The Gospel of Luke: Authorship

An edited excerpt from Leon Morris's Commentary on Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) 


It is usually agreed that the author of our Gospel is to be identified with the writer of Acts. The Preface to Luke (1:1-4) is addressed to Theophilus and Acts 1:1 appears to be a kind of secondary preface. It is addressed to the same person and is apparently intended to recall the former. Style and vocabulary favour unity of authorship.

Tradition unanimously affirms this author to be Luke. This is attested by the early heretic Marcion (who died c. AD i6o; Luke was the only Gospel in his canon), the Muratorian Fragment (a list of the books accepted as belonging to the New Testament; it is usually held to express Roman opinion at the end of the second century), the anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke (which also says that Luke was a native of Antioch, that he was a physician, that he wrote his Gospel in Achaia, and that he died at the age of eighty-four, unmarried and childless), Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria and others.

Sometimes this tradition is dismissed as no more than guesswork, work, but this is too cavalier. Luke was not, as far as we know, a person of such prominence in the early church as to have two such considerable volumes as these fathered on to him without reason. If people were guessing, would they not be much more likely to come up with an apostle? Or Epaphras? Or Mark? The fact that a non-apostolic man of no known prominence is universally versally held in antiquity to have been the author must be given weight.

We should not overlook the point made by Martin Dibelius that this book is unlikely to have been published without the author's name attached. He points out that the address to Theophilus philus presupposes that there was the desire to circulate the book among the educated. For such readers the name of the writer would necessarily have been included. If the prologue 'gave the name of the person to whom the dedication was addressed, the name of the author could hardly be omitted from the title.' Tradition would not uniformly ascribe to Luke a book known from its publication to have been written by someone else.

The tradition accords with the Preface which shows us that the author was not an eyewitness of the things he records, though he had searched out evidence from those who were. He was clearly a careful writer and a cultured man, but not one of Jesus' first followers.

The internal evidence agrees. In Acts there are four passages in which the writer uses the pronoun 'we' (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27:1 - 28:16). These appear to have been taken from the diary of one of Paul's companions. One of the 'we' sections yields the information that the writer stayed for some time in Caesarea with Philip the evangelist and his four daughters (Acts 21:8ff.). It was not until more than two years later (Acts 24:27) that he and Paul sailed for Rome (Acts 27:1). This period spent with such companions must have given opportunity for discovering much about Jesus and the early church.

The vocabulary and style of the 'we' passages are the same as those of the rest of the book, from which the natural conclusion is that one author wrote the whole. It is true that some critics deny this. They hold that the author of Acts has copied a few passages from someone else's diary as his way of supplying information about part of the events he is describing. Or they think that the 'we' is simply a literary device. Such arguments are not impressive. The use by the author of extracts from his own notes is intelligible, but that by someone else much less so. We might pose the dilemma in this way: If the author is not trying to use the prestige of the writer of the earlier document, why should he retain the 'we'? If he is, why does he not use that writer's name? That would have been far more effective. Indeed, without the name the 'we' proves little, as the variety of explanations proves. Nothing so far adduced is nearly as natural an explanation of these passages as that which holds that a companion of Paul used extracts from his own diary.

If we can accept this we shall see the author as one of those with Paul at the times indicated by the use of 'we' but who are not named in the narrative (the author would not give his own name but include himself in the 'we'). Acts ends with Paul in Rome, and the author is perhaps to be looked for among those named in the captivity Epistles or 2 Timothy as being with him, but not mentioned in Luke-Acts. This leaves us with a small group: Titus, Demas, Crescens, Jesus Justus, Epaphras, Epa- phroditus and Luke. There seems no reason for thinking of any of these apart from Luke as being our author.

Paul speaks of Luke as 'the beloved physician' (Col. 4:14) and in earlier days the case for the Lucan authorship was held to be strongly supported by the medical language which many discerned cerned in Luke-Acts.' But H. J. Cadbury has convinced most people that the language is not especially medical,3 by pointing out that most of the examples cited can be paralleled in writers who were not medicos. It seems generally agreed now that there was no special technical medical language in our sense of the term, for writers such as Hippocrates and Galen seem to have used the ordinary language of educated people. But if Cadbury has made it difficult to think of the language of Luke-Acts as proving that the writer was a physician, he seems to have turned up nothing inconsistent with the hypothesis. At least on occasion there are indications of medical interest. Thus where Matthew and Mark speak only of a fever, Luke particularizes it as a 'high' fever (Mt. 8:14; Mk. 1:30; Lk. 4:38). Similarly he speaks of a certain man not simply as having leprosy, but as 'full' of leprosy (5:12, i.e. he was an advanced case). Again, if he was a medical man it is a very human touch that he omits the statement that the woman with the haemorrhage had spent all her money on doctors (8:43; cf. Mk. 5:26).

A more serious objection to the Lucan authorship is the allegation ation that Acts differs in some important respects from the Pauline writings. The inference is drawn that no-one who was a close companion of Paul's could have written Acts. Thus the speaking with 'tongues' on the Day of Pentecost seems different from what Paul means by tongues in 1 Corinthians 14. Again, it is not easy to reconcile the statements about Paul's visits to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26; 11:30; 15:2 with those in Galatians 1:18; 2:1. Some draw attention to problems in reconciling the movements ments of Paul's companions in Acts 17:16; 18:5 and in 1 Thessalonians lonians 3:1, 6, or in reconciling the statements about the guarding of Damascus (Acts 9:24; 2 Cor. 11:32). Close examination tion reveals little of substance in such objections. Difficulties of this type may well show that Acts was written in independence of the Pauline Letters, but they scarcely show more. There are no real contradictions.

