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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 10: Did Luke Write Luke?"


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The opening question sounds silly, yet it is serious. Many today say that what we call the Gospel according to St. Luke was not written by St. Luke, but by someone else, whose name is unknown. Today we sometimes use pen names. In ancient times they often did that too, but the name they used was apt to be that of a famous person, a thing we would not think quite proper. So it happens that the same question is asked about all the writers of the Gospels, not just St. Luke. Therefore, we need to address it.

At the outset, let us say that precisely because they usually picked the name of a famous person for a pen name, Luke and Mark were unlikely to be chosen, though it could have happened to Matthew and John.

But let us take things in the right order. We saw that the writers of the Synoptics surely intended to give facts plus interpretations. We saw an added bit of evidence on the meticulous care Luke took for accuracy. But the next logical question is this, did these writers have a good chance to get to know the facts? Under that heading we ask two things: Who wrote them? (to see if they were eyewitnesses or got information from eyewitnesses); and when did they write them? (to see if information would still be available then). We will take up each question separately. First, the question of authorship.

There are two kinds of evidence to consider on authorship: external and internal evidence. External evidence means the testimony of witnesses, i.e., ancient writers who can tell us who wrote what. Internal evidence looks inside the writings themselves for indications. We must note that courts of law commonly accept witnesses if properly qualified, but that internal evidence by nature seldom can prove anything at all.

What ancient witnesses have we on the authorship of the Synoptics? Quite a few. Earliest of all is Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, who, around 140 A.D., wrote Exegesis of the Lord's Sayings. This work is lost, but fortunately, Eusebius, the first Church historian, preserved several quotations from it, as well as quotations from many other works now lost. Papias tells us he inquired from those who had heard the Apostles and disciples of the Lord. St. Irenaeus, writing sometime before 200 A.D., in his Against Heresies, adds that Papias was a companion of St. Polycarp, who had known St. John the Apostle personally.42

Papias tells us this about Mark: "Mark became the interpreter of Peter, and wrote accurately the doings and sayings of the Lord, not in sequence, but all that he remembered. For he [Mark] had not heard the Lord, or followed Him, but, as I said, followed Peter later on, who, as needed, gave teaching, but did not make an arrangement of the sayings of the Lord ... He gave attention to one thing, to leave out nothing of what he had heard, and to make no false statements about them."43 Papias says this about Matthew: "Matthew collected the sayings in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as he could."44

We also learn from Eusebius that Papias here was quoting the Presbyter John. He is clearly not the Apostle John, but seems to have lived about the time of the Apostle. Hence, we really have a testimony reaching back into the first century itself.

We notice too that Mark wrote down the preaching of St. Peter himself, the prime eyewitness, and that he took care, "to make no false statements." Matthew collected these things in Hebrew. Some think Papias really means Aramaic, not Hebrew. However, whichever language it may have been, that text is now lost. What we have is a Greek translation, made also very early. Some suspect it was made by Matthew himself.45

Here we must mention an objection raised by some. Eusebius46 also spoke of Papias as "a man of very small intelligence."

The objection is astounding. Those who make it do not seem to notice in what respect Eusebius makes this comment. He actually says that Papias showed small intelligence in holding a millennium theory, because he misunderstood Revelation 20:4-6, which says there will be a first resurrection after which the just "will reign with him [Christ] for a thousand years on earth." Now it is true that Papias did misunderstand that text, and led some others to do the same. But is it really a sign of poor intelligence to take that text at its seeming face value? It is a difficult, obscure text. So, to misunderstand may be erroneous, but hardly stupid.

Further, even granting Papias should not have made that mistake-does that prove he was incapable of correctly repeating the testimony of earlier witnesses on who wrote what Gospel? Hardly. As a result, at a colloquium on the relationships among the Gospels at Trinity University at San Antonio in 1977, George A. Kennedy, Paddison Professor of Classics at the University of North Carolina, in replying to a question about his use of Papias as a credible source, said, "He had studied carefully the second-century evidence for the tradition that Mark's Gospel reflects directly reminiscences of Peter, and had concluded that he would be thoroughly delighted to find such solid evidence for some other ancient historical tradition."47 Kennedy is a classicist. Classicists went through an unfortunate period of misjudging evidence in the 19th century, but are well over it now; Scripture men are at present still suffering from a parallel fault.

