Luke’s Preface

10 Apr
Ceartanty of Jesus

from Google Images

There have been many presumptions made about the author of Luke’s Gospel narrative, and about how he formulated his narrative and what his purpose was with respect to his recipient, Theophilus, and by extension to us, Luke’s larger audience. It may be fun to explore these ideas further. I hope to do this not only by demanding proof of our more traditional assumptions about Luke and his labor in the Gospel, but also by presenting an alternative perspective that may fit the context of his work better.

Most scholars interpret Luke’s first verse to mean many unknown people had decided to write their own narratives about Jesus’ teachings and works, but their works had either failed to come down to us or at least some were incorporated in either Luke’s or Matthew’s account. Some, perhaps, have even found their way into John’s narrative. However, there seems to be a flaw in this thinking, because it is assumed the Apostles handed down what Jesus said and did through oral tradition. Then, decades later, these things were written down for posterity. Notice, as well, that the Greek word for narrative (G1335; declaration or account in some translations) is in the singular. Luke points to only one narrative before his own. In other words Luke is saying that the many people in verse-1 drew up a single narrative (G1335)!

This brings to mind what Papias, one of the church fathers of the 2nd century AD, wrote down:

“Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Fragments of Papias; book 6 – emphasis mine)

In the same book Papias wrote that Mark was “the interpreter of Peter (and) wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.” That is, Matthew wrote down what the other apostles interpreted from their memories, just as Mark wrote down what he interpreted from what he remembered about Peter’s Gospel. This seems to fit the context of Luke 1:1 where the many people have taken in hand to draw up (G392)[1] a narrative from what they remembered about the teachings and works of Christ.

If this is an accurate analysis, then what most scholars have thought about Luke 1:1 is clearly wrong. Rather, it is the Apostles, themselves, who are drawing up this narrative, which Luke confirms in Luke 1:2: “Since[2] they who delivered (it) unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word (Logos, i.e. Jesus).” That is, those who have taken in hand to draw up this narrative about Jesus, were his eyewitnesses and ministers.

If this is a surprising conclusion, consider this. In Luke 1:3 Luke points out to Theophilus that, since the above is so, it seemed good to him (Luke) to draw up his own account, because he has had perfect understanding from the first. What a statement! Luke is putting his own work on par with that of the Apostles! How can he make such a statement, if his account is second hand, compiled through research? It cannot be considered on par with the eyewitness account of the Apostles, unless Luke is also writing an account based largely on his own memory. Naturally, the introduction, which includes the birth accounts of John and Jesus, the names of the heads of state during the 1st century AD and Jesus temptation and genealogy, had to have been done through accurate investigation. However, much of what remains would have to come from what Luke both heard and saw concerning Jesus.[3]

What does Luke mean by saying having had perfect understanding (G3877) from the beginning? Thayer shows the sense most often used is to carefully follow or accompany, and only metaphorically is it used for “investigation.” Nevertheless, most scholars today translate the Greek word (G3837) as investigated.[4] Even so, if Luke is putting his narrative on par with that of the Twelve, he seems to be saying he is also an eyewitness, and wants Theophilus to consider his account very seriously.

Finally, Luke tells Theophilus the purpose of his narrative, namely that Theophilus (and by extension any reader) “that you might know the certainty of those things about which you have been informed”[5] In other words Luke’s narrative is intended to be apologetic as well as evangelistic.


[1] Ingressive aorist middle infinitive. This verb anataxasthai has been found only in Plutarch’s Moral. 968 CD about an elephant “rehearsing” by moonlight certain tricks it had been taught (Moulton and Milligan, Vocabulary). That was from memory going regularly through the thing again. [Robertson’s Word Pictures]

[2] Taking Thayer’s second meaning of the Greek word (G2531).

[3] See also my studies Was Luke an Eyewitness? And The Anonymous Disciple

[4] There is some belief among the scholars that parakoloutheo (G3877) does not mean to investigate. The same word is used in 2Timothy 3:10. Timothy mentally followed, even witnessed, Paul’s teaching and manner of life?

[5] Concerning the meaning of G2727 being informed rather than instructed, see my study Who is Theophilus?


Posted by on April 10, 2016 in Gospel of Luke


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2 responses to “Luke’s Preface

  1. librarygeek

    April 23, 2016 at 23:47

    This verse comes out sounding different depending on the translation. KJV seems to say the “they” in verse 2 refers to the many in v.1 who decided to write a narrative and the rest of v.2 confirms your view that “they” were early eyewitnesses and ministers, ie. the apostles. But in other translations, the “they ” in v 2 refers to the things reported by the narrative, just as the Apostles past down to us and thus say nothing about the identity of the ” many.”
    Luke 1King James Version (KJV)

    1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

    2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

    Compare :

    Luke 1New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

    1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,

    So how do we know which translation is more accurate here?

