a man already executed by the state, would likely not rub anyone the wrong way. Perhaps during the “oversight” of Marcellus? In addition, it’s not like the government of Rome wasn’t in flux or anything around 36-37 AD….

          • Bart
            Bart  January 28, 2020

            It’s possible, yup. But I’m not sure it happened at all. Acts is our only source for it.

      • Avatar
        Tempo1936  January 23, 2020

        the Jews don’t seem to be concerned about any consequences of their stoning of Stephen.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 24, 2020

          In Acts 8? Nope. Nice piece of fiction!

          • Avatar
            Tempo1936  January 24, 2020

            What’s the difference between a legend, a myth, or fiction? Hard to tell when reading the Bible.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 26, 2020

            I would say legends are accounts of historical figures, or at least figures who could be historical, and myths entail accounts of supernatural beings; they are both kinds of fiction — adn there are other kinds!

  5. Avatar
    Cousiza2  January 19, 2020

    Off topic, with due reverence to the author, and only in the spirit of a healthy debate, I would like to obtain your views on the rebuttal that is offered for the Pauline authorship of Ephesians and Collissians. https://twitter.com/jwarnerwallace/status/1218971474482094080?s=19.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Sorry, I haven’t read it. But I’d be happy to address an argument or two if you’d like to summarize them. AS you can probably imagine, there hasn’t been a bona fide new argument for it in a very, very long time….

  6. Avatar
    Jim  January 19, 2020

    Is it true that Luke and Acts didn’t initially circulate together, or is that idea false? If true, around when is it thought that these two volumes by the same author began to circulate together?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      It appears to be true for the simple reason that they are not placed next to each other in the canon. If they were circulating in the same manuscript, that would be less likely — they would have been together like 1 and 2 Corinthians or 1 and 2 Thesslalonians. At least that’s the common thinking, and I suppose I agree. The reality is that originally none of the books were circulating together. And if the two were written at different times, then the firs twould have been in circulation, independently, before the second was written. We don’t have any evidence of them circulating together — until larger Bibles were being produced (fourth century?) that included not just the Gospels but also other books.

  7. Telling
    Telling  January 19, 2020

    Bart,

    Irenaeus is said to have been a student of Polycarp, and Polycarp a disciple of John. This would seem to indicate that Irenaeus may have been well connected with prior important Church figures, and subsequently was privy to written and oral accounts of the authors of the gospels. Have you considered this?

    Regarding the Crucifixion message, it does appear that Paul is author of the “reverse-engineered” salvation by the Crucifixion” narrative. If Luke doesn’t mention it, might it be that Luke might record Paul’s travels and not mention this important point of Paul’s that to Luke is unimportant?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Oh, yes, it’s the standard line that has been advanced for centuries. It’s been long disputed, and the reality is that we just can’t know. one very odd thing is that we have a letter from Polycarp’s own hand (it’s one of the Apostolic Fathers); it frequently quotes one or the other of the other Gospels, but never ever quotes the Gospel of John. Very interesting….

      • Telling
        Telling  January 20, 2020

        My thinking is, if we don’t really have any idea what information was available to Irenaeus, that would tilt the scale to being more likely Luke, and definitely not more likely not Luke.

  8. Avatar
    jeffmd90  January 19, 2020

    What do you think of the theory that Luke-Acts (or Luke at least), was written by a women?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      I’d say there is zero evidence for it. The only serious evidence against it is that very few women could write at the time, let alone compose at a highly elegant level. They had to be very upper crust elites, and there weren’t many of them going around. The first woman Christian author on record is Perpetua, in 203 CE (over a century later), in a diary she kept in prison. But the trend these days is to think the diary is not genuine, but was feigned by another author composing the amazing account, The Passion of Perpetua.

  9. Avatar
    Hharris2101@gmail.com  January 19, 2020

    Hello Bart. I love these articles and I’d certainly be very interested in your answers to 1& 2.
    For me, the authorship of the gospels is crucial. If we do not whoverote them, then how can we trust them?
    In your opinion, do we know who the author of any of the 4 gospels is? To what extent do you think this is a problem for the “reliability” of what we can know about the life of Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      1. We trust lots and lots of things that are written when we don’t know the author. My view is that reliability has to be established on other grounds. If you’re interested in knowing how we determine the reliability of hte Gospels, I have a ton of posts dealing with that (maybe just search using the word “reliable” or “reliablity” or “accuracy” — you’ll see a bunch). 2. And no, we don’t know the names of any of hte authors. Maybe search for “anonymity” “anonymous” or even “Who Wrote the Gospels”. Or check out one of my books, such as Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  10. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  January 19, 2020

    Fascinating… thanks

  11. Avatar
    Hormiga  January 20, 2020

    >near the end of the second century

    First?