The real strength of the objection, however, concerns theology logy rather than narrative. The theology of Acts, objectors say, even in speeches attributed to Paul, is so very different from that of the apostle that it is out of the question that Acts could have been written by one of his companions. The classic expression of this argument seems to have been given by Philipp Vielhauer, who makes four main points.

  1. In the Areopagus speech Luke makes Paul express the Stoic idea of natural theology. 'Due to its kinship to God the human race is capable of a natural knowledge of God and of ethics (Acts 10:35) and has immediate access to God. The "word of the cross" has no place in the Areopagus speech. 
  2. In Acts Paul is 'a Jewish Christian who is utterly loyal to the law'. More precisely he is 'a true Jew ... in contrast to the Jews who have been hardened'. He circumcises Timothy (16:3) and takes action to show that he conforms to the law (21:21ff.). The real Paul is implacably opposed to the doctrine of the law set forth in Acts.
  3. The Christology of Acts is adoptionistic (this refers to the idea that Jesus was 'adopted' as Son of God; it denies his pre-existence) and pre-Pauline.
  4. In Acts 'Eschatology has been removed from the center of Pauline faith to the end and has become a "section on the last things."' 

But not all go along with this point of view. Vielhauer is scarcely just to all the evidence. Thus in the Areopagus passage he overlooks the fact that the speech follows much the same three points as Paul makes in 1 Thessalonians 1:9f., namely the importance of turning from idols to serve the true God, of the return of Christ for judgment, and of the resurrection of Jesus. Again, it is not really fair to Luke to say that his report of the speech teaches that natural man is able to come to a saving knowledge of God. The hearers of Paul's address did not come in fact to know God and in Luke-Acts ignorance of this kind is regarded as culpable. Thus Jesus prays for his ignorant executioners tioners - their ignorance does not justify them (Lk. 23:34). Luke repeats that these executioners were ignorant, but guilty (Acts 3:17 with 2:23; 13:27f.). Again, Vielhauer does not give sufficient weight to that strand of Pauline teaching in which the apostle says 'To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews' (i Cor. 9:20). Nor does he allow sufficient weight to the consideration sideration that it is highly unlikely that the apostle's mission preaching was in the same vein as his letters to churches. It is also true, as Ellis points out, that Paul 'never disparages the voluntary keeping of the Law by Jewish Christians'. Vielhauer's point about Christology seems to be met by C. F. D. Moule's study, 'The Christology of Acts', in which he argues that the Christology of Acts is not uniform, but that Luke is apparently reproducing his sources pretty faithfully. 

As for eschatology, Ulrich Wilckert,s examines the view of many of our contemporaries that, in his endeavour to portray redemptive history, Luke has lost the emphasis on eschatology so typical of other early writers. He agrees that there is something thing in this. Luke is indeed interested in history and he does not have the same eschatological views as do some other New Testament writers. But he comes to this conclusion: 'It is Paul, interpreted existentially, who is so sharply set against Luke as the great but dangerous corrupter of the Pauline gospel. But the existentially interpreted Paul is not the historical Paul. And the essential points of theological criticism levelled against Luke are gained not so much from early Christian tradition itself as from the motifs of a certain modern school of theology which disregards regards or misinterprets essential aspects of early Christian thought.' We are not compelled to choose between Luke and Paul.

This is a very important conclusion. The question is not whether there is a difference between Acts and the Epistles, but whether the right conclusion is being drawn from it. In history it has happened not infrequently that a close companion of a great man has given a picture of him different from that man's self-disclosure disclosure in his letters. Granted that the writer of Acts may well not have penetrated deeply into the distinctive Pauline theology, logy, he is yet capable of reporting what Paul said and did and he seems to have done so. All that the objection proves is that Luke was not another Paul, perhaps also that he had not seen any of Paul's Epistles. He was writing independently of the apostle.

We should, moreover, not overlook the fact that there is no evidence that Luke was converted by Paul. The probability is that he was not, and that he had reached Christian maturity before coming under Paul's influence. If so, we must not expect his theology to be a kind of diluted Paulinism. Moreover, if, as seems almost certain, he was a Gentile, he may well have found some of Paul's rabbinic method of argument difficult to follow.

The differences between Acts and Paul may be used as an argument in favour of the Lucan authorship just as easily as against it. An author who was not one of Paul's companions would scarcely dare to write so extensively of the apostle without out taking care to use the Epistles. If it be contended that he did not know the Epistles, the further question arises, Why then did he write of Paul? Someone who knew neither Paul nor his letters would not make Paul the central figure of the Gentile mission. It is not sufficient to counter that he relied on a diary of a companion panion of Paul's, for 'Heroes are seldom made by reading other people's diaries'.

A similar objection is that in Acts 15 Paul accepts the decrees of the Council, including food laws, an attitude which is difficult to reconcile with his failure to mention these things in Galatians. However, if Galatians was written before the Council the objection tion loses its force: Paul could not have mentioned non-existent decrees. We cannot regard as decisive an objection that depends for its force on a particular view of the dating of Galatians. Even if Galatians were written subsequent to the Council it is more than doubtful whether the objection will stand. More than one scholar has seen in the difference of viewpoint and interest an adequate explanation of the difference. 

From all this it seems that there is good reason for holding that Luke is the author of our Gospel (and of Acts). While the evidence falls short of final proof it is quite strong, and no suitable alternative has been suggested.

Leon Morris. Luke (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) (Kindle Locations 160-170). Kindle Edition. 

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