In the first four verses of the Gospel of Luke, readers encounter a unique prologue that states Luke’s purpose and method in writing his Gospel. He has used previous written accounts of Jesus’ life, he has accessed the testimony of eyewitnesses, and he has taken great care to organize all of this material into an orderly account so that an individual named Theophilus may know the truth.
The way Luke begins his Gospel suggests that he regarded himself as a historian. Indeed, Luke’s prologue is similar to other introductions found in ancient texts, and scholars generally classify these as belonging to the Greco-Roman genre of history.
But we shouldn’t assume that ancient writers meant the same thing by “history” that we mean today. In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek writer and ancient historian Thucydides reveals something interesting: although he tried his best to accurately reproduce speeches that generals and other leaders made, this was not always possible. In such cases, Thucydides invented speeches based on what he imagined the leaders must have needed to say under the circumstances.
Fabricating speeches would, of course, have significant repercussions for any professional historian today—such as being stripped of his or her Pulitzer Prize. Nevertheless, mixing fact and fiction was considered entirely appropriate in antiquity. An awareness of these principles of ancient history writing should make us extremely cautious about supposing that the author of the Gospel of Luke is anything like our modern conception of a historian.
When we look closely at Luke’s Gospel, we find a mix of solid historical data and imaginative reconstruction. Let’s consider
On the flip side, Luke reports some events that strain his credibility. A prominent example is
First, we have no external evidence of the Romans conducting an empire-wide census; rather, we know censuses were always administered at the level of individual provinces. Second, Luke is correct that a census of the Roman province of Judea was undertaken under Quirinius. However, Quirinius began his appointment in the year 6 C.E., whereas
So how do we account for a Gospel that is believable about minor events but implausible about a major one? One possible explanation is that Luke believed that Jesus’ birth was of such importance for the entire world that he dramatically juxtaposed this event against an (imagined) act of worldwide domination by a Roman emperor who was himself called “savior” and “son of God”—but who was nothing of the sort. For an ancient historian following in the footsteps of Thucydides, such a procedure would have been perfectly acceptable.
- Bovon, François. Luke the Theologian. 2nd ed. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006.
- Barrett, C. K. Luke the Historian in Recent Study. London: Epworth, 1961. Repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2009.
- Marshall, I. Howard. Luke: Historian and Theologian. 3rd ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.