The question, “Who wrote the gospels?” is an important one. Church history and tradition—and many modern scholars—assert that the four gospels were written by eyewitnesses to Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection (Matthew and John) or by individuals with direct access to eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). If they are correct, then the gospels are eyewitness testimony, and the idea that they transmit accurate historical accounts is strengthened.
Many critics, however, dispute the traditional authorship of the gospels. They cite a number of reasons for this, which we have been addressing through a series of articles on gospel authorship.
When it comes to the question of authorship, most critics direct their fire at the gospels of John and Matthew. This is not surprising, because they are the only gospels that church history says were written by original disciples of Jesus.
The gospels of Mark and Luke are not without their critics, but they generate considerably less controversy. When it comes to Luke, some critics dispute the traditional authorship, but they expend most of their energy trying to paint the author as an inept or unreliable historian instead.
However, when one actually analyzes critics’ claims about Luke’s alleged historical errors, the critics end up with egg on their faces…not Luke. We’ve covered many of these “mistakes” in other articles (links here, here, here, here, here, and here). There’s a reason that the archaeologist, Sir William Ramsey, concluded that the author of Luke and Acts was a meticulous and reliable historian.1
Today, however, we’re not going to spend time assessing the accuracy of Luke’s gospel. Instead, we’ll look at the question of authorship. We’ll see that the evidence is quite strong that Luke was a historical figure who did, in fact, write the gospel that bears his name.
Who Was Luke?
Based on the writings that we have (both biblical and extra-biblical), Luke appears to have been a travelling companion of the apostle Paul. He accompanied and assisted Paul on some, though not all, of his missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire to spread the gospel to the Gentiles.
We are told that Luke was a physician and a Gentile Christian, originally from Antioch. He is credited with writing two extremely important works: The Gospel According to Luke, which relates the story of Jesus, and Acts of the Apostles, which provides a history of the early church. Luke’s gospel and Acts were basically written as a two-volume set.
In the preface to his gospel, Luke tells us that he carefully set out to create an orderly and well-investigated account of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4, NIV):
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
When Was The Gospel According to Luke Written?
Scholars have varying opinions regarding the dating of Luke. The significant majority of scholars date Luke’s original writing to between 65 and 95 A.D.2 Within that range, scholars generally gravitate toward the earlier side, to sometime between 65 and 75 A.D.
There are, however, some scholars who argue for an even earlier date range. They cite several reasons for this.
First, Acts of the Apostles, which was written after Luke, ends with Paul in prison, around 62 A.D. Acts says nothing about Paul’s subsequent trial and execution in 64 A.D. Acts also fails to mention the death of James, the brother of Jesus, in 62. A.D. Why? After all, Acts does report the deaths of other martyrs, such as Stephen (7:54-60) and James, the brother of John (12:1-2). The most straightforward explanation is that neither Paul nor James had been executed at the time Acts was written. This would date Acts to before 62-64 A.D. The Gospel of Luke, therefore, would have to be dated even earlier.
Second, Paul seems to quote Luke’s gospel in his first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11:23-25, NIV):
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Compare this to Luke 22:19-20:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in 53-54 A.D. If he is quoting Luke’s gospel in that passage, then that would push the original writing of Luke to some time prior to 53-54 A.D.
Third, Paul also seems to quote from Luke’s gospel in 1 Timothy 5:17-18:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
Compare this to Luke 10:7:
Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.
It’s important to mention that some scholars dispute the authorship of 1 Timothy, as well as its date of writing. However, those scholars that support the traditional authorship of 1 Timothy date it to about 58-59 A.D. If they are correct, this would offer another piece of evidence that Luke’s gospel dates to the 50’s A.D. or earlier.
These are not the only reasons that some scholars cite to support an early date for Luke. However, even if they are wrong, the weight of evidence and scholarly opinion put Luke’s writing to within 30-40 years of the events it describes. This is well within the timeframe that would have given the author access to eyewitnesses (for example, he would have had access to eyewitnesses from the early years of Paul’s journeys all the way through to the time of the gospel’s writing).
What Is the External Evidence Regarding Authorship of Luke’s Gospel?
Early church leaders and historians were unanimous in their declaration that The Gospel According to Luke was written by Luke, a travelling companion of Paul. There is no competing authorship tradition. Below is a quick survey of key sources.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies (ca. 130-200)
In a broader discussion of gospel authorship, Irenaeus (an early Bishop and Church Father) writes, “Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.”3
Muratorian Canon (ca. 170)
In the introduction to the Muratorian Canon, the earliest surviving listing of the books of the Bible, it says:
The third book of the Gospel is that according to Luke. Luke, the well-known physician, after the ascension of Christ, when Paul had taken with him as one zealous for the law, composed it in his own name, according to [the general] belief. Yet he himself had not seen the Lord in the flesh; and therefore, as he was able to ascertain events.4
Anti-Marcionite Prologues (2nd century)
The Anti-Marcionite Prologues have this to say about Luke:
Indeed Luke was an Antiochene Syrian, a doctor by profession, a disciple of the apostles: later however he followed Paul until his martyrdom, serving the Lord blamelessly. He never had a wife, he never fathered children, and died at the age of eighty-four, full of the Holy Spirit, in Boetia. Therefore — although gospels had already been written —- indeed by Matthew in Judaea but by Mark in Italy —- moved by the Holy Spirit he wrote down this gospel in the parts of Achaia, signifying in the preface that the others were written before his, but also that it was of the greatest importance for him to expound with the greatest diligence the whole series of events in his narration for the Greek believers…And indeed afterwards the same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles…5
Tertullian, Against Marcion (ca. 160-225)
Tertullian tells us that, “In short, from among the apostles the faith is introduced to us by John and by Matthew, while from among apostolic men Luke and Mark give it renewal…”6
Monarchian Prologue to Luke (3rd century (?))
