PROBLEMS WITH LUKE AS HISTORY

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Luke/Acts constitutes approximately one-quarter of the New Testament, and is the source of much christian tradition, including the Pentecost, Jesus' 50 day post-resurrection sojourn, and the 'ascension.' Like 'Matthew,' 'Luke' constitutes little more than a later revision of 'Mark,' and whereas 'Matthew' copies about 90% of 'Mark,' 'Luke' copies about 50%. Both 'Matthew' and 'Luke' use a second, non-Marcan source, known to scholars as "Q."[see footnote1]. The book of ACTS is generally agreed to be have been written by the same hand as 'Luke,' whose real identity is unknown, although we can easily eliminate the possibility that it was 'Luke,' the 'beloved physician' mentioned by Paul. That attibution dates to the very late second century, and is the result of speculation on the part of early church fathers. The first two verses of 'Luke' itself constitutes an admission by the author that she is 'setting in order' previously existing accounts, and not by any means composing an original work, and, as will be seen, the author of 'Luke/Acts' had only a cursory knowledge of Paul's life at best.

One of the most unique features of 'Luke' its orientation toward non-Jews. Whereas 'Matthew' rewrites 'Mark' from a markedly pro-Jewish standpoint, having Jesus actually warn his disciples to avoid non-Jews, saying, "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not" (10:5), because Jesus had only become incarnated to save members of his own race: "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24), 'Luke' not only calls Jesus a "light unto the Gentiles" (2:32), she has Peter describe that the Jewish law, which 'Matthew's' Jesus declares shall endure until the end of the universe (5:18), as "a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear" (ACTS 15:10). 'Luke,' as we will see, goes to great lengths to mitigate the racial overtones and exclusivism of his sources.

Even more striking than this, however, is 'Luke's' unprecedented emphasis on the role of women in the gospel story. Randel Helms has recently argued, I think conclusively as is possible based solely on internal evidence, that the author of 'Luke' and ACTS was actually a woman (1997, 65).

"What if the female presence in Luke-Acts is the author herself? Any reader who makes the speculative leap will then find the textual evidence compelling. Luke's desire to 'enhance the position of women in a male-dominated society' (Tannehill, 1986, 132) makes sense if Luke herself were a woman; then the strikingly large number of female characters central to the story of Luke-Acts leaps to the fore: Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, the widow of Sarepta, the widow of Naian, Joanna, Susanna, Mary Magdalene, the "sinner" with the bottle of myrrh, Martha, the woman who lost the coin, the woman who importuned the unjust judge, the Queen of Sheba, John Mark's mother, Sapphira, Rhoda, Lydia, Tabitha, Damaris, Priscilla, Phillip's four daughters, Paul's sister, Drusilla, Bernice; the list is surprisingly long. Merely in terms of words and names, Luke has an overwhelmingly greater interest in women than does any other New Testament writer. The Gospel of Luke uses the Greek word for 'woman' eight times, Matthew and John once each, Mark not at all. Luke uses the Greek word for 'widow' seven times, Mark twice, the others once.......

"Even the emotional impact of fetal quickening is of special concern to Luke-- the only biblical author, I suggest, who had personally felt it-- for when pregnant Mary visits pregnant Elizabeth, 'when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby stirred in her womb. Then Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried aloud' (Luke 1:41). That fetal quickening should precede a visitation of the Holy Spirit is unique to all of scripture...." (66).

The indications of this within the texts themselves are consistent and various. For example, whereas in Matthew the annunciation is made to Joseph (1:20), in Luke it occurs to Mary (1:31). Luke, unlike all the other gospels, pays particular attention to Mary's inner life (2:18, 34, 51), even describing. Only Luke gives the famous 'Magnificat,' or adoration of Mary. Only Luke describes fetal quickening (1:41). Of all the authors of the bible, only Luke mentions osteoporosis (13:10-13). Only Luke implies that Jesus' female intimates outnumbered his male intimates (8:2). Only Luke mentions a "prophetess, Anna" (2:36). Only Luke suggests that the first person to be resurrected afer Jesus was a women (ACTS 9:40). Luke suggests that the first European convert to Christianity is female (ACTS 11). Luke gives us Only New Testament writer to suggest that the women were the first to believe (24:10-11). For a more in-depth look, see p. 61-96 of Randel Helm's book, "Who Wrote the Gospels?"

While this suggestion is fascinating, it is clear that what 'Luke' relates, historically speaking, is both late and unreliable; like 'Matthew,' 'Luke' rewrites Christian history to suit her own presuppositions.

