The Reliability of Luke as a Historian
Christian apologists and missionaries believe that Luke was “inspired” and “inerrant,” even though Luke himself does not make such a claim in his books (Gospel according to Luke and Acts). One of the most popular argument often proposed by missionaries as “evidence” that Luke was “inspired”, or at least someone who we can blindly trust without second thoughts, is as follows: he was an excellent historian who conducted a careful investigation during the course of composing his books. It is claimed that Luke accurately named many countries, cities, that he accurately described certain events of his time, correctly named various officials with their proper titles and referred to places which have only recently been discovered. Therefore, this somehow “proves”, according to the apologists, that Luke’s story can be trusted in its entirety and that there is no room for doubts regarding his claims whatsoever.
1. We refer to the author as “Luke” simply for the sake of convenience and not because we believe that Luke authored the third Gospel and the Book of Acts. We might as well call the author “Max”, but because the third gospel is commonly known as the “Gospel according to Luke,” the name of Luke is retained.
According to vision board critical scholars, the third gospel, like all the gospels, is anonymously authored. That is to say, we really do not know who authored it. Nonetheless, even if we accept the traditional authorship claim, it remains that Luke was a non-eyewitness – he did not witness any of the alleged events from the life of Jesus first hand. Luke was a follower of Paul. According to the late Raymond Brown, it is possible that Luke, a minor figure who travelled with Paul for some time, wrote the third gospel and the book of Acts decades after Paul’s death. Brown writes:
We have no way of being certain that he was Luke, as affirmed by 2d-century tradition; but there is no serious reason to propose a different candidate.1
Similarly, Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley Porter accept traditional Lucan authorship but not wholeheartedly. They write (p. 295): “We are inclined to accept Lucan authorship, but not without some reservation …”2
Bart Ehrman, summing up the stance of critical scholars, writes:
Proto-orthodox Christians of the second century, some decades after most of the New Testament books had been written, claimed that their favorite Gospels had been penned by two of Jesus’ disciples – Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved disciple – and by two friends of the apostles – Mark, the secretary of Peter, and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul. Scholars today, however, find it difficult to accept this tradition for several reasons.
…none of these Gospels makes any such claim about itself. All four authors chose to keep their identities anonymous.3
As for the dating of Luke and Acts, most scholars place it in the 80 – 100 AD period. For instance, Paula Fredriksen places Luke between c. 90 – 100.4 E. P. Sanders dates the final form of the gospels between the years 70 and 90.5 Theissen and Merz place Luke anywhere between 70 C.E to 140/150 C.E — more in the first half of this period6 The late Catholic scholar and priest, Raymond Brown, placed Luke in the year 85 — give or take five to ten years7
2. It should be noted that the author of the third gospel and Acts nowhere claims to have been “inspired” by a higher source to write his accounts. Such arguments are listed by one missionary as follows:
Independent archaeological research has solidified the authenticity and the historical reliability of the New Testament. Some of the discoveries include:
- Luke refers to Lysanias as being the tetrarch of Abilene at the beginning of John the Baptist?s ministry, circa 27 A. D. (Luke 3:1) Historians accused Luke of being in error, noting that the only Lysanias known was the one killed in 36 B. C. Now, however, an inscription found near Damascus refers to “Freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch” and is dated from 14 and 29 A. D.
- Paul, writing to the Romans, speaks of the city treasurer Erastus (Romans 16:23). A 1929 excavation in Corinth unearthed a pavement inscribed with these words: ERASTVS PRO:AED:P:STRAVIT: (“Erastus curator of public buildings, laid this pavement at his own expense.”)
- Luke mentions a riot in the city of Ephesus which took place in a theater (Acts 19:23-41). The theater has now been excavated and has a seating capacity of 25,000.
- Acts 21 records an incident which broke out between Paul and certain Jews from Asia. These Jews accused Paul of defiling the Temple by allowing Trophimus, a Gentile, to enter it. In 1871, Greek inscriptions were found, now housed in Istanbul which read:
NO FOREIGNER MAY ENTER WITHIN THE BARRICADE WHICH SURROUNDS THE TEMPLE AND ENCLOSURE. ANYONE WHO IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO THANK FOR HIS ENSUING DEATH.
