In the seminal works ascribed to Luke – the longest of the gospels and the Acts of the Apostles – the author makes no claim to have been a witness to Jesus or to have known Paul personally. All that he writes is hearsay, and, certainly in respect to Act's "biography" of Paul, scarcely agrees with a word from the apostle himself. It is questionable whether the author of the "genuine" Pauline letters knew of any "historian" named Luke, still less, travelled with him for any extensive period of time. Yet an "orderly account ... of things fulfilled" was certainly prepared during the course of the 2nd century and in the wrangle for "orthodoxy" the partisans of Christ needed to give this pious fantasy the seal of an author befitting its great purpose. But who could that be?
Who on earth was Luke?
The earliest evidence of the name "Luke" associated with any gospel is the so-called Muratorian fragment, dated to around 170 AD. But who on earth was Luke? Certainly not one of "the twelve" or even a minor player with a walk-on part in the Jesus melodrama. In the entire New Testament there are only three passing mentions to a character called Luke – and all appear in Pauline epistles deemed "inauthentic" by many scholars.
"Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you." – Colossians 4:14.
"Only Luke is with me. Take Mark, and bring him with you: for he is profitable to me for the ministry." – 2 Timothy 4:11. "Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, greets you, as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow labourers. " – Philemon 23-24.
Whatever trivial or partial reasons guided their choice of name, "Luke" was adopted by Antioch as one of their own (rather as the Theophilus, to whom Luke addresses his accounts) and "Luke" was intruded into the saga of Paul by use of the "we passages" in Acts, passages that preface the journeys by sea. The same device was used in the "Old Latin" western text, Codex Bezae (which itself probably originated in Antioch). Thus here, Acts 11.28 gains the words "and as WE were gathered", making Luke present at the meeting in Antioch when the prophet Agabus foretells there would be a great famine. In a trice, Luke is made an Antiochene, a "disciple of the apostles", and a faithful companion of Paul. With neither wife nor children to complicate matters, all that remained to fabricate was a suitable death for the literary inclined evangelist. For the author of a gospel "for the Gentiles", where better than in the heart of the Greek world?
The saint is said to have died a natural death at Thebes in Greece, at the age of 84 (no glorious martyrdom for this guy!) Then again, a 14th century Byzantine history reports he was hanged from an olive tree (a glorious martyrdom after all!) Apparently, emperor Constantius, one of the sons of Constantine, had Luke's miracle-working bones transported to Constantinople, only to be stolen by Crusaders of the 4th Crusade. Skeletal remains landed up at Padova in Italy and (sans skull and a rib) are still there, in the church of Santa Justina – though claimed by the Metropolitan of Thebes. In Thebes an impressive Roman tomb from the 2nd century BC has been sequestered for the (missing) apostle – but even the empty tomb works miracles. Bless!
"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch
of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of
Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word
of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness." – Luke 3.1.
of Luke used several markers to establish the first
appearance of John the Baptist and hence the subsequent career
of JC himself.
The 15th year
of Tiberius is clear enough – 28/29 AD. We know Pilate
was procurator at this time (26-36) and Antipas certainly was
tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC - 34 AD). But who on earth was "Lysanias
tetrarch of Abilene"?
an area of barely 50 square miles – in Syria. In "the 15th year" it
was the most northerly part of the tetrarchy of Herod's son Philip, infamous for its
bandits and little else. There had
once been a local ruler called Lysanias – but
he had been killed by Marc Antony as a sop to Cleopatra more
than half a century earlier. (Josephus, Antiquities 15.4.1).
the wrong monarch, why does Luke mention such the obscure
and tiny fief anyway, quite irrelevant to the saga he
is about to tell (unless, that is, he's cribbing from someone
Just maybe Luke confused
Abilene with Adiabene, which for about a century
ending in 115 AD was an important Jewish Kingdom in Mesopotamia,
roughly corresponding with ancient Armenia. Its capital was Arbela
(today's Irbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq). Though 600
miles from Jerusalem that kingdom played a significant
role in 1st century events in Judaea.
