Sunday 24 October 2010
Was St Luke a Jew?
Someone recently took issue with me over a statement I had made to the effect that the entire Bible, including the New Testament,was written by Jews. What about Luke? He wasn't a Jew; he was a Gentile.
First of all, I think most scholars simply assume Luke was a Gentile but among those who seek to defend the Gentile identity of Luke, the only real line of argument they have stems from Colossians 4:7-14, where Paul concludes the letter by listing the various people who were with him as he was writing the epistle. He mentions some who were of “the circumcision” (Col. 4:10-11), which included Aristarchus, Mark and Jesus called Justus. In v 14, Paul refers to Luke, the beloved physician, but because Luke is not mentioned among those of “the circumcision”, it is assumed he was not a Jew. However, in his commentary on Luke, the respected New testament scholar E. Earle Ellis points out that this line of reasoning is far from conclusive:
The large majority of scholars believe that Luke was a gentile. Although appeal is made to Luke’s good Greek, Col. 4: 10f., 14 is the only strong argument for the prevailing view. Luke is excluded from those ‘of the circumcision’. However, the meaning of the passage is not at all clear. One need not, with C. F. D. Moule … and C. C. Torrey … only call attention to the ambiguous wording of Col 4: 11. There is a more important question: who are those ‘of the circumcision’? In some passages the phrase can simply mean ‘the Jews’ (e.g., Rom. 4: 12).But there is no instance with the certain meaning, ‘Jewish Christians’. F. F. Bruce … thinks that outside Acts the phrase refers to Judaizers, that is, Jewish Christians who want to impose the Mosaic Law upon Gentile believers. This meaning fits Gal. 2: 12 and Tit. 1: 10 (‘the circumcision party’, RSV). But it is impossible at Col. 4:11…
Although not provable, this explanation accounts for the New Testament use of the phrase. To identify those ‘of the circumcision’ merely as Jewish Christians does not. Without that identification the evidence that Luke was a gentile disappears. There is no proof, of course, that he was not. But the balance of probabilities favours the view that Luke was a hellenistic Jew. This leaves open the possibility that Luke is the Lucius (Paul’s cousin?) mentioned in Rom. 16: 21. Like Silas and Silvanus, Luke and Lucius were alternate forms of the same name. (E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke. New Century Bible Commentary, Marshall, Morgan & Scott/Eerdmans, pp 52f)
Mikeal C. Parsons recent commentary, Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist (Hendrickson, 2007), also leans toward Luke’s Jewish identity.
Secondly, there is further support for the Jewishness of Luke in Romans 3, where Paul asks the rhetorical question, “What advantage has the Jew?”. He answers: “Much every way, chiefly because that to them were committed the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:1-2). The Jewish nation was the vehicle of God’s revelation to the other nations. If Luke was a Gentile then most of the New Testament “oracles” were committed to a non-Jew, because Luke and Acts make up over half the New Testament writings.
Fourthly, evidence that Luke was a Jew can be found in the book of Acts. Luke was a constant companion of Paul from the time Paul sailed from Troas to Europe. He accompanied Paul on his last trip to Jerusalem and was an eyewitness to the arrest of Paul in the Temple in Acts 21 after he was accused of taking Gentiles into the Temple precincts.
Luke records that Paul had been seen on the streets of Jerusalem with “Trophimus an Ephesian”. It would seem Paul had taken Trophimus to Jerusalem so the apostles could see some of the fruit of his ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles. Even though the charge against Paul was false, the rumour spread among the people and caused a near riot on the Temple Mount. This was the reason for which Paul was arrested.
This raises an interesting point. When the Jews in Jerusalem accused Paul of taking a Gentile into the Temple, they pointed to Trophimus. If Luke was a Gentile, why didn’t Paul’s accusers use Luke as evidence? The fact that Luke is not mentioned in the accusation is a strong indication that he was not a Gentile.
Fifthly, another argument for the idea that Luke was a Jew is that his Gospel is very Jewish and he demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the Temple, more so than Matthew or John, and certainly more than Mark. When Luke describes the announcement to Zacharias concerning the birth of John the Baptist, he provides considerable detail to describe the service of the Levitical priests according to their families. He describes the place where Zacharias the priest was standing before the altar of incense, when the angel appeared to him (Luke 1:8-20). The fact that Luke alone of the four Gospel writers provides us with this account and does so in such vivid detail, argues for his being a Jew, familiar with the Temple procedures.
A final argument for the Jewish identity of Luke is the close contact he appears to have enjoyed with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Luke relates the story of the birth of Jesus primarily from her point of view and tells us she hid these things “in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). How did Luke, of all the Gospel writers, manage to get so close to Mary that she revealed to him what she had hidden in her heart? Given the close-knit nature of the Jerusalem church, it would seem highly unlikely that Luke could have gotten so close to the mother of Jesus if he were not a Jew.
On the basis of these considerations, if we are to make any assumption about the ethnic identity of Luke, it should be that he was Jewish and we should reject his Jewishness only when compelling evidence to the contrary is presented.