ST. LUKE – FIRST CHRISTIAN HISTORIAN
As in the case of most disciples of Jesus, everything we know about them is uncertain beyond what little we find recorded in the New Testament. Even their personal history is somewhat vague and obscure and left to tradition to fill in the gaps. Many times we can just conjecture, make deductions and list possibilities. So it is with our story of Luke.
A Portrait of Luke
However based on the letters of Paul and certain facts in the New Testament books of Luke and Acts attributed to Luke himself we can draw a picture of one of the earliest converts to the faith and of this first Christian historian and early leader of the Christian church.
His Personal History
His personal history is somewhat obscure except for the fact that he was unmarried and childless.
Some sources say that he is possibly the son of a freed man of some Roman family.
A Greek or Syrian?
His nameLoukas, a short form for the Latin Lucius or Lucanas, give away his Greek origin. He was also a native speaker of the Greek language as evidenced by his writings.
However some early sources such as the church historian Eusebius put him as coming from Antioch, in present day Turkey where he originally belonged to the Christian community there around the beginning of the Christian era. Others say he just lived there and first met Paul there.
Because Colossians 4:11 excludes him by implication from the “men of the circumcision,” this makes him a Gentile (of the non-Jewish faith). Even Paul who converted him himself does not include him in the list of his Jewish helpers thus making many scholars reach the conclusion that Luke was a Gentile making him one of the first non-Jewish followers of Jesus and the only non-Jewish among the four evangelists.
An Early Convert
While nothing is known of the time or circumstances of his conversion to Christianity many scholars agree that he must have been one of the earliest converts to the Christian faith because his connection with the early Antiochene church is well detailed in the Book of Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. He was NOT an apostle NOR had he ever met Jesus!
Paul’s Disciple, Companion and Personal Secretary
But it is as close friend and companion/fellow-worker of Paul that we have the clearest picture of Luke because he is mentioned three times by Paul in his letters. Luke had doubtless been already for some time a good friend and disciple of Paul who persuaded him to go with him on his evangelical voyages around the Mediterranean. Thus he joined Paul during many of his journeys starting from his second missionary trip traveling with the Apostle from Troas in Asia Minor to Philippe, Philippe to Miletus, Miletus to Caesaria and finally from Caesaria to Rome.
But even before Luke accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journeys he was one of the fellow workers with the apostle (“Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke who share my labours”). In the New Testament we find Luke mentioned as being part of the entourage of Paul. (Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14. II Timothy 4.11) He was his constant companion that never seems to have left his side unless ordered to do so for some service to the churches that Paul established.
As a member of Paul’s traveling entourage he aided him in his missionary activities across the Roman world perhaps even sharing both of Paul’s imprisonment. (Acts 27: 1-28: 29) In Rome under Julius Caesar Luke remained with him. From his Roman cell Paul wrote and referred to Luke as his “fellow worker” (Philem 24) and faithful companion to the end.
During the final hours before Paul’s death in Rome about 64 A.D. Paul mentions Luke (2 Timothy 4:11) that “Luke is alone with me” in a farewell letter he wrote in a Roman cell prior to his martyrdom. In each of the New Testament passages that Luke is mentioned, he is with Paul at the time of writing.
It is unknown how long Luke traveled with Paul except for the fact that Luke was with Paul during half of his ministry.
Throughout his travels with Paul, Luke took and kept careful notes of all the oral preaching and catechizing of the great missionary. So that his Gospel is rightfully said to have been “illumined by St. Paul.”In fact both St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom called it “St. Paul’s Gospel.”
Paul’s Beloved Physician
Luke was a physician, a Greek doctor. In fact St. Paul called him his “beloved physician” (Col 4:14) who attended to him when he was physically ill and so he had the care of “Paul’s much-tried health.” He was beloved because he was a constant and devoted companion as well as can be seen by the writing of Paul as he lay dying, “…only Luke is with me.”
This explains the fact that most of Luke’s stories about Jesus are those that concern illness and the power of Jesus as a healer. It is no wonder that Luke is the patron saint of physicians.
A Learned Writer
That Luke was the author of both the Third Gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts of the Apostles is generally (though not universally) accepted.
Both of his books were dedicated to Theopilus who was possibly a high Roman official who was a wealthy patron. But since there is little doubt that the book was intended for the use of the Church as a whole, especially for Gentile readers and since the name Theopilus means “lover of God” Luke was more likely dedicating his book to any Christian reader.
