‘SPACE ALIENS TOOK MY BABY’, screams the headline. Or perhaps ‘GRANDMOTHER SWIMS ATLANTIC’. And what do people say? ‘It must be true; it was in the newspapers.’ ‘I saw it on television.’ ‘The person who told me was told by someone who was there at the time.’
We have learnt to laugh at all of these. News is ‘packaged’ to tell us what we want to hear. Television cameras often deceive. And stories which come from ‘a friend of a friend’ might as well be fiction. How do we know what to believe?
Luke opens his gospel with a long, formal sentence, like a huge stone entrance welcoming you impressively to a large building. Here, he is saying, is something solid, something you can trust. Writers in the first-century Mediterranean world quite often wrote opening sentences like this; readers would know they were beginning a serious, well-researched piece of work. This wasn’t a fly-by-night or casual account. It would hold its head up in the world at large.
‘Of course,’ we think, with our suspicious modern minds, ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he?’ But look at the claims he makes. Luke isn’t asking us simply to take it on trust; he is appealing to a wide base of evidence. Several others have written about these events; he has these writings, some of which we may be able to trace, as sources. He has been in touch with eyewitnesses who have told him what they saw and heard. And, perhaps most important, he has listened to accredited teachers within local communities. We need to say a further word about these people.
Imagine a village in ancient Palestine. They didn’t have printed books or newspapers, television or radio. They had official storytellers. Some great event would happen: an earthquake, a battle, or the visit of an emperor. Within a day or two the story would be told all round the village, and would settle into a regular form. Everyone would know the story, but some of the better storytellers in the village would be recognized by the others as the right people to tell it.
And that’s what they’d do. They wouldn’t change the story or modify it; if they did, people would notice and set them straight. Perhaps the closest we get to this in the modern Western world is when a family tells a story or anecdote, often with everybody knowing what’s coming. In the same way, you don’t change the words of your national anthem, or of the songs that you sang as a child. So when Luke went round the villages of Palestine and Syria in the second half of the first century, listening to the stories told by the accredited storytellers—‘the stewards of the word’, as he calls them—he would know he was in touch with solid, reliable evidence that went right back to the early events. Plato had said, five hundred years earlier, that there was a danger in writing things down; human memories, he thought, were the best way to get things right and pass them on. In the century after Luke, one of the great Christian teachers declared that he preferred living testimony to writings. You can’t tell where a book has come from, but you can look witnesses in the eye, and use your judgment about whether to trust them.
So why is Luke writing it all down now? Isn’t he shooting himself in the foot? Who was he, anyway, and when was he writing?
I wish we knew for sure who the author of this book was, but actually we don’t. We call him ‘Luke’ because that’s who the church, from very early on, said had written this gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (as you’ll see from Acts 1:1, Acts appears to be written by the same person, and there are signs throughout both books that this is in fact the case). He may well have been the Luke whom Paul mentions as his companion (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Timothy 4:11). He could have been writing any time between AD 50 and 90; there must have been time for the ‘many others’ he refers to to have written and circulated their works, but equally there is no particular reason to insist that he must have been writing as late as 90, or even 80. A fair guess is probably that he was indeed Luke, one of Paul’s companions, and that he was writing in the 60s and 70s.
Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 1–3.
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