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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?



  1. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  January 22, 2020

    I’m probably new to this topic, this scholarship, but since this post reminds me of an old (probably very un-scholarly- probably a unfounded speculation ) claim I vaguely remember I heard from my childhood ,,,or at least younger years, I’m intriqued by the question you raise. If it is uncertain if Luke the physician wrote Luke and the Acts, would it be wrong to assume that the “we” word could be used by others in Pauls immediate relationship? In that sense, Luke wrote about that Jesus sent 72 disciples and at least one of them (in accordance with a list of names I”ve read) was among the founders of the Christian Church in Antioc which was, if I understood it right, a place Paul used as one of his “bases”. Would it be wrong to assume that some with both an authoritative churchly/christian postion, devotion, and a particular interest to promote Paul in relation to the newly founded Christian Church, could use the word “we” talking about Paul and what he did?

    Kjell Tidslevold

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      Yes, it certainly could be someone other than a person named Luke. No reason not. BUT, one of my big points is that whoever it was, he doesn’t seem to understand what Paul preached and makes some big mistakes about his life, making it seem unlikely that he was really a companion.

      • kt@rg.no
        kt@rg.no  January 25, 2020

        Luke can be at least be pronounced differently in different languages. Greek, Latin. I’ve seen Luke been pronounced Loukas and Lucius. Anyway, as far that my limited knowledge goes, one of the Church fathers in Antioch was Lucius of Cyrene who both was assosiated with Paul in different ways. Beside he was one of the founders of the Christian Church in Antioch, a Church father, with the right authoraty, in the best interest as a founder of a gentile Church in Antioch, and where his roads crossed Paul on at least one of his missions?? on his way to Jerusalem ( Romans 16:21 ,,,included in the greetings). In addition to that, it seems that the Church in Antioch is one of the churches who was described most in Acts (perhaps Jerusalem),

        Would it then be a fair assumption that the author of Acts was a resident of Antioch and had a position in the Church of Antioch? At least the Church father Lucius of Cyrene is mentioned in Acts 13:1 as a prophet and leader of the Antiochian Church. Following your answer to my post, “he doesn’t seem to understand what Paul preached and makes some big mistakes about his life, making it seem unlikely that he was really a companion” could a person like Lucius of Cyrene be such a candidate? At least it appears to me that he (Lucius) wasn’t a close companion, but seems that he was togehter with him in one instances as referred above, he had a formal position as a founder of the gentile Church, being a recidence of Antioch which is mention so many times in the Acts,among the 72 disciples,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,and also have a name simliarity (at least using Latin). He too could probably have lacks of understanding of Pauls life and what he taught

        Kjell Tidslevold

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2020

          My view is that we have no idea where the author lived or what his position int he church was. Or his actual identity. Any guesses are, in my judgment … guesses.

          • kt@rg.no
            kt@rg.no  January 26, 2020

            Agree,,,and I have no problem accepting that. Thanks again,,also for a great blog !

  2. Avatar
    Ficino  January 22, 2020

    May not be relevant, since declamations are of a different genre than either Luke or Acts, but in ancient declamation and its antecedents we have an example of a type of writing where the discourse is fictitious but is written as though it’s a speech actually made in court or in the assembly. E.g. the pseudo-Andocidean oration 4, which is written as though delivered during debates about ostracism c. 420 BCE but probably from the first half of the fourth century BCE. The speaker/author is not named. And so on with many examples. Many such fictitious speeches were added to the corpora of known orators, but the speaker/author is not named in the work, so that the only “evidence” of authorship is the attribution surviving in the manuscript tradition.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      Yes indeed. Including all the speeches in Acts. That, unlike forgery, was seen to be acceptable (since there was no other way to give someone’s speech other than make it up; so authors came up with what would have seemed appropriate).

  3. Avatar
    joemccarron  February 4, 2020

    “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!)”

    Luke is certainly aware of the notion of Christs death being an atonement for sin, at least through Mark. He doesn’t seem to pull those passages through to his own gospel. But that doesn’t mean he is ignorant of Mark’s teaching. It does seem Luke had some sort of hang up about talking about the atonement. But just as I wouldn’t say this means he was completely ignorant of Mark’s Gospel I wouldn’t say it means he was completely ignorant of Paul’s teaching either.

    The atonement doctrine can be pretty confusing. Even as a Christian I don’t entirely get it. I understand and agree with some of the general notions behind it. But I am not sure any exact explanation of how exactly it all works makes sense. What exactly Paul would say is implied by this doctrine is clear as mud and has lead to endless disputes. If I wrote a Gospel I probably would not make that front and center either.

    But anyway what about Acts 20:28 Luke quoting Paul:
    “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.”

    And Luke 20:19
    “And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.””

    Luke certainly seems aware of the atonement concept even though he, for whatever reason, does not give it the prominence other NT authors do. It seems he puts his own spin on it. The crucifixion brings about our salvation by making us aware of our own sins and need to repent. Then we are saved by our repentance. I’m not sure his own spin proves he could not have known about Paul teachings or Mark’s Gospel.

  4. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  February 16, 2020

    In a earlier post you had mentioned that it was unlikely that a woman would have written the Gospel of Luke. Because it was rare for a woman to read and write in the first century. Is it possible that the author of Luke used a woman or women as a source for his gospel? The reason that I ask is because when you look at the L source it is very interesting with these verses: 2:36-38, 7:13, 8:2-3, 8:43-48, 10:38-46, 13:11-13, 18:3-5, 23:27-29, 23:55-56, and 24:22-24. These versus are only found in Luke and nowhere else in the New Testament.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2020

      It’s possible, sure. But Luke thorughout has an emphasis on jesus’ concern for the marginalized: e.g. the poor and hungry, outcast, second rate folk (samaritans), and … women. So it’s all consistent with his overarching theology.

  5. Avatar
    ManuelNaujoks  March 22, 2020

    “whether he never deviated from the Jewish Law (Paul straightforwardly claims he did”
    Where does Paul claim he deviated?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2020

      1 Corinthians 9:20. When he was living with gentiles, he lived like a gentile, not a Jew.

      • Avatar
        ManuelNaujoks  March 23, 2020

        “Acts emphatically insists that he did not”

        Are you referring to Acts 22,3? If you do, doesn’t that apply to a different time?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 24, 2020

          The whole point of the final trip to Jerusalem, as I read it, is to show that Paul never did anything contrary to the Jewish law.

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