October 18th is the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist.
Who was he and what do we know about him?
Here are 10 things to know and share . . .
1) Who was St. Luke?
St. Luke is mentioned by name in three passages of Scripture:
- In Colossians 4:14, St. Paul writes: “Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.”
- In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes: “Luke alone is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you; for he is very useful in serving me.”
- And in Philemon 23-24, Paul writes: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.”
Since Luke is mentioned in three letters, we can infer that he was a frequent companion of St. Paul.
He also shared in Paul’s labors, since he is referred to as one of Paul’s “fellow workers.”
The fact that Paul says, in his final letter, that “Luke alone is with me” suggests that he was a particularly intimate and faithful companion.
Finally, the reference to Luke as “the beloved physician” indicates that his “day job” (as opposed to his apostolic efforts) was as a medical practitioner.
2) What books of Scripture did St. Luke write?
St. Luke is identified by early (2nd century) tradition as the author of the third Gospel and as the author of the book of Acts.
He also may have had a role in composing some of the letters attributed to St. Paul (see below).
Even if he only wrote Luke and Acts, though, he still wrote more of the New Testament than any other author! Luke and Acts together total almost 38,000 words, or 24% of the whole New Testament.
3) What debt do we owe to St. Luke for his Gospel?
St. Luke’s Gospel is one of the three “Synoptic Gospels,” which means that it covers much of the same territory as those of St. Matthew and St. Mark.
As a result, if Luke’s Gospel had not been written, there would still be a great deal of the Jesus story that would have been preserved (not only by Matthew and Mark but also by John). However, there are certain things that only Luke records.
Among them are these passages (plus a number of others):
- The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (1:5-25)
- The Birth of Jesus Foretold (1:26-38)
- The Visitation (1:39-56)
- The Birth of John the Baptist (1:57-80)
- The Circumcision and Presentation of Jesus (2:21-40)
- The Finding in the Temple (2:41-52)
- The Widow of Nain’s Son (7:11-17)
- The Mission of the Seventy (10:01-20)
- The Good Samaritan (10:29-37)
- “Mary has chosen the good portion” (10:38-42)
- The Friend at Midnight (11:5-8)
- The Parable of the Rich Fool (12:13-21)
- The Parable of the Lost Coin (15:8-10)
- The Parable of the Lost Son (15:11-32)
- The Parable of the Shrewd Steward (16:1-8)
- Lazarus and the Rich Man (16:19-31)
- Ten Lepers Cleansed (17:11-19)
- The Parable of the Persistent Widow (18:1-8)
- The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14)
- Dinner with Zacchaeus (19:1-10)
- Who Is the Greatest? (22:24-32)
- Jesus Before Herod Antipas (23:6-12)
If these weren’t recorded in Luke’s Gospel, we wouldn’t know about them, because they aren’t recorded elsewhere in the New Testament.
4) Where did Luke get the information for his Gospel?
At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke writes:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you [Luke 1:1-3].
Luke’s reference to narratives of the events in the Gospel that preceded his and his reference to having followed “all things,” with those forming of his own account seem to indicate that he used written sources for some of his information.
Given the similarities that Luke has to Matthew and Mark (the other two Synoptic Gospels), it is likely that he used one or both of these.
He also says that he drew information from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”
One of the eyewitnesses he likely interviewed was the Virgin Mary herself. Luke records the material in the infancy narrative in a way that implies Mary was the source of much or all of it (Luke 2:19, 51; more here).
One of the ministers of the word he likely used as a source was St. Paul. One way of showing this is that the words of institution for the Eucharist in Luke’s Gospel (see Luke 22:19-20) is very similar to the formula used by St. Paul (see 1 Cor. 11:24-25). It is less similar to the formula used in Matthew and Mark (see Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24). It is likely he used the formula used by St. Paul because he frequently heard Paul saying Mass and this was the most familiar version to him.
An individual who was both an eyewitness and a minister of the word that Luke likely interviewed is St. Peter. We have good reason to think that St. Peter was one of the sources of Acts (see below), and if Luke interviewed him for that, he likely interviewed him for his Gospel as well.
5) What debt do we owe to St. Luke for his writing the book of Acts?
Acts covers the earliest history of the Church after the earthly ministry of Jesus.
