Friday, March 25, 2011

Was Luke a Gentile?

Christian Symbol for Gospel of Luke
Consensus is a rare thing in New Testament scholarship, but if there is a scholarly consensus about anything, it is that Luke was perhaps the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. Sometimes scholars suggest that Luke was a Gentile because his Gospel reflects an interest in Gentiles, but, of course, so does Paul and no one argues that Paul was a Gentile. Others argue that Luke was most likely a Gentile because he wrote in excellent, fluid Greek, but, as anyone who has read him in Greek will attest, so too does Philo Judaeus, and no one argues that he was a Gentile.

But by far, the chief reason scholars argue for Luke’s being a Gentile is because of something Paul says in Colossians. Lea and Black, in their New Testament Introduction, voice the consensus when they write: “Luke is usually viewed as a Gentile Christian. In Colossians 4:10-11 Paul refers to Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus as Jewish believers. Later he sends greetings from Luke, apparently designating him as a Gentile.”

Let me say two things about that. First, it is an assumption that the “Luke” Paul mentions in Colossians as one of his traveling companions was, in fact, the author of the Third Gospel and Acts, since both Luke and Acts are, strictly speaking, anonymous. That said, I see no compelling reason to doubt that Paul’s “Luke” was also the author of the Third Gospel. Indeed, that assumption has recently taken on increased credibility as a consequence of the late Professor Martin Hengel’s work on titles in the New Testament. Until recently it had been assumed that the four Gospels had circulated anonymously until about AD 125, at which time the titles were formally attached to their works. Moreover, the titles, it was argued, were of limited historical value in that they were based on traditions held by the early church. Hengel, however, argues that, while the writers of the Gospels do not overtly identify themselves in the body of their works, there is no evidence that the Gospels ever circulated without a title in the form of a tag attached to the scroll. Far from the early Church having “made up” the traditions about authorship, the manuscript tradition actually supports the traditional authorial ascriptions. As a result of Hengel’s work, one can now argue that the titles themselves have merit in establishing the authorship of the four canonical Gospels. At the very least, the burden of proof shifts to those who would argue that the Gospel of Luke was composed pseudonymously.

Second, the idea that Luke (Paul's traveling companion and perhaps the author of the Third Gospel) was a Gentile is based largely on one particular interpretation of one passage of Scripture - Col. 4:14 which says: “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you.” The assumption at work in this hypothesis is that Paul in Col. 4 is identifying two different groups of colleagues: the former being Jews, “those of the circumcision” (Aristarchus, Mark, and Jesus Justus), and the latter being Gentiles, “those not of the circumcision” (Epaphras, Luke, and Demas). Hence, the belief that Luke was a Gentile is based solely on the assumption that Paul's phrase “those of the circumcision” means “Jew,” and therefore those excluded from that designation (including Luke) must have been Gentiles.

However, the evidence will not support such a view. if you look up every time Paul uses the phrase “those of the circumcision” (oi˚ o¡nteß e˙k peritomhvß in the Greek), you will find that he does not use this phrase to distinguish Jew from Gentile; rather, he means by this phrase those of the circumcision party, that is, Judaizers (cf. see Acts 15; Gal. 2:14). More precisely, Judaizers were Jesus-believing Jews of the early church who believed that pagans had to be circumcised and convert to Judaism (i.e., become proselytes) before they could become Christians. This was, as you know, the primary debate at the Jerusalem Conference of Acts 15, and Paul was clearly on the side that pagans did not first have to be circumcised and become proselytes before they could become Christians. But other Jewish “Jesus Believers” (it's anachronistic to refer to them at this point as "Christians" in the sense of a religion distinct from Judaism) took the opposite position and regarded conversion to Judaism as a “halfway step” on the road to becoming fully Christian. These were they Paul referred to as “the circumcision party” (oi˚ o¡nteß e˙k peritomhvß, literally, “the out-of-the-circumcision ones”). If this, rather than "Jews," is indeed what Paul had in mind when he referred to “those of the circumcision,” then those (like Luke) who were excluded from the list of the "out-of-the-curcumcision ones" does not mean that they were Gentiles, but rather Jews, specifically Jews who did not believe conversion to Judaism was a necessary “half-way step” to becoming Christian. That is, in Paul's usage both “those of the circumcision” and “those not of the circumcision” would have been Jews. Paul's normal term for “the Jews” was not oi˚ onteß e˙k peritomhvß, but rather the typical Greek word for the Jewish people; namely, Ioudai√oß, a word he clearly knows; he used twenty-six times in his letters.

Hence, Paul was likely not saying that Luke was a Gentile at all; rather, he was describing him as a Jew who, like himself, never believed that circumcision and becoming a proselyte were requirements for becoming a Christian.

Actually, this makes much more sense when you read The Gospel of Luke in the original Greek. Virtually all scholars have noted the heavy use of “Semitisms” in Luke’s Greek (Jewish idioms that don’t translate very well into the Greek), but haven’t known what to make of them. Why would one so obviously at home in Greek use Jewish idioms so pervasively in his writing? It makes perfect sense, however, if Luke was a Greek-speaking, Jesus-believing Jew who thinks (and writes) in Jewish thought forms and processes even though he is fluent in Greek, as the Greek of Luke-Acts makes clear.

Finally, the question I was asked by a scholar in New York at the American Bible Society where I read a paper I had written on this subject: “But what difference does it make?” Good question. In all honesty, probably not much, except for this. Everyone recognizes Luke’s advocacy for Gentiles both in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. I submit that this advocacy would not have been very surprising (and perhaps even self-serving) if Luke were, in fact, a Gentile. But if he were a Jew...then his advocacy for his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ becomes all the more surprising…and compelling.

Something to think about.


Laura said...

This is by far the finest and most logically convincing argument I have read relating to the question of whether Luke was a Gentile. Thank you!

Laura said...

This is by far the finest argument relating to the assumption that Luke was a Gentile that I have read! thank you!

Shekinah Home said...

Thank you for such a succinct & informative post. Gives informed perspective to this follower's walk during Advent. Peace of the Lord be with you!