Introduction to Luke

by Ed Gallagher

Maarten van Heemskerck, St. Luke Painting the Virgin, 1532, Wikimedia Commons

None of the Gospels name their authors in the text. The traditional titles (Gospel according to Matthew; Gospel according to Mark; etc.) are known from the Greek manuscripts of the Gospels and from our earliest sources that mention them, going back to the second century. The Gospels never circulated under any other names (as far as we know); in other words, the Gospel we know as “according to Matthew” was never attributed to Thomas, or Peter, or Paul, but always Matthew. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the attribution to Matthew is correct, but it is consistent. The same holds true for Mark and Luke and John. It is still possible that these attributions are simply guesses by early readers, but they are odd guesses (why would someone guess at Mark, or Luke?), and if they were simply guesses one would think that different people would make different guesses. The consistency (and oddness) of the attribution is a point in favor of the authenticity of the tradition.1 

About Luke and John, there is a little more to say. The Fourth Gospel never names its author, but it does name “the Beloved Disciple” as the source of its material (John 21:24). Presumably the original audience would have known the identity of this disciple. As for the Third Gospel, the author names an addressee, Theophilus (Luke 1:3). Not only would the author have been known to Theophilus but most likely the author’s name would have been attached to the book originally. 

If the author is Luke, we still know very little about him. The name “Luke” appears in only three passages in the New Testament. 

Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you.

Colossians 4:14

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

2 Timothy 4:11

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.

Philemon 23–24

It is the passage in Colossians that suggests that Luke may be a Gentile, since he seems to be separated from “those of the circumcision” (Col 4:11). These passages also show that Luke was a companion to Paul, which is consistent with the author of the Third Gospel, who was also apparently a companion of Paul. That last suggestion is based on two propositions: (1) the Third Gospel and Acts were written by the same person—as almost all scholars acknowledge, and as a comparison of Luke 1:1–4 and Acts 1:1–2 validates; and (2) the author of Acts traveled with Paul, as attested by the “We Passages” in Acts, that is, the passages in which the author narrates as if he himself were a part of the action. “When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia” (Acts 16:10). (The “We Passages” are Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16.)

At any rate, whoever the author was, I will use the traditional name and refer to him as Luke.2 

Counting the Gospel and Acts together, Luke was responsible for more of the New Testament than any other author. Luke and Acts together make up about 28% of the New Testament by word count.3 

The Structure of the Gospel 

As we will see in the next section, the Gospel of Luke—or, more properly, the Gospel (of Jesus) according to Luke—has the same basic structure as the other Gospels: from the baptism of Jesus to his death and resurrection, with teaching and miracles in between. It is now widely recognized that the way this story is told is similar to the way ancient people wrote biographies (as argued by Richard Burridge). So while the Gospels may not conform to our expectations for biographies—since they concentrate on only a small slice of Jesus’ life—ancient readers would have classified them as biographies. 

Within that basic structure shared by all the Gospels, each Gospel has some unique elements. One obvious difference is where they all choose to begin telling their story. Mark begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, leading immediately to the baptism of Jesus, which is the start of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew, instead, begins with the birth of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John the Baptist. And John begins before creation, identifying Jesus with the eternal Word of God. 

For Luke, the big question is whether the author intended from the first to write a two-volume work (Luke and Acts) or whether the idea to write the history of the church after Jesus’ resurrection came to Luke only after completing his Gospel. Most scholars these days think that Luke had the full work in mind from the beginning, so much so that scholars are in the habit of referring to the complete work as Luke-Acts to indicate its unity. An influential early scholar who argued for this position more than eighty years ago was Henry Cadbury, who wrote that Luke and Acts “are not merely two independent writings from the same pen; they are a single continuous work. Acts is neither an appendix nor an afterthought. It is probably an integral part of the author’s original plan and purpose.”4 He suggested that (on analogy with other similar multi-volume ancient works) we should perhaps call the two volumes To Theophilus I and To Theophilus II, but Cadbury eventually settled on a minor tweaking of the traditional titles by just adding the hyphen, Luke-Acts.5 If Cadbury is right and Luke did plan out his work as including Acts from the beginning, it may be that in writing his Gospel he highlighted certain themes that would come up again in Acts, or perhaps he omitted certain themes because he knew he would address them in Acts. For instance, Luke generally (not completely) portrays the apostles more positively than does Mark or Matthew, and maybe that’s because they would play such a big (and positive) role in Acts. Also, the Third Gospel contains fewer interactions between Jesus and Gentiles, and more between Jesus and Samaritans, perhaps because of the way these themes would feature in Acts.