Kennedy is clearly right. And Papias is confirmed by other early evidence. Thus, the Anti-Marcion Prologues to the Gospels, dating probably from 160-180 A.D., tell us, "Mark, who was called stumpfingered, was the interpreter of Peter. After the departure of Peter, he wrote a Gospel in Italy ... Luke of Antioch in Syria, a physician, having become a disciple of the Apostles, and later followed Paul until his martyrdom ... after the Gospels had been written-by Matthew in Judea, by Mark in Italy-moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote this Gospel in Achaia ... with great care, for gentile believers."48

The odd detail that Mark was "stumpfingered" is intriguing. A later forger would be unlikely to know such an uncomplimentary detail about an Evangelist, nor is anyone likely to have just invented so odd and unusual a point. So we have an indication of the early date of those Prologues and of their accuracy.

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, who seems to have died as a martyr around 200 A.D., gives us a precious testimony: "Matthew among the Hebrews brought forth in their own language, a written Gospel, while Peter and Paul at Rome were preaching and laying the foundations of the Church. After their death, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, himself handed down in writing the things preached by Peter. And Luke, the follower of Paul, set down in a book the Gospel preached by him."49

As we said, the testimony of St. Irenaeus is precious. He mentions the work of Papias, without quoting from it, and yet gives several facts not found in Papias. But more importantly, St. Irenaeus tells us that he, when a youth, had listened to St. Polycarp of Smyrna telling what he personally had heard from St. John the Apostle;50 further, we know St. Irenaeus at least once went on a mission to Rome. Hence he had two likely sources of information in addition to Papias; and his report does coincide nicely with what we get from Papias and with the Anti-Marcion Prologues.

There are many other reports too which agree, e.g., Tertullian, writing around 207 A.D., says, "Of the Apostles, John and Matthew instill the faith in us; of apostolic men, Luke and Mark renew it."51 Origen, writing after 244 A.D., also agrees with the others.52

Some have tried to discredit these witnesses saying Papias was unreliable, and all others copied from him or made legendary additions.53 As to the charge of unreliability, we have already answered it above. As to the claim that all copied from one, there is no proof. On the contrary, the Anti-Marcionite Prologue has facts on Luke-Papias has nothing at all on him. The Anti-Marcionite Prologue has an odd detail on Mark, that he was stumpfingered-but Papias lacks it. And as we have said, it is not the sort of thing someone would be apt just to invent, for it is uncomplimentary. St. Irenaeus too has facts not found in Papias. For instance, that Matthew wrote while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome. Further, as we said before, St. Irenaeus had listened to St. Polycarp, who knew the Apostle St. John personally; and St. Irenaeus had visited Rome at least once, where he could easily have gathered information, especially on Mark recording Peter's preaching there.

So what do we have? We have a unanimous tradition, reaching back to around 100 A.D., that Mark wrote a Gospel based on the preaching of Peter with whom he worked in Italy; that Luke was a physician from Antioch, who traveled often with St. Paul, and based his Gospel on the preaching of St. Paul. St. Paul in turn insists vehemently in the first chapter of Galatians that he received his knowledge of Christ directly from Christ in the Damascus road vision, while adding that in Jerusalem he also compared notes with the other Apostles, who fully agreed with him.54

As to St. Matthew, the witnesses we quoted refer to the original Aramaic or Hebrew Matthew. What of our Greek? Some have even thought it could be a new composition because of the smoothness of the language and plays on words possible in Greek but not in Hebrew. But a good translator can make his work smooth, and it is not unknown for a translator to inject plays on words in the new language, which were not in the original. We have an instance in the Latin of Hosea 13:14, a play on mors and morsus, which is not possible in the original.

But, whether it is a new effort by St. Matthew himself (which it could easily be) or a translation, still we can depend on it as authentic: 1) The content is nearly all the same as Luke, or Luke and Mark together; 2) the author shows concern for his own eternity, which depended on getting things right and factual and would prevent fakery and carelessness; 3) the fact that Matthew, who so regularly likes to show the fulfillment of prophecies about Christ, does not mention the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., points strongly to a date before 70, when so many eyewitnesses of Jesus would still be alive.

In all, we have testimony that any historian would be glad to have to support the claims that the Synoptics knew their facts either from Peter and Paul or, in the case of St. Matthew, from his own personal experience.

