Many scholars refer to Colossians 4:14, saying Luke, the beloved physician, was the author of both Luke and Acts. Moreover, the many medical terms used in both theses seem to support the idea that they were penned by someone with at least some knowledge of medical science of the first century AD. However, tradition tells us Paul lists this Luke with a number of gentiles, implying he was not a Jew. Yet, it is almost certain Lucius of Cyrene is a Hellenistic Jew, and, as I pointed out in my previous blogpost, he seems to be an excellent candidate for Luke, the writer of the third Gospel and Acts. What can be said about the placement of Luke’s name in Colossians 4:14? Is he a gentile? Does Paul really list a number of Jews ministering to him, while he was in prison, over against a number of gentiles, and is it possible to prove the conclusion?
Notice that Paul claims that the men he mentioned in Colossians 4:10-11 were of the circumcision and only these three “of the circumcision” were a help to him in the work of the Kingdom of God. Those mentioned are Aristarchus (shown elsewhere to be of Thessalonica), Mark (Barnabas’ nephew) and Jesus who is called Justus. It had been thought by some scholars that Paul mentions these as his only helpers among the Jews, but this is not so, for certainly Timothy (a Jew) was with him as well (Colossians 1:1). Aristarchus was a Jew from Thessalonica (cf. Acts 20:4) and was with Paul when he went to Jerusalem (Acts 19:29; 20:4) and then on to Rome (Acts 27:2). Both Mark and Justus were Jews and may have been from Judea. Paul’s mention of circumcision probably refers to particular Jews, namely those of the party “of the circumcision” (Acts 11:2), who were strictly conservative Jews and observed the traditions of the fathers more closely than more moderate Jews (the Apostles) or liberal Jews like the Hellenistic Jews (Stephen of Acts 6 & 7).
This phrase “of the circumcision” (Colossians 4:11) is used elsewhere for those with Peter who were surprised when the Holy Spirit fell upon the uncircumcised and unbaptized gentiles at Caesarea (Acts 10:45). The term is also used of those Jews who criticized Peter for going into the home of a gentile (Acts 11:1-3). Certainly Peter was a Jew, so the phrase “of the circumcision” in Acts 10 and 11 cannot be forced to mean that only those who are so mentioned are Jews. Moreover, Paul warns Titus of heretics especially “of the circumcision” (Titus 1:10). Paul couldn’t mean all believing Jews but, rather, those believing Jews who also strictly followed the Law but didn’t submit to the decrees of the apostles and elders at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 16:4), resulting from the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15).
If this logic is sound then Luke, the beloved physician, mentioned in Colossians 4:14, cannot be automatically taken to be a gentile. The fact is, the writer of Luke and Acts is more properly understood to be a well educated Jew than an educated gentile. If Luke were a full blooded gentile, then he would be the only gentile who wrote anything in the whole Bible, and this without any introduction or logical support. Moreover, if we take Paul’s words into consideration that the Gospel was to be preached to the Jew first and then to the gentile (Romans 1:16), then neither should Epaphras (Colossians 4:14) be considered a gentile, because he was Paul’s emissary to the Colossians (Colossians 1:7). It seems that the reason for Paul’s letter was mainly due to a Jewish heresy (Colossians 2:14-23). If the heresy was Jewish in nature, it would appeal mainly to Jews, showing there was a large Jewish population in the church at Colossae. If this is so, then it isn’t probable that Paul would have sent Epaphras to introduce or teach Christianity at the local synagogue there (to the Jew first). Additionally, if this logic is sound, it also bears consideration that, if Luke were a gentile, he would have at least some trouble as an evangelist among the Jews, thus placing doubt that the Gospel of Luke could have been written by a gentile. Why risk alienating so many prospective believers through a work known to be written by a gentile, something never done in scripture?
Another point to consider is that Luke and Acts show insider Jewish information that we would expect only a Jew to know and understand. Some examples would be the priestly course of Abjah (Abia) in Luke 1:5, and the subtle reference to the high priestly robes in Jesus’ rabbinical story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19), and his reference to the rabbinical hope of coming to the bosom of Abraham in the same story (Luke 16:22). This hope would have been something a Christian gentile would not be expected to know—our hope is in Christ, not Abraham! Still another example is found in Acts 1:9, where we find the Ascension of Jesus described in a manner that subtly refers to Daniel’s ascension of the Messiah to his throne in Daniel 7. In Acts 4:34 we see the Messianic Jews living as though they had no debts, a fulfillment of the sabbatical year described in Deuteronomy 15:1-4. An ordinary gentile with no Jewish background before becoming a Christian would not be expected to know Jewish insider information like this.
With the above in mind, it seems very doubtful that Luke was a gentile, and the placement of his name in Colossians 4:14 shouldn’t undermine the probability that he was a Hellenistic Jew from Cyrene (Acts 13:1), who probably returned to live in Jerusalem. He would have been among those fleeing persecution in Acts 8:1 and Acts 11:19, and it is clear that some of these Jews helped evangelize Antioch (Acts 11:20; cf. Acts 13:1).