The Monarchian Prologue says:
Luke, Syrian by nationality, an Antiochene, physician by art, disciple of the apostles, later followed Paul up until his confession, serving God without fault. For, never having either a wife or sons, he died in Bithynia at seventy-four years of age, full of the holy spirit. When the gospels through Matthew in Judea, through Mark, however, in Italy, had already been written, he wrote this gospel at the instigation of the holy spirit in the regions of Achaea, he himself also signifying in the beginning that others had been written beforehand.7
Note the discrepancy between the Monarchian and Anti-Marcionite prologues regarding Luke’s age and location at the time of his death. However, they are consistent on all other points.
Eusebius, Church History (ca. 260-340)
Church historian, Eusebius, writes:
But Luke, who was of Antiochian parentage and a physician by profession, and who was especially intimate with Paul and well acquainted with the rest of the apostles, has left us, in two inspired books, proofs of that spiritual healing art which he learned from them. One of these books is the Gospel, which he testifies that he wrote as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered unto him, all of whom, as he says, he followed accurately from the first. The other book is the Acts of the Apostles which he composed not from the accounts of others, but from what he had seen himself.
And they say that Paul meant to refer to Luke’s Gospel wherever, as if speaking of some gospel of his own, he used the words, “according to my Gospel.”8
Note Eusebius’ claim that Paul referred to Luke’s gospel as his own. If true, then Luke’s gospel would have to have been written by 64 A.D. at the absolute latest, and probably quite a bit sooner, perhaps in the 50’s.
Jerome, De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men) (ca. 347-420)
Theologian and historian, Jerome, tells us:
Luke a physician of Antioch, as his writings indicate, was not unskilled in the Greek language. An adherent of the apostle Paul, and companion of all his journeying, he wrote a Gospel, concerning which the same Paul says, We send with him a brother whose praise in the gospel is among all the churches and to the Colossians Luke the beloved physician salutes you, and to Timothy Luke only is with me. He also wrote another excellent volume to which he prefixed the title Acts of the Apostles, a history which extends to the second year of Paul’s sojourn at Rome, that is to the fourth year of Nero, from which we learn that the book was composed in that same city.9
Is Luke Mentioned in the Books of the New Testament?
The person, Luke, is mentioned three times in the New Testament. Each time, he is mentioned by Paul. In his letter to the Colossians (4:10-14), Paul mentions that Luke is a physician and implies that he is a Gentile:
My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings.
Paul mentions Luke again (along with Mark) in 2 Timothy 4:11: “Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry.”
Finally, Paul mentions Luke in Philemon 1:23-25: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”
What Is the Internal Evidence Regarding Authorship of Luke’s Gospel?
Does the text of The Gospel According to Luke or Acts of the Apostles offer us any evidence regarding authorship? Yes, it does offer some clues, all of which are consistent with what we are told by the leaders of the early church.
First, the quality of the Greek used to write Luke and Acts is better than that found in most of the other gospels.10 This indicates that the author had a thorough Hellenistic (Greek) education. It also implies that he was not an apostle and not a Palestinian Jew.11 This is consistent with what we see in the sources we’ve described thus far.
In addition, it’s possible to use clues in the book of Acts to discern that Luke was the author of both books. Recall that Luke is said to have been a sometime traveling companion of Paul. At several points in the text of Acts, the author shifts his narration from the third-person plural (i.e., “Then, they returned to Jerusalem…”) to the first-person plural (i.e., “We ran a straight course to Macedonia…”). These “we” sections strongly imply that the author was, himself, a part of the action in those sections.
By identifying the named people in the “we” sections, one can begin to eliminate certain companions of Paul as potential authors. After all, if the author names another person in a “we” section of the narrative, then it’s pretty clear that the named person is not the author. After conducting this exercise, the list becomes very short, and Luke is one of the few potential authors left standing. A full walk-through of this exercise can be found here.
When one reviews the evidence, both internal and external, regarding the authorship of Luke, a very consistent picture emerges: Luke, a helper and sometime traveling companion of Paul, wrote the gospel that bears his name, as well as the book of Acts. The lack of any competing authorship tradition only strengthens the case. Luke’s gospel is a well-researched account of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. It used previously existing written accounts, as well as eyewitness testimony as sources.
- T. France, The Evidence for Jesus, Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, BC, 2006, p. 126
- Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2007, p. 58
- Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1
- Muratorian Canon, Introduction
- Anti-Marcionite Prologues
- Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4.2.1-5
- Monarchian Prologue
- Eusebius, Church History4.7-8
- Jerome, On Illustrious Men, Chapter 7
- Eugene Boring, An Introduction to the New Testament: History, Literature, Theology, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2012, p. 484
- Introduction to The Gospel of Luke, Crandall University online course material, accessed 10/30/16 at http://www.mycrandall.ca/courses/ntintro/luke.htm