In contrast, let us look at what kind of evidence those offer who think that the Gospels are later and written by those without personal knowledge of the facts. As we said at the start of this chapter, there are two kinds of evidence for authorship: external (witnesses, such as we have quoted) and internal (evidence within the Gospels). We noted too that internal evidence by its very nature hardly ever can prove anything. It could at times prove a date, when a document, for example, mentions as near, something which is readily datable, such as an eclipse of the sun.

First, the objectors point to the Gospel prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem. Many are inclined to think Mark 13 was written before 70 A.D., because of things that are unclear to us (chiefly Mark 13:14), and probably would have been unclear to people before 70 A.D., though clear afterwards. But then, being convinced that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark, these objectors say both must have been written after 70 A.D. Of course, they have no real proof that Matthew and Luke depend on Mark. In Appendix I.6.c, we list the modern authors who no longer believe Mark wrote first. Further, the objectors notice how clear the language of Luke is about the fall of Jerusalem, especially concerning the besieging army. That objection presupposes that Luke could have faked a prophecy, which is impossible. In contrast, many commentators note that the language Luke uses at this point is taken directly from the Old Testament, and so need not be faked.

Also, is it even imaginable that all three Evangelists would not mention the fulfillment of this major prophecy if they had written after 70? This is especially the case with Matthew who, over and over again, loves to point to fulfillments.

Another argument that is given for the late writing of these Gospels, especially of Matthew's, is that Matthew shows no knowledge of the debate in which St. Paul became so involved over the law. So the controversy must have been settled by the time Matthew wrote. St. Paul had insisted that we are free from the law; but Matthew reports that Jesus said the law will never pass away (Matthew 5:17): "Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets. I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill."

This argument does not hold. St. Matthew had a different purpose in writing which was to give a basic account of the life and teachings of Jesus. The scripture "I came not to destroy but to fulfill" did not clash with the teaching of St. Paul. The objectors seem to presuppose there was a conflict in doctrine, not just a difference in expression. St. Paul really means that our keeping the law does not earn salvation (cf. Chapters 18 & 19). Jesus implies that too, in saying we are children of the Father and children do not earn their inheritance. St. Paul also insists many times that if we violate the law, we will earn punishment (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 5:5; Rom. 3:31). He sums up this theme in Rom. 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Further attempts to make Luke a later writing depend on making the Acts of Apostles also a later writing and therefore unreliable (with a presupposition that the author did not know Paul), for the Gospel of Luke was clearly written before Acts. These arguments are very vague, and the objections can be answered. Really, we could turn the argument around by saying that Acts ends with St. Paul in his first Roman imprisonment, probably 61-63 A.D. So the Gospel of Luke must come before that period.

But, to show the emptiness of the objections and to give you the complete picture, here are the chief reasons given for charging Acts with unreliability.

First, objectors notice that the decree of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:28-29, while freeing the Gentile converts from the Mosaic law in general, prescribed a few little rules, among them, "That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication." The last item, of course, is just basic morality, but the first three are not. Yet, St. Paul in chapter 8 of 1 Cor. does not flatly prohibit eating food sacrificed to idols, unless part of pagan ritual, or when scandal would be given.

Also in contrast, says the objector, St. Paul describes that council in Gal. 2:1-10 and does not mention these reservations, but says that the Apostles "added nothing to me." (Gal. 2:6).

The most basic refutation of these objections is so simple and obvious that it is strange it has not been noticed. If the Vatican today sends a letter with instructions or orders to the U.S. or Canadian Episcopal Conference, the orders apply only to the area to which they are sent-they are not general law. So, Acts 15:23 says the letter of the Council was addressed, "to the brothers who are of the gentiles of Antioch and Syria and Cilicia." That would not include Corinth, or even Galatia. The three special additions we mentioned were obviously just a concession to the feeling of those who loved the Old Law. As to the account in Galatians 2, Paul is giving a general summary, focusing on the point that even though he did get his information and mission directly from Christ on the Damascus road, yet, for further reassurance to those who hesitated to believe him, he did check with the Apostles in Jerusalem, and they did not tell him to change. In writing to the Galatians, Paul would need to mention only the basic doctrinal point, valid everywhere, that the Mosaic Law did not bind. There was no need to say that for tactical reasons some places had been asked to observe three small items of the Mosaic Law.

Some also object that Acts ends with Paul still in house arrest in Rome and does not tell the outcome of his trial. But this proves nothing against Luke's authorship. Luke's purpose could have been to trace the work of Paul to Rome, the center of the world. Having done that, he had fulfilled his purpose. Or, he could have intended to write a second book of Acts, which, for any of various reasons, he never did complete.