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CHRONOLOGICAL PROBLEMS

"Luke is in such complete confusion over the chronolgy of events that occurred in the first half of the first century as to suggest that he was not close to them in time. In Acts 5, where the scene is Jerusalem about the mid-30's, Gamaliel reviews bygone Messianic risings and mentions that of Theudas. But we know from Jospehus that Theuadas' Messianic promises were made when Fadus was procurator (AD 44-46) and so could not have been known to Gamaliel at the time when he is represented as speaking. . . Gamaliel continues by saying that, after Theudas, there was a Messianic uprising under Judas the Galillean at the time of the census. Luke knows of only one census, that under Quirinius (LK 2:1-2) of AD 6-- forty years before Theudas. In his gospel Luke compounds the muddle by dating this census of AD 6 under Herod, who died in 4 BC" ("The Historical Evidence for Jesus," 119).

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THE BAPTISM OF JESUS

'Mark's' story of Jesus' baptism was altered in one way by 'Matthew,' and another by 'Luke.' Both are obviously uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus himself being baptized, but only 'Luke' goes so far as to specifically dissociate Jesus' Baptism from John. 'Luke' does this, quite simply, by rearranging the narrative of 'Mark' to imply that John had actually been "shut up in prison" at the time of Jesus' baptism.

Mark 1:9-11 Matt. 3:13-17 Luke 3:19-22

(19) When Herod the Tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodians, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, (20) added this to them all, that he shut up John in prison.

(9) In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee

[NOTE HOW 'MATTHEW' ADDS THE ADMISSION BY JOHN: "I NEED TO BE BAPTIZED BY YOU." 'MATTHEW' AND 'LUKE' EVIDENTLY SAW JESUS' BAPTISM AS SOMEWHAT DEGRADING OF JESUS' SINLESS NATURE]

(13) Then Jesus came form Galilee to the Jordan, to John, to be baptized by him. (14) John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" (15) But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. (21) Now when all the people were baptized,

and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

(16) And when Jesus was baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized,

(10) And immediately coming up out of the water,

he went up immediately from the water, and was praying

he saw the heavens opened, and behold the heavens were opened, the heaven was opened,

and the Spirit as a dove descending on him. and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. (22) and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, as a dove.

(11) And a voice came from the heavens, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased." (17) and behold a voice from the heavens, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased."

Note the changes that are introduced here: In Mark, the voice is speaking to Jesus only: "You are my beloved son". Matthew changes 'Mark' to read, "This is my beloved son," inferring that the voice was heard by the crowd, and not by Jesus only. Note that in 'Mark' and 'Matthew,' the 'Spirit' is described in SIMILE form: that is, the spirit is "as a dove," or "like a dove." 'Luke' changes 'Mark' to literarlize the dove: "the Spirit descended on him in BODILY FORM, as a dove." It is clear that what is described by 'Mark' as a sort of personal conversion experience is rewritten, by 'Luke' especially, into a supernatural occurence. It is also clear that 'Luke' is simply reworking her sources to suit her own theological views of Jesus, rather than relating historical information. See also, THE SERMON ON THE PLAIN.

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THE SAMARITAN AND THE JEWISH PRIEST?

'Luke's' occasionally rewrites 'Mark' in a way which renders it senseless. For example, when 'Mark' relates the story of the 'healing of the leper,' only a single leper, a Jew, is involved:

"Once when he was approached by a leper, who knelt before him begging his help. 'If only you will,' said the man, 'you can cleanse me.' Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, 'Indeed I will; be clean again.' The leprosy left him immediately, and he was clean. Then he dismissed him with this stern warning: 'be sure you say nothing to anybody. Go and show yourself to the priest, and make the offering laid down by Moses for your cleansing; that will certify the cure'" (1:40-45).

'Luke,' in her effort to present Jesus as a "light unto the Gentiles," changes the story markedly:

"As he was entering a village, he was met with ten men with leprosy. They stood some way off and called out to him, 'Jesus, Master, take pity on us.' When he saw them he said, 'Go and show yourself to the priests'... One of them, finding himself cured, turned back praising god aloud... he was a Samaritan" (17:11-16).

'Luke' has changed the story so as to involve the Gentile Samaritan, yet has forgotten that a Samaritan would have no reason whatsoever to go and show himself to a Jewish priest! Jesus himself, according to 'Matthew,' had warned his disciples, "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not" (10:5).

