Posts Tagged ‘Gospel of Luke’

We all know the Christmas story, although there are a number of elements that we commonly associate with it that we probably shouldn’t. Some of these include:

Jesus was born on December 25. Actually, nowhere in the Bible are we given the date of Jesus’ birth, and shepherds would not likely have been in the fields in late December. The truth is we can’t even be certain of the year.

The manger scene as we normally picture it is almost certainly not accurate. There were no “inns” as we know the term today. Actually the word commonly translated as “inn” is only used two other times in the New Testament in Mark 14:14 and its parallel passage, Luke 22:11. There it refers to the room where Jesus and His disciples had the Last Supper. Jesus may even have been born in a house that took Joseph and Mary in. In the ancient world animals were often kept within the house, sometimes on the first floor while the family slept on a second floor. So, if there was no room on the second floor, Joseph and Mary may have been placed with the animals on the first floor. The point is that the cute little manger scene probably does not reflect what really happened.

The wise men were not there. Luke says nothing about wise men; that account is found in Matthew. The Magi as the Greek refers to them (we get the word “magic” from the name) were probably astrologers. That’s why the star meant something to them. And the wise men find Joseph, Mary, and Jesus living in a house in Bethlehem. Matthew says nothing about them coming from Nazareth.

The visit of the wise men may have been when Jesus was two years old. Matthew has Herod killing all male children two years and under. In the tiny village of Bethlehem Herod would have killed at most a dozen children, not enough to merit a place in history. Herod was known for doing much worse.

I am not attempting to discourage our traditions. Traditions can be powerful expressions of faith and meaning. I just thought it might be interesting to consider some of the questions that can be applied to what we have come to call “the Christmas story.”

We also tend to picture Christmas in one of two ways. We may remember Christmas from our childhood—for some of us quite long ago. The other picture has been implanted in our minds by Charles Dickens. Because of his famous story, A Christmas Carol, our minds almost unconsciously bring up images of Victorian England.

Nothing is wrong with either of these images; I tend to use them as well. At the same time, we should recognize that Christmas is not exclusively American or European. The message of Christmas is for all people in all ages. Below is a page from the Codex Vaticanus, showing what we have come to label as Luke 2:4—29. This early manuscript of course has neither chapters nor verses. It dates to approximately AD 325. Actually, the earliest manuscript that contains this story is p45 and it dates from about AD 225, a hundred years earlier than the Vaticanus.

Luke 2 Vaticanus

I would suggest that as we  look at the page from the Vaticanus, we pause to remember two things. First of all, the Christmas story is not a Victorian invention. As much as we may have buried its message in commercialism, it is still a part of the Christian message that goes back to the time Luke was originally written.

Also, Christmas is not an invention of Western culture. While it is meaningful to us, it is just as much for all people in all times. The story of Christmas is after all a message of hope and redemption, and all of us need that in some way.

While the King James Version may not be the best translation of the Greek text, its message has resonated for centuries, and it still speaks to us today. I leave you with it, just as it was spelled in the 1611 version.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good wil towards men.

And don’t forget to listen to this version of the Christmas story.


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First of all, a special thank you to Barry Jones for alerting me to this information. In February of this year (2012) Professor Daniel Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary announced the discovery of fragments of manuscripts containing some books of the New Testament that may be earlier than any existing manuscripts. While comparisons to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls are certainly premature, if the initial claims for these manuscripts turn out to be true, such an analogy could turn out to be not far from wrong.

Okay, after all the hyperbole, let me begin with a word of caution. Before we can say anything about this discovery with any degree of certainty, we must allow several scholars to authenticate the manuscripts and especially to establish their date. Dr. Wallace has indicated that it may be a year or more before the details of the manuscripts will be revealed. While certainly I am anxious to find out more, I applaud the caution in such an approach. What we are talking about now are first indications. It’s okay to get excited, but let’s also realize that it is simply too early to make any extravagant claims. With that warning, let me summarize what the early findings indicate.