The queen of
Adiabene, Helena, shipped food to Jerusalem to relieve the famine
which occurred in the time of Emperor Claudius. Josephus wrote that Grapte, a relation of Izates, king of Adiabene, built a palace in the city (Wars 4.9.11) and that Helena had another palace of her own (Wars 5.6.1). During the Jewish
war against Rome of 66-70 the Adiabene royal family supported
the Judaean side and tombs of the Adiabene monarchs are to be
seen in Jerusalem today.
Did Luke confuse Abilene with Adiabene? Easily
done in the chaotic early decades of the 2nd century. But then
it is only a story.
Abilene – a tiny enclave east of Phoenicia sandwiched between Mount Hermon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.
Why on earth would Luke choose such an obscure reference marker?
long and enlightened reign ended with his death in 138 AD, followed
by the capable emperor Antoninus (the pious, for
his fidelity to the traditions of Rome) and Marcus Aurelius,
the philosopher emperor. The dynasty itself ended
with the murder of Commodus, the unhinged son of Marcus Aurelius.
A year of civil war was settled by the elevation of a strong
man from the Danubian front, Septimius Severus. His sons Geta
and Caracalla followed him on the throne.
The reign of
these Antonine/Severan princes marked the high point for the
peace, prosperity and religious toleration of the Roman
world. The Empire was a military despotism yet almost
all beliefs were tolerated and indulged a liberality which
Edward Gibbon describes as the mild indifference of
In this Golden
Age of the ancient world, there was no economic basis for either
the Greeks or the Romans to envy the Jews, nor did they. Rather,
they despised those who called themselves Jews for their unwillingness
to join the world culture which self-evidently bestowed its beneficence
Greeks or Romans racist in the modern sense of the word. Rome
stood aloof, for the most part contemptuous of oriental
cults and moving against them only when they appeared to
threaten public order.
were no holy wars in antiquity, no ethnic
And for all
their distaste and suspicion, a succession of Roman emperors
protected the Jews, preserved their traditions , and accorded
them special privileges. Simply, there was never any widespread
persecution of the Jews under pagan rule.
under the benign rule of Romes pagan emperors
that the intrinsically intolerant cult of Christianity was
able to coalesce, become organised and, ultimately, to seduce
the Roman state.
'Israel' floats free
of the Jews
In the mid-years
of the second century, in the cities of the eastern Mediterranean,
the scattered Jewish population was more than ever exposed to
diverse influences. Survivors had been traumatised by the terrible
carnage of the wars and the temple no longer existed to hold
sway over their loyalty. The vast influx of thousands of Jewish
refugees and slaves, into the eastern cities, was vulnerable
to the potpourri of creeds.
It is not difficult
to imagine émigré Jews, bereft of their temple
and immersed in the rich religions of the city, adapting and
adopting aspects of the numerous popular cults to a format more
to their taste. They would also be aware that Egyptian and Greek
cults were regarded favourably in Rome.
The widespread hope among
the Jews for an earthly Kingdom of Israel as
it had traditionally been understood was gone.
Now the word from the pagan converts to Christianity was of a New
(or True) Israel, one having nothing
much to do with the Jews.
By the late
130s, the Jewish variants of the dying/reborn godman cult
had been in circulation for some time and had already gained
impressive biographical detail. For example, Jesus
had now acquired kinship to John the Baptist they
are cousins (Luke 1.36) and John himself is
given rather greater treatment. The awkward theology of
John baptising Jesus is now dropped; 'Luke' avoids saying
who baptised Jesus! (Luke 3.19-22)
Various biographies of
the godman existed, and contradicted each other in many respects,
but they provided a rich source for sacred pageants and passion plays. Luke's version
of the trial of Jesus is cumbersome and ridiculous – the
author was probably combining elements of two earlier stories.
