The Genius of Luke

We have been discussing recently the writings of Luke in one our modules, particularly his Acts of the Apostles. Every time I run this session I am always struck by Luke’s ingenuity and the sheer intelligence found in his work. Recognition of Luke’s talents is not new and commentators frequently note his literary ability and point to the rounded nature of his characters. His capacity to paint pictures with words means that images, stories and events stick in the mind. Parables that are exclusive to his Gospel tend to be those that are the most often remembered; the Prodigal Son, Good Samaritan, etc. However, this is only one element of Luke’s artistry as a writer.

‘St Luke the Evangelist’ by El Greco, circa 1610-1614. Oil on canvas. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:St._Luke,_Painting_by_El_Greco._Indianapolis_Museum_of_Art.jpg

There are a number of competing ideas that attempt to explain why Luke wrote his two volume ‘history’. Most introductions to the Luke’s writing (either his Gospel or Acts) will provide you with an overview of these. Bart Ehrman (2004) gives a brief but very clear summary of the main positions. Whatever conclusions we might draw concerning the motivation behind Luke’s writing, it is clear that the ekklesia (or what would later become called the Church) was facing a number of significant, if not existential, challenges from outside and within. These crises had the potential of threatening the survival of the emerging Christian movement.

Luke’s crisis

One particular crisis that is relevant here relates to internal conflicts. By the time Luke was writing, tensions between the Hebrew-speaking, Palestinian Jewish followers of Jesus (the original core group) and the Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jewish followers were becoming exacerbated by the increasing number of non-Jewish members. Whilst on the one hand the influx of non-Jewish (gentile) believers was enthusiastically greeted and served to validate the ekklesia and its message (See Acts 15:13-17), their presence and number also brought with it some significant problems. Questions like how should these new members/believers live (as Jews, pagans or something else?) occupied a lot of the attention of our surviving early Christian writings. There were also much broader and deeper issues. Questions about authority, representation, leadership were also heightened. The letters of Paul attest to tensions between the Jerusalem church and its leaders (Peter, James and John) and the non-Palestinian communities, particularly those established by Paul (see, for example, Galatians). We also know that factionalism, possibly at times dividing along ethnic or cultural lines, was also a problem within the emerging Jesus Movement (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 and 3, and also Acts 6:1). This friction between groups later became characterised as the tension between Jerusalem and Antioch (see Goulder, 1994).*

Orthodox icon of Luke. Copyright © 2005 by St. Isaac of Syria Skete (Boscobel, Wisconsin)

Arguments surrounding power/authority, internal fractures, combined with external geopolitical pressures arising from the fall of Jerusalem (70 CE) and the ensuing ‘great dispersal’ of the Jews, as well as the group’s increased distancing from Judaism meant that its future was hanging in the balance.** The ekklesia’s survival depends, to a certain extent, on uniting these different groups. Luke seems to provide the means to do just this.

The Acts of the Apostles is the second of a two part work that charts the history of God’s salvation of the earth. The first volume, the Gospel of Luke, describes how, through the figure of Jesus, the Holy Spirit brings the message of salvation to Israel and, importantly, Jerusalem. Jerusalem is important to Luke as the starting point of the gospel. Luke also takes great pains to emphasise that Jesus is now no longer on the earth by including two accounts of his ascension; one in his Gospel (24:50-53) and the other at the beginning of his book of Acts (1:6-11). The latter is additionally re-emphasised by the Lukan characteristic use of angels. This is because Luke wants to make the point that the ekklesia now takes the place of Jesus as the means through which the Holy Spirit can now take the message of salvation to the ‘end of the earth’ – possibly Rome (Acts 1:8 and 13:47).

Luke’s use of ‘mirroring’

Luke’s use of a mirror structure between his two volumes is often noted by commentators. This is best exemplified by the way the experiences and acts of Jesus, in his Gospel, often mirrors those of the ekklesia in the Acts of the Apostles. In this way, Luke can emphasise the continuity of the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing the gospel to all nations; first through Jesus (in the Gospel) and then the Church (in Acts). Below is simplified table developed from Erhman (2005:138) of some of the major parallels.