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LUKE AND PETER

'Luke's' presentation of Peter is at odds with the picture of Peter presented in Paul's letters. For example, 'Luke' actually has Peter call the Jewish Law "a yoke which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear" (ACTS 15:10). As a matter of fact, Paul, according to his letter to the Galatians, rebuked Peter for the very reason that he upheld the Jewish laws!

'Luke' even has Peter declare, "God ordained from my lips the Gentiles should hear and believe the message of the gospel" (ACTS 15:7). Again, this seemingly contradicts the presentation of Peter in Paul's letters, where Paul declares that he had "been entrusted with the gospel for the Gentiles as surely as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the Jews" (GAL 2:7).

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LUKE AND PAUL

The ways in which Luke presents the life of Paul are clearly at variance with Paul's own letters. For example, whereas Paul had declared in his own letters that he had never persecuted any "churches of Christ in Judea," Luke seems to have Paul as active ONLY in Judea, specifically Jerusalem:

"Acts account of Paul as persecutor (before his conversion) again well illustrates how Luke supplements his sources. He knew from them that Paul had persecuted the church. But he had not read Paul's own statement that, even after his conversion, he was 'still not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea' (Gal. 1:22) and therefore must have persecuted Christians of other localities. On the contrary, for the author of Acts there was only one Christian community in existence at the time in question, namely the Jerusalem church. His sources told him of one Christian martyr (Stephen) there, with whose death Paul has no connection. But Luke adapted these sources so as to make Stephen one of the many Jerusalem cases in which Paul is involved..." (HEJ 156).

Whereas Paul claimed that it was three years after his conversion before he travelled to Jerusalem [ie. Paul denied that he had been involved in persecution in Judea], at which point he met only Cephas and James, "and not any other apostles" (GAL 1:18-19), 'Luke' not only have Paul engaged in persecution in Judea, she has Paul going to Jerusalem immediately after his conversion, and there meeting all the apostles (ACTS 9:27). Helms notes that 'Luke's' presentation of Paul seems "to a considerable extent her fictional creation. She has not read (and never quotes) any of Paul's letter and knew very little about his theology or life" (86).

"The real Paul's attitudes to Gentiles-- and not just on the subject of the Jewish law-- is incompatible with the attitude he is made to strike in Acts. In Romans he says that all men at all times, by dint of their reason, have been able to discern God's true attributes, but have refuse to honor him properly and have turned instead to idolatry (1:19ff). In consequence, God has punished them by filling them with homosexual and other immoral desires. Three times he reiterates that God has 'given them over' to their own worst tendencies for willfully and wickedly refusing to serve him whom their reason has from the first been able to discern truly... In Acts, however, Paul is made to tell the Athenians that they worship (albeit in a somewhat confused manner) the true God, in spite of their idolatry, for which God has not condemned them since they practiced if from ignorance: 'The times of ignorance God overlooked' (17:30)" (HEJ 161).

"That Paul preached effectively in Athens and won followers (as Acts alleges) before leaving for Corinth (17:34,18:1)-- there is no suggestion that he was driven out-- is incompatible with Paul's own statement (1 Cor 2:3) that he reached Corinth in 'fear and trembling,' obviously after a very rough time in Athens" (HEJ 162).

"The account Acts gives of Paul as a missionary is also much more positive that what Paul himself suggests in his own letters about his abilities. In Acts he is represented as working miracles as prodigious as those ascribed there to Peter. His handkerchiefs, applied to the sick, cured them (19:11-12), just as they expected to be cured when Peter's shadow fell on them (5:15). Paul is also, in Acts, as gifted an orator as Peter. For Luke, such traits belonged to the portrait of an apostle.

"Paul himself, however, informs us otherwise. He implies in 2 Corinthians that rival Christian teachers had questioned his ability to perform miracles. He also reports their criticism that, although he was influential in writing, he could make but a poor impression as a speaker (2 Cor 10:10), a criticism he seems to accept as just when he comments: 'Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge' (2 Cor 11:6). It is clear, then, that Luke knew only the ideal picture of an apostle current in latter days. The Paul of Acts is always on top of it all. He may be stoned, but he is on his feet again at once (14:19-20). On his voyage to Rome he never despairs, but adopts a commanding position (although he is supposed to be in chains as a mere prisoner), encourages, advises, and saves the lives of all. The real Paul was no such superman, but confessed to being 'so unbearably crushed' by his afflictions that he 'despaired of life' (2 Cor 1:8). He confessed repeatedly to his own 'weakness' (2 Cor 11:29, 12:9) and was all too familiar with 'fear and trembling' (1 Cor 2:3)" (HEJ 164).