He has Jesus tried first before Pilate, then before Herod Antipas,
and then before Pilate again, hardly historical but entertaining
Good and bad kings are
introduced, shepherds, soldiers and angels.
Here is entertainment, moral tale, solace and the promise of
eternal existence. To add colour and conviction to the developing story, traditions about
a miraculous birth (heralded by angels, greeted by shepherds
and wise men, etc.) were added to the central death/rebirth story.
from a copy of Mark, traditions of Mithras and Adonis,
a Greek follower of Paul, writing in the city of Antioch, gave
the godman a version of the ancient lore of celestial
origin, miraculous birth, astounding deeds so
characteristic of pagan saviour gods.
Where Did They Get Their Ideas From?
'A Prodigy in the Temple'
'While still a mere boy about fourteen years old,
I won universal applause for my love of letters;
inasmuch that the chief priests and the leading
men of the city used constantly to come to me for
precise information on some particular in our
Recorded Words of the Godman
it came to pass, that after three days they found him in
the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing
them, and asking them questions.
And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.
... And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not
that I must be about my Father's business?"
– Luke 2.46,48.
of the discussion with the doctors in the Temple – the only episode
dreamed up to fill the void between the fanciful birth and the
fabricated 'ministry' – is proved to be mythical by all
the circumstances that surround it.
that his mother and father left Jerusalem, believing that he
was with them; that they went a day's journey before discovering
that he was not in their company; and that after searching for
three days, they found him in the Temple asking and answering
questions of the learned Doctors, involves a series of tremendous
improbabilities. On the other hand, Josephus provides
a plausible source for the tall story – an anecdote
in his biography!
In this, the
prototype for a future Lukes gospel,
the resurrection was also embellished with telling extra detail
- not bad, a lifetime after the supposed event and two devastating
energetic terms than ever the author absolved Rome from
any responsibility for the godmans death and blamed the perfidious
Jews. Indeed, what makes it clear that the author is a
non-Jew are the glaring errors in things Jewish. (Meier, A
Marginal Jew, p210) This is especially so, where the writer
of Luke confuses two distinct rituals the purification
of the mother and the redemption of the firstborn male.
the revised doctrines of the gentile Christians and apostate
Jews, it was the hard heartedness of the Jews – in rejecting
Christs message –which had cost them gods
patronage. This, then, was the explanation for the terrible wars
and their outcome.
and Josephus Jewish historians had said that the
god of the Jews was now acting through the hand of Rome. Zealous
Christians took the idea further. They postulated that the
mission had passed on to a new generation of evangelists
- gentiles, like themselves. The Jews, far from being a chosen
people, were now pariahs; they had had their chance and had blown
The Early Christians invent
In a terrible
irony, the religious intolerance devised by the Jews themselves
was passed on to the early Christians, who turned such sentiments
back upon the Jews with a vengeance.
commandeering Jewish scripture for their own use, and dissembling
their own novelty by laying claim to ancient Jewish antecedents
(the New Israel), the Christians were at pains
to make clear they were not mere heretical Jews. It
was in the brief interval when the Roman state perceived them
precisely as a renegade sect that the Christians lost the
protection of Roman law.
To redeem themselves,
the Christians revised their sacred texts to reflect an exoneration
of the Romans and a damnation of the Jews. As a crucial part
of their self-identification, the Christ–followers likened
the Jewish faith to a fallen world of darkness, demonized the
Jews as a people, and castigated and condemned them as Christ-killers.
Anti-Semitism was born in the Bible.
The first step
in this demonizing process was to fabricate stories that the
Jews had not listened to the humanoid Christ-figure.
In what was to become Lukes Gospel, the bogus
notion was floated that Christianity as an entirely
new religion, separate doctrinally and ethnically from Judaism had sprung
into existence about the year 30 AD!