He is recognized as being the most literary of New Testament writers with distinctive qualities of mind and style. He is said to belong to cultivated Hellenistic circles where he learned to write easily and fluently good idiomatic Greek.
It is clear that Luke was well-educated with considerable literary power and a native speaker of the Greek language as evidenced by his clear, polished, elegant Greek and orderly writing. He was also most likely well versed in the Greek Old Testament, which he studied intensely. Because Luke was a “perceptive, sensitive writer with a knack for telling a story and depicting a scene” his Gospel has been described as “the most beautiful book ever written.”
Luke began his work with a prologue stating that he would use only the best sources and organize them into an “orderly account.” Since Luke did notpersonally know Jesus since he did not number himself among those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” Luke had to painstakingly obtain his information from those “eyewitnesses” of the facts and from written accounts.
Although it is now known how long Luke traveled with Paul it is evident that throughout his travels with Paul, Luke took and kept careful notes of all that he saw of Paul’s missionary work and all that he heard about Christ. It is clear that the so-called “we sections” of Acts are based on these personal journals of Luke.
As he was an actual eye-witness to the actions and miracles of Paul he devoted the major portion of his Acts of the Apostles relating them.
Aside from his own memoirs Luke used Mark and a now lost collection of the sayings of Jesus sometimes referred to as “Q”, other traditions about Jesus and personal interviews.
While there is no hard evidence to support it, it is very likely that Luke did visit Mary in Jerusalem while seeking information about Jesus. Because of this he is the only evangelist who spoke and wrote the most about the Virgin and the only one to give a graphic full account about the Annunciation and the Visitation.
His story of the birth of Jesus and his early life is told from the perspective of Mary the mother. His sympathetic portrayal of Jesus caring about the women assisting him in his ministry and for black sheep could only have come from Mary herself.
Luke as Historian and Theologian
It is said that sometime in the 80’s Luke decided to write his ambitious two-volume work. Being primarily a historian or recorder writing for the information of the Greeks he wanted to give a historical and theological account of the life of Jesus and how the Christian church originated. Since his two-volume work (Luke-Acts) accounts for more than a fourth of the New Testament, Luke is clearly entitled to the distinction of being the first Christian historian and the only Gentile Christian author among the four-evangelist writers of the New Testament Gospels. The Gospel according to St. Luke is one of the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). Generally judged to be the most literary and poetic of the four gospels Luke was regarded an ‘artist in words.’
Luke the Historian
Luke’s Gospel was written possibly around the year 85 in an ordered narrative primarily as a history or record that the Gentile Greek Christians who were his targeted market might know all about the early Christian Church. So he is “one of the major voices speaking to non-Jews about Jesus’ teachings” and his two books today are considered the earliest history of the Christian church. This makes Luke the first Christian historian.
He wrote the Acts of the Apostles as an appendix to his gospel to present false relations by leaving an authentic account of the wonderful works of God in planting His Church and of some of the miracles by which He confirmed it. Thus it is said that Luke relates six miracles and eighteen parables not mentioned in the other gospels. It is a “mixture of history and prophecy describing the spread of Christianity – how it broke with Judaism and extended beyond Jerusalem to Rome in the West.”
Luke the Theologian
The writing of Luke was not only that of a historian but also that of a theologian. Since it was written in Greek for Gentile Christian communities “it is one of the major voices speaking tonon-Jews about Jesus’ teachings.”
Because he also wrote about the teachings of Christ Luke was not only a historian buta theologian. His writing emphasizing gentle and humane aspects of the faith was directed at Gentile Christians who had been pagans redirecting his readers toward Christ rather than the heroes of Greek culture and telling them their place in God’s overall plan.
Acts of the Apostles
In the Acts of the Apostles the history of the growth and spread of the early Church is treated by Luke as a “truly mystical view of the working of the Spirit.” Thus he sees the early Christian community growing bolder, expanding and spreading the Word of God because they were inflamed with courage and love by the Holy Spirit whose influence began on that fateful and memorable Pentecost Sunday morning.
But from the thirteenth chapter Luke confines himself to the actions and miracles of St. Paul, which he witnessed himself.