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LUKE'S PLAGIARISM OF EURIPEDES

Another way in which 'Luke' destroys her historical credibility is her propensity for plagiarism; in no less than three places, 'Luke' directly plagiarizes from a Greek play, written around 406BCE, known as the Bacchae. The famous 'conversion' of Paul is a good example. In ACTS, it is said that Paul hears the voice of Jesus say:

"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you, this kicking against the goads [pros kentra laktizein]" (ACTS 26:15).

In the Bacchae, which is approximately five hundred years older than ACTS, the situation is parallel. Dionysis, the persected God, says to King Pentheus, his persecutor:

"You disregard my words of warning... and kick against the goads [pros kentra laktizoimi]" (line 794).

It is easily seen that 'Luke' has 'borrowed' this from the Bacchae, because 'Luke' retains the plural form of the noun 'kentra,' which, while maintaining the meter in the Bacchae, seems out of place in ACTS.

'Luke' also plagiarized the Bacchae when constructing the jail-break scenes of Peter and Paul. When Peter is imprisoned in Jerusalem, an angel appears, saying:

"Quick! Get up... And the chains fell away from his wrists. [When they appraoch the prison gate, it] opened for them of its own accord" (ACTS 12:8,10).

Similarly, when Paul and Silas are imprisoned in Phillipi, "all the doors burst open and all the prisoners found their fetters unfastened" (ACTS 16:26).

Both scenarios are clearly derived from the Bacchae, where the persecuted Maenads [followers of Dionysus] find that "The chains on their legs snap apart ...untouched by any human hand, the doors swing wide, opening of their own accord" (lines 447-8).

Helms observes that "it really is not surprising that this play should have had such a lasting effect on Luke's imagination; for it concerns a young, persecuted and misunderstood deity, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman (Semele)..." (91).

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ACTS AND PAUL'S CONVERSION

Aside from the fact that Luke's recounting of Paul's conversion is plagiarized from the Bacchae, there are other problems with it as well. For example, after the stoning of Stephen, Luke tells us, Paul received from the High Priest "letters to the synagogues at Damascus authorizing him to arrest anyone he found, men or women, who followed the new way, and bring them to Jerusalem" (ACTS 9:1-2). Helms, again, points out:

"That the High Priest in Jerusalem did not in fact have the authority to arrest Jews in foreign states and extradite them to Palestine (Haenchen, 1971, 321) is our first clue that Luke's story is her own fiction. Haenchen points out that Luke here is probably speculating on the basis of her reading of 1Maccabees 15, which says that the High Priest Simon had the authority (in the second century BCE) to send envoys to Rome with letters; Rome in reply advised the arrest of any 'traitors' against Israel: 'hand them over to Simon the High Priest to be punished' (1 Macc. 15:21; see Haenchen, 1971, 320)" (94).

Wells says similarly that "Commentators are baffled by this suggestion that the high priest had authority to order arrests in a Roman city 200 miles away, when the jurisdiction of even the Sanhedrin did not extend beyond Judea" (HEJ 156).

Paul himself never described his 'conversion' experience, except to say, vaguely, that after appearing unto Peter, first, and then the other disciples, and then to some others, "he also appeared unto me" (1 COR 15:8). Evidently 'Luke' was not familiar with even this passage, for she cites the first post-resurrection appearance as occuring to two women on the Emmaeus road (LK 24:13f), not to Peter.

Our only description of Paul's conversion comes from Luke's book, ACTS, which, as we have seen, is a highly unreliable source when it come to Paul. ACTS even contradicts itself when it describes the event, which it makes three references to. The first account says that "the men which journeyed with him stood speachless, HEARING A VOICE, but SEEING NO MAN" (9:7). Yet, several chapters later, Paul informs us that "they that were with me SAW INDEED the light... but they HEARD NOT THE VOICE THAT SPAKE TO ME" (22:9). These two accounts leave us uncertain as to the nature of the experience: was it an internal 'coversion' experience such as commonly undergone by religious converts? Was it simply a vision of 'light,' induced by the heat and dehydration of Paul's journey across the desert, accompanied by internally-heard voices? Having worked in close contact with schizophrenic patients for the past several years, I can safely say that internally-heard voices differ from externally-heard voices about as much as schizophrenia does from sanity.