Curse of Stephen
In Acts of the Apostles,
generally assumed to be by the same author as Luke, the expression the
Jews, redolent with hostility and distaste, appears
after Saul arrives on the scene. Acts 6 introduces the angelic-faced 'Stephen',
a man full of faith and power. He is apparently
one of seven new administrators of the church (what
a coincidence, Rome itself was being divided into seven diaconates
at this time!)
is rather less than angelic. In an amazingly long speech in Acts
7 Stephen, standing before the Sanhedrin, summarizes the
whole of Jewish history and Old Testament teachings
(the "speech" is actually lifted from Joshua
claims that the Jews had always been apostate, since
the time of Moses himself!
Law had now lost its relevance because it had been fulfilled
in Christ. Stephen then delivers his ominous charge: the
Jews had killed Christ, just as their ancestors had
killed the prophets.
of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they
have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the
Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels,
and have not kept it.' – Acts 7.52-5.
served his lethal theological purpose Stephen is quickly disposed
of. It seems that the enraged council, having gnashed
at him with their teeth (Acts 7:54), had him dragged
out and stoned to death (no ruling from Pontius Pilate needed
for this guy!)
Severs Jewish Roots
A draft of
the early proto-Luke reached the hands of a bishop himself
the son of a bishop who claimed to have known Paul and
in consequence enjoyed immense prestige. This was Marcion, one
of the earliest Catholics to address the issue of
a defined gospel'.
ship owner from Sinope (modern Sinop, on the Turkish Black Sea
coast), Marcion had helped fund the bishopric of Rome. While
residing in the imperial capital Marcion revised proto-Luke and
published (about 140) the first new testament (the
term itself was not used until the early third century), calling
it simply Evangelicon (or Gospel
of the Lord ), a slim, single volume, to which he appended
ten of Pauls epistles (the Apostolicon).
all other scripture, including Jewish scripture in its entirety,
arguing that Yahweh was a cruel god, completely separate from
the loving god spoken of by Paul. Thus for Marcion there were two
gods, the lesser of which was Yahweh, the creator god. The
loving gods "Grace" would replace "The Law " of
the harsh god. The body must die, said Marcion. Only the soul
would be resurrected. The flesh had to be overcome by
the spirit, or loving god, revealed in Christ.
In this gospel
(which Marcion attributed to Paul himself), there is no nativity,
descends fully grown from heaven (as had a number of Greek
gods), and appears suddenly in a synagogue in Capernaum. In
other respects his text follows closely the wording which would
eventually be found in Luke.
and evangelised for more than twenty years. But he fell out with
his acolytes in Rome and returned to Asia Minor to establish
his own church hierarchy. Marcionites were soon to be found throughout
the Roman Empire. In the east, this particular Christianity thrived
for centuries and survived into the early Middle Ages.
or The Kingdom?
terms, the diverse Christians retrenched, a minority still filled
with hope for an imminent Day of the Lord,
but others feeling their way towards an established Church.
What the Christians lacked in original doctrine they made up for in astute
organisation. Borrowing freely from Jewish precedents, the Christians set
up prayer houses to rival synagogues, appointed priests
to read approved texts, and collected money and property to serve the
faith. Their cult had survived the wars by embracing, not opposing, authority
and now it demanded of its converts discipline and compliance.
Judaism had been rent and fatally weakened by its divisions; in their
plans for a Universal Church the Christians would have no
place for dissent. Ironically, this striving for monolithic organisation
would ensure factionalism and heresy for centuries.
As the largest
city in the region, and the home of the largest community of
displaced Jews, Alexandria, became the leading centre for an
Christian church. The city that, in the work of Philo, had already
contributed the notion of Logos, now
gave the world the first recognisable Christianity. It
was in Alexandria that some of the most notable church fathers would
pontificate. It was from Alexandria that some of the most important
Christian heresies would originate. And it was in Alexandria that
some of the worse excesses of Christian terrorism were perpetrated.