Seven papyri containing portions of the New Testament have been discovered in Egypt, six of them probably date from the second century; however, one of the manuscripts may actually go back to the first century. The potentially first century manuscript is from the Gospel of Mark. This would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence, supplanting p52 which is a fragment of the Gospel of John, dating from the first half of the second century. Now this fragment of Mark probably only contains a very few verses; however, a first century date would truly be significant. Almost all of the earliest manuscripts we have were discovered in Egypt, because the hot, dry climate makes it more conducive to preserving ancient papyrus. Having a first century manuscript from Egypt also implies that the original must have been written early enough for copies to be made and find their way to Egypt. This may have implications for the remaining six manuscripts as well.

One of the other second century manuscripts contains portions of the gospel of Luke. This would make it the earliest manuscript of that gospel.

We have four manuscripts that contain portions of the letters of Paul. While I wish Dr. Wallace had revealed which letters are included, he wisely chose not to do that at this time. If I read his interview correctly, one of these letters might be Hebrews which was often included in early collections of the writings of Paul.

The final manuscript is not actually from a New Testament book. Rather, it is an ancient homily, dating from the second century, based on the book of Hebrews, chapter 11. This is significant, because it would indicate that in the second century the writer of the homily considered the book of Hebrews to be authoritative, and it would also imply that Hebrews was originally written early enough for it to circulate and obtain a degree of acceptance by the second century.

So there it is. You know what I know. Let me repeat what I said at the beginning. It is too early to accept these claims as is, although Dr. Wallace emphasizes that the manuscripts have been examined by one of the leading paleographers with an outstanding reputation. If I discover any more data to either authenticate or refute this information, I will include it in later posts. For now, it’s exciting to think about, but we will have to allow scholars to do their work.

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Why do I phrase the question like that? For a simple reason. Most biblical scholars, liberal or conservative, agree that the same person wrote both books. Why is this so? Partially, because the book of Acts tells us that. While neither book refer to the author’s name, both of them begin by telling us they were written to someone named Theophilus, and Acts refers to “my first book.” Some people believe this was not an actual person. The name Theophilus is compounded from two Greek words which together mean “lover of God.” So was the author of Luke writing to a real person named Theophilus, or was he being more general? Your guess is as good as mine, although, in the absence of more evidence, I tend to accept the more mundane view that Theophilus was a real person. Names is the ancient world usually had some meaning, so there is no reason a person could not be named Theophilus.

This of course says nothing about who wrote the book. As with so many biblical questions, there are two basic views. The traditional belief is that both Luke and Acts were written by Luke, a physician and associate of the apostle Paul. Many scholars see these books as being written later, even as late as the second century. One of the reasons for questioning the traditional authorship is the apparent differences in theology between the author of Luke-Acts and the writings of Paul. Also, Luke’s discussion of the Parousia (or second coming) suggests a date late enough for that to be an issue.

In answer to that, those supporting a traditional interpretation make several points. First is the virtually universal acceptance of the traditional authorship until modern times, going back to the second century and Irenaeus. The earliest manuscript we have of the gospel of Luke (@ AD 200) gives it the title “According to Luke.” We should also recognize that there is no clear reference to the letters of Paul in Luke’s writing. This has to do not only with authorship, but also with dating. If these books were written in the second century, it would seem likely that there would be references to Paul’s teaching, especially in Acts, which emphasizes Paul so strongly. Since there is not, a logical assumption might be that these letters were either still being written or that they were so recent that they had not achieved a status of recognition as authoritative.

At the same time, there are passages which suggest some degree of association between Luke and Paul. For instance, both of them describe the institution of the Lord’s Supper in very similar terms (Luke 22.19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11.24-25).

Then we must deal with what have come to be called the “we” passages. Several times in the book of Acts, the narrator switches from the third person. Just one of these changes occurs in Acts 16.8-11. “8So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. 9During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ 10After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.11 From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day on to Neapolis.” Notice how the writer switches from “they” in verse 8 to “we” in verse 10. One would logically assume that the writer is indicating that after writing about Paul’s decision to go to Macedonia, the author of Acts joined him in going to Neapolis. Scholars who question the traditional authorship sometimes contend that only the “we” portions represent the original eyewitness portions (and that these may have been written by Luke). They would suggest that later on, someone else wove these passages and other traditions together to form the final narrative. At the same time, the stylistic evidence, upon which modern scholars so often rely, seems to suggest otherwise. There is no real difference between the “we” passages and the rest of Acts.

