Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Introduction to the Gospel of Luke

An Introduction to the Book of Luke

Written by George Goldman

The Beloved Physician

Outside of the “we sections” in Acts, Luke is mentioned three times in the New Testament (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11). In each of these cases Luke is with Paul in prison. The context of the Colossian reference shows that Luke was a Gentile medical doctor (Col. 4:10ff).

The New Testament is not a book written mostly by or about Jews. Luke, a Gentile, wrote more of the New Testament than any other man. The book of Luke is the longest book in the New Testament. Luke and Acts combined are longer than the thirteen letter of Paul. Luke is the most polished writer of the New Testament with the possible exception of the writer of Hebrews. The writings of Luke have a wide vocabulary, 750 – 800 words peculiar to the New Testament appear. His writings are the least Jewish in the New Testament. Except for the first two chapters of his gospel he quotes exclusively from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (LXX). He presents to the Greeks the ideal man. Jesus, as the Son of Man, is presented as the apex in social, physical, mental, and spiritual attainments (Lk. 2:52). His genealogy is traced all the way back to Adam (Lk. 3:23 ff).

In the early church of gospel of Luke was between Matthew’s and Mark’s in popularity. From his writings it is apparent that Luke was a man of education and culture. He begins his gospel and Acts with an elaborate paragraph which shows the style of the Hellenistic historians of his day. From these paragraphs we learn that the same man wrote both books, which are addressed to Theophilus, and Acts refers to the first book (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). Also, from the first words of his gospel it is apparent that he collected his material from eyewitnesses and other written documents. Luke is a careful historian dating the birth of Jesus from six contemporary rulers of his time (Lk. 3:1-2).

The writings of Luke have been called the most beautiful ever written (Renan). The Nativity scene and childhood of Jesus are fresh and different, and suggest the writer’s personal acquaintance with Mary. Beautiful poetry adorns the book: the Magnificat of Mary (Lk. 1:46-55), the Benedictus of Zechariah (Lk. 1:67-79), the Gloria in Excelsis of the angels (Lk. 2:14), and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon (Lk. 2:29-32).

Luke exalts womanhood. He mentions thirteen women otherwise omitted by the other gospel writers; Elizabeth, the widow of Nain, Anna, Lot’s wife, the widow’s mite; the ladies who ministered to Jesus, etc. More details are given on the lives of Mary and Martha (Lk. 10:38-42), Mary Magdalene (Lk. 8:1-3), etc. (cf. Lk. 8:48; 13:16; 23:28).

Luke stresses the Lord’s attitude toward the poor. Quite a few of the money parables are unique to Luke: the two debtors (Lk. 7:41-43), the rich fool (Lk. 12:16-21), the unrighteous steward, and the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16), and the pounds (Lk. 19:13-37).

There is an interest in the outcast and underdog: the good Samaritan (Lk. 10), the word of praise for the grateful Samaritan leper (Lk. 9:46-56), the sinful woman, Zacchaeus, the thief on the cross, and the praying publican.

Luke also gives prominence to prayer. Luke records eleven of Jesus’ fifteen prayers. Jesus prayed at His baptism (Lk. 3:2), before His first conflict with the Pharisees (Lk. 5:16), before He chose the Twelve (Lk. 6:12), before He asked the disciples who they thought He was (Lk. 9:18), at His transfiguration (Lk. 9:29), on the cross (Lk.23:40), and only Luke tells of Jesus’ prayer for Peter at Peter’s hour of testing (Lk. 22:32).

Luke gently handles the faults of the apostles and early leaders of the church. He omits James and John’s ambitious request to sit beside Christ. He writes a milder version of Peter’s denial. Similarly, the disciples in the garden slept “for sorrow” (Lk. 22:45), and their desertion of the Lord in the hour of trial is not recorded.

The medical knowledge and interest in seafaring are apparent in Luke’s gospel. In the fourth century Jerome commented, “Luke is a physician as his writings indicate.” In 1882 W.K. Hobart in his book The Medical Language of Luke found over 400 medical terms in Luke-Acts. Adolf Harnack in Luke the Physician (1907) reduced the number but said that Hobart’s thesis was still true. H.J. Cadbury in the Style and Literary Method of Luke (1920) found many parallels between Luke’s vocabulary and other medical writers such as Hippocrates, Galen, and Dioscorides but also pointed out that other educated Greek writers who were not doctors used the same language such as Josephus, Lucian, Plutarch, and LXX.

In the first century there was no special medical language as there is today. A vocabulary of medical terms cannot be used as a main point in establishing who wrote Luke-Acts. Yet there are these interesting observations when comparing Luke to other writers. Peter’s mother-in-law had a “high” fever (Lk. 4:38 cf. Mt. 8:14). The man was “full of leprosy” (Lk. 5:12 cf. Mt. 8:2). Luke omits the statement “she had spent all she had on physicians and was no better” (Ml. 5:26 cf. Lk. 8:43 RSV). Luke refers to surgical needles (belowes) while Matthew and Mark use a sewing needle (rhaphis) (Lk. 18:25; Mt. 19:24; Mk. 10:25).

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