  12. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  January 20, 2020

    I for one am not tiring of this topic and have found it fascinating. There was a radio play on the BBC last year which had Luke in Rome awaiting Paul’s trial and writing his gospel against the backdrop of the Neronian persecution. It very much bought into the traditional account except that Theophilus was transformed into a young woman that Luke could bounce ideas off. The ‘we’ passages are certainly intriguing. I managed to pick up a copy of a commentary on Luke by G B Caird (1963) last week (in a second hand store) – it’s probably dated but you’ve inspired me to start reading it.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Yup, that’s the old line. Caird’s commentary is a classic. We referred to it when I was in graduate school.

  13. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 20, 2020

    How likely do you think it is that Paul had literate traveling companions? A simple argument against the likelihood that Jesus’ apostles wrote anything was that they almost surely couldn’t write. Given that Paul himself could write and traveled so broadly, his chances of having a literate traveling companion seem a lot better. I don’t know there is reason to believe any of them wrote anything that got into the New Testament but it at least seems plausible.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      Well, if 10% of the population was able literate, and the Christians at first tended to draw from the lower classes ,then I guess it’s unlikely but not unimaginable! Paul wrote to churches, and he wouldn’t have done so if no one there could read his letters!

  14. John4
    John4  January 20, 2020

    Typo alert!

    Bart, wrapping up your consideration of the “we” passages, you wrote this:

    “…even by the time the books [of Luke and Acts] were written, near the end of the *second* century, *most* followers of Jesus were gentile.” (emphasis added)

    Obviously, you meant to write “by the end of he *first* century.

    I hope, Bart, you will soon return to consider the two questions you leave us with in this post.

    Any thanks! 🙂

  15. Avatar
    aar8818  January 20, 2020

    Dr Ehrman. Maybe you could post on the authorship of John. That would be interesting.

  16. Avatar
    darren  January 20, 2020

    This series of posts makes me wonder about what scholars know about the lives of the authors of the Gospels and the communities they lived in. I read a paper recently (by Tobias Hägerland) that refuted the idea that John has a parallel structure — on one level, the life of Jesus, and the other, telling the history of John’s community. Aside from the agenda of each (Mark’s secret messiah, Matthew’s emphasis on Jewish law, etc.) what do the Gospels tell us about the conditions people in those communities faced? Crossan has talked how about the political changes Roman rule ushered in sparked political unrest. Josephus wrote about corrupt governors who largely caused the revolt in 70. So I wonder, how much do scholars know about what was going on politically and socially when each Gospel was written, and how do those factors affect what the evangelists wrote?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      How much do they *know*? Very little. How much to they *hypothesize*? Depends on the scholar. Sometimes very much. But most decent hypotheses have good evidence, even if not completely suasive.

  17. Avatar
    jrblack  January 20, 2020

    Has anyone ever considered the possibility that Luke-Acts is a product of collective authorship rather than the work of a single individual? Given that there were a bunch of different gospels in play at the time (as “Luke” himself indicates), and given the increasingly coherent organization of the larger churches at the end of the first century (e.g., Rome and Antioch), it would have made sense for one of those churches to appoint a committee of competent authors to come up with a definitive gospel to supplant all the others and promote what they considered to be the “correct” line on various issues. This might also help make sense of some of the otherwise curious editorial decisions that “Luke” makes (e.g., eliminating Jesus’ promise to meet the disciples in Galilee after his resurrection, despite the fact that both Matthew and Mark considered the return to Galilee to be an essential element of the story).

    If this were the case, then not only would Luke-Acts be a forgery, but the alleged forger would himself be a fabricated persona with no real existence!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      Most people think that ancient writings as a rule were never commmittee compositions, but soneone put pen to papyrus. but the author had access to numerous sources, oral and written, living and dead.

      • Avatar
        jrblack  January 24, 2020

        As a rule, yes–but there can always be exceptions, and Luke-Acts seems to be a good candidate. For example, Acts gives three different versions of Paul’s “voice from heaven” story, and each version blatantly contradicts the other versions. In Acts 9, “the men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” In Acts 22, those with Paul “saw the light but did not hear the voice”. In Acts 26, those with Paul “all fell to the ground” even before the voice began speaking. Given that this scene is the centerpiece of Paul’s entire story, one would expect a single author to be consistent in how he relates it; but it is in precisely this sort of situation where a committee effort could easily botch the details. In such situations it is all too easy for each co-author to tell the story as he himself remembers it, without bothering to check the other versions on the assumption that someone else will catch any discrepancies on the final edit.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2020

          Yes, those are key problems in Acts. It is normally thought that the author heard three slightly different accounts and incorporated them all , rather than that three different authors wrote those three different chapters. The problem with thinking that there are three authors is that the writing styles are consistent, not different — so they seem to come from the same hand.

