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Luke-Acts: An Account of Christian Origins

Scholars are generally agreed that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles comprise a single work by the same author. While Luke covers the story of Jesus from conception to ascension, Acts continues the story from the ascension onwards. At some point in the second century the two halves of the story were separated, with Luke finding a place among the four canonical gospels and the Acts sometimes with the collected letters of Paul and other times with the Catholic Epistles.

Michael White from the University of Texas in Austin has argued that Luke-Acts was originally composed on a single long scroll, without the double account of the ascension that we now have in Luke 24 and Acts 1. Such a lengthy scroll would suggest that Luke-Acts was a conscious attempt to produce a document of importance to the emerging Christian community. That is a factor that suggests a later date for the writing of Luke-Acts, perhaps even early in the 2C.

Whether or not it was originally composed as a single "super scroll" or as a continuous work spread over two regular scrolls, it is becoming increasingly clear that Luke-Acts is a self-conscious literary work whose careful composition reveals an awareness of heroic themes from the Greek classics, as well as having intentional parallel scenes before and after Easter.

In Luke 1:1-4, the author tells the reader that this is a carefully constructed work, undertaken only after consulting earlier works by other writers. It is now recognized that the "orderly account" [Gk: akribos kathexes] is not offering historical precision but rather a theological interpretation of Christianity that could promote the new faith as an acceptable religion in the hostile social world found in the Eastern Mediterranean early in the 2C.

Writing early in the second century, Luke begins his two-volume epic account of Christian origins with an impressive and highly symbolic story of the conception, birth and childhood of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, whose account he may have known but whose Jewish birth story he rejects, Luke tells the story of Jesus in a way designed to strike a chord with citizens of the Roman empire familiar with the legends of Romulus and Remus.

Luke arranges his account of the childhood of Jesus in a series of events that parallel Jesus and John the Baptist: two boys whose special births are the prophetic signs of the dawning of a new age for all people.

  • Scene 1 - John's miraculous conception (Luke 1:5-25)
  • Scene 2 - Jesus' miraculous conception (Luke 1:26-38)
  • Scene 3 - Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
  • Scene 4 - John's birth and naming (Luke 1:57-80)
  • Scene 5 - Jesus' birth and naming (Luke 2:1-21)
  • Scene 6 - Presentation in Temple (Luke 2:22-40)
  • Scene 7 - 12-year old Jesus in Temple (Luke 2:41-52)

Other noteworthy elements in Luke's narrative include the following:

  • The world of the narrative in Luke-Acts is very different from what we find in Paul, where few people of wealth or social status are to be found in the fledgling Christian communities (cf. 1 Cor 1:26-13). In contrast, Luke's story has numerous people of wealth and status. In addition, Luke manages to "re-engineer" the Jesus tradition so that Jerusalem becomes the principal setting for Jesus' life rather than remote Galilee.
  • The opening scenes are set in the environs of the Temple. The infant Jesus is brought into the Temple for his circumcision, and welcomed by the aged seers Simeon and Anna. There is no fear of a rampaging Herod seeking to destroy the Christ Child, and nothing to suggest this lad or his followers should be seen as a threat to good order. Luke alone has Jesus making his Bar-Mitzvah in the Temple at 12 years of age, and engaging in respectful dialogue with the religion teachers of the time. As a model child, the young Jesus was obedient to his parents and drew positive appraisals from humans and God alike.
  • Luke can hardly avoid a Galilean ministry by Jesus, but he does provide an impressive beginning for the prophet from Nazareth as he preaches in his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:14-30). When the townspeople become an angry rabble, and a threat to law and order, Jesus calmly passes through their midst as the very model of self-discipline.
  • Luke curtails the Galilean ministry by omitting most of Mark 6:45-8:26. Everything Jesus does in Galilee is compressed to the time before the death of John the Baptist (who sends his disciples to Jesus in Luke 7), and Jesus is soon said to be on the road to Jerusalem (9:51).
  • The remainder of Luke's account has Jerusalem in view, culminating with his arrival at the holy city in chapter 19. Luke alone has Jesus weep over the city as he predicts its siege by Roman war machines. As befits a writer wishing to play up the positive social role of the new faith, the account of the violent incident in the Temple is reduced to a single sentence (19:45), with Jesus immediately described as being in the Temple every day for public teaching to the spellbound populace.
  • Most significantly, Luke has all of the resurrection appearances happen in Jerusalem. There are no Galilee appearances. It all happens in and around Jerusalem. Further, everything that befalls Jesus is said to be in fulfillment of (unspecified) prophecies in "the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms" (24:27,44f).
  • As the story continues into the post-Easter period, all continues to work according to an orderly sequence that reflects ancient custom. Following a 40 day period (that parallels his earlier period of testing in the wilderness) Jesus ascends to heaven in a scene reminiscent of the apotheosis of a newly-divinized Roman emperor. Ten days later, on the traditional feast of Pentecost, the exalted Lord pours out the divine Spirit on the gathered community in Jerusalem. From there the good news spreads.
  • As the early Christian community takes shape in Acts it encounters frequent opposition. The ranking priests in Jerusalem are joined by agitated mobs in Corinth and Ephesus. In each case, the Christians are shown to be faithful to the traditions of the past, respectful of their leaders' instructions, and solid law-abiding citizens. In contrast, the opponents of Christianity act unlawfully and engage in breaches of the peace. Paul himself will invoke his Roman citizenship to demand a proper treatment by the law, and disdains to escape from custody even when an earthquake levels the prison in which he is detained. In his hearings before the Sanhedrin, Felix, Festus and Agrippa we find Paul portrayed as the model of decorum while his accusers are cast in a bad light. His final gesture in appealing to the Emperor suggests that this new religion respects the authorities and is confident of a just outcome from officials who understand all the facts.

In view of all these features in the work itself, it seems improbable that Luke-Acts can be dated prior to the death of Paul as some would like to think. Given its dependence on Mark, most scholars would date Luke-Acts to the 80s or 90s of the 1C. Others suggest a date early in the 2C, perhaps more or less contemporary with Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch who was martyred in 116 CE.

Certainly Luke's themes of respect for tradition and proper public order would have been appropriate themes for a community seeking to establish its own identity in the Greek East. Anti-Jewish feeling was rising in response to continuing Jewish revolts against Rome, and Christians faced the complex challenge of distancing themselves from Jewish nationalism while wanting to retain protection as a recognized religion. The wide appeal of Marcion (ca 140 CE)[1] shows that many Christians were tempted to cut all remaining ties to their Jewish legacy, and may go some way to helping us imagine why a work such as Luke-Acts was timely in the 2C church.

It is possible that Luke-Acts was written at a time when the Jerusalem church was a distant memory, and perhaps an idealized one. Paul has become the Great Apostle, with Peter and James both reduced to secondary roles, and no mention of other leaders such as Mary Magdalene or John. In that case, the Acts of the Apostles will tell us very little about the actual situation of the Jerusalem church in the period 30-70 CE, but it may tell us a great deal about the way that the faith was presented to a hostile social environment early in the 2C.