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LUKE’S HISTORY: WHAT IT PROFESSES TO BE
AMONG the writings which are collected in the New Testament, there is included a History of the life of Christ and of the first steps in the diffusion of his teaching through the Roman world, composed in two books. These two books have been separated from one another as if they were different works, and are ordinarily called “The Gospel according to Luke” and “The Acts of the Apostles”. It is, however, certain from their language, and it is admitted by every scholar, that the two books were composed by a single author as parts of a single historical work on. a uniform plan. After a period of independent existence, this History in two books was incorporated in the Canon, and its unity was broken up: the first book was placed among the group of four Gospels, and the second was left apart.
Professor Blass has pointed out a trace of this original independent existence in the famous manuscript which was presented by the Reformer Beza to the University of Cambridge. In that manuscript the name of John is spelt in two different ways, the form Joanes being almost invariably used in Luke and Acts, and Joannes in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John.11Exceptions — one in Luke, two each in Matthew, Mark and Acts, seven in John. That slight difference in orthography leads us back to the time of some old copyist, who used as his authority a manuscript of the History of Luke, in which the spelling Joanes was employed, and different manuscripts of the other Gospels containing the spelling Joannes. Probably the spelling Joanes was that employed by the original author; and it is adopted in Westcott and Hort’s edition throughout the New Testament, except in Acts 4:6 and Revelation 22:8.
This historical work in two books is attributed by tradition to Luke, the companion and pupil of Paul. We are not here concerned with that tradition. Since all scholars are agreed that the same author wrote both books, we shall use the traditional name to indicate him merely for the sake of brevity, as it is necessary to have some name by which to designate the author; but we shall found no argument upon the authorship. Like Professor Blass, I see no reason to doubt the tradition; but those who do not accept the tradition may treat the name Luke in these pages as a mere sign to indicate the author, whoever he may be.
The point with which we are here specially concerned is the trustworthiness of this author as a historian. Many facts are recorded by him alone, and it is a serious question whether or not they can be accepted on his sole authority.
This is a subject on which there prevails a good deal of misapprehension and even confusion of thought. There are many who seem to think that they show fairness of mind by admitting that Luke has erred in this point or in that, while they still cling to their belief in other things, which he and he alone, records, on the ground that in those cases there is no clear evidence against him. But it must be said that this way of reasoning is really mistaken and unjustifiable: it refuses to make the inference that necessarily follows from the first admission.
While human nature is fallible, and any man may make a slip in some unimportant detail, it is absolutely necessary to demand inexorably from a real historian accuracy in the essential and critical facts. We may pardon an occasional instance of bias or prejudice; for who is wholly free from it? But we cannot pardon any positive blunder in the really important points. If a historian is convicted of error in such a vital point, he ceases to be trustworthy on his own account; and every statement that he makes must gain credit from testimony external to him, or from general reasons and arguments, before we accept it. Especially must this be the case with the ancient historians, who as a rule hide their authorities and leave us in the dark as to the reasons and evidence that guided them to formulate their statements. There may be — there always are — many facts which the poorest chronicler records correctly; but we accept each of these, not because of the recorder’s accurate and sound judgment in selecting his facts, but because of other reasons external to him. If there is in such a historian any statement that is neither supported nor contradicted by external evidence, it remains uncertain and is treated as possibly true, but it shares in the suspicion roused by the one serious blunder.
If we claim — and I have elsewhere in the most emphatic terms claimed — a high rank for Luke as regards trustworthiness, we must look fairly and squarely at the serious errors that are charged against him. If the case is proved against him in any of these, we must fairly admit the inevitable inference. If, on the other hand, we hold that the case is not proved, it is quite justifiable and reasonable, in a period of history so obscure as the first century, to plead, as many have done, that, while we cannot in the present dearth of information solve the difficulty completely, we are obliged, in accordance with our perception of the high quality of the author’s work as a whole, to accept his statement in certain cases where he is entirely uncorroborated. These must for the present rank among the difficulties of Luke. There are difficulties in every important Greek author, and each difficulty is the scholar’s opportunity.
