St Luke’s Day
In the first part of my work, Theophilus, I wrote of all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning. Acts of the Apostles 1 v1
It’s astonishing to think that every church goer knows far more about the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth than did
, the founder of the Christian religion. We, after all, know the parables of Jesus, the Our Father prayer, and the Beatitudes. If St Paul Paul had known them, his letters would surely make at least some reference to them – as in fact they do make reference to the bits of knowledge about Jesus that Paul did possess, concerning his last two days of life. But they don’t, so we have to assume that he didn’t. In any case, in his letter to his Galatian followers Paul makes it very clear that he deliberately learned nothing about Jesus’s teaching from those who could have informed him about it. One reason for our astonishment is that it is easy to be misled by the structure of the New Testament, in which the gospels that record the life and teaching of Jesus come, in the order in which the events took place, before the Acts of the Apostles and the letters that record the preaching and thought of Paul. That tends to make us assume that the gospels were themselves written before the letters so the letter-writer was able to know what was in them and therefore did not need to refer to their contents. But in fact that was not the sequence; it is the letters of Paul that are the earliest writings in the New Testament, written at least ten years before Mark, the earliest of our gospels, was composed in the mid-60s of the Common Era. This means that if there is any influence between the letters and the gospels, it would have to be from the letters on the gospels, not the other way. The gospels that record the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth were written in a church that had already absorbed Paul’s beliefs about Jesus the Christ.
That is why the gospels could, and in fact do, show the influence of
Paul’s thinking about the status of Jesus. Yet they also include a large amount of material about the life and teaching of Jesus that Paul apparently did not know, gathered from the followers of Jesus in Judaea from whom Paul cut himself off. Whether or not they realised it, they – and particularly Mark, Luke and Matthew – thus smuggled into Paul’s new religion of Christianity a large dose of teaching that records Jesus’s own sceptical approach to religion. This is paradoxical; it’s as if a demolition charge had been built into the foundations of a building. Another layer of paradox is added when we remember that the gospels attribute this teaching to the person who in the new religion is seen as an integral part of the Godhead. So the more fervently you accept the new religion’s assessment of the status of Jesus, the more seriously you have to take those elements of his teaching that cast a sceptical eye on religion in general. But the ultimate paradox is that it is exactly because Christianity has somehow managed to contain these paradoxes reasonably successfully that it has been so long-lasting, like old church spires that stand straight only because the timbers that support them warp in opposite directions.
All three synoptic gospel writers import Pauline ways of thinking into their accounts of Jesus’s teaching. But the author of St Luke’s Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – we’ll call him ‘Luke’ though it’s not absolutely certain that this author is the person referred to under that name by
Paul – is a particularly intriguing figure in New Testament history. His contribution to the New Testament is hugely important. Acts includes sections whose use of ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ strongly suggests that Luke or the author of his written source accompanied Paul on some of his missionary journeys; they are eyewitness accounts. Without Acts we’d know next to nothing about Paul’s journeys. Without Luke’s Gospel we would not have the great parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the Crafty Steward, each of them key to our understanding the Jesus teaching, and wise in their own right. But what makes Luke interesting as distinct from important is that he wrote both books; it was the same mind that recorded Paul’s teaching about Jesus the Christ that also preserved key teachings of Jesus of Nazareth that Paul did not know about. What’s more, the preface to Acts makes it clear that that book was written after the Gospel, yet the Gospel appears not to influence the Acts – Jesus’ teaching is as absent from Acts is it is from Paul’s letters.
A large amount of Luke’s Gospel reproduces practically word-for-word sections of Mark’s Gospel, so it must have been written later, after about 65CE.
Paul was therefore dead by the time Luke wrote up his journeys for Theophilus. His use of written and oral sources suggests that Luke had a historiographical turn of mind; he wanted to record things as truthfully as he could because it seemed to him important that posterity – and perhaps ‘Theophilus’, ‘God lover’, was a fictional addressee – should have a reliable record of Jesus and Paul. Given such a mind, it is especially odd, to say the very least, that Luke betrays no sign of having noticed that the Jesus of Nazareth who preached the gospel does not fit particularly well with the Jesus Christ whom Paul preached. His record of Paul’s teaching accords with the teaching Paul’s letters; Luke the historian has resisted any temptation to import into his version of Paul’s teaching any of the Jesus teaching that Paul knew nothing of and that Luke presumably learned about only after his association with Paul had come to an end. How one wishes one could speak to Luke and ask him what he really believed, how his understanding of Jesus of Nazareth related to Paul’s Jesus Christ in his mind! We can’t ask him of course, but we can ask ourselves this same question. It would be an appropriate exercise for St Luke’s Day, and our honest answers will be illuminating.