Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reading the Gospel of Luke - Introduction

We have just begun a new liturgical year.  As Anglicans, it has always been our tradition to draw our Sunday readings from a lectionary (i.e., a prescribed calendar of readings).  In modern times, many mainline denominations have adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, and ecumenical lectionary, and as such, if you attend an Anglican, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, United or Presbyterian church, we will all be using the same readings (with minor variations) on any given Sunday.  Our shared lectionary consists of a three year cycle in which we try to read most of Scripture.  During each of the three years we focus on one of three synoptic gospels (synopsis = "viewed together" i.e, the three gospels that share signficant verbal agreement, Matthew, Mark & Luke).  In year A, we read through Matthew; in year B, Mark (with bits of John scattered around); and in year C, Luke.  We are currently in Year C, and in our parish we will be meeting twelve times over the next twelve months to study particular aspects of St. Luke's gospel.  The question on our minds will be "what would we miss if we didn't have Luke's gospel?"  We shall also be searching out what particular themes Luke considers important to his telling of the story of Jesus, and most importantly, what is the "good news" according to Luke?

I will be posting on this site, from time-to-time, some background material and personal reflections on what I think is important in the study of St. Luke.  Please feel free to comment, respond and engage.  In session one, we will be looking at the introduction to the gospel and infancy narrative/nativity story (essential chapters one and two). 

In order to kick things off, I want to make a few general comments about The Gospel of Luke. These thoughts are not original to me; rather, they are culled from my own ongoing reading of Luke and much secondary literature.

Luke is widely considered to have been written in the last decade of the first century A.D.(as he has knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70). Like the rest of the New Testament, the original language of the book is Greek and Luke’s Greek is more elevated that what we find in many of the other New Testament documents. The Gospel is actually the first part of a two-volume series, the second installment being the Acts of the Apostles (Part one, the Gospel, tell us the story of Jesus, while part two, Acts, tell us the story of the Early Church). We may be inclined to ask, who was “Luke?” He may have been the “Luke the Physician” that we learn about from Acts and also from Paul, but this is disputed. It was not uncommon for writers to write under a respected pseudonym in those days. In any event, it is not likely that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus (although he may have had access to some eyewitness material). Where, then, did he get his material? It seems clear to most scholars that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source as we find much direct "lifiting" and reworking of  Mark's material. Luke also shares with Matthew a considerable amount of material, often verbatim with subtle changes, that is not found in Mark. Thus, it is concluded that and Matthew may have drawn on a now lost source, which scholars call “Q” (from the German quelle – meaning “source”) which is postulated to be a “sayings” collection based on the kind of shared material found in Matthew and Luke. However, a small group of scholars (and I am more and more inclined to agree with them) argue that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources, thus eliminating the need to postulate a “lost gospel” theory. (For a good review of these scholarly arguments visit Mark Goodacre’s Case Against Q website. I do also commend his excellent podcasts – more on these in future installments).

Key Themes in the Gospel of Luke:

The following is a list several key themes and concepts that are widely accepted as major aspects of the Lucan Narrative. The list (a summary of: Joseph Fitzmyer S.J., The Gospel According to Luke I-X, Anchor Bible 28, New York: Doubleday, 1982– p. 145), is not comprehensive but provides a useful starting point for us. As you read through the Gospel of Luke, consider some of these themes and the questions they raise.

1. The Lukan kerygma (Greek for “proclamation,” and by this we mean proclamation both by and about Jesus) in Luke/Acts takes a particular form. See if you can recognize the unique nature of Luke’s proclamation by and about Jesus. Hint: consider to whom the words of Jesus are directed and what the Early Church’s preaching about Jesus does to upset the world order.

2. Luke draws on his source material (Mark’s Gospel, and other possible sources, either a lost“sayings of Jesus” source, or directly from Matthew’s Gospel) in a way that advances the particular themes of his own narrative. As we examine key passages, use a tool called a “Gospel Parallel” or simply compare parallel passages in Mark and Matthew to see how Luke handles the same episode. What does Luke’s unique handling of the episode tell us about the story of Jesus he wishes to communicate?

3. Geography is crucial to theological message – throughout the Gospel the narrative moves geographically toward Jerusalem, whereas in Acts it moves outward from Jerusalem to Rome (to the “ends of the earth”). Consider what this geographical movement says about the proclamation of the Gospel, from Luke’s perspective.

4. Christ in History – Luke roots the “Christ-event” in history as a means to illustrate the inauguration of a new era of human history. What is the meaning of the new era coming into being? How does it relate to the previous era? How does Luke establish the “Christ-event” in time and space?

5. Christology (the understanding and interpretation of Jesus AS Messiah) – Luke invests particular meaning in the titles he uses for Jesus, especially with respect to salvation history. What are some of Luke’s titles for Jesus? What do these titles say about the meaning of Jesus for Luke?

6. Role of the Holy Spirit – Luke has a very unique role for the Holy Spirit in Luke/Acts, especially with respect to conversion and baptism. Pay special attention to references of to the Holy Spirit throughout Luke and Acts. Consider the role of the Spirit as a "character" in the narrative.
7. Eschatology (concern for the end-times) – As Luke’s Gospel was written toward the end of the first century, he has to deal with what scholars call “the delay of the parousia” (parousia = the second coming/return of Christ). Observe what Luke does and does not say about the end-times, in comparison with the other gospels.
There is much to think about here as we begin our journey into St. Luke. These are but a few of the key themes in his story of Jesus; we could (and in the installments ahead, will) add many more themes and strands. At this point, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed at all of these things to consider. In the months ahead we will walk through some interesting passages in the Gospel and I will draw your attention to recurring themes, patterns and ideas. The above themes are mentioned only to provide you with a bit of a guide of what to watch for as you read through the text. So as you read, think of things like the role of geography in the story; the role of the Holy Spirit; talk about the end times (and the delay of the end times); the titles applied to Jesus; and think of comparing familiar passages in Luke to parallels in Mark and Matthew and see how Luke tells the story a little differently. Each of these things will prompt questions about “why did Luke tell it this way?” I believe that as we journey together, examining some of these questions in Luke's Gospel and their possible answers, a portrait of Jesus will emerge that can still enliven our faith today.

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