Friday, January 25, 2013

Reading the Gospel of Luke, Part 1

Starting at the Beginning: The Dedicatory Preface

(for the Introduction to this series: Click Here)

St. Luke’s Gospel begins with a short dedicatory preface, which it might be easy to skip over as we move into the interesting words of the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus. However, I suggest that we will miss something very important if we make such a premature leap, for the opening prologue tells us some very important things about the purpose of Luke’s writings and why he chooses to set out the story of Jesus as he does.

First and foremost we realize that Luke is probably writing under the patronage of a benefactor. In ancient times (as in the present day), it is no small thing to devote the time and energy to write a book. Where we have scholarly and artistic grants or literary prizes, the ancients relied on wealthy patrons. Luke addresses his work to one named Theophilus (his name literally means “one who loves God,” perhaps not his original name, but one assumed at baptism). We do not know who this person was but as we have other ancient parallels (such as the Jewish historian Josephus, who addresses certain works to his patron Epaphroditus), we can easily recognize the literary convention that Luke employs, namely dedicating his work to the patron in the opening paragraph of the book. What does this mean? In theory, Theophilus would become the owner of the work and he could have it copied (hand copied, of course – another costly endeavour), sold to other wealthy people, deposited it at a library, or traded copies of it for other works of literature with other patrons. It may also have been that Theophilus was a patron of a house church and was commissioning the work to be read aloud “in church.” These are simply educated guesses on how the text might have been used or circulated based on what we know of the writing and dissemination of other ancient texts. Importantly, this dedicatory preface sets the work apart from the other gospels, which have no such dedication. This opens the age-old question of genre. Does the Gospel of Luke represent the same genre as the others gospels? What is Luke’s self-understanding about the genre he was writing? At least in terms of the style of the preface, he seems to be clearly emulating the style of ancient “history writing.” The reader or hearer of this text would certainly recognize that Luke is setting himself up as a Josephus, Thucydides or Herodotus, who all wrote significant multi-volume historical works.

This brings us to a second point; Luke’s work is indeed a two-volume affair. While it is certainly not a multi-volume work of the scope of the above-mentioned authors, he does seem to have a grand historical purpose in mind. He followed up this first volume (the story of Jesus) with