- Luke addresses Gallio with the title Proconsul (Acts 18:12). A Delphi inscription verifies this when it states, “As Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the Proconsul of Achaia …”
- Luke calls Publicus, the chief man of Malta, “First man of the Island.” (Acts 28:7) Inscriptions now found do confirm Publicus as the “First man”. (Josh McDowell, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense, pp. 110-111)
He goes on to present more similar citations and arguments:
The significance of such extra-Biblical evidence is of such magnitude that honest skeptics are now forced to agree that the Bible is historically accurate and reliable. One such person was Sir William Ramsey, considered one of the world’s greatest archaeologists. He believed that the New Testament, particularly the books of Luke and Acts, were second-century forgeries. He spent thirty years in Asia Minor, seeking to dig up enough evidence to prove that Luke-Acts was nothing more than a lie. At the conclusion of his long journey however, he was compelled to admit that the New Testament was a first-century compilation and that the Bible is historically reliable. This fact led to his conversion and embracing of the very faith he once believed to be a hoax.
Dr. Ramsey stated:
“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy … this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”
Ramsey further said: “Luke is unsurpassed in respects of its trustworthiness.” (Josh McDowell, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense, pp. 108-109)
Firstly, we should note that there is nothing in the above which would indicate that Luke was “inspired”or “inerrant” and that everything within his books can be trusted blindly. There is nothing here which would show that Luke was somehow “special”. Far from being remarkable, the above are very ordinary examples of Luke’s alleged accuracies. There is no reason to suppose that unless a person is inerrant or inspired, he or she cannot get such basic elementary facts straight. Such type of ordinary accuracies relating to certain factual matters are also to be observed in fictional books, which name, for instance, cities correctly, etc.
So what if Luke was able to name the various cities in existence in his time, accurately name officials of his time with their correct titles, name certain countries of his time, mention a theatre he knew about which has recently been discovered and accurately mention certain religious rites and practices of the time? There is nothing “extraordinary”about this. This only shows that Luke was a person who had basic education and was familiar with his surroundings. If I am not considered inspired and inerrant despite accurately naming fifty countries in existence today, accurately naming various world cities, accurately naming heads of state and various other officials together with their correct titles and ranks, accurately naming a few theatres around London together with a few additional tourist attraction sites and accurately describing the workings and practices of the local mosques and churches, then why must Luke be considered inerrant and inspired? These are utterly ordinary matters and such type of accuracies do not in anyway suggest that the person or book is “extraordinary”, “special”, or in anyway heavenly “inspired”.
Secondly, besides the above listed so-called wonderful “accuracies”, there are also grave inaccuracies within Luke’s gospel. The following are some inaccuracies and discrepancies within Luke’s Gospel and Acts over which there is widespread agreement among scholars, including devout Christian scholars:
- Luke forged a genealogy for Jesus (P) even though he (P) had no father. The genealogy has no historical standing. Worse, his genealogy contradicts the one forged by Matthew.
- Luke provides an infancy narrative which is irreconcilable with the infancy narrative provided by Matthew.
- Luke mentions a census under Quirnius during the birth of Jesus (P) which is almost universally recognized as a major historical blunder on Luke’s part.
In addition to the difficulties raised by a detailed comparison of the two birth narratives found in the New Testament, serious historical problems are raised by the familiar stories found in Luke alone.8 In Acts, Luke has Gamaliel referring to a revolt by Theudas which in fact took place years later after his speech. Again, there is widespread agreement among Christian scholars that Luke was in error on this occasion.