But now limiting ourselves to Luke’s Gospel, we notice a unique structure. Not quite halfway through the Gospel, there is a major transition at Luke 9:51. 

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Luke 9:51

Jesus actually arrives in Jerusalem (the Triumphal Entry) at the end of ch. 19, so he is on his way to Jerusalem for about ten chapters. This is Luke’s Travel Narrative. A few times during the Travel Narrative, Luke reminds his readers that Jesus is still heading toward Jerusalem (13:22; 17:11). It is in this section that there appears much of the material that is unique to Luke. 

So the Gospel has this basic structure. 

  • Preface (1:1–4)
  • Preparation (1:5–4:13)
  • Ministry in Galilee (4:14–9:50), with much material paralleling Mark
  • Travel Narrative (9:51–19:28), with much unique material
  • Passion/Resurrection Narrative (19:29–24:53)

The Synoptic Problem 

(For a full comparison of material in Luke with Matthew and Mark, see here.)

The first three Gospels are called “Synoptic Gospels” because their many parallel passages can easily be arranged in a synopsis to show the similarities and differences among their tellings of the same stories. The Gospel of John, on the other hand, is wholly different, not only in the stories it tells but in its structure (with frequent festivals providing much of the setting) and geographical emphasis (Jesus is in Judea most of the time, not Galilee). The Synoptic Gospels all have their differences, of course, but they are all structured more-or-less the same: narrating the baptism of Jesus near the beginning of the Gospel, telling about the ministry of Jesus in Galilee—including his teaching in parables, his casting out demons (neither demons nor parables appear in John), his appointment of twelve disciples as his special envoys, his preaching the kingdom of God (another theme largely absent from John)—and then describing his journey to Jerusalem for Passover, where he would be crucified and then resurrected from the dead. 

The three Synoptic Gospels tell this story so similarly that scholars have assumed that there must be some literary relationship among the three, that is, one must have used the other(s) as a source. The passage about John the Baptist provides a good illustration of the issues. (Note that in the following comparison I have rearranged Matthew 3:4–5 in order to match Mark’s arrangement.) 

Matthew 3Mark 1Luke 3
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 
8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Here we have some material that is shared among all three Gospels, some material that is shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark, and some material that is unique to Luke. The only major category of material in these three Gospels that is not represented by this passage is material unique to Matthew, but if we kept reading in the immediately following verses, we would find some such material, since Matthew narrates the baptism of Jesus in a distinctive way. On the other hand, there is hardly any material unique to Mark—that is, almost the entirety of Mark is paralleled in Matthew and/or Luke. (But see below for Marcan material absent from Luke.) 

As I mentioned earlier, the nature of the similarities among the Synoptic Gospels suggests to most (all?) people that the later Gospel writers must have used the earlier Gospels as a source. For the past couple centuries, most (not all) scholars who have studied the issue have determined that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. (See Wikipedia on Marcan Priority.) The reason for thinking that Mark must have come first and not the other way around is that Mark is shorter, and Mark’s language is less sophisticated. It would have been odd for someone to take a longer and more polished Gospel and to cut material out and make its language less polished. 

But what about the material shared by Matthew and Luke but not Mark? Did Matthew use Luke alongside Mark, or did Luke use Matthew alongside Mark? I’m not sure that anyone has ever thought that Matthew used Luke, but the idea that Luke used Matthew (and Mark) does have a following, and seems to be gaining in popularity over the past several decades (the Farrer Hypothesis). It could be relevant that Luke mentions that “many” had already undertaken to write accounts of Jesus’ life before he did (Luke 1:1). 

If it is not the case that Luke used Matthew, then where did they both get the same non-Marcan material? It could be that there was some other written source available to Matthew and Luke that has subsequently been lost. This is the Q-hypothesis. The letter Q stands for the German word Quelle, meaning “source.” This Q-source is hypothetical, based on guesswork, but educated guesswork. Most of the material that Matthew and Luke share that is not in Mark—that is, most of the Q material—is “sayings” material, especially sayings from Jesus. So the idea is that maybe there was an early collection of the sayings of Jesus, and maybe Matthew and Luke both had access to this collection.6 

Just to summarize: almost everybody would say that Mark was the first Gospel, but there are some who wouldn’t (the Griesbach Hypothesis). Among those who do hold to Marcan Priority, there are two main ways of explaining how Matthew and Luke have so much common material that is not in Mark: most believe that Matthew and Luke used some other document consisting mostly of the sayings of Jesus (Q), but others think that Luke used Matthew (the Farrer Hypothesis). I myself do accept Marcan Priority, but I am not sure whether Q or the Farrer Hypothesis makes most sense. 

