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Dating the Gospel of Luke (part 4)

Meet Luke – the 800 pound gorilla

If the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written as late as 85 AD by a person claiming to have interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus and claiming to have been a living companion of Paul, it would have been known by those still living who witnessed those events whether the account were true. If it were not, it could not have been accepted and quoted by the Church Fathers as genuine and quoted approvingly. The brief “JFK allegory” (part 1) explains why such an obvious fiction so close to the time span of the account could not have been accepted as authentic and reliable.

But beyond this, we should consider why a late date is deemed necessary in the first place. The culprit thesis behind the late dating of Luke is the wide – although by no means universal – acceptance of the priority of Mark. The date for the second Gospel is most often used as the anchor and all other books of the New Testament are arranged around this date.

The following is from Craig Davis’ e-book, Dating the New Testament:

There are three observations about the synoptic gospels that all seem true from a conservative perspective. However, on the surface, they are not consistent and at least one of them must be false. These observations are:

1. Luke was written before 63 A.D., based on the ending of the book of Acts.
2. Luke is dependent on Mark, so Mark was written before Luke.
3. Mark was written after 65 A.D., after Mark was in Rome.

The most common rejection is number one. However, there are two compelling points for an early dating of Luke. There is no persecution by the Roman authorities mentioned in Acts. Yet we know from several sources that Nero began a mass Empire-wide persecution of Christianity in 64 AD. There is no mention of the death of James, the brother of Jesus, the presiding bishop of the church at Jerusalem. We know from several accounts that James was martyred around 63 AD.

The Dating of Luke and Acts

J.A.T. Robison – a liberal theologian and New Testament scholar who denied the divinity and resurrection of Jesus and biblical accounts of miracles – once did a study using all the internal and external evidence available to determine the earliest possible dates of each of the New Testament books. The result of the study was published as the book, Redating the New Testament. Robinson came to the conclusion that there is nothing that would preclude a date of early composition for all four Gospels – between 40 to 60 AD.

Since even most conservatives place them later – the Synoptics from 61 to 67 AD with a later date for John – Robinson’s thesis constitutes “admission against self-interest.” The author is simply being intellectually honest in demonstrating that there is no internal evidence that would preclude early dating, and in light of the external testimony of the Church Fathers, this early end of the spectrum becomes more likely than the later extremes favored by his colleagues.

In the 19th century, liberals put the Gospels much later, even toward the end of the second century. That was the scenario offered until the discovery of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri which almost without doubt places every New Testament book in the first century. Yet liberals and skeptics cling to an old paradigm. They place the dates at the latest possible time, now thought to be from 70 to 85 AD, for the three Synoptic Gospels and 90 to 100 AD for the Gospel of John. However, a number of other liberal scholars have defected from the late date view, Eta Linnemann being another of the most recent and well-known. The Gospels could very well be earlier than many people suppose – even as early as 40 AD. Conservatives are actually in the main stream by putting most New Testament books from 55 to 67 AD.

Most scholars see an ongoing oral tradition that preceded the Gospels with a few written source-Gospels (or “proto-Gospels”) that later became the basis for the Synoptics. These source Gospels are often thought of as the compilations that Luke mentions in the introduction to his Gospel.

Many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught (Luke 1:1-3).

It is often assumed that Mark, (and sometimes) Matthew, and at least one other source, are among the “many who have undertaken to compile an account.” However, the word for “undertaken” or “taken in hand” is the Greek word, epicheireō, which occurs two other places in the New Testament.

And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him (Acts 9:29).

Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches” (Acts 19:13).

The word epicheireō can be translated many different ways, but the meaning is simply “to make an attempt.” It does not follow that the idiom used in some English translations, “taken it in hand,” means that Luke is referring to written Gospels. In fact, the word for “account,” diēgēsis, in English is a “recitation” or a “narration.” The classical usage of diēgēsis is a complete account comprising a self-contained universe in which the presence of the narrator intrudes into the story. In Greek drama, this was contrasted with mimēsis, a story in which characters appear and action is described, but into which the narrator never intrudes as a character.

The Gospel accounts take a form in which the narrator is an eyewitness or is relating a story by known eyewitnesses. Matthew intrudes into the Gospel according to Matthew as the “tax collector,” who in the other Gospels is known only by his surname Levi. According to patristic tradition, Mark intrudes into his Gospel as an unnamed “youth” who flees the arresting soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. John intrudes into his Gospel as one of the few unnamed Apostles, know only as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” These literary devices are part of the diēgēsis of the account.

