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Luke as Creative “Historian” and His Story of Christian Unity

November 15, 2013
English: folio 11 recto of the codex with the ...

English: folio 11 recto of the codex with the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many tomes have been written about Luke – both his Gospel and his “Volume II”, “The Acts of the Apostles”.

And for good reason! Luke, as I’ll illustrate a bit below, is probably responsible more than any other single person, for a general view of early Christianity that has been “standard” for almost two millennia.  Yet there is plenty of reason to look a bit deeper and to grapple with the reality that his is a partial and very slanted picture.

The real picture does not so readily support the orthodox understanding of what the disciples of Jesus believed and did after his death, how Paul related to and often conflicted with them, etc.  In a nutshell, Luke’s clear agenda is to present a unified and generally smoothly operating early “church” (even to him not yet called “Christian” in most of the Israel or Mediterranean region).  This ties with his concept of the authority and truthfulness of the Church as validated and led by God… a not unexpected claim for an offshoot of Judaism.

This foundational belief, in turn, leads modern Christians  to feel on safe ground combining together  elements of teaching attributed to Jesus, to some of the original Apostles, and to the “last” of the Apostles, Paul.  It has enabled the creation of what is most prominent today: A Christian theology that sees a need for personal salvation from eternal damnation (or separation from God) based on faith in Jesus as both atoning sacrifice and “very God of very God”.  The reason I write about Luke at times, and otherwise seek to point out a more accurate picture of early Christianity is to help struggling, often anxiety-ridden people (generally those already Christian) realize that maybe the supposedly unified, clear theology they’ve been taught does not come on the basis of clear authority straight from God after all.

Maybe they are much freer than they ever imagined to believe something else, or to comfortably remain unsure about what the Bible does legitimately tell us about God and the real nature of the “work of Christ”.  I had to work though this process myself, and it took a number of years… with me already having tools for understanding the Bible and finding, understanding alternate perspectives way beyond the average Christian.  I’m pretty sure Luke “meant well” but he sure set up a whole lot of problems for many centuries to come, and they still are with us.  Of course, it wasn’t his efforts alone, by any means, but his “history” (and it is that, in part) in Acts was pivotal.  For this reason, it bears a closer look by both Christians and anyone interested in the growth of a new religion, or Christianity specifically.  Here is my small contribution for today (in addition to a few related posts I’ve made earlier).    

In the “standard” version of the birth of Christianity, all the leaders (supposedly) quickly reached the same conclusions theologically… just not all the details of their application to social situations. This all is heavily oriented around two key writers/theologians. Together they wrote or are credited with writing around half of the volume of the NT, and over half the total books. They are Luke and Paul. Luke’s accounts differ from Paul’s significantly, in the few places they clearly overlap, and for reasons that can be fairly easily discerned.  Many top scholars (not to mention observant non-experts) believe Luke patched in a lot of stuff to support the very unity, continuity, authority concepts I refer to.  He had a high purpose to fulfill in doing so.

He was apparently the first writer to present a major work creating the picture of early and continuing unity of belief and most elements of practice and outreach.  However, even his own accounting sometimes reveals a much less tidy reality.  Just a few of many possible examples: Acknowledgment that James and the Jerusalem leaders were going mostly on indirect reports as to what Paul was actually teaching, Paul being quite willing to keep it obscure to them; believers already in Alexandria, Egypt (never discussed other than in passing by Luke or by Paul) who knew about Jesus but not the theology that Paul was espousing; followers of John the Baptist who didn’t even know about the Holy Spirit despite the Gospels (including Luke!) making the strong point that John himself introduced in no uncertain terms “one more powerful than I…”, Jesus, as the one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire”. 

This coming of and baptism by the Holy Spirit is central in the theological (and practical) unity case being made by Luke in Acts.  According to him and the other Gospel writers, the major role of John was to “prepare the way for” and introduce the Messiah, doing so with an emphasis on the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And the Gospels (including Luke) make it clear John’s disciples had multiple connection points with Jesus, and at least some of them made the transition from following John to following Jesus (Andrew, brother of Simon Peter, is named as one of them in John 1:40).  Consider this: all the miraculous things the Gospels claim happened at and right after the death of Jesus (including Pentecost with its major miraculous display and supposed mass conversion in the narrow streets of geographically small Jerusalem) and the unmistakable “hand off” to Jesus by John before his untimely execution.  If this all really happened (as traditionally held in Christianity) how could disciples of John (perhaps newly “converted” ones, as well) NOT know about the Holy Spirit and its/his dramatic coming upon believers? I refer to a period, per Acts, of just about 15-25 years later.

But in Acts 19, in Ephesus, Paul encounters believers baptized into “John’s baptism” who haven’t even “heard that there is a Holy Spirit”.  This is not the only evidence of a major following of John that was wide-spread and apparently did not see John and Jesus as they are presented in the Gospels. (Historian Josephus adds strongly to the sense that John had a ministry either substantially unconnected or, at the least, much less connected to Jesus than the Gospels claim.) So, despite the Gospel claims of a no-uncertain-terms self-diminution by John and his unmistakable elevation of Jesus, with expectation of his coming Spirit-baptism work, this central role of John’s work somehow seems not to have gotten across to even those mostly in the same generation as John and Jesus.

Now, this is not mere trivia unimportant in the bigger picture.  Rather, it is one among numerous strong evidences that the picture being carefully painted by Luke in his Gospel and Acts is one that even he cannot make thoroughly consistent….  There is too much relatively recent history to the contrary.  So he has to include a bit of it but spin it in such a way that it does not obviously undercut his main thesis (or theses).    

I’d love to hear how this impacts you…. And, if you’ve already given it some thought, please share that! Have you noticed any of these disconnects? What did or do you make of them? 

(This post has been lightly edited 3-22-14. I consider it one of my more important ones on the historical foundations of Christianity.)

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