Luke does not include all of Mark’s material, but he does use Mark’s Gospel for the basic storyline.7 Here is a list of material in Mark omitted by Luke. 

Sections of Mark omitted (sections marked * also omitted in Matthew)

  • *3:20–21, family thinks he’s crazy
  • 4:26–29, seed sprouting at night
  • 4:33–34, summary about parables
  • 6:45–52, walking on water
  • 6:53–56, healing at Gennesaret
  • 7:1–23, eating with unwashed hands (cf. Luke 11:37–40)
  • 7:24–30, Syrophoenician woman
  • *7:31–37, deaf man healed
  • 8:1–10, feeding 4000
  • *8:22–26, man healed twice
  • 9:9–13, Resurrection and Elijah discussion following Transfiguration
  • 9:41, cup of water
  • 10:1–12, divorce
  • 10:35–45, request from James and John
  • 11:12–14, 20–21, cursing fig tree
  • 11:22–24, on faith
  • 11:25, on forgiveness
  • 14:27–28, prediction of scattered sheep
  • *14:51–52, naked young man
  • 15:16–20, soldiers mocking
  • 15:34–35, cry of dereliction
  • 15:36, sponge with wine

Luke’s Unique Material 

Aside from the material that Luke shares with Mark and/or Matthew, there is also the material unique to Luke. About half of the Gospel finds no parallel in Matthew or Mark (or John, of course), whereas about a quarter of the Gospel corresponds to material in Mark (and perhaps Matthew) and another quarter is Q material (i.e., parallel to Matthew but not Mark). The unique material includes the very beginning (Infancy Narrative) and the very end (Resurrection Narrative) of the Gospel, as well as much of the middle section (the Travel Narrative, 9:51–19:28). 

Luke has many parables that have no parallel in the other Gospels. 

  • Good Samaritan (10:25–37)
  • Friend at Midnight (11:5–8)
  • Rich Fool (12:16–21)
  • Unfruitful Fig Tree (13:6–9)
  • Seats at the Banquet (14:7–11)
  • Lost coin (15:8–10)
  • Prodigal Son (15:11–32)
  • Dishonest Manager (16:1–13)
  • Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19–31)
  • Widow and the Dishonest Judge (18:1–8)
  • Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:10–14)

Luke emphasizes several themes more prominently than do other Gospels, including prayer, repentance, sinners in Jesus’ ministry, wealth and poverty, and Samaritans. He talks about John the Baptist more than any other Gospel. Luke contains a genealogy very different from the one we find at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. Luke refers to Jesus as “Lord” more than the other Gospels.8

It is this unique material that will serve as the basis for our lessons. 

Reception of Luke

For a full study of the early reception of Luke, see Andrew Gregory (2003).

The earliest manuscripts we have for Luke (as for all the New Testament writings) are often quite small. A good example is the manuscript known as P111 (= Papyrus # 111), from the third century. It was originally a codex (= book, not scroll) of the Gospel of Luke (and maybe more?), but now it survives only as a tiny fragment containing merely Luke 17:11–13, and 17:22–23 on the back (images here). This is the entire fragment (with additional writing on the back of the fragment).  

Papyrus 111, containing Luke 17:11–13, 22–23, third century, Oxyrhynchus, now in the Sackler Library (Oxford), Wikimedia Commons

Other tiny fragments of Luke include P69 (3rd cent.), P82 (4th cent.), 0171 (4th cent.).

There are some more substantial manuscripts, though, from the early centuries. The earliest copy of all four Gospels in one manuscript (along with Acts) is P45 from the third century (images here). 

We have no manuscripts of Luke from as early as the second century. Actually, a few manuscripts might possibly be that early, but the dating is debated, and it is probably safer to conclude that they are from the third century. 

