Luke, the Beloved Historian

By Jason Jackson

The gospel of Luke begins with the following remarks:

“Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus; that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed” (Lk. 1:1-4, ASV).

Leon Morris characterizes Luke’s introduction by saying, “The opening paragraph is one sentence in good Greek style, with classical vocabulary, rhythm and balance” (The Gospel According to St. Luke, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974, p. 65).

Unlike the other Gospels, Luke begins with a literary introduction that is personal (e.g., “it seemed good to me,” emphasis added). While the opening lines of Luke differ from Matthew, Mark, and John in this regard, the style is similar to some of the renowned secular histories of antiquity. The History of Herodotus (484-425 B.C.) begins like this:

“These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done…” (Transl. George Rawlinson, New York: Tudor Publishing Company, 1929, p. 1).

For similar examples, see The Gospel of Luke by William Barclay.

Luke, like Matthew, Mark and John, wrote by the inspiration of God (2 Pet. 1:21; 2 Tim. 3:16). And when Luke introduces his narrative, by inspiration he indicates the following things concerning his account of the life and ministry of the Son of God. First, he notes the precedent for such a work. Second, he outlines the process needed to accomplish it. Third, he reveals the purpose for which he records those matters. The Holy Spirit guaranteed the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, which includes 1:1-4, and in these verses God teaches us something about the methodology of the revelatory process, in which he employed human agency and ability.

The Precedent for Luke’s Gospel

“Forasmuch” signifies “a fact already well known,” which provides justification for Luke’s work (Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980, p. 137). It was well-known that “many have taken in hand” to write about Jesus of Nazareth. Speculation about the identity of the “many” is futile. Some scholars suppose that Luke must have been acquainted with Matthew and Mark from a study of the text. Regardless, it is apparent that Luke is not absolutely dependent on those Gospels, for 50% of his material is unique to his work.

Luke commends these former works. First, he noted the consistent reporting of “those matters.” These writers drew up narratives that agreed with the teaching that circulated among the congregations at the time, for the writings were “even as they delivered them unto us.”

Second, Luke recognized the reliability of the narratives, for they were based on eyewitness testimony.

Third, the works were further validated by the fact that the eyewitnesses themselves had been changed by what they “saw and heard” (cf. Acts 4:20). Therefore, they were “ministers of the word.”

Fourth, Luke indicated that the things Jesus Christ “did and taught” (see Acts 1:1) were “fulfilled among us.” These events were not in the distant past; they were still capable of demonstrable proof — the evidence was fresh at hand (cf. 1 Cor. 15:5-8). A.T. Robertson observed, “Luke writes after the close of Christ’s earthly ministry and yet it is not in the dim past” (Luke the Historian in the Light of Research, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977, p. 47).

With these familiar facts before his audience, Luke seized on the precedent for writing about the historical roots of Christianity. Significant interest abounded concerning Jesus of Nazareth, and Luke knew that additional good could be accomplished by supplementing the current literature with a more comprehensive work while thorough verification was still possible.

The Process of Luke’s Research

Luke’s gospel was written upon the basis of investigation. His research was complete, thorough, and comprehensive, in order to record the truth. He describes himself as “having traced the course….” He followed a trail of evidence bit by bit. He utilized a process “whereby one arrives at a knowledge of the matter” (Rienecker, p. 137). Luke used the perfect tense when he wrote “having traced,” indicating that the investigation was over and his findings were preserved in his document.

Luke reveals that his research was thorough. He said that he investigated the course of “all things.” Concerning the relevant facts, he made thorough inquiries. His research no doubt involved a number of investigative techniques. He may have made use of other narratives, which represented the account of eyewitnesses. He had the opportunity to talk to people like James (Acts 21:17-18), son of Mary and Joseph, and a half-brother of Jesus. What might Luke have learned from James, the son of Mary, about the things she wondered and pondered in her heart (Lk. 1:29; 2:29,33,51)?

Did Luke interview Mary herself, if she still lived? What could Mark have told the physician and companion of Paul when they were together in Rome (Col. 4:10,14)? While in Jerusalem, Luke met people like Mnason, “an early disciple,” in whose house Luke stayed (Acts 21:15-16). Might Luke have interviewed some of the 500 brethren to whom the resurrected Christ appeared (1 Cor. 15:6)?

Not only was Luke’s research thorough in every detail, it was comprehensive as well. He wrote that he traced the course of all things “from the first.” He researched and recorded more than any other writer concerning the foundational events of Christianity. He reported the amazing circumstances of John’s birth, the angel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, the shepherds’ worship of Christ, the visit to the temple and the testimony of Simeon and Anna, and the twelve-year-old Jesus talking with the elders in the temple.

A.T. Robertson says, “The idea of Luke seems to be that, having decided to write another and a fuller narrative than those in existence, he first made an investigation of all the available material that he could lay his hands upon” (p. 51). This comprehensive investigation led him back to a day when an angel of the Lord appeared to Zacharias in the temple (Lk. 1:5ff).

Luke also indicates that his aim was to verify the events. He was concerned with the truth, not just a good story. He traced the course of all things “accurately.” Consider Luke’s precise care with the facts. He relates the beginning of John’s preaching with no less than six political figures and their respective jurisdictions (Lk. 3:1-3). His accurate reporting is also illustrated in the book of Acts where he mentions thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine Mediterranean islands.

When he spoke of the ancient world, he was accurate. When he used political terminology, he was precise. When medical insights were appropriate, his skill enabled him to paint a more vivid picture. It is not without reason that the former critic of Luke would write, having traced the course of Luke himself, “The present writer takes the view that Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness” (William Ramsay, The Bearing of Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, p. 81).

The Purpose of Luke’s Gospel

Dr. Luke did not scoff at the idea of the virgin birth or at the thought of the resurrection of the dead. It was not, however, that he had observed these kinds of things in his medical career. To the contrary! Yet, with unabashed clarity, Luke presents these remarkable events with certainty, based upon the abundant evidence that he reviewed.

And when you trace them, step-by-step, you will “know the certainty” of these matters concerning the life of Jesus Christ. He reported the truth concerning Jesus’ life — from his virgin birth to the miraculous ascension. And the truth to which these facts and events point is: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10, ESV).

Luke distinguishes himself from the eye-witnesses who saw and heard these things (note the “they” versus “us” in Luke 1:1-2). But his investigation was so thorough, his research so comprehensive, his aim to record the truth so noble — that although he himself was not there, he can take us there, that we may know the certainty of “those matters.” In fact, once we leave verse three (i.e., the “me” reference), the greatest historian fades into the background behind the greatest story ever told.