We should also recognize that Luke was a relatively minor character in the New Testament. If someone in the second century wanted to write in the name of someone else, why would he not pick a more prominent person, such as Paul himself?

For all of these reasons, I tend to accept the traditional view that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, an associate of Paul. This of course, brings up the question of dating, which brings its own series of problems.

Since almost all scholars believe that Luke used the gospel of Mark as one of his sources, it must have been written after that gospel. You may remember that we suggested that Mark should most likely be dated between AD 60 and 70. The conflict we have is that giving Mark and (therefore Luke-Acts) an early date resolves some issues, but giving Mark a later date helps answer other questions.

Supporting later dates for Luke and Acts are some of the issues we have already discussed, particularly Jesus’ prediction of the fall of Jerusalem in Luke 21. Conservative scholars normally see no conflict here, because they argue that Jesus could foresee the future. More liberal scholars tend to reject this and point to this passage as proof that the gospel of Luke was written after AD 70 and the fall of Jerusalem. Even scholars who believe that the passage preserves a genuine prophecy of Jesus might argue that it was emphasized because the author had experienced the fulfillment. Ultimately, arguments such as this really do not speak to me one way or the other. We also discussed the concept of the Parousia or second coming, but this also does not require a late date. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul deals at length with this subject, and 1 Thessalonians is one of the earliest books in the New Testament.

So, what arguments can be given to support an earlier date? First of all, there are the “we” passages which suggest an eyewitness account for at least part of the book of Acts. Other explanations are given for them, but why not accept the simplest explanation as the true one? Acts was written by a contemporary of the events described and an eyewitness to many of them. Of course, the author of the gospel of Luke specifically says he was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ life, but that he consulted a number of sources.

There is also Luke’s description of the Last Supper to which we referred earlier. In addition to matching closely Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians, Luke does something found in no other gospel. He refers to a first cup, then the bread, then a second cup. Could this indicate that Luke was writing at a very early date when the precise order of the Lord’s Supper had not yet become fixed?

One final issue needs to be mentioned, and that is the close of the book of Acts which is very strange. The book closes with Paul in prison, but not apparently in any immediate danger, and it is very different from the description in 2 Timothy 4. While I am aware of the issues regarding dating of the Pastorals, we can assume they rely at least on ancient accounts which describe the final weeks or months of Paul’s life. And it is interesting that the one person described in 2 Timothy upon whom Paul relies is — Luke. If Acts were written after Paul’s death, it seems very strange that Paul’s death would not have been recorded. It would suggest that perhaps Acts was written before Paul’s death. Of course, this brings up another problem. Acts was written after Luke. Even if Mark were written as early as AD 60, Luke would have been very busy writing in order to complete both Luke and Acts before Paul’s death.

So, I must leave you with an uncertain conclusion. I do tend to accept the traditional authorship of Luke and Acts as being written by Luke, the companion of Paul. Dating is a difficult subject, and I am not able to offer a conclusion that satisfies even me. The ending of Acts seems to point to a date before Paul’s death; however, that requires a date too early to fit into the chronology of the gospels as we know it. Two possibilities present themselves. One is that Luke and Acts were written later in the first century which allows Luke to make use of Mark’s gospel. The other possibility is that our accepted chronology of the gospels is wrong. Either Mark was written even earlier than AD 60, or (and this is unlikely) Luke was written before Mark.

I am afraid I must leave us with questions for which there are at this time no good answers. At the same time, I still see no compelling reason to deny that Luke and Acts were written by Luke, the companion of Paul. I have read no convincing arguments to contradict that, and it still appears to be the simplest explanation.

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No one ever said the Bible is always easy to understand, and the subject of the Christmas story is no exception. The history, meaning, and significance of the birth of Jesus have been debated over the centuries by theologians, poets, even scientists. Here is a short video which explains it as well as anything I have heard or read. I know most of you have probably seen it before, but as someone observed, we need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. To everyone who takes the 1 minute and 21 seconds to view this video, may you have a blessed Christmas and a New Year filled with a recognition of the abiding presence of God in your life.

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Daniel B. Wallace

Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Research Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary

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