We see, then, that far from being strong enough to overturn the weighty testimony of so many ancient witnesses on the authorship of the Synoptics, instead the internal evidence offered against the witnesses turns out to be worthless. We conclude that the Synoptics were written by 1) an Apostle, Matthew (at least for the Semitic text), and 2) Mark, who got information from Peter and 3) Luke, who received it from Paul.

But even if we were to suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the Gospels were not by these men, but were instead written as late as 80-90 A.D., as some wish to claim, we can still show that the Gospel writers had ample opportunity to get information about Jesus.

First, as we have noted, by that time Christianity had spread into many places around the Mediterranean. It was being accepted in spite of its high and difficult moral demands (compared to paganism) and with its risk of persecution and death. Men do not cling to mere fancies when facing lions, torture and death. Second, Christianity was being confirmed by miracles. Some, of course, say there were no miracles at that time. Their real objection comes from their rejection of miracles as possible at any time. But we saw in Chapter 3 that miracles still happen and are checked with scientific strictness. In addition, as St. Augustine shrewdly observed, if the uneducated and ignorant Apostles had been able to sell such a difficult and demanding doctrine to sophisticated Greeks and Romans, without any miracles, that fact itself would be a miracle.55 Yes, St. Paul had the education of a Rabbi, but Greeks and Romans would call that silly superstition.

Finally, as we indicated briefly, Quadratus, earliest of the Greek apologists for Christianity, writing about 123 A.D., said, "The things done by the Savior remained present always, for they were true. Those cured, those who rose from the dead were not only seen when they were being cured and raised, but were constantly present, not only while the Savior was living, but also for some time after He had gone, so that certain of them came down even to our own time."56

This is remarkable. Quadratus says that some who were healed by Christ or even raised from the dead lived until his own time. Of course, that would not have to mean 123 A.D., but it would surely include 80-90 A.D., the latest date suggested for the Synoptics. Such persons would really remember Jesus and His message-they had powerful reason to do so. As to their living so long, if some of them were perhaps 15 to 20 years old in 30 A.D., by 80 A.D., they would be 65 or 70, not a hard thing to believe.

Others too, such as Pope St. Clement I, who ruled from 92-101 A.D., were of the same generation as Sts. Peter and Paul, as he tells us in his letter to Corinth.57 St. Polycarp, too, was still alive until 155 or 156, and he had listened to St. John the Apostle.

So, information was not at all hard to get, if one wanted it. We know that those writing, with their eternity at stake, wanted it intensely.


42 Irenaeus 5.33.4.
43 Eusebius 3.39. Martin Hengel, Professor of New Testament at the University of Tubingen, highly respected even by liberals, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (tr. John Bowden, Fortress, Philadelphia, 1985) insistently defends the tradition that Mark followed St. Peter and wrote from his preaching.
44 The word "sayings" in Greek is logia. It can have the narrow meaning of sayings, but can also be broadened to mean deeds as well, in view of Hebrew dabar and Aramaic milah, both of which have both meanings.
45 Some claim that the plays on words in Greek, which are not possible in Hebrew, prove that it could not be a translation. But the Latin translator of Hosea 13:14 injected a familiar play on words not found in the Hebrew original or in the Greek Septuagint: Ero mors tua, O mors, morsus tuus inferne.
46 Eusebius 3.39.
47 Cited in Patrick Henry, New Directions in New Testament Study, Westminster, Phila., 1979, pp. 33-34. Cf. also Hengel, op. cit., pp. 47-50.
48 For the Latin text, cf. Kurt Aland, Synopsis Quattuor Evangeliorum, ed. 8, Württemburg, Stuttgart, 1967, pp. 532-33.
49 St. Irenaeus, Adv. Haereses 3.1.1.
50 Letter to Florinus, cited in Eusebius 5.20.
51 Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.2.2.
52 Origen, Comm. in Matth. I and Homilia in Lucam 1—in Aland, pp. 540-41.
53 Martin Hengel, op. cit., p. 107, defends the reliability of Papias.
54 Much information can be conveyed in a single interior touch, called a locution. See note 86 below.
55 St. Augustine, City of God 22.5.
56 Cited in Eusebius 4.3.1-2.
57 Clement I, Epist. to Corinth 5.

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