But it must be the aim of those who believe in the high character of Luke’s History, to discover new evidence which shall remove these difficulties and justify the controverted statements. The progress of discovery has recently placed in our hands the solution of one most serious difficulty and the justification of one much controverted statement; and the following pages are written with the intention of showing what is the bearing of this discovery on the general question as to the historical credibility of Luke.
The whole spirit and tone of modern commentaries on Luke’s writings depend on the view which the commentators take on this question. In some cases the commentator holds that no historical statement made by Luke is to be believed, unless it can be proved from authorities independent of him. The commentary on Luke then degenerates into a guerrilla warfare against him; the march of the narrative is interrupted at every step by a series of attacks in detail. Hardly any attempt is made to estimate as a whole, or to determine what is the most favourable interpretation that can be placed on any sentence in the work. There is a manifest predilection in favor of the interpretation which is discordant with external facts or with other statements in Luke. If it is possible to read into a sentence a meaning which contradicts another passage in the same author, that is at once assumed to be the one intended by him; and his incapacity and untrustworthiness are illustrated in the commentary.
But no work of literature could stand being treated after this fashion. Imagine the greatest of pagan authors commented on in such a way; any slip of expression exaggerated or distorted; sentences strained into contradiction with other passages of the same or other authors; the commentary directed to magnify every fault, real or imaginary, but remaining silent about every excellence. There have occasionally been such commentaries written about great classical authors; and they have always been condemned by the general consent of scholars. Even where the bias of the commentator was due to a not altogether unhealthy revolt against general over-estimate of the author under discussion, the world of scholarship has always recognized that the criticism which looks only for faults is useless, misleading, unprogressive, and that. it defeats itself, when it tries to cure an evil by a much greater evil. Scholarship and learning sacrifice their vitality, and lose all that justifies their existence, when they cease to be fair and condescend to a policy of “malignity”.
In this discussion it is obviously necessary to conduct the investigation as one of pure history, to apply to it the same canons of criticism and interpretation that are employed in the study of the other ancient historians, and to regard as our subject, not “the Gospel according to Luke,” but the History composed by Luke. The former name is apt to suggest prepossession and prejudice: the latter is purely critical and dispassionate.
In estimating the character and qualities of an author we must look first of all to his opportunities. Had he good means of reaching the truth, or was his attempt to attain thorough knowledge of the facts made in the face of great difficulties? An historian ought to give us a statement of his own claims to be received as trustworthy, or an estimate of the character of the evidence which he had at his disposal.
Luke has not failed to put clearly before his readers what character he claims for his history. He has given us, in the prefatory paragraph of his Gospel, a clear statement of the intention with which he wrote his history, and of the qualifications which give him the right to be accepted as an authority. He was not an eye-witness of the remarkable events which he is proceeding to record, but was one of the second generation to whom the information had been communicated by those “who were from the beginning eye-witnesses and ministers of the word”. The simplest interpretation of his words is that he claims to have received much of his information from the mouths of eye-witnesses; and, on careful study of the preface as a whole, it seems impossible to avoid the conclusion that he deliberately makes this claim. Any other interpretation, though it might be placed on one clause by itself, is negatived by the drift of the paragraph as a whole.
Thus Luke claims to have had access to authorities of the first rank, persons who had seen and heard and acted in the events which he records. He makes no distinction as to parts of his narrative. He claims the very highest authority for it as a whole.
In the second place, Luke claims to have studied and comprehended every event in its origin and development, (παρηκολουθηκότι ἄνωθεν πᾶσιν ἀκριβῶς) i. e., to have investigated the preliminary circumstances, the genesis and growth of what he writes about. Exactness and definiteness of detail in his narrative — these are implied in the word ἄνωθεν: investigation and personal study implied in the word παρηκολουθηκότι: tracing of events from their causes and origin — implied in ἄνωθεν: such are the qualities which Luke declares to be his justification for writing a narrative, when many other narratives already were in existence; and he says emphatically that this applies to all that he narrates.