GOSPEL OF LUKEACTS OF THE APOSTLES
JesusChurch
Receives Holy SpiritReceives Holy Spirit
Miracles and Preaching Miracles and Preaching
Healing, Exorcisms and Resurrection Healing, Exorcisms and Resurrection
Opposition from Jewish Authorities Opposition from Jewish Authorities
Imprisoned, condemned and ExecutedSome – Imprisoned, condemned and Executed

This technique of using a mirror structure to create or identify parallels can also be found intratextually. In Acts, Luke deploys it to great effect in relations to the two key figures within the development of the Church that he is now addressing: Peter and Paul. When we compare how Luke presents Peter and Paul we find striking similarities. The two tables below are based upon C. H. Talbert’s (1974) Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts

Going behind the mirror

Why does Luke pay such great attention to depicting the two men this way?

Let us remind ourselves once more of the volatile and precarious climate in which Luke was writing. If Peter was viewed as the figurehead of the original, Jewish, contingent and Paul was identified as representing the non-Jewish (and perhaps Hellenistic) elements, Luke can cleverly situate all factions as integral and vital components within his account of the formation of the ekklesia. Whether or not Peter and Paul were actually seen in this way is not clear, however, Luke does seem to use them as symbolically representing the different parties. In this way, those who align themselves with ‘Paul’ are reminded that those represented by Peter were there from the start (but also note the presence of diasporic, Hellenistic Jews in Acts 2). Moreover, those aligned with ‘Peter’ are reminded that the Paul group are just as vital to the growth and success of the ekklesia as those who are part of the original members. Through his use of the mirror technique Luke shows that the Holy Spirit is working through all parties in equal measure; what God achieves through the original Palestinian group (Peter/Jerusalem), he also achieves through the Hellenistic and non-Jewish groups (Paul/Antioch).

Not only does Luke create strong parallels between Peter and Paul, he also appears to soften perceived distinctions between the two. If a division has emerged so that Peter and Paul become identified exclusively with the different groups this would have likely led to adversarial partisan attitudes forming where Peter is viewed as representing/speaking exclusively for one faction and Paul represents the views and concerns of the other faction/s. In other words, ‘the leaders of the groups represented by Peter (or Paul) are the only one who is looking after my interests’. Luke seems to address this by blurring the distinctions. For example, Luke seems to emphasise that Peter was the first of the apostles instructed by God (which is significant) to preach to the non-Jews and welcome them into the movement (Acts 10). Likewise, Luke also portrays Paul as preaching to the Jews and not exclusively to the non-Jews (Acts 13:13-52; 20:21, etc.). In other words, Peter can also speak for the non-Jews and Paul for the Jews (heightened by Luke’s emphasis of Paul’s Jewish credentials).

St Luke by Frans Hals. Oil on canvas. (c.1625)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frans_Hals_086_WGA_version.jpg

Identifying Luke’s literary techniques underscore his artistry in writing. It also helps to highlight the way he addresses what must have appeared to be the desperate circumstances that the Church faced in his time. His part in not just holding together the different factions, but creating a foundational account that unite each group must be counted as a superlative achievement. We know that the Church survived this tumultuous time. Luke’s part in that survival deserves to be fully recognised.

Footnote

*There is a lot of literature discussing the relationship between the ‘churches’ at Jerusalem and Antioch. Michael Goulder’s study is an excellent entry point.

**Dating Luke’s writing, like most of the New Testament literature, is problematic. Most commentaries will provide an overview of the debates. Christopher Tuckett (1974:17-18) offers a good sketch of the main positions.

References

Erhman, Bart, D. (2004) The New Testament: A historical introduction to the early Christian writings. 3rd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goulder, Michael. (1994) St. Paul versus St. Peter: A Tale of Two Missions, London: SCM Press.

Talbert, C.H. (1974) Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts. Atlanta: SBLMS

Taylor, N. (1992) Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem: A study in relationships and authority in earliest Christianity. JSOT. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press.

Tuckett, Christopher, M. (1996) Luke. New Testament Guides. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

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