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Who Is the Most Influential Writer in History?

April 22, 2011

If an opinion poll would ask, “Who has been the most influential writer in all of history?” I imagine many names, ancient to modern, would be given.  St. Paul might be among them.  But I doubt that “Luke,” the attributed author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles would come up often, if at all.  But he should. 

His work, particularly in Acts, was absolutely pivotal from all we can tell, in how Christianity would develop and be viewed from about the 2nd century to the present day.  No one can say for sure, but it seems quite possible that without his masterpiece of Acts that the Christian Church might have remained in diverse, often opposing groups for much longer and perhaps never gained the momentum or credibility to become the official Roman church by the late 4th century and many to follow.   How much different might that have made world history?  

I won’t take space to develop the reasons in depth that I suggest this.  But here is a quick summary.   The book of Acts serves as a kind of bridge between the Jerusalem, Jewish form of Jesus-following and the Pauline Gentile-oriented form which was theologically often in conflict with the Apostles in Jerusalem.  Paul speaks of this directly more than once, and particularly in Galatians.  Acts makes it sound significantly different and less contentious, though it also acknowledges the conflicts and lack of unity and agreement on crucial matters of budding “Christian” faith.  (The Jerusalem/Apostolic form can be well argued to have been a largely acceptable Jewish sect, not “Christian,” which did sometimes face opposition from other Jews — Roman-connected leaders particularly — as was common among the several sects in that era.)

Now by the time the eventual “New Testament” (NT) writings were completed, there were well more than two forms of Jewish-Christian and Christian groups (as above, more sectarian synagogues than “churches” in Jerusalem and environs at least until after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE).  But the single biggest boiled-down issue that threatened the desired unity and growth of emerging Christianity was around a requirement (or lack of it) to become either Jewish in the process of joining, or at least perhaps meet the lower standards of  “God-fearers.” (See Acts 15.)  These were non-Jews (Gentiles) who appreciated Judaism and wanted to study and worship with Jews but not go all the way with circumcision and dietary or other specific laws. 

There are numerous evidences, many within the NT itself, that contentions among various apostolic or other Christian groups were serious and heated.  Harmony and unity were not at all a predominant feature of the early faith although the ideal is called for in the Gospel of John, and Acts goes to great ends to create the impression that all tensions and disagreements were fairly quickly and rationally solved… everyone was “on the same page.” Or at least the key authorities were–mainly the Apostles and the head of the Jerusalem Jesus-followers, James, the brother of Jesus, who was not one of the original “Twelve Apostles,” as Paul also was not.

Luke also works carefully in Acts to create a story of ongoing revelation and guidance by the Holy Spirit that supposedly moved Peter from being a Jewish-observant believer in Jesus as human messiah for Israel to a “world Christian” with beliefs compatible to Paul’s superceding-of-Jewish-law theology.   He also contradicts Paul’s careful, emphatic claims to not have consulted the Apostles (or any humans) until at least 3 years after his conversion, and then only limitedly.  Paul’s point is that his teachings came by direct revelation from Christ, another indication that he was trying to contrast certain beliefs of his over against what Jesus’ direct disciples taught, as well as equal or trump their authority. 

Acts was written somewhere around the last decade of the first century or a bit later, about 30 or more years (basically a generation) after Paul’s death.  By this time, the need for a supposedly historical accounting for the emergence of a new and increasingly non-Jewish, even sometimes anti-Jewish religion (remember the massive impact of the Roman war and the Temple’s destruction in 70 and human tendency to assign blame), was mounting.  This accounting needed to keep early Christianity connected conceptually with Judaism and it needed to give the appearance of a God-led and united development with a single “once for all delievered” (per Jude, perhaps a bit later) feel.  “Luke,” whoever he really was, pulled off a gigantic coup.  He was able to accomplish these things and more. 

Just how quickly his volumes (the Gospel of Luke and Acts–a two-part entity) spread and served to support the emerging proto-orthodox movement which did eventually solidify the impressions Luke labored to create, we cannot know.  But Acts became the pivotal “historical” core of the NT (his history is actually frequently suspect, as I’ve implied, and sometimes demonstrably just wrong).  I’d also argue that he, along with the other Gospel writers, experimented very successfully with a new literary form which, in a slightly different way than Acts, manages to merge Hebrew Scripture, myth and novel story within a generally historical framework, to where the mixture has never yet been fully figured out, despite 19+ centuries and many thousands of scholarly tomes trying to do so.  Of course, the religious side of their success has been to ground and guide the faith of literally billions of Christians. 

At the least, I think these things qualify Luke as one of the most influential authors of all time.  Thus his Luke – Acts is worthy of a closer look than even Christians, let alone historians and literary critics generally give it.  Though I cannot respect the method (“spin,” basically) and manipulation, distortion of history, etc., I have to admit it is a brilliant piece of work.

So where would you place Luke? No. 1? In the top 5? Top 10?

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