There is also general agreement among New Testament scholars that the speeches found in Acts are either the creations or adaptions of Luke.9 Furthermore, Luke’s story in Acts contradicts at a number of points with the information within the authentic Pauline epistles, something also generally acknowledged by scholars. Therefore Luke was a very errant writer, who made both mistakes and accuracies in his writings.10
Moving on, “inspired”Luke lifted 50% of his gospel from Mark — a secondary source authored by a non-eyewitness. Why would Luke do this if we are to suppose that he was accurately researching the issues and shifting through reliable first hand sources? We know from Luke?s opening words did he did not have a high regard for the previous narratives. Evangelical scholar Donald Guthrie writes:Luke?s preface is illuminating in regard to his own approach to his task. He claims to have made a comprehensive and accurate survey over a considerable period, which throws a good deal of light on his seriousness of purpose. Moreover, Luke admits that others had previously attempted the same task, but his words imply that he found them unsatisfactory . . .11
W.G. Kummel, in his classical introduction to the New Testament writes:
With his historical work Lk joins their ranks [ranks of his predecessors who composed gospel narratives], though he was not himself a witness from the beginning, because he feels the works of his predecessors to be in some way inadequate.12
Raymond Brown, on the other hand, says:
…neither evangelist [Matthew and Luke] liked Marks’s redundancies, awkward Greek expressions, uncomplimentary presentation of the disciples and Mary, and embarrassing statements about Jesus. When using Mark, both expanded the Markan accounts in the light of post-resurrectional faith.13
Yet Luke, our so called “reliable” historian, copies no less than 50% of his book from Mark, regarded as an unsatisfactory source! Raymond Brown mentions some of the ways on how Luke had use Mark:
- Luke improves on Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax, and vacabulary, e.g., in 4:1, 31, 38 and passim by omitting Mark’s overused “immediately”; in 20:22 by changing a Latinism like kensos (=census) from Mark 12:14; in 20:23 by substituting the more exact “craftiness, treachery” for the “hypocrisy” of Mark 12:15.
- Luke states at the beginning his intention to write carefully and in an orderly manner (1:3); accordingly he rearranges Marcan sequence to accomplish that goal, e.g., Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is put at the opening of the Galilean ministry rather than after some time had elapsed (Luke 4:16-30 vs. Mark 6:1-6) in order to explain why his Galilean ministry was centered at Capernaum; the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is placed before the call of Simon and companions (4:38-5:11 vs. Mark 1:16-31) in order to make more logical Simon’s willingness to follow Jesus; Peter’s denials of Jesus are put before the Sanhedrin trial in preference to Mark’s complicated interweaving of the two. At times Luke’s orderliness is reflected in avoiding Marcan doublets (Luke does not report the second multiplication of loaves) whereas Matt likes to double features and persons. Yet Luke has a double sending out of the apostles/disciples (9:1-2; 10:1).
- Because of changes made in material received from Mark, Luke occasionally creates inconsistencies, e.g., although in Luke 5:30 the partners in the conversation are “the Pharisees and their scribes,” 5:33 speaks of “the disciples of the Pharisees,” as if the Pharisees were not present; although in 18:32-33 Luke takes over from Mark the prediction that Jesus will be mocked, scourged, and spit on by the Gentiles, Luke (unlike Mark 15:16-20) never fulfills that prediction; Luke has changed the Marcan order of the denials of Peter and the Jewish mockery of Jesus but forgotten to insert the proper name of Jesus in the new sequence, so that at first blush Luke 22:63, in having “him” mocked and beaten, seems to refer to Peter, not Jesus. See also n. 67 above.
- Luke, even more than Matt, eliminates or changes passages in Mark unfavorable to those whose subsequent career makes them worthy of respect, e.g., Luke omits Mark 3:21,33,34 and (in 4:24) changes Mark 6:4 in order to avoid references detrimental to Jesus’ family; Luke omits Mark 8:22-26 which dramatizes the slowness of the disciples to see, and Mark 8:33 where Jesus calls Peter “Satan”; in the passion Luke omits the predicted failure of the disciples, Jesus’ finding them asleep three times, and their flight as reported in Mark 14:27,40-41,51-52.
- Reflecting Christological sensibilities, Luke is more reverential about Jesus and avoids passages that might make him seem emotional, harsh, or weak, e.g., Luke eliminates: Mark 1:41,43 where Jesus is moved with pity or is stern; Mark 4:39 where Jesus speaks directly to the sea; Mark 10:14a where Jesus is indignant; Mark 11:15b where Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers; Mark 11:20-25 where Jesus curses a fig tree; Mark 13:32 where Jesus says that the Son does not know the day or the hour; Mark 14:33-34 where Jesus is troubled and his soul is sorrowful unto death; Mark 15:34 where Jesus speaks of God forsaking him.
