History of St Luke
St Luke was born probably in Syria and probably a gentile. His written work suggests a cultured, Hellenistic family background. Well educated and a doctor, he converted possibly to Judaism and certainly to Christianity, most likely in or around Syrian Antioch where, as he tells us, followers of The Way were first called Christians. In that community, he would have met leading lights Barnabas and Paul and became their companion, most notably of the latter, on their missionary journeys. St Paul, in the Epistle to the Colossians, refers to him as ‘the beloved physician’. He is the author of two of the books of our New Testament, the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. His Greek is the koine or common Greek of the time but his vocabulary is more extensive, his composition more stylish than that of the other evangelists. That is most easily seen in the paragraph with which he opens the Book of Acts, linking his two works.
Most scholars are agreed that while writing his Gospel he had before him our Gospel of Mark and at least an earlier version of Matthew, rather more than one of the collection of Sayings of Jesus which were in circulation at the time. He also had other sources which can have come only from enquiries around Nazareth and Capernaum or among people who had come from there. One tradition says that among them was Our Lady herself. Luke is the writer who gives us her part in the Gospel story, the Annunciation, Visitation and Infancy Narratives we celebrate at Christmas along with the formation and education of Jesus. In Acts he also places her along with other women with the disciples who waited in prayer for Pentecost. There is also an old, though far from contemporary, tradition that, artist as well as doctor, he painted her portrait. In consequence, he is honoured as the patron saint of artists as well as doctors. Certainly, he was an artist with words and ideas if not with paint.
Luke is also a considerable theologian who struggles to make sense not only of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus but to situate the events in the sweep of world history as the working out of God’s plan, what we call the economy of salvation. He is writing mainly for readers who were converts from paganism: his genealogy of Jesus begins with Adam as opposed to Matthew’s which begins with Abraham. The whole cosmic process of our salvation, however, is centred on the Holy City. The bulk of his Gospel is in the form of a fateful and fated journey to Jerusalem where the story not only of Jesus but of the whole of the world’s history comes to its climax in the death and Resurrection of the chosen one. Along the way Luke spells out the personality of Jesus and the demands of discipleship. He is particularly noted for his emphasis on the gentleness and understanding nature of God. The twelve special disciples, the apostles are the continuation of the twelve tribes of Israel and the foundations of the transformed dispensation. The continuity between the old dispensation and the ongoing life of the new community is clarified in the key passage about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as the Lord makes clear that things had to happen through his crucifixion and resurrection to his continuing presence in the Church at the breaking of bread.
Luke’s articulation of the bewildering Paschal event into the discrete series of Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost provides us with the Easter cycle in the Church’s year as do the Infancy Narratives with the Christmas cycle – apart from the Magi for whom we are indebted to Matthew. We are therefore indebted to Luke for the way in which the Church marks out and celebrates these events in annual repetition and embeds them in our consciousness. You might say Luke forms the way the Church thinks.
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