    You wrote, ““Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” (Fragments of Papias; book 6 – emphasis mine)

    In the same book Papias wrote that Mark was “the interpreter of Peter (and) wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered.” That is, Matthew wrote down what the other apostles interpreted from their memories, just as Mark wrote down what he interpreted from what he remembered about Peter’s Gospel. ” So you don’t think Papias meant that Mark was Peter’s interpreter from Hebrew to Greek? But rather by interpret Papias meant explained and gave context to the memories of the Apostles? It sounds more like to me that Matthew wrote the gospel in Hebrew and other people interpreted it into the Greek and that Mark translated the memories of Peter as he remembered them into Greek. Why don’t you believe interpret means translate here?

    • Eddie

      April 24, 2016 at 13:46

      Concerning Luke 1:1-2 and different translations: My first question concerning the NRSV is this: what is it in the Greek that changed the point of view of the translators? The original RV has it as the KJV: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,”… I am very suspicious of the motive of translators who seem to support a specific modern viewpoint about the times of the 1st century AD.

      Today, many critics (among whom are some scholars who translate the Bible) believe the oral tradition of the 1st century AD means that nothing was written down until sometime after the deaths of the apostles. This is not so, and it can be proved they are wrong. The critics (scholars) think that most people in the Roman world (including the apostles) were illiterate, simply because of the oral tradition. Paper (papyrus) was expensive, therefore, most people had to be illiterate etc. Yet, people wrote on anything and everything, including broken pottery. They even had pads they could write on that were for things of temporary importance, like wooden pads containing a wax face, whereby notes could be taken for whatever reason, and then heated up for a new note later.

      The recent studies about illiteracy show that the more agricultural a society is, the more that society is apt to be illiterate, so modern critics superimpose our modern studies upon the Roman Empire and every culture it embraced. Josephus brags about Jewish society showing that an entire tribe’s responsibility concerned the education of the other 11 tribes that composed its race. Yet, this is poo-pooed by our modern critics and folks who like to word the Bible to accommodate their point of view. I’m not so impressed with such studies.

      Your second question concerns the words: interpret and translate. Do they mean the same thing? To a degree interpret can mean translate, but to get translate to mean interpret might include a more freestyle composition. In other words, a translator who interprets the text might be more apt to give the text a certain twist. An example might be the work of the RV and the NRSV translators at Luke 1:1-2 above, while an interpreter who translates seems to suggest a simple work of making what the Greek says known in English (or other languages). At least this is my point of view about the meaning of the words.

      Let’s look again at what Papias says concerning Matthew’s and Mark’s works. Matthew first:

      “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”

      Who is each one? If it means the new believer, why is he left to “interpret… as best he could”? If, on the other hand, each one refers to the apostles, why would the apostles need to interpret their own language? If we permit each one to refer to the apostles **and** have them interpret their memories of Jesus for Matthew’s writing, it seems to make more sense than leaving the new believer to his own opinions as to what Matthew is trying to say. Can you see a different possibility that makes sense? This is the only one that makes sense to me.

      Next let’s look at Mark’s work:

      Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor accompanied Him. But afterwards, as I said, he accompanied Peter, who accommodated his instructions to the necessities [of his hearers], but with no intention of giving a regular narrative of the Lord’s sayings. Wherefore Mark made no mistake in thus writing some things as he remembered them. For of one thing he took especial care, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to put anything fictitious into the statements.

      Peter lived in Capernaum, in “Galilee of the gentiles” (Matthew 4:15), which means the population was a mixed group, more so than in Judea. Therefore, the apostles (and Jesus) probably knew more than one language. They may have understood four or more languages including: Greek, Latin, Aramaic and Hebrew. This doesn’t mean they spoke fluently in all four, but it does mean, if they were to carry out business in Galilee, they were probably multi-lingual. They didn’t have to go to Yale or Harvard to become multi-lingual; many children understand more than one language before school-age.

      Therefore, if we can accept this point of view, in what sense did Mark need to be the interpreter of Peter? Papias is not very informative. If we can admit that Peter had a grasp of the Greek in the same manner as the old Pennsylvania Dutch had a grasp of the English (“throw the horse over the fence some hay” sort of understanding), then most people in the empire, who understood Greek, would have been able to get a gist of what Peter said about Jesus. Mark didn’t have to translate everything Peter said, but he may have had to interpret what Peter meant to some folks on some points, especially as the misunderstanding pertained to Jewish tradition. So, although Mark does offer us a translation of Peter’s Gospel into the Greek, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he had to translate everything Peter said, in the way translators are used today for different representatives in the UN building.

      Hope this helps, Shari, and thank you for your question. Lord bless you in your studies of his word.


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