- Luke stresses detachment from possessions, not only in his special material (L), as we shall see below, but also in changes he makes in Mark, e.g., followers of the Lucan Jesus leave everything (5:11,28), and the Twelve are forbidden to take even a staff (9:3).
- Luke eliminates Mark’s transcribed Aramaic names and words (even some that Matt includes) presumably because they were not meaningful to the intended audience, e.g., omission of Boanerges, Gethsemane, Golgotha, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.
- Luke may make Marcan information more precise, presumably for better storyflow, greater effect, or clarity, e.g., Luke 6:6 specifies that the next scene (Mark 3:1: “again”) took place “on another Sabbath”; Luke 6:6 specifies “the right hand” and 22:50 “the right ear”; Luke 21:20 clarifies or substitutes for Mark’s “abomination of desolation”.14
The important point to note here is that Luke has used Mark and made a number of changes to its contents. New Testament scholars compare Luke and Mark to see how Luke is using his source (Mark) and adapting it. Mark is obviously not the only source employed by Luke, but since we know that he has altered the Markan stories in a variety of ways, it is only logical and reasonable to conclude that Luke must have done the same with the other sources at his disposal – he must have altered them as well to suit his agenda and presuppositions. Therefore, the fact that Luke accurately mentions certain ordinary details, such as naming cities correctly etc., does not follow that his story in its entirety can be trusted blindly. Thus the statement that “honest skeptics are now forced to agree that the Bible is historically accurate and reliable” is nothing more than nonsense. Critical scholars certainly do not regard Luke, or any book of the Bible, in its entirety to be “historically accurate and reliable” just because certain ordinary details are recorded accurately within them.
Although we have not gone into detail regarding the above mentioned issues, the aim was to simply highlight here some of the major problems within Luke’s writings over which we have a scholarly consensus. Thus contrary to Ramsey’s conclusion (and bear in mind that he was an apologist and not a balanced historian) the fact is that there is nothing “super”, “extraordinary” or “special” about Luke’s writing even if we buy all of Ramsey’s claims regarding Luke’s alleged accuracy on certain issues. Moreover, Luke also makes mistakes, some examples provided above. Of course apologists will challenge all of them, but remember that these are accepted as such and acknowledged by mainstream scholarship.
Instead, we come across a fairly ordinary writer who utilises sources at his disposal, making a variety of changes to them to suit his theological agenda, and one who makes errors at times and also gets certain facts right. None of the examples presented by these apologists suggest that the “Bible” (which is a collection of many individual books and letters by authors of varying degrees of education and literacy) is “historically reliable” as a whole.
Modern New Testament scholars do not entirely endorse Ramsey’s claims pertaining to Luke’ abilities as a historian and consider him to have exaggerated his case. To be more precise, the studies by Ramsey and others did at least establish that Acts was not a complete fiction authored in the mid-late second century period. The author is likely to be one writing sometime in the late first century, someone who was educated and well-travelled, and was using some traditions and sources at his disposal. There is no doubt that he does present accurate details, yet it is also a fact that his account is selective, romanticised at times and theologically motivated. We know that the author was not just relating bare incidents and events without changes but was adapting them to suit his purposes. Hence his work (the gospel and Acts) needs to be used carefully and critically by the historians.
The late Raymond Brown made a remark that Luke would have been a fitting candidate for membership in the brotherhood of Hellenistic historians, but he would never be made the president of the society.15 Howard Marshall, on the other hand, a major conservative evangelical scholar of our times who is quite charitable towards Acts, admits that:
“…he [Ramsey] was capable of making assertions about Luke’s historical accuracy which went beyond what could be shown by the available evidence.”16
Marshall talks about the “essential” reliability of Acts regarding historical matters and not its complete reliability. Sherwin-White, for instance, believes that “Luke makes mistakes, but the main thrust of his book is to demonstrate that for the most part Luke portrays the first-century Roman scene accurately.”17 Note this does not mean that we can accept all of Luke’ stories blindly. So while many modern scholars do not outright dismiss Acts and consider it to be more accurate than was previously thought, it is nonetheless recognized that its author is not without mistakes and does colour sources at his disposal for theological and apologetic reasons, which means that not everything within his books are historically accurate.