Randel Helms puts forth the thesis that 'Luke,' in the absence of any account by Paul himself, models her account of his conversion after the Septaugint story, in II Maccabees, of Heliodorus. Heliodorus, like Paul, had just consulted with the High Priest, after which he enters the Temple, intent upon stealing its treasure. However, Heliodorus has a vision of a "great apparition, so that all who presumed to come in with him, were astonished at the power of god, and fainted," just as Paul, after his consult with the High Priest, and on his way to persecute Christians, beheld a "light from the sky, more brilliant than the son," after which point he "fell to the ground." Just as Heliodorus was "compassed with great darkness" (II Macc. 3:24, 27), Paul is himself stricken with blindness, so that he must be "let about by the hand" (ACTS 9:8). And, just as "Onias the High Priest is asked to intercede to save Heliodorus' life... Ananias of Damascus is asked to intercede to save Paul's vision" (94).

Helms also points to the influence of II Maccabees in 'Luke's' revision of the empty tomb story. Whereas in 'Mark,' which 'Luke' used as a source, the women come to the tomb to find a single "young man" (16:5), in 'Luke' the women come to the tomb to find "two yopung men in dazzling garments," who "were at their side" (24:4). This evokes the same account in II Maccabees, where the apparition to Heliodorus involved "two young men of surpassing strength and glorious beauty," who "stood on either side of him" (3:24). Just as Heliodorus and his companions were were "faint with terror," the women at the tomb were "terrified."

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LUKE AND JEWISH HISTORY

Luke often presents Jewish history in a way which is at variance with the Hebrew scriptures:

Acts 7:4 -- Stephen tells us that Abraham departed from Haran "after his father died." The Book of Genesis (11:26,32; 12:4), indicates that Abraham departed from Haran at age 75, at a time when his father Terah was 145. Since Terah lived for 205 years, he still had another 60 years of life remaining.

Acts 7:14 -- Stephen related that seventy-five of Joseph's relatives were called by him to come to Egypt. Moses saw it differently: see Deut. 10:22, Gen 46:27, Ex. 1:5 ("And all the persons who came from the loins of Jacob were seventy in number").

Acts 7:16 -- Stephen informs us that Jacob was buried in Shechem, and that the tomb was purchased by Abraham from Emmor. Genesis tells a different story. At the death of Sarah his wife, Abraham purchases the Cave of Machpelah, which is in Hebron, as a burial place. The cave is purchased from Ephron the Hittite, contrary to what Steven says in Acts. (Gen. 23) It is here that Jacob is buried, as outlined in Genesis 50:13. It was Jacob who purchased a parcel of land in Shechem from Hamor, but it was purchased as a place to pitch his tent and as a place to erect an altar.

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In sum, although Luke/Acts brings a welcome relief from the sexist and racist exclusivism of 'Mark' and 'Matthew,' it can not be considered historically accurate, for a variety of reasons: it is late to be written, and it is written entirely in dependence upon 'Mark,' 'Q,' and the Bacchae; it is not an original work, by any means, as the author herself admits (1:1-3). 'Luke,' like 'Matthew,' constitutes a theological revision of the Jesus story, not a biography.

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1. "Q" represents a collection of sayings common to 'Matthew' and 'Luke,' but altogether absent from their primary source, 'Mark.' Because 'Matthew' and 'Luke' place this non-Marcan material in very different contexts, it is most probably the case that 'Matthew' and 'Luke' did not know the other, but independantly drew upon a third source. The only other viable hypothesis, that 'Luke' copied from 'Matthew' and 'Mark,' rather than 'Mark' and 'Q,' has been argued, yet that would fail to explain why the non-Marcan material is placed within widely differing contexts by the respective composers of 'Matthew' and 'Luke.' As John Kloppenbor argues that:

"You have to account for the shape of 'Q material' in Luke, given the presupposition that he uses Matthew. Matthew's a systematizer. Look at his three-chapter Sermon on the Mount. It's well organized rhetorically and literarily. The same elements are in Luke, but they're scattered all over the place. Why would Luke do that? And why is Matthew's infancy story ignored by Luke? The Magi from the East -- why does he leave them out? The answer is that they've never seen each other" ("The Search for a No Frills Jesus", Atlantic Monthly, Dec 1996).

The 'Q' hypothesis, that both 'Matthew' and 'Luke' both used a second, non-Marcan source, but did not directly know each other's work, remains the only viable answer.

*Also see: Is God The Author of Confusion?

  

 

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