The expression used clearly implies that Luke began to write his narrative, because he was already in possession of the knowledge gained by study and investigation; as he begins, he is in the position of one who already has acquired the information needed for his purpose. This is implied in the perfect παρηκολουθηκότι. The rendering in the Authorized and the Revised Version does not bring this out quite clearly: from the English words — “it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first,22Better “from their origin”. to write unto thee in order” — one might infer that the study and tracing of the course of events was resolved upon with the view of writing the history. But in the Greek that meaning would require the aorist participle. With the perfect participle the meaning must be “as I already possess the knowledge, it seemed good to me, like the others, to write a formal narrative for your use.”
On this point, I am glad to find myself in agreement with Professor Sanday, who refuses to assume that Luke “began with the intention of writing a history, and accumulated materials deliberately in view of this intention all through his career”. We cannot assume that, for the author, by implication, denies it. But we may safely assume that he had both the intelligent curiosity of an educated33Expositor, Feb., 1896, p. 90. Greek, and the eager desire for knowledge about the facts of the Saviour’s life, natural in a believer who rested his faith and his hopes on the life and death of Christ.
Possibly some one may say that it is assuming too much when I speak of the author as an “educated” Greek. But any one who knows Greek can gather that from the preface alone. No one who had not real education and feeling for style could have written that sentence, so well balanced, expressed in such delicately chosen terms, so concise, and so full of meaning.
In the third place, Luke declares his intention to give a comprehensive narrative of the events in order from first to last (καθεξῆς σοι γράψαι). This does not necessarily imply a chronological order but a rational order, making things comprehensible, omitting nothing that is essential for full and proper understanding. In a narrative so arranged it stands to reason that, in general, the order will be chronological, though of course the order of logical exposition sometimes overrides simple chronological sequence (see chapter 10). Further, it is involved in the idea of a well-arranged History that the scale on which each event is narrated should be according to its importance in the general plan.
Finally the account which Luke gives is, as he emphatically declares, trustworthy and certain (ἵνα ἐπιγνῷς . . . τὴν ἀσφάλειαν). His expression indubitably implies that he was not entirely satisfied with the existing narratives. He does not, it is true, say that explicitly; he utters no word of criticism on his predecessors, and he declares that they got their information from eye-witnesses. But his expression distinctly implies that he considered that some advance was still to be made, either as regards completeness, or as regards orderly exposition of the facts, or as regards accuracy. In all probability the fault in the existing narratives which Luke had especially in mind was their incompleteness. They embodied the tradition of eye-witnesses and ministers of the Word “from the beginning” (ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς), which seems to imply “the beginning of the preaching of the Word”. We have to think of narratives in the form of the Gospel of Mark, with the opening: “the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — narratives that commence with some such stage as the baptism. In contrast to these narratives Luke claims to trace the whole series of events from their origin, i. e., from the higher or preliminary stage out of which they were derived ἄνωθεν).
It seems beyond doubt that, in speaking of the origin, Luke has in view the narrative which he proceeds to give of the birth and early days of the Savior. Therein lay the most serious addition that he made to the narratives of his predecessors; and for that addition in particular he claims the same high character as for the narrative as a whole: he has it from firstclass authorities — exact, complete and trustworthy (see chapter 4).
In view of the emphatic claim which Luke makes, that his whole narrative rests on the highest authority and is accurate and certain, it is obvious that we cannot agree with the attitude of those scholars, who, while accepting this whole History as the work of the real Luke, the follower and disciple and physician and intimate friend of Paul, are wont to write about the inadequacy of his authorities, the incompleteness of his information, the puzzling variation in the scale and character of his narrative according as he had good or inferior authorities to trust to. The writer of the preface would not admit that view: he claims to state throughout what is perfectly trustworthy.
It may be allowed, consistently with his own claim, that his information was not everywhere equally good and complete. Thus, for example, he would naturally have heard much more about the facts of the Savior’s life, than about the events of the few years that followed upon his death: attention would be concentrated on the former, and the latter would be much less thought about or inquired into. But this view cannot be carried far without coming into contradiction with the profession of the preface. And, above all, those who admit that the Luke of the Epistles, the friend and companion of Paul, was the author of this History must not attempt to explain the account given by Luke of important events in Paul’s life, such as the Apostolic Council (Acts 15, by the supposition that the author was not acquainted with Paul’s account of the facts and character of that most critical event. He who had been Paul’s companion during the stormy years following that Council, when its decision was the subject of keen debate and rival interpretations, must have known what were Paul’s views on the subject.