Correspondence of Emperor Hadrian
refers to Alexandrian worshippers of the sun-god Serapis
calling themselves Bishops of Christ:
you commended to me, my dearest Servianus, I have found to
be wholly fickle and inconsistent, and continually wafted
about by every breath of fame. The worshippers of Serapis
are called Christians, and those who are devoted to
the god Serapis, call themselves Bishops of Christ."
– Hadrian to Servianus, 134 AD (Quoted by Giles, Hebrew and Christian Records, vol. ii, p86, 1877)
is intriguing. In the cult of Serapis, Graeco-Roman and Pharaonic
religion had already mingled. The cult of
Lord Serapis was of comparatively recent origin, having been
established by the former general of Alexander, Ptolemy I Soter
(304 - 284 BC). His new god (a transliteration, via Zaparrus,
of Asar-Hapi) had replaced the more ancient linked Egyptian gods
Osirus and Apis and formed part of an Egyptian trinity shared
with Isis (the Mother!) and Horus (the Divine Child!).
idea was to have a unifying, national god, worshipped by all
his subjects. Accordingly, Serapis had been given characteristics
drawn from both Egyptian and Greek deities. The child Horus,
it should be noted, was held to have been born in a stable
on December 25th and the mother, Isis, to have been a virgin!
For the Egyptians, Horus had been a god of the underworld and
judge of the dead. One of the many titles that would be given
to Christ was Judge ... that celestial arbiter on the day of
the syncretic process should have continued with the additional
fusion of the Jewish godman legend is no more than we would
expect and the result was Christian scripture!
Did They Get Their Ideas From?
of Two Censuses :
Quirinius (Greek "Cyrenius" in Luke),
Governor of Syria, conducted a taxation census of
Judaea during 6-7 AD after Rome had deposed Archelaus
and had annexed this minor province. The
prefect appointed to Judaea was Coponius. Quirinius' census based
on property not a head count did
not extend to Galilee, a client kingdom which remained
under the tetrarch Herod Antipas.
no census would have required heavily pregnant
maidens to make a 100 mile journey south!
Acts 5.33 purports to tell the story of the disciples
in the 30s AD. It calls as a "witness" an
archetypal Pharisee priest called "Gamaliel" who
advises the Sanhedrin to release the imprisoned disciples "just
in case they were doing God's work."
part of his dubious argument he cites the fate of
two previous Messiahs Judas the Galilean and Theudas. It
just so happens Josephus (Ant. 20.5) also mentions
both rebels the Judas who raised a tax
revolt under Coponius (about 6 AD) and "a
certain magician Theudas" whose head was
removed by the procurator Cuspius Fadus.
for the Biblical chronology Fadus was appointed
after the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 AD "Gamaliel" is
recalling an event which hasn't yet happened!
a century later closer to his own time
and no doubt influencing the author of Luke a
census was taken in Egypt. The "Kata
Oikian" census of 104 AD required temporary
city dwellers to return to their regular domiciles.
This census did not extend beyond the borders of
Egypt. Luke's story is a 'pick'n'mix' of a dimly
remembered history, used as a literary device to
give his hero the 'prophesied' birth in Bethlehem.
PS: Why on earth ... ?
"Joseph also went up from Galilee ... to
the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child." – Luke 2.4,5.
What possible reason would the Romans have had to require Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor may have lived a thousand years earlier? And "all the world" similarly went to their own cities? The chaos would have been unimaginable. The assertion has a patently theological purpose and as history is nonsense.
Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews (Phoenix Grant,
Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew (Harper Collins,1992)
Henry Hart Milman, The History of the Jews (Everyman, 1939)
Josephus, The Jewish War (Penguin, 1959)
Leslie Houlden (Ed.), Judaism & Christianity (Routledge, 1988)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (Harper Collins. 1999)
Jonathan N. Tubb, Canaanites (British Museum Press, 1998)
Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain - A History of the Jews (Harper
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by Kenneth Humphreys.
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