Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also for me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things that you have been taught. Luke 1:1-4 (NLT)
Luke’s biography of Jesus is one of the four that were canonised by the early church. It has become popular in recent years (even since the nineteenth century) to revive other accounts of the life of Jesus, stories that for one reason or another were rejected as unreliable by the early church fathers. Such accounts are sometimes referred to as the “hidden” gospels. It is beyond the scope of this series of reflections to explore the reasons that those other accounts were rejected, or indeed the reasons that they have so fascinated modern scholars, though that is a fascinating debate.
It was no secret in the first century that many versions of the Jesus story were circulating. Luke acknowledges this in the opening sentence of his account, which was apparently written around AD 60. The discrepancies between the different accounts would have been obvious and no doubt the cause of discussion and argument even then. Why did it “seem good” to Luke to write another version? Perhaps he was concerned that some of the versions he had read were inaccurate, misleading. Luke was a doctor, and though doctors in the first century did not have the same education as doctors of today, even then there seems to have been a commitment to “evidence”. Whether Luke’s faith was based on evidence or on some other significant event in his life is not clear, but what this first paragraph of his Jesus story indicates is that a careful investigation of the best available evidence surrounding the person of Jesus was important to Luke, and that he was committed to recording a faithful and true account of all that had happened. Evidence may or may not have been the source of Luke’s faith, but it was certainly important to him in supporting and understanding his faith.
He appears to be writing to someone called Theophilus. Whether this was a real person or whether it was just a literary device that Luke was using I do not know. It occurs to me that the word Theophilus means “God lover”, and I wonder if Luke was writing to Christians in general rather than a particular person. The purpose of writing becomes clear in this sentence: “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” Perhaps this sheds light on the question I raised above, the question of why Luke decided to record another version of the Jesus story. Luke wants to support the doctrine that Theophilus has already been taught with evidence that he has gathered by his own investigation into the facts. That he thought this was necessary at all suggests that there were other doctrines being taught but that Luke believed these were not based on the available evidence. He was writing nearly thirty years after Jesus’ death. He knew that the eyewitnesses would soon be gone – many had already died – and he wanted to accurately record their testimonies while it was still possible. He knew from experience how much stories can change when they are passed from person to person. He knew that writing the reports of eyewitnesses would create an objective record, one that could be judged afresh by every person who read it and not evolve from generation to generation until it became almost unrecognisable compared to the original story. He doesn’t reference his writing as we do nowadays, with endless footnotes referring to other sources. But it is likely that few of the people he spoke to had written anything he could include in a reference list. Some of his material was no doubt taken from written sources – New Testament scholars have written volumes on those sources. But much must have been taken from just talking to people who were there.
Luke was a keen observer and recorder of the events that were happening around him: that becomes clear in his other book, the one we have come to know as The Acts of the Apostles, for which he had his own experience to draw from. But for this first book, his biography of Jesus, Luke himself was not an “eyewitness.” He never met Jesus in the flesh. But he had certainly met Jesus somehow, been confronted and impacted by Jesus. Something had happened to Luke that had changed the course of his life, from being a normal doctor (whatever that was in the first century), to being the travelling companion of one of the most controversial men of the day, the Jew become Christian, Paul. However, it was not Paul who had changed Luke’s life, but the one that Paul constantly talked about, Jesus the carpenter of Nazareth. Paul’s own life had been transformed by a dramatic supernatural encounter with Jesus. It seems likely that Luke had his own encounter, though he chooses not to include an account of that in the writings that have come down to us. Perhaps it was because he thought that writing about himself was of less importance than writing about Jesus, and the followers of Jesus. Or perhaps he wrote another account of his own conversion that has been lost to posterity.
In the margin of my NIV (New International Version) Bible there is a note that the word “fulfilled” in the first sentence can also be translated “surely believed”. This book that Luke wrote and which has come down to us so many centuries later is therefore an account of “the things that have been surely believed among us.” Luke must have recognised that doubt is a common experience of all believers. The events surrounding Jesus’ life were so bizarre that questioning their authenticity was inevitable. His words were so radical that people would surely try to reinterpret them to be more acceptable, easier. Yet it was this very bizarreness and radicalness that were so foundational to the Luke’s faith. The stuff of Jesus life was odd, amazing, incredible. But it had happened, and the course of human history changed as a result. Luke could scarcely believe himself that these amazing things had happened, words been spoken. Perhaps he was writing as much for himself as for Theophilus; perhaps for him, as for me, the very process of writing helped him to get his jumbled thoughts in order, helped him to make sense of the most amazing set of events that had ever occurred since the foundation of the world. Luke was a believer, but sometimes it must have seemed that the things he believed were in conflict with all his training and previous experience. He had to write it down, because by doing so he could create some kind of order in the thoughts and questions that whirled around continuously in his head.
So here we have it: Luke’s orderly account of the most amazing and incredible story ever told.