Gospel of Luke
But his two books are not merely a compilation from varied earlier sources. More than any other of the Gospels, the Gospel of Luke shows clearly his humane approach and the universal scope of the teaching of Jesus. This gospel has also often been called the Gospel of the Poor or the Gospel of Mercy and the outcast because it specially stresses the relations Jesus had with them. Thus Luke is the only evangelist who incorporated in his Gospel the moving parables of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Prodigal Son that Jesus told to exemplify goodness and kindness. He also wrote stories about other people who were rejected, despised and outcast from society whom Jesus treated with compassion. Luke even portrays Jesus caring for the black sheep of society. These, too, were not mentioned in the other gospels.
His account of the Nativity emphasizes the humbleness of Jesus’ birth and its significance in fulfilling the hopes of the poor. (“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”)
It has been said that “Luke’s Gospel is particularly valuable for the stress it lays on Christian purity, poverty and joyousness and for the graphic descriptions of the Annunciation, the visitation, the birth and early life of Jesus.”
Luke the Evanglist
Despite his being a historian and theologian St. Luke was first and foremost an evangelist, that is a person who taught the Christian faith to people who hadn’t heard about it before. Unlike the other evangelists Luke’s story does not end with the resurrection of Jesus but goes on to the Pentecost and “the ongoing story of Christ’s presence in the life of the church” and in the whole world. This is part of Luke’s legacy to us.
Includes Women in his Writings
Luke was a unique writer of the Third Gospel who more than any other New Testament writer included in his work the women who were important in the life of Jesus. In so doing he depicted Jesus as one caring for the status and salvation of women. This was an unusual happening at that timeas the status of women in those days was usually low.
It is thanks to this sympathetic writer that we get a clearer picture of the women in Jesus life such as the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and even the widow whose son Jesus restored to life.
He evidently knew the Virgin Mary and was highly respectful of her. The words that he puts in her mouth during the Anunciation were so memorable that they became known as “Mary’s Prayer” and were incorporated as part of our liturgy.
Patron Saint of Artists and Physicians
According to one early legend of the 6th century, Luke was also a skillful artist even attributing a famous 12th century icon of our Lady in the Pauline Chapel in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome to being one of his paintings. Thus it was said that he was the first to paint an icon of Mary. While the painting has since been proven to have been painted at a later date many painters still choose to have him as their inspiration and heavenly patron.
Because of this and other pictures of the Virgin Mary ascribed to him (displayed in the church of St. Augustine in Rome), Luke is the patron saint of fine arts of painters and glass artists. He is also the patron saint of physicians and surgeons and for some reason of butchers, lace makers, notaries and brewers.
Nothing more is known for certain about Luke after Paul’s martyrdom and he completed his great two-volume work. After Paul died in 64 A.D. tradition tells us that Luke preached the Faith in Egypt and Greece. It is believed too that Luke became a great leader in the church of his home region. It was sometimes in the 80’s that he decided to write his two-volume work. He died at the age of 84 (others say at 74) in either Bithynia or Boetia, Greece. Whether he was martyred by crucifixion or not is also not certain. His relics are honored in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the Church of the Apostles. A few persist in the stories of his martyrdom, which seems most doubtful.
Symbol and Feast Day
Saint Luke is represented by an ox often winged, a symbol of sacrifice and priesthood because his gospel begins with the ox, the animal of sacrifice of Zechariah (father of John the Baptist) to God to celebrate the birth of his son. It is a fitting symbol because the bull or ox is recognized in many religious traditions as an animal of great power and mystery.
His feast day is celebrated on October 18.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. IV pp 142.144
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p. 72
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – p 323
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – pp. 143 – 146
A Calendar of Saints – 205
All Saints – pp 453 – 454
A Year With the Saints – October 18
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 492 – 493
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp 474 -475
My First Book of Saints – pp 249
Saint Companions – pp 394 -395
Saint of the Day – pp 289 – 290
Saints – A Visual Guide – pp 74 – 75
Voices of the Saints – pp 34 – 35
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives Group 6 Card I
The Everything Saints Book – pp 25 – 26
The Lion Treasury of Saints – p 216; p 53
Servants of God – pp 56 – 57
The Way of the Saints – pp 282 – 283
Book of Saints – Part 8 – pp 22 – 23
Who’s Who in the Bible – pp 272 – 273