It covers a period stretching from A.D. 33 to A.D. 60.
Without Acts we would be able to deduce few things about this period from the letters in the New Testament (e.g., that churches existed in the cities that the letters were sent to, a few events in the life of Paul).
However, we would otherwise be completely ignorant of this period. Luke thus did us a huge service by not stopping with the end of his Gospel and by continuing to record the history of the early Church beyond Jesus’ death and resurrection.
He immeasurably enriched our knowledge of this period.
6) Where did Luke get his information for Acts?
As with the Gospel, Luke likely got his information for Acts from both written sources and from interviews with eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.
He also, notably, witnessed many of the events in the Gospel himself. This is indicated by what are known as the “we” passages in Acts—places in which the author speaks of what “we” did and where “we” went, indicating that the author was present for these events.
There are four such passages:
- Acts 16:10–17
- Acts 20:5–15
- Acts 21:1–18
- Acts 27:1–28
A written source that Luke likely used is a travel diary that was kept of Paul’s journeys. Luke himself may have been the author of this diary, though it may have been kept by someone else in the Pauline circle.
There are also three individuals who likely served as major sources for the book:
- Peter (featured in Acts 1-6 and 9-12)
- Philip the Evangelist (featured in Acts 8)
- Paul (featured in Acts 9, 11, and 13-28)
The “we” passages indicate that he had frequent access to Paul, and we know he had access to Peter and Philip the Evangelist as well:
- He would have had access to Peter during the two years that Paul stayed in house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30), where Peter was also ministering.
- He would have access to Philip the Evangelist during the two years that Paul stayed in custody at Caesarea Maritima (Acts 23:33, 24:27), where Philip the Evangelist lived (Acts 21:8-9).
7) When were Luke’s Gospel and Acts written?
They were written as companion pieces and dedicated to the same individual (Theophilius). They were thus likely written at the same time.
Since Acts cuts off suddenly in A.D. 60, before Paul has had a chance to appear before Caesar, this is likely when Acts was finished.
Both Luke and Acts were likely written at Rome in A.D. 59-60.
8) Did Luke have a hand in any of Paul’s letters?
Luke is never named as one of Paul’s co-authors, but Paul frequently used secretaries in the process of writing his letters (see, e.g., Rom. 16:22).
Such secretaries—known as amanuenses—could be tasked with writing a letter on behalf of another, based on talking-points given to him by the one for whom he was writing.
Particularly when he was in prison, Paul may have used Luke in this capacity, and some have noted similarities in the style of Luke-Acts and some of the letters attributed to Paul—particularly the pastoral letters (1-2 Tim., Titus).
The fact that, in 2 Timothy, Paul says that “Luke alone is with me” (2 Tim. 4:11) may indicate that Luke was the scribe that Paul used to write this letter.
Although the book of Hebrews does not attribute itself to Paul, many have noted the similarity of the style of this book to Luke-Acts also, and Luke has been proposed as a possible author for it.
9) Was Luke a Jew or a Gentile?
Though some have argued that he was a Jew, it is normally thought that Luke was a Gentile. One of the reasons is that, in Colossians he is mentioned separately from those “of the circumcision”:
Aristarchus my fellow prisoner greets you, and Mark the cousin of Barnabas (concerning whom you have received instructions—if he comes to you, receive him), and Jesus who is called Justus. These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me. . . . Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you [Col. 4:10-14].
10) What do the Church Fathers say about Luke?
We can’t review what the Church Fathers have to say in detail, but here is part of what St. Jerome wrote about Luke in his Lives Illustrious Men:
Luke a physician of Antioch, as his writings indicate, was not unskilled in the Greek language.
An adherent of the apostle Paul, and companion of all his journeying, he wrote a Gospel, concerning which the same Paul says, “We send with him a brother whose praise in the gospel is among all the churches” and to the Colossians, “Luke the beloved physician salutes you,” and to Timothy, “Luke only is with me.”
He also wrote another excellent volume to which he prefixed the title Acts of the Apostles, a history which extends to the second year of Paul’s sojourn at Rome, that is to the fourth year of Nero, from which we learn that the book was composed in that same city. . . .
He was buried at Constantinople to which city, in the twentieth year of Constantius, his bones together with the remains of Andrew the apostle were transferred [Lives of Illustrious Men 7].