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament (The Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1997, Doubleday, p. 326 [back]
- See Lee Martin McDonald, Stanley E. Porter, Early Christianity And Its Sacred Literature, 2000, Hendrickson Publishers. For a more critical assessment, see Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, who dismiss the traditional authorship claims about the gospels in their The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, 1998, SCM Press Ltd. See also W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 1975, Revised Edition, SCM Press Ltd. Helmut Koester also discusses gospel authorships in his Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development, 1990, Trinity Press International. Also Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the New Testament and its Message: An Introduction, 1998, Paulist Press [back]
- Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2000, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, p. 52. For a defense of traditional authorship claims, see the following books by evangelical scholars: Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Master Reference Collection), Revised Edition, 1990, InterVarsity Press; D. A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Dr. Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament, 1992, Zondervan Publishing House. [back]
- See Paula Fredriksen, From Jesus To Christ: The Origins of the New Testament Images of Christ, Second Edition, 2000, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, pp. 3-4, 19. [back]
- See E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure Of Jesus, 1993, Penguin Books, p. 60. [back]
- Gerd Theissen, Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide , 1998, SCM Press Ltd. p. 32 [back]
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament (The Anchor Bible Reference Library), 1997, Doubleday, p. 247. Similar dates are also proposed in the following sources: Gerd Ludemann, Jesus After Two Thousand Years: What He Really Said and Did, 2001, Prometheus Books; Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, Second Edition, 2002, Oxford University Press; James L. Mays (General Editor), The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000, HarperSanFrancisco; Donald Senior, Jesus: A Gospel Portrait, New and Revised Edition, 1992, Paulist Press; W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 17th Revised edition, 1975, SCM Press Ltd; Vincent P. Branick, Understanding the New Testament and Its Message: An Introduction, 1998, Paulist Press; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. 1, 1991, 1st edition, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday; Also Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel Of Jesus, 2004, Penguin Books. These types of dates are accepted by the vast majority of New Testament scholars and the references provided above are only a few examples. For much earlier dates, see the aforementioned introductions by Donald Guthrie and Carson. See also John A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 2000, Wipf & Stock Publishers. [back]
- Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2000, Oxford University Press, p. 109 [back]
- Marshall believes that most of the speeches in Acts are based on traditional material, but he adds that they were never meant to be verbatim reports and that Luke has provided us with nothing more than brief summaries. Hence he leaves room for at least some Lucan creativity [I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 41]. Moreover, he acknowledges that Luke could not have known what Festus and Agrippa said to each other in their private apartments (25:13-22; 26:30-32) nor could the Christians have learnt what exactly was said by the members of the Sanhedrin in closed sessions (4:15-17; 5:34-40). Nonetheless, he speculates that perhaps Luke could have expressed the things that the public behaviour of rulers indicated that they had probably said in private (so some invention of speech by Luke did take place?) and that it is possible that some sympathizer from the Sanhedrin may have given Christians the gist of the conversation (ibid.). [back]
- Marshall admits that there are points of tension between Luke’s portrait of Paul and his own writing, but insists that they are not so substantial so as to make Acts entirely unhistorical (ibid.) [back]
- Donald Guthrie, B.D., M. Th., New Testament Introduction. The Gospels and Acts, 1966, Inter-Varsity Press, p. 87 [back]
- W. G. Kummel, Introduction To The New Testament, 17th Revised edition, 1975, SCM Press Ltd, p. 129 [back]
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, (The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, p. 115 [back]
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, pp. 263-265 [back]
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S, An Introduction To The New Testament, 1997, The Anchor Bible Reference Library, Doubleday, p. 322. [back]
- I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, p. 34 [back]
- I. Howard Marshall, Acts (The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 1980, Inter-Varsity Press, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, pp. 36-37 [back]