1 Oct 2018 • From the Clergy
In the age of the tablet and the e-book, my uncompromising adherence to bound paper is something of an oddity. On the London Underground, as I turn the pages of my book, I am normally surrounded by people reading on Kindles or doing something on their phones, occasionally sneaking confused glances at this interloper with a suspicious, non-technological object. At Amsterdam Airport recently, another man of about my age and I were the only two people waiting for our flight reading books; everyone else - from small children to an elderly man in a wheelchair - was absorbed in something electronic. While I obviously deplore the collapse of civilisation this represents, I am also secretly disappointed to be deprived of the opportunity to be nosey and see what everyone else is reading. There is no way of knowing whether the bestseller lists are accurate or wondering whether anyone is actually reading the latest critically-acclaimed books. I have always had my suspicions about these lists and acclamations in any case, since they tend to represent aspirations or narrow interests rather than reality. In modern times, people tend to know the author (and even cite their arguments) without having read the work. Some of our most famous authors and thinkers are little more than names to many people; who has actually read all of Darwin or Dickens or Hawking or Marx? Most probably know more about the writer than their work.
When it comes to the gospels, however, the opposite is true. Even today, many passages or sayings remain in common usage even for those who have never read the Bible, but the authors are nothing more than names. While John is notably different, there is considerable overlap between the other three gospels. People too easily say things like, ‘the Bible says’ or, ‘as it says in the gospels’ without reflecting that behind these accounts lie different authors, shaping and reworking their material for particular purposes. That is something our editors have helpfully chosen to remind us this month, as we focus on Luke, whose feast day falls on 18th October.
Who was Luke? The short answer is that we don’t know. In certain sections of Acts he presents himself as a companion of Paul, and there is a man named Luke among Paul’s circle in Acts. However, nowhere is this connection explicitly made by the author himself, and the name Luke (much like Matthew, Mark and John) may well be nothing more than a traditional designation for a work written by someone called something completely different.
Whoever he was, Luke wrote the longest gospel and the only one with a sequel; Luke and Acts are clearly linked by their prologues, by the Ascension story, and by the way the ending of the gospel assumes the continuation. The earliest possible date of composition is around 65, the latest around 170 (Luke is cited in Irenaeus), with most scholars tending towards a date of 80-90, roughly the same time as Matthew was writing. Like Matthew, Luke used Mark and another shared source (usually called Q), as well as his own material, but while his work therefore shares much in common with Matthew and Mark, it is also a very different effort.
Luke opens both his books with an address to Theophilus. He may be a real person, although as the Greek name means ‘God-lover’, it is entirely possible that the intended audience is any believer seeking to know more. Luke takes the idea of a gospel, ‘good news’, seriously. His whole purpose is to demonstrate a God shown in Jesus who offers salvation to everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. He tells the story of Jesus and his place in God’s plan, then continues to follow the story through to demonstrate how people responded to this revelation and shaped the early church. It is possibly aimed at a Gentile community in the first instance, although the story has a far wider and more enduring relevance. It is a story written to convince, to encourage faith in Jesus Christ, and the fact that (for all the scholarly issues and questions) it still does so more than 1,900 years later is testament to its success. We may know little or nothing about the man wielding the pen which set down the gospel, but that fact alone is surely cause enough to celebrate him and his immense contribution to the Christian story.