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Luke as Historian

Paul Krause at VoegelinView

Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

The world of biblical analysis seems to have two poles in the public imagination. One popular, generally atheistic, and horribly ignorant: the gospels were written—this analysis goes—long after the death of Jesus and passed through oral transmission and are incredibly garbled and unreliable in their final composition. Moreover, they have the trappings of mythopoetic construction. The other analysis, deeply scholarly and scholastic, built on a multitude of familiarity with ancient texts, asserts that while the synoptic gospels were written several decades after the life of Jesus, they fit the genre of ancient biography (and history) and are modeled on the writings of the ancient historians, and are generally reliable texts concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

In his newly published and eminently readable introduction to the vexing questions of Lukan historiography, John J. Peters provides the best cursory introduction to the multifaceted issues that face graduate students and biblical scholars on matters of New Testament historiography. Moving beyond the now largely discredited form criticism of the Rudolf Bultmann and his disciples, Peters provides a readable and well-argued case for Lukan historiography as part of the Greco-Roman literary genre of biography and eye-witness history. Luke among the Ancient Historians, in no qualified terms, argues that the author of Luke “represented himself as a historian of contemporary events.” While this is a generally well-known and accepted position in biblical studies, it may come as a surprise to some, skeptic and faithful alike. Wasn’t Luke reporting hearsay passed down through multiple generations of oral transmission whose work detailing the life of Christ mirrors mythological poetry as the indoctrinated Neanderthals of the New Atheism like to claim? And wasn’t Luke “divinely inspired” and not writing like the ancient historians who shun the muses and God-breathed inspiration as most of the innocently faithful have likely been told? No, and no!

To understand the genre of Luke’s gospel, one must understand the various hermeneutical approaches to the New Testament. Further, one must understand how these approaches change over time. The once dominant school known as form criticism, which asserted the New Testament writings based on their literary tropes and patterns were synthesized from preceding generations of oral transmission, is now largely abandoned by most historical critical scholars. While the typical graduate student in biblical studies will be introduced to form criticism in their studies (as I was at Yale), which Peters does for the reader in his opening pages, this introduction to form criticism is simply meant to provide some background to broader New Testament historiographical debates and not meant to be taken as the dominant scholarly paradigm. “Luke-Acts,” Peters writes, “belongs to the broad genre of Greco-Roman historiography.” Our eminent guide then proceeds to provide the brief history of how the acceptance of the gospels as biography akin to the writings of the ancient historians came to predominate biblical studies and supersede the old form criticism of the past.

When one goes back and rereads the opening of Luke, one finds an interesting introduction:

Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative about 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, I, too, decided, as one having a grasp of everything from the start, to write a well-ordered account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have a firm grasp of the words in which you have been instructed.

Luke’s opening dedication, his introduction, strikes the reader of ancient history as very similar to Herodotus:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.

Both authors begin their works invoking themselves as trustworthy writers, that they are dealing with actual historical deeds rather than a chain of revelation stretching into the murky mists of the mythic past. Both authors seek to present their writing as a form of knowable truth, a composition that can be “grasp[ed]” and the feats therein “not become forgotten.” Both authors are writing in a style very far removed from the preceding age of mythological epic.

In fact, before proceeding down the path of Lukan historiography, Peters starts by taking us back to Herodotus of Halicarnassus who wrote some five centuries before Luke. But the knowledge of the conventions and literary style of the ancient historians was, by the author of Luke’s own time, well-known among the literary intelligentsia which would have included the author of Luke, “That Luke knew the conventions and expectations involved with writing a historical preface and chose his words very carefully is not to be doubted…The data so far favor the conclusion that Luke intends to indicate the prior accounts he knew were somehow lacking, and that he wrote in order to provide a superior account of events.” Luke, as Peters goes on to demonstrate, writes in the best style of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and even Josephus (or, more accurately, Josephus writes in the best style of the ancient historians including Luke given the fact Josephus wrote after the composition of Luke’s gospel).

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