Physician, historian, artist, evangelist: John Gayford looks into Luke


St Luke is our evangelist-guide at Sunday Masses in Year C. This should allow us to become familiar with his gospel as he writes of the living heart of Jesus; to sustain us on our spiritual journey. Like the other synoptic gospels of St Mark and St Matthew, the author is anonymous. Luke did not only write the Gospel that is now named after him but he also wrote the Acts of the Apostles which means he is responsible for writing over a quarter of the New Testament. Our lack of biographical facts about St Luke means that many of us have welcomed legends to supplement, step in and fill the gaps.

The Third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles are dedicated to Theophilus meaning ‘lover of God’ (St Luke 1.3 and Acts 1.1). Most accept this suggests that this is a real person not just a symbol of a Christian or God-fearing reader. The fact that he is addressed as ‘most excellent’ suggests that he is a person of respect or position, possibly within Roman Government. Luke wants him to have accurate facts, presuming he is sympathetic, and could even be a sponsor of Luke/Acts. It was not uncommon for ancient authors to divide their work into sections to fit on a papyrus which was a maximum of thirty-five feet. The Third Gospel (about 19,400 words) and Acts (about 18,400 words) are about equal and each amount to as much as could be fitted on to a papyrus. 

The traditional view is that Luke was a companion of St Paul as we learn in Colossians 4.14, Second Timothy 4.10 and Philemon 24. It has to be remembered that Luke was a common name but the events do not exactly tie up the account in Acts. The late second century Anti-Marcionite prologue to the Gospel which can be described as an extra-textural prologue to the Gospels written in Greek but only that of St Luke survives. This says ‘Luke was a Syrian of Antioch, by profession a physician, he was disciple of the apostle Paul. Luke served the Lord without distraction, without wife, and without children. He died at the age of 84 in Boeotia full of the Holy Spirit, having composed the Gospel in Achaia’. We celebrate his feast on 18th October in red vestments even if he was not a martyr.

Luke admitted in his prologue (Luke 1.1-4) that there were already other gospels, but he found it necessary to set forward the faith for Gentile converts in a new accurate account. He wrote his Gospel in his own style of Greek and most modern Biblical Scholars agree he wrote some of the best polished Greek sentences in the Bible. The words evangelion kata Loukan (Gospel according to Luke) are found at the end of the oldest extant manuscript of the Gospel. This is a papyrus codex (Papyrus Bodmer XIV) dating from 175-225 AD. 

St Jerome claims that St Luke was buried at Constantinople, his bones being transferred there with the bones of St Andrew in 349. Epiphanius (c.315- 403) bishop of Salamis claimed that after St Paul’s death Luke preached in Italy, Gaul and Dalmatia. 

Relying heavily on St Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel appeared in circulation about ten years later sometime after 70 AD. It is tempting to say that Luke was one of the 70 or 72 like St Mark. St Luke’s Gospel follows the general structure of St Mark’s Gospel that this was likely his principle source (estimates vary) but Luke had material of his own, some of which he may have shared with St Matthew. This could well be an over-simplification but is true as a general principle and allowance has to be made for Luke’s redaction of Mark. St Luke’s Infancy narrative is a separate source or sources. Apostles are held in higher esteem by Luke than Mark, this may have caused Luke to leave out passages of Mark (long omission Mark 6.45-8.26 and short omission 9.41-10-12).

Luke is the master of narrative, giving enough detail to be informative but not too much as to be boring. He paints a vivid picture which sticks in the mind. Sixteen parables appear in his Gospel that do not appear in the other Gospels. Women are sympathetically included as in the parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8). Outstanding are the parables of ‘the good Samaritan’ (Luke 10.29-37) and ‘the prodigal son’ (Luke 15.11-32) even to the point that these terms have entered English usage. Luke projects himself in the text as a man of compassion and recounts history with a theological message. As in the rest of his Gospel, so it is with the parables, St Luke wants to give his account and to present Jesus and his message in his own way. 