          • Avatar
            jrblack  January 26, 2020

            The question then is, why would a putative single author knowingly incorporate three different (and obviously conflicting) accounts when he could just as easily have made them all consistent? As you pointed out in “Forgery and Counterforgery”, the speeches in Acts tend to sound pretty much alike regardless of who is speaking, which suggests that “their unity of content results from the fact that they derive from the mind and pen of one man”. By the same token, disunity of content should at least raise the possibility that the differing accounts do not derive from the mind and pen of one man, but from several different ones.

            Another consideration, as you also pointed out in “Forgery and Counterforgery”, is that one of the aims of Luke-Acts is to “set the record straight” about the “widely known charges leveled against Paul, some of them evidenced in his letters.” One of the most serious of those charges was that Paul was simply lying about a lot of things–a charge which apparently followed him around and provoked him to repeated and earnest protestations (Romans 9:1, 2 Corinthians 11:31, Galatians 1:20). Given this, one would think that a single author of Luke-Acts would go to some lengths to avoid adding fuel to that fire. And yet … three contradictory versions of the same crucial story.

            As for the apparent consistency of style in Luke-Acts, this could just be the result of a final “light edit” done by someone whose job was precisely to focus on style and not content. I suppose what’s needed is a Bujard-style deep analysis of Luke-Acts from beginning to end. Do you know if anyone has done such a thing? If so, it might be very enlightening.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 27, 2020

            He would do it to make people think he was an eyewitness. People often ask that, if that was teh case, he wouldn’t do it more regularly in order to be more successful in his device. My response is always: How much more successful could he *be*?? Virtually everyone since his day has been completely persuaded that he was an eyewitness! It’s a perfect ploy.

  18. Avatar
    Lms728  January 21, 2020

    Re: the earlier question about whether you’re aware of any examples outside of Acts that state that a Roman citizen could appeal to Caesar and be shipped to Rome for trial. What do we know about Ignatius and the reason why he was escorted from Antioch to Rome for trial (I presume) and punishment? Is there any chance it happened because he requested it?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      We don’t know, unfortunately. But nothing suggests he was a Roman citizen. Two best guesses is that the governor of Syria at the time did not have “imperium” (the right to impose capital punishment) OR that he was sending Ignatius to Rome as a “gift,” a prisoner to e sent to fight in the amphitheater. I incline to teh latter.

  19. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 21, 2020

    I would like to know more about the “WE” passages.

    With regard to forgery, Cardinal Sarah has recently falsely attributed co-authorship of “From the Depths of Our Hearts” to Pope Benedict evidently to add authority and credibility to the book. Hmm?

    • Avatar
      jrblack  January 26, 2020

      Several years ago Cardinal Sarah gave an interview in which he seriously mischaracterized the gospel passage about the “woman taken in adultery”. As quoted on a conservative Catholic website, he said: “But, there is no forgiveness if there is no repentance. Jesus did not say to the adulteress, ‘Well, go and continue to do what you are doing since I forgive you.’ No! Because she threw herself at his feet and begs forgiveness, he says: ‘Go and sin on more’.”

      Apart from the fact that this passage was not originally part of any of the canonical gospels, but is a later interpolation, there is the even bigger problem that this is simply not what the passage says. There is absolutely *nothing* in the text which says, or even suggests, that the woman “threw herself at his feet” and begged forgiveness. On the contrary, the story explicitly says that “Jesus was left alone with the woman *standing before him*.” And far from begging forgiveness, she apparently says nothing whatever except three words: “No one, Lord.” There is no indication in the text that she was the least bit repentant, nor does Jesus explicitly offer her any forgiveness; he simply declines to condemn her and tells her not to do it again.

  20. Avatar
    RichardFellows  January 22, 2020

    Am I right in thinking that a scholar’s view on the historicity of Acts can usually be predicted from his/her view of the authorship of Colossians? Are there many (any?) scholars who consider Colossians to be fake and Acts to be basically accurate? If not, why not?

    In Rom 16:21 Paul sends greetings from Timothy, Lucius, Jason, etc.. The greeters here seem to be named in descending order of prominence and/or order of the length of time Paul has known them. So who is this mysterious “Lucius”, who is named second only to Timothy? He must have been an important close companion of Paul. He is in the right place at the right time to be the author of Acts. This identification seems to be confirmed by the unanimous tradition that the author was called Luke (because Lucius is just the long form of the name “Luke” (who appears in Philemon)). The problem is that Lucius was a Jew and Colossians implies that Luke was a Gentile. But you and others have rightly dismissed Colossians so the identification of Luke/Lucius as the author of Acts comes back into play, doesn’t it? You point out that the focus of Acts is the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles. Does this require that the author was a Gentile, or does it require only that he was writing for a Gentile audience?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      Yeah, pretty much they go together. Though yes, there are scholars who think Colossians is authentic and Acts is not accurate. I thought that for years. But the majority of scholars are either trusting of the NT (and Xn sources in general) or more critical. still, the goal is to be balanced, and some are!

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