P75 (description here, images here) in its present form contains Luke 3:18–24:53 followed by John. It has been proposed that this papyrus codex may have contained all four Gospels. This manuscript preserves the ending of the Third Gospel and the beginning of the Fourth Gospel. 

Papyrus 75, Vatican Library, Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia has the image above, or you can get a better look at the Vatican’s website (image 2A.8r.). You can see at the top that the ending of the Third Gospel says εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Λουκᾶν (euangelion kata Lukan, “gospel according to Luke”) and the beginning of the Fourth Gospel says εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Ἰωάνην (euangelion kata Iōanēn, “gospel according to John”). 

P4, now considered part of the same manuscript known as P64 and P67, containing Matthew. The combination papyrus codex now contains material from Matthew chapters 3, 5, 26, and Luke chapters 1–6. It is also possible that this codex originally contained all four Gospels. 

There is no known manuscript in which Luke certainly circulated either alone or with only Acts. It is always known as a companion to at least one of the other Gospels. 

As for what early Christians said about Luke, there are several writers in the late second century that talk about Luke as the author of the Third Gospel. (On the early reception of the Gospels as a collection, see Gallagher and Meade, pp. 32–39.) Writers in the earlier part of the second century (e.g., Papias, Justin Martyr) do not mention Luke, though they may have made use of his Gospel. The earliest person to mention Luke was apparently Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyons, who wrote in about AD 180. After quoting the “We Passages” of Acts, Irenaeus says, “Since Luke had been present at all these events, he carefully wrote them down.”9 Irenaeus goes on to explain at some length Luke’s credentials for writing Acts and the Gospel. 

Through him [= Luke] we have learned very many quite important parts of the gospel, as the birth of John and the story about Zacharias, and the coming of the angel to Mary, and the cry of Elisabeth, and the coming down of the angels to the shepherds, and the things that were spoken by them, and the testimony of Anna and Simeon concerning the Christ, and how when twelve years old he was left behind in Jerusalem, and the baptism of John and at what age the Lord was baptized, and that it was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar.

Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.3

Irenaeus continues pointing out the passages unique to Luke, arguing that our preaching and our knowledge about Jesus would be greatly diminished if we did not have this Gospel. 

Another early testimony to Luke is the Muratorian Fragment, which is a brief introduction to the New Testament written probably in the late second or early third century. 

The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken him with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events, so indeed he begins to tell the story from the birth of John.

Muratorian Fragment (Gallagher and Meade, pp. 175–83)

From very early, then, at least late in the second century, the consensus view associates the Third Gospel with Luke and attributes to it authority alongside the other three Gospels. We also begin to have surviving manuscripts from around the same period, and manuscripts even of the four Gospels together from the third century. 


(1) For an argument that the traditional titles in the manuscripts are very early, see Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000); Graham N. Stanton, Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). For more on the titles in the manuscripts, see Simon J. Gathercole, “The Titles of the Gospels in the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 104 (2013): 33–76, available here

(2)  For a comprehensive evaluation of the tradition of Luke as author of the Third Gospel, see F. J. Foakes Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, eds., The Beginnings of Christianity, part 1: The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2: Prolegomena II: Criticism (London: Macmillan, 1922), 207–359. 

(3) Joel B. Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 2n5, gives the following statistics, based on the third edition of the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament: New Testament word count, 137,888; Luke-Acts, 37,951; thirteen canonical Pauline letters, 32,429. 

(4) Henry J. Cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts, 2d ed. (London: SPCK, 1958), 8–9. 

(5) There has been some resistance to this way of looking at Luke and Acts; see Andrew F. Gregory and C. Kavin Rowe, eds., Rethinking the Unity and Reception of Luke and Acts (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2010). 

(6) On the Q material in Luke, see C. F. Evans, Saint Luke, TPI New Testament Commentaries (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990), 21–26. He discusses various proposals for Luke using Matthew, ultimately settling on the Q hypothesis.

(7) On Luke’s use of Mark, see Evans, Saint Luke, 17–19. 

(8) Evans, Saint Luke 26–27, provides a full list of material unique to Luke. 

(9) Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.1, quoted from Henry J. Cadbury, “The Tradition,” in Foakes Jackson and Lake, Beginnings of Christianity, vol. 2, 209–64, at 215. See also the Anti-Marcionite Prologues and the Monarchian Prologues here. Two other important “receivers” of Luke’s Gospel in the second century are Marcion and Tatian, but both are problematic. 

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