It is in St Luke’s Gospel that Jesus is depicted at prayer more than any of the other Gospels. While Jesus was at prayer after his baptism (3:21-22) that the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved: with you I am well pleased”. Before Jesus chose his twelve disciples he spent a night in the mountain at prayer (6.12). We are told (9.18) that He was praying alone, with only his disciples, when he asked them who he is and Peter responds ‘The Messiah (or the Christ) of God”. Eight days later while Jesus was at prayer the Transfiguration occurred (9:28). No wonder when they saw Jesus at prayer the disciple asked to be taught how to pray. In St Luke 11.1 Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord teach us how to pray as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11.1). Jesus then taught them the ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, slightly different from St Matthew’s version used liturgically. It comes as no surprise to read that it is the custom of Jesus to pray, and especially on the Mount of Olives before his passion (22.39). St Luke’s Gospel is of forgiveness, Jesus does not blame the Roman authorities for his crucifixion. The repentant thief on the cross (23:39-43) is promised paradise (even named as Dismas in legend).

The Holy Spirit plays a prominent role in St Luke’s Gospel. We hear in the infancy narrative of Mary at the visitation of the Angel Gabriel (1.35) Elizabeth1.41), Zachariah (1.67) and Simeon (2.25) being filled with the Holy Spirit. At the River Jordon John baptized with water and pointed to Jesus who would baptize with the Holy Spirit (3.16). In Luke 4.1 Jesus full of the Holy Spirit returning from the Jordon was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In Luke 12.8 we hear that those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In 12.12 we hear those brought before tribunals will have the Holy Spirit to teach them how to defend themselves.

All three of the beautiful canticles from St Luke’s Gospel used in the Liturgy of the Hours come from the Nativity Narrative. The Benedictus (Luke 1.68-79) also known as the Song of Zechariah was sung by John the Baptist’s father when he regained the power of speech at the naming and circumcision of his son. It is divided into two parts, a song of thanksgiving for the realisation of messianic hope, and that the time was now at hand. In Western Liturgy the Benedictus is recited at Lauds (Morning Prayer). The Magnificat (Luke 1.46-55) known as the Song or Canticle of Mary, in the Byzantine tradition is known as the canticle of the Theotokos. Mary proclaimed this canticle when she visited her cousin Elizabeth: some ancient texts are attributed to Elizabeth. Biblical scholars can claim that Luke used 1 Samuel 2.1-10 (Hannah’s Prayer) for inspiration. Where incense is used in solemn celebrations the altar is censed during the singing of the Magnificat. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Magnificat is used in the morning office Orthris. The Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2.29-32) is the proclamation of Simeon (a righteous man filled with the Holy Spirit) when Jesus is presented in the Temple. (In this we get an echo of Isaiah 40.5 and 49.6). Since ancient times this has been used in the Night Office (Compline) but also used as a processional hymn for the feast of Candlemas. In the Book of Common Prayer, Evensong is a combination of Vespers and Compline using both the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. All three canticles have become the most solemn parts of their respective offices and as such have in catholic tradition gained antiphons which change with season or special feast days.

There are pictures of St Luke in iconic form with him holding his Gospel and include his symbol of the winged ox. These can be traced back to the 6th century but relate more to legend than to the Gospel. Pictures of the parables certainly relate to the Gospel and are prolific in modern times. From the 15th century the legend of St Luke painting a portrait of Our Lady became popular.

It has been a privilege to meet Luke and be in his company. He comes across as a humble man who has a genuine interest in people of wide social groups and ethnic backgrounds, especially women whom he treats with respect. Luke presents as good company, especially at a dinner party with his fund of well-polished stories told in his own style holding his audience enthralled. As he talks you realize he is a scholar in his own way. As you listen you realize he is using history to convey a theological message. He seems to be a multitalented man, his literary qualities especially in Greek are obvious but by repute he is also physician, historian and even artist. He treats the privileged with respect but can remind them of their responsibilities in quite a challenging way, showing his affinity with the poor and underprivileged. Some say he comes from the background of an educated domestic servant who had to be many things to his master Theophilus, with whom it appears he had a good and mutually profitable relationship. He never claims to be an eye witness of the ministry of Jesus but recounts the events in detail as if he were present, and has captured the message of the Gospel that he tells in his own way and wants to pass on to others as a message of joy and peace. Unlike others he has inquired into how Jesus came into the world and talks of his infancy as if he had discussed this with Mary. 

Hopefully by the end of this liturgical year many of us will have fallen in love with St Luke’s Gospel that concludes with the powerful Erasmus story (24.13-35) before the account of the Ascension. We are left to reflect, is it one of us or Luke himself who was with Cleopas? Then may we share peace with Our Blessed Lord as we share the Eucharist.