Scene from Blazing Saddles (1974)

To use a familiar example, diēgēsis is sometimes used as a gag in modern comedies. In the Mel Brooks’ film, Blazing Saddles, the new sheriff rides on horseback across the desert to swelling sound. The audience is accustomed to think that the character must not be aware of the music, because soundtracks in movies usually serve as a mimēsis, a musical representation or descriptive soundtrack to complement what is being watched. But as the camera pans across the scenery to follow the horse’s tracks, eventually the audience sees Count Basie and his big band playing “April in Paris” in the middle of the desert – a ridiculously funny juxtaposition. The diēgēsis works as an joke because the audience is taken by surprise to see a conductor and his musicians intruding into the film as characters – a sort of reverse dramatic irony.

Likewise, the sudden occurrence of the word “we” in the later narrative of Acts is just as odd and startling. It appears without explanation. However, the author is assuming that his immediate audience, Theophilus, already knew that Luke was a companion of Paul. Therefore, as Luke already stated in his “former account” (Acts 1:1) the immediate audience assumes that Luke is giving sure chronological knowledge of the events through careful investigation. Further, the Acts of the Apostles is similar to a Greek drama in which one of the characters is the narrator himself who finally intrudes into the concluding scenes. If this were not the case, then the sudden use of the first person would seem just as illogical as the appearance of Count Basie in Blazing Saddles. But why is the intrusion so sudden with no explanation? If the author was intending to create a believable fiction, then why is the false claim to participation restricted to just a few passages? Why doesn’t the narrator assert himself more forcefully in such a way that the reader might not miss the point? The most probable conclusion is that Luke’s audience was already aware of the relationship. Luke is the reliable narrator of the story. The first person, “I” and “we” is simply a reminder that the diēgēsis of Acts includes Luke’s actual presence and intimate involvement with the narrative.

It is extremely difficult in the world of fiction to create a self-contained universe in which the audience can suspend all disbelief. The more complex the story, the more difficult it is to portray a self-contained world with no internal contradictions. Blazing Saddles makes fun of movie-making conventions by having several off-camera audience presumptions spill over to the on-screen action. We suspend our disbelief in order to allow for a musical soundtrack. But this presumption comes crashing down when the camera pans on to a full orchestra playing in a western landscape. However, this is the way that liberal critics view Luke’s Gospel and Acts – as a work of legend written by a anonymous author who expects his audience to simply suspend their disbelief and accept the backdrop of a first person narrator as an accepted literary convention even when he stumbles clumsily into the action.

The person to whom Luke is writing his Gospel, Theophilus, a Christian in Asia Minor, had heard Gospel accounts compiled by people who had in turn heard one or more of the Apostles preach – Paul, Peter, Apollos, or some other disciples of Jesus – and now wished to put it all together. Since Luke was Paul’s traveling companion and had heard many of the Apostles preach, he had memorized the narrative and had also investigated what had happened in the correct chronological order plus a few other important facts that were often left out of these other accounts.

We also have to grapple with the statement by Luke that the Gospel is being written “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” The obvious intention is to convince the reader of truthfulness of the events described in the book. Taken with the narrative of Acts, it can be assumed that the immediate audience already knew of Luke’s association with the Apostles, especially Paul, and therefore Luke can appeal to their authority in claiming his account is correct. Further, the phrase, “the things you have been taught,” indicates a prior familiarity with at least portions of the account that Luke is about to relate.

According to the Church Fathers, Luke’s Gospel is essentially the Gospel that Paul preached. If this were true, then it is reasonable to assume that there should be some internal evidence within the New Testament itself that demonstrates that Paul’s Gospel is the source of the narrative written by Luke. Here the relationship of Luke’s narrative to Paul’s letters is too often neglected or downplayed by the liberal critics. The letters of Paul are usually placed first in the chronology of New Testament books.

However, there are a number of direct quotations and allusions to the Gospels in Paul’s writings. The most notable one is a direct quotation from Luke 22:19,20 in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. This would seem to prove a date of early composition for at least a form of a Gospel identical to Luke 22:19,20 prior to 55 AD when 1 Corinthians was written. The two most logical explanations is that either Luke wrote prior to 1 Corinthians or that this quotation is actually “Paul’s Gospel” from which the Gospel according to Luke assumed its final written form.

Using the same reasoning, the audience to whom the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles is addressed would also be either familiar with the events described in Acts or would know other Christians who had lived during the time of these events. To concoct a narrative with fictional elements would be an absurd exercise even as late as 85 AD. To then have the narrative quickly pass into the canon of inspired writings would be even more absurd. Yet this is the scenario proposed by liberals and taught as accepted fact in their divinity schools.

Your comments are welcome!

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