The Objective And Character Of The Gospel In St. Luke’s Prologue

The Gospel of Luke opens with a four-verse reflection on the Evangelist’s intentions regarding his Gospel and what he hopes to achieve in writing it. He expresses his desire to construct a revised edition of the story of the life and ministry of Christ and his followers; the author claims to have ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ and composed an ‘ordered account’ of the events as they occurred. There are arguably many points about the character and potential purpose of the Gospel as a whole which a detailed investigation into the preface sheds light on and numerous still unanswered questions about the Gospel which a study of the prologue might help to resolve; as Parsons notes, ‘Luke’s preface has received extensive analysis in the scholarly literature. Still, there are many unresolved questions. Does the preface belong to the genre of historiography or does it fit better within the category of scientific treatises?…Does Luke intend to criticize his predecessors’ attempts to write an account of Jesus or does he stand in basic continuity with them?[1]’ This essay is intended to explore some central features of Luke’s prologue and how these might provide a key to understanding the objectives behind, and reasons for, the author’s composition of yet another version of the Jesus story, given the fact that at least one, most likely two and plausibly three Gospels were already in circulation.

Firstly, it is perhaps worth looking into the prologue very generally, elucidating what Luke says he is going to do. Having done so, more specific questions can be addressed. Luke begins the Gospel: ‘since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word’ (Lk. 1:1). Here, Luke is referring to Gospels already in circulation which he hopes to revise; the tone of this phrase is ambiguous since the term ‘undertaken’ can sometimes be translated as ‘attempted’ which might perhaps add a dimension of perceived failure. Luke describes his sources as eyewitnesses of Jesus’ ministry, he makes use of the Greek noun ‘autoptes’, “eyewitnesses, seeing with one’s own eyes.” In order to depict his eyewitnesses as above and beyond mere spectators, however, he also makes use of the noun ‘huperetes’ meaning ‘servants’ or ‘ministers’ of the word; throughout the Bible, this title refers to servants and soldiers of the high priest, temple and king. The apostles are referred to as officials of Christ twice in the New Testament, for example at Acts 26:16: ‘But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.’ In referring to the story being ‘handed on’, Luke is establishing some kind of apostolic authority; he makes use of the verb paradidomi, which in this context is often translated as ‘to pass on to another what one knows, of oral or written tradition, hand down, pass on, transmit, relate, teach.’ Having provided a certain kind of validation of his account stemming from this apostolic authority, Luke goes on to establish his ‘own credentials for the task of writing[2]’; he assures his audience that he has studied the accounts which preceded him in great depth, investigating them to their fullest. As a medical practitioner (which most scholars believe the author of Luke to have been), one can imagine the meticulousness with which he investigated these accounts. Luke sees the need for a different account (‘I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus’), arranged in the proper order in accordance with events as they happened, this is perhaps suggestive of Luke’s belief that this hasn’t yet been achieved or achieved in the most comprehensive way. We are told that Luke-Acts is intended for Theophilus, whose name translates as ‘friend of God’ or ‘beloved by God’ or ‘loved by God’; Theophilus’ identity, however, remains a mystery amongst academics. Luke honours him with the description ‘most excellent’ (kratistos- ‘stong, mighty’); though this superlative is often seen in reference to important officials, it can also simply be used as a form of polite address. We cannot be sure if Theophilus was a real person; his name translating as ‘lover of God’, he could simply have been a figurative character representative of the pious individuals who would read the Gospel of Luke. However, it is widely suspected that Theophilus did exist, perhaps as the literary patron of the Gospel. Luke wishes to write so that Theophilus might ‘know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ Luke wishes his readers to have confidence in the teaching hence, perhaps, his desire to reinforce it with a new clarity within his Gospel.