It is important to note that Luke in this preface distinguishes between the written accounts and the tradition of the eye-witnesses (καθὼς παρέδοσαν οἱ αὐτόπται). So far as the actual word tradition, or Paradosis, goes, it might, and in many cases does, refer to written narrative; but in the present case the logic of the passage clearly implies a pointed distinction between tradition and written narrative. There existed when Luke wrote, on the one hand, oral tradition from eye-witnesses, and, on the other hand, many narratives written by those who learned from the eye-witnesses and put the tradition in literary form; but there were as yet no written narratives composed by eye-witnesses. This inference is drawn by Professor Blass, and is distinctly implied in Luke’s preface. Luke may have known Mark’s Gospel, and probably used it; but he did not know the other two Gospels.
There can only be one conclusion, when the terms of Luke’s preface are duly weighed. Either an author who begins with a declaration such as that had mixed freely with many of the eye-witnesses and actors in the events which he proceeds to record, or he is a thorough impostor, who consciously and deliberately aims at producing belief in his exceptional qualifications in order to gain credit for his History. The motive for such an imposture could hardly be mere empty desire to be considered a true narrator. The man of that age, who was deliberately outraging truth, felt no such overpowering passion for the distinction of having attained abstract truth in history. He must have sought to put on the semblance of truth and authority in order to gain some end by conciliating belief in his narrative; he must have desired to gain credit in order that his party or his opinions might triumph. They who declare that the author belonged to a later age are bound to prove that there was some such intention in his mind.
Hitherto every attempt to show that the historian had such an aim in view has ended in complete failure. With regard to Book I., the Gospel, the attempt is ludicrous; the narrative is so transparently simple and natural that hardly any amount of prepossession could read into it such aims. With Book II., the Acts, we are not here concerned. Elsewhere I have tried to show what a single eye the author has in that book to the simple statement of facts as they actually happened; it seems to me to be almost as transparently simple and natural as the Gospel.
No rational theory, such as would for a moment be admitted in regard to an ordinary classical author, has ever been advanced to account for the supposition of deliberate imposture in the claims to credit advanced by Luke. If the author was an impostor, his work remains one of the most incomprehensible and unintelligible facts in literary history. One can imagine, for example, that Peter was written by a person who was so filled with the conviction that he was giving the views of his master, Peter the Apostle, as to express the letter in Peter’s name; the case might seem to him (from a mistaken point of view) to be not wholly unlike the expression of the old prophets, “thus saith the Lord”. That is a conceivable and rational hypothesis, though whether it be true or false we cannot say, and need not now inquire. No such rational hypothesis has yet been advanced to account for Luke’s far more elaborate, and therefore more deliberate, imposture.
But this abstract and rather intangible argument must yield to the demonstration of hard facts. So much we freely grant. Now it is asserted that the historian whom we are studying has been guilty of such serious and gross blunders, when he touches on matters of general history, that his information cannot have been so good as he pretends, and therefore he must be claiming too much when he arrogates such an authoritative character for his History. We shall feel bound to accept that argument; and, if the blunders are demonstrated, we must accept the necessary inferences and abandon our championship of his accuracy and trustworthiness. But let us first examine the demonstration.
We cannot investigate in this volume every “blunder” that is charged against Luke; but we shall treat one rather fully. If I may judge both from personal feeling, from conversation, and from many books, the “blunder” which most contributes to rouse prejudice against him as an historian, occurs at the very beginning, in that same episode on which he evidently lays such stress in his preface — the story of the Birth of Christ. In this story the enrollment or census of Palestine in the time of Quirinius is a critical point; and the doubt whether any such census as Luke describes was made, is the cause of important and far-reaching results. It is declared to be a blunder, or rather a complication of blunders; and if that be so, the entire story must be relegated to the realm of mythology, and the writer who mistakes fable for fact, and tries to prop up his mistake by an error of the grossest kind, can retain no credit as an historical authority.
In conclusion, we shall briefly refer to one or two other typical so-called “errors” in Luke.
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