22 Jun 2021

Luke the Priest? Was Luke Gentile or Jewish?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Exegesis, Jewish Backgrounds, Luke, Patternism, Septuagint

Luke the Priest?

Sometimes you might hear or read something like this, “Paul wrote more of the New Testament than anyone.” This is usually said because Paul wrote more “books” of the NT with 13. By that method of counting it is true. But when we talk about the number of words, or the length of writing, Paul is actually in second place to another.

Luke actually wrote more of the New Testament than anyone. His two volumes, Luke and Acts, make up 27% of the words in the Greek New Testament while Paul accounts for 23%. Luke wrote 37,933 words but Paul wrote 32,407 (give or take a few because of textual variants).

Luke’s Gospel is also the longest Gospel while Matthew is the second longest. So between Luke and Paul we have exactly 50% of the New Testament.

Paul was a charismatic rabbi. Paul was a Pharisee in fact (Phil 3.5; Acts 23.6; 26.4). I think when Martin Luther, F. C. Baur, and J. W. McGarvey meet Paul in the new heavens and new earth they may die of a heart attack when this man in a prayer shawl, phylacteries and tassels comes up and introduces himself as Saul of Tarsus.

Luke. Well who was Luke? Luke is mentioned by name three times in the NT, Colossians 4.14; 2 Timothy 4.11; and Philemon 1.24. Colossians 4.14 notes that he was a physician. Some think he is the “yokefellow” in Philippians 4.2.

One of the mantras I grew up on was that Luke was a Gentile. Interestingly enough, the New Testament never says this. For Protestant scholars of the late 18th thru the mid-20th century the Gentile ethnicity of Luke was simply taken for granted. Scholarship of the day, however, anathematized anything “Jewish.” And it seems to be par for the course in much Restoration/Evangelical preaching. The only possible way, the assumption goes, that Luke could have such an interest in the “Gentile” mission, so the argument goes, was that he himself was Gentile. The Gentile Mission and defending Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles was, in this view, clearly what Acts was about. Such an assumption directly colors how we interpret the “conversion” of Saul (he clearly stopped being a Jew and became a “Christian” we assume. But Saul did not convert, i.e. change religions and he never once describes himself, or anyone, else a “Christian.”). Such a view views Paul’s sacrifice as an anomaly, a capitulation to legalistic Jews rather than part of Paul’s normal routine when in Jerusalem. But what if Saul was called, like Isaiah or Jeremiah or the prophets, to be a herald to the nations – an extension of Israel’s own historical mission – to announce the arrival of the King.

The assumption of Luke’s Gentile DNA often colors (distorts?) the reading of the narrative of the Gospel and Acts. Indeed, it often obscures what is actually there. What is the nature of that Gentile mission, for example? Is it an extension of vision of the vision of the prophets and psalms where Gentiles flow to Mt. Zion when Israel has been restored or is it merely an explanation of God replacing Jews with Gentiles as the covenant people? What if the “Gentile mission” is the announcement to tell the Gentiles that the King has come. And now they are the inheritance of the Son of David, the Davidic Messiah (as in Psalm 2 and many other texts)? They are not replacing Israel but being grafted into Israel.

Most of those assumptions have fallen apart however. Many scholars always thought Luke was in fact Jewish and they based this on the text of Luke and Acts together. Joseph Fitzmeyer takes the interesting position that yes Luke was a Gentile but also Semitic!

The trend among scholarship, is rather that Luke was Jewish. Luke-Acts is not written to simply to defend Paul at his trial in Rome. Rather Luke’s emphasis from beginning to end is the renewal of Israel in accordance with the promises of God. Paul’s mission is not anti-Jewish at all but straight out of the Jewish Scriptures. Jacob Jervell argues in numerous books and articles that Luke, like Paul, was a diaspora Jew. Greg Sterling, now dean of the Yale Divinity School, and great NT scholar seems to think the question is settled. Luke was a Jew.

Many New Testament scholars now view Luke and Acts as some of the most Jewish writings in the New Testament. This is surprising, even stunning, to many. But the “Jewishness” the Gospel of Luke and Acts is on display from the opening of the Gospel to the end of Acts. Among Protestant scholars in Germany among the chief reasons for discounting Acts as a historical source was the reality, vividly displayed in the narrative, is Paul is a devout, even law keeping, Jew. Thus Luke was a pious fiction written rather late to heal the rift between factions in the early church. Luke was “conservative!” It is only with the coming of the “New Perspective on Paul” that has suggested that the epistles of Paul may not be Protestant after all (or Lutheran!). So the distance between the epistles and the “Lukan Paul” is not nearly so great (in fact I think they are the same).

Conservatives just ignored a good bit of the text in Luke-Acts. The assumptions we read the text through filter out a good deal of this because we are unfamiliar with the Jewish scriptures, Jewish liturgy in the temple, and Second Temple Judaism in general. If you are interested in these Jewish themes that are right on the surface of Luke-Acts, here are a few articles to help.

Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Jewish Story of Jesus and the Way

Acts: A Jewish Story, James & Paul’s Animal Sacrifice

Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, The Day God Renewed His Covenant

Acts 1: Luke’s “Old Testament” Connection with Isaiah, Joel and Tobit

In 2008, Rick Strelan, an Australian NT scholar, wrote a comprehensive study called, Luke the Priest: The Authority of the Author of the Third Gospel. After surveying the history of positions and the arguments used to support them, he finds the arguments are persuasive that Luke was a Jew.

Strelan goes further. Taking Jervell’s arguments even further and dealing with the social and political situation of the emerging Jesus Movement (the term Christianity did not exist yet and does not show up until the second century), he argues that Luke not only was a Jew, but a priest (Acts does indicate that a “large company of priests” believed in the Messiah, Acts 6.7). One cannot be dogmatic but the cumulative nature of the evidence certainly is thought provoking.

So who was Luke, the man who wrote more of the NT than any other individual? He was a Jew whose paths crossed with Paul in Asia. He may have been a believer already, Paul never refers to him as his son in the faith (as with Timothy, who was also Jewish). He probably was a priest who earned money as a physician. He traveled with Paul. He interviewed many, read other works and researched the history of the Way (Luke 1.1-4). He was a master of the Hebrew Scriptures in the Greek translation called the Septuagint. His Greek is very good Greek, some of the best in the NT but it is still distinctly “Semitic” Greek.

There you have it, who was Luke the man who wrote a chunk of the NT. He almost certainly was not a Gentile. He was a Jew and … if I was a betting man … he was a priest. All of the New Testament was written by Jews. A Pharisee and a likely priest wrote exactly half of it.

What happens to Luke-Acts when we read it as the product of a Jewish scripture scholar telling the story of how God has renewed God’s people?

Just something to make you (and me) go hmmmmmmmm.


5 Responses to “Luke the Priest? Was Luke Gentile or Jewish?”

  1. Lupe Barrera Says:

    Very good information.I joy your blog.

  2. Jerry Starlinand g Says:

    I am sure you are aware that Col. 4:10-11 lists Aristarchus, Mark (Barnabas’s relative), and Justus and then says, “These are the Only?men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God.” This is just before he says, “Luke the beloved physician greets you.” Would you please comment on this if you believe Luke was also a Jew?

  3. Jerry Starling Says:

    Will you comment on the context of Colossians 4:11-14 as it relates to the thesis of this post?

    Or have you even considered that context?

  4. Robert Limb Says:

    Apart from correcting antisemitism, which is of course, essential, does it really matter all that much?

  5. Henry Valencia Says:

    I am curious of how you would respond to the comments of Jerry Starling. Sorry I am 2 year late LOL

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