Having established, in a general sense, what Luke is saying within the preface, it is worth questioning, in a general sense, what type of prologue he intended to write. What type of prologue he intended to write might, in turn, shed light on what he was determined to achieve within the Gospel as a whole. The question really boils down to whether Luke composed a scientific or a historical preface. Alexander notes that we must adopt a technique of examining distinctive ‘formal and syntactical[3]’ features of Luke’s prologue and reviewing how these parallel distinctive features of certain categories of prologue; she argues that ‘Luke’s preface is simply a short, detachable passage in which the author stands briefly aside from his own narrative to explain who he is, what he is doing, why and for whom. At its simplest, we might describe it as a label with an address: and this is the kind of preface whose origins we must seek[4].’ Alexander adopts a stance which takes Luke completely out of the realm of Greek historical prefaces arguing that the preface exhibits formal characteristics (‘author’s name, dedication, themes, sources and preface length[5]’) which do not parallel those of the historical tradition. Alexander seeks to argue that Luke bears the greatest resemblance to prologues deriving from the scientific tradition; Luke exhibits the ‘syntactical structure’ typified by a scientific prologue, ‘the author’s decision to write, the subject or content of the book, a dedication in a second person address, the nature of the subject matter, a reference to others who have written on this subject matter, the author’s qualifications and general remarks on methodology including sources[6].’ In addition, scientific prefaces often make use of the first and second person in their self-introduction and are considerably shorter than other categories of preface due to a desire to focus more time and attention to the main body of the work. Moreover, ‘the formalia Luke uses for introducing the second person and for the resumption in Acts 1:1 are well paralleled in the scientific prefaces[7]’, Luke and the scientific prologue style share a preference for a ‘periodic style’ in contrast to a more paratactic style throughout the main body of the text. In addition, one can observe distinct similarities in vocabulary between the two; specifically, Alexander points out a shared partiality towards compound variations on the words for writing and composing. Alexander concludes, therefore, that ‘all these factors point to a conclusion that of all the Greek prefaces available for comparison, Luke’s is the closest to those of the scientific tradition; and that there is no single point in Luke 1:1-4 or Acts 1:1 where it is necessary to invoke any other Greek literary tradition[8].’

However, Adams forcefully rebuts Alexander’s theory claiming that Luke’s prologue more accurately parallels the historical prefaces prevalent in the author’s day. Firstly, Adams points out that Luke begins his Gospel using perfect Hellenistic Greek whilst the remainder of the work is littered with ‘Hebraisms[9]’; this technique was utilized by Greek historiographers who began their texts making use of a formal Greek style which then settled into informality as the text progressed. Adams maintains that ‘by imitating these literary techniques, Luke is associating himself and his work with the Greek history genre of his day and is informing his readers that his work should be read in a particular manner[10].’ Whereas Alexander argues that Luke’s preface is too short to be considered of the historical genre (consisting of only one sentence and forty-two Greek words), Adams notes that Luke is actually perfectly within the boundaries of the standard length of historical preface when one looks at a reasonable sample of other historical prologues as opposed to only that of Thucydides, as Alexander seems to do. Thucydides’ prologue is actually the one which protrudes most obviously from the sample with 3490 words in his History of the Peloponnesian War[11]; Xenophon’s Cumulative Works contains a mere twenty-nine word prologue. Luke’s forty-two words, therefore, does not seem obviously out of place as a historical preface. Luke also makes a point of specifying that he has thoroughly investigated and researched carefully his information from the beginning in order to get to the truth. Adams notes that ‘this search for truth is one of the main themes in historical works and is a key feature of other historical prefaces. Historians typically discuss the value of history for those who are coming after them, and they see history as a means of teaching and enlightening further generations[12].’ As well as asserting his certainty of his facts, Luke also assures the reader of the legitimacy of his sources by specifying that they have been handed down initially from eyewitnesses; this technique is evident within the works of Thucydides and alluded to in Herodotus; ‘Luke is well within the historical tradition when citing that he gained his information from outside sources that were eyewitnesses and participators in the events that he was writing about[13].’ The majority of modern scholars would, I think, concur with Adams’ stance on Luke’s prologue; Marshall, for example, argues that the preface ‘indicates a concern to provide reliable history, confirming previous accounts and based on sound evidence. According to his own testimony Luke wished to be taken seriously as a historian[14].’ Similarly, Shellard argues that ‘it must be stressed that Luke seems to have regarded himself as a historian. Although the terminology of his prologue is to some degree conventional, it is nevertheless most suited to the aims of a historian[15]…’

At this point, then, it seems that the prologue of Luke exhibits features which can be aligned with either a scientific or historical style of prologue. However, it does seem, as Adams points out, that Alexander, in paralleling Luke to other historical works only seems to utilize the work of Thucydides who does not necessarily represent the standard historical style. Her rejection of Luke as a historical prologue, then, is perhaps unjustified. In addition, the scientific style does not seem to encapsulate the remainder of Luke’s text; as Adams maintains, ‘it is difficult to see how a scientific preface captures the essence of Luke. In fact, Alexander admits that the text of Luke/Acts is not written in using the scientific treatise form, and that it is difficult to see it as anything other than a historic work. With this in mind, it is difficult to state that Luke’s preface prepares the reader for a scientific work and then changes to historical[16].’ In order to properly establish this claim, we need to analyse the remainder of the Gospel. If we can establish that the Gospel does exhibit signs of being a history, it might make it more likely that the prologue is also a history. Awkwardly, however, the prologue exhibiting traits of a historical preface might count as a significant piece of evidence that the Gospel as a whole is an historiographical work; the two are inextricably linked.

Shellard notes certain factors of the Gospel which point in the direction of historiography; for example, Luke ‘coordinates differing chronographies[17]’ at the start of the Gospel. In addition, the letters he includes align with historical practise at the time. Marshall argues that we can glean Luke’s interest in providing historical fact from a study of his presentation of the resurrection in Acts. Preachers had often established the claim that Jesus rose from the dead through a kind of loose argumentation based on Old Testament prophecy, Luke tells us that the resurrection was considerably disputed; for example at Acts 17:32 ‘when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed..’ ‘It is not surprising, therefore, that the kingpin in the Christian case, as presented by Luke, lay in the provision of evidence for the resurrection[18]…’ For example, at the start of Acts, Luke asserts that ‘he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.’ (1:3) With the use of the adjective ‘convincing’, Luke is evidently attempting to demonstrate the decisiveness of the proof of resurrection. As additional proof, the apostles eat and drink with the resurrected Jesus. Since the disciples are those who witness, and provide testimony of, the resurrected Christ, the reliability as witnesses must be firmly established hence, perhaps, their treatment in Luke’s prologue. The flavour of Luke-Acts is one of Luke attempting to establish reliable historical evidence, as a historian would, for Christ’s resurrection. Conzelmann claims that ‘Luke saw the life of Jesus as a piece of redemptive history, indeed the central part in the history of salvation, and that he wrote something resembling a biography of Jesus. Further, the way in which Luke articulated the life of Jesus and the apostolic age into one single piece of historical writing shows that he was conscious of acting as a historian[19].’ For Marshall, however, Luke’s nature as a theologian necessarily means he is also bound to write history; no ‘historicizing’ is occurring, simply an interpretation of a tradition passed down. This means that Luke conceived his task as the writing of history and that we shall fail to do justice to his work if we do not think of him as a historian. Modern research has emphasized that he was a theologian. The evidence which we have considered has shown that because he was a theologian he had to be a historian. His view of theology led him to write history…Luke was a historian because he was first and foremost an Evangelist: he knew that the faith which he wished to proclaim stands or falls with the history of Jesus and the early church[20]. It seems, then, that the evidence does seem to point towards the entirety of Luke’s Gospel being framed as a historical work. Or, perhaps more precisely, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to reject the heavily substantiated claim that the prologue is a historical one and, if the prologue is historical, it does seem a little odd to think that the remainder of the text would not be. Having established this, there remains the question of what the fact of Luke’s historical writing style can tell us about his aims in and purposes behind composing such a Gospel.

Many would simply argue the case that Luke simply wants to frame the Jesus story within a narrative suitable for the time and which met the criteria for a good and convincing piece of writing within his context. This would account for Luke’s strict adherence to the ‘rules’ of historical writing; he is following the correct channels to have his writing recognised as something to be taken seriously and be historically convincing. It seems that Luke is attempting to reinforce the story of Christ in a setting which is acceptable in his own literary context; this might suggest to us something about why he is writing. Surely, the story of Christ would not need to be depicted in a ‘historically convincing’ or particularly legitimate way if his intended audience were already followers of the Christian faith. Perhaps it is as Marshall argues: Luke has…made use of the common literary pattern of his time to express his own particular sentiments. The point in the adoption of the conventional form is that Luke was claiming for his work a place in contemporary literature and thereby commending it to the attention of readers. He is confessedly writing a piece of literature, no doubt meant for a wider than would be found within the circle of the Christian Church.[21] It could be, then, the case that Luke’s purpose is the conversion of non-Christians to Christianity; he needs to be convincing and he needs to establish himself as a trustworthy historian with trustworthy sources, hence the lengths he goes to to stress this in his prologue.

Alternatively, Luke could simply be keen to maintain the faith of his Christian community; it has been suggested that Luke felt the worries of the church very strongly and the fear of apostasy was very strongly felt during his period of writing. Reinforcing the legitimacy of Christian faith and the certainty behind its historical facts may have been an attempt to reassure potential apostates. Some have even suggested that there may have been a wavering in faith as a result of the delay in the second-coming. As Shellard points out, perseverance is a very definite theme throughout Luke; he adds it, for example, to his Markan source at 8:15 ‘But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.’ Though we cannot necessarily know the purpose behind Luke’s writing, it seems that whether he is attempting conversion or merely prevention from apostasy, his overarching purpose is offering a convincing and compelling account of the Christian story; this might potentially explain why Luke often appears to be a rather corrective gospel in terms of rectifying his sources or, at least, rectifying the way in which they convey the story of Jesus. Many have recognised a rather disparaging tone within Luke’s prologue towards his predecessors; ‘they merely ‘attempted’ to compose their narratives, and the fact that Luke went on to compose their narratives, and the fact that Luke went on to compose a fresh one indicates that he found fault with their attempts[22].’ However, Luke evidently doesn’t think there is that much wrong with his predecessors since he maintains most of the content they contain and seemingly largely follows the order of Mark. It does seem as though Luke is criticizing their skills as compelling writers, however; as Parsons notes, in light of what constituted a rhetorically complete and well-ordered narrative in the ancient progymnasmata tradition at work in the Hellenistic period, the authorial audience would have heard loud and clear Luke’s criticisms of his predecessors’ attempts to write in terms of their inadequate content and/or lack of a rhetorically compelling order.[23]

It seems that from an examination of Luke’s prologue and the Gospel in general, the evangelist was attempting to compose a historical gospel. His stylistic, chronological and tonal alterations seem to demonstrate Luke’s desire to revamp the work of his predecessors into a more compelling, historically convincing read. Numerous suggestions have been postulated as to the reasons behind his belief in a need for a fresh historically compelling re-telling of the story, perhaps worries of apostasy or a desire to convert a wider audience. Though it is unclear as to his purpose, however, I think there is convincing evidence to suggest that his aim was to create a gospel which fit well within his contemporary context and was legitimate by the historical standards of his time. In doing so, his Gospel would be more compelling for whomever he intended it for.

[1] Parsons, M.C., 2007. Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody: Hendrickson). [2] Marshall, I.H., 1970. Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press) [3] Alexander, Loveday. ‘Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface- Writing’, Novum Testamentum 28.1 (1986) [4] ibid. [5] Adams, Sean. “Luke’s Preface and its Relationship to Greek Historiography: A Response to Loveday Alexander,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 3 (2006) [6] ibid. [7] Alexander, Loveday. ‘Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface- Writing’, Novum Testamentum 28.1 (1986) [8] ibid. [9] Adams, Sean. “Luke’s Preface and its Relationship to Greek Historiography: A Response to Loveday Alexander,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 3 (2006) [10] ibid. [11] ibid. [12] ibid. [13] ibid. [14] Marshall, I.H., 1970. Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press) [15] Shellard, B., 2002. New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources and Literary Context (JSNTSS 215; London and New York: Shefeld Academic Press) [16] Adams, Sean. “Luke’s Preface and its Relationship to Greek Historiography: A Response to Loveday Alexander,” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 3 (2006) [17] Shellard, B., 2002. New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources and Literary Context (JSNTSS 215; London and New York: Shefeld Academic Press) [18] Marshall, I.H., 1970. Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press) [19] ibid. [20] Marshall, I.H., 1970. Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press) [21] ibid. [22] Marshall, I.H., 1970. Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press) [23] Parsons, M.C., 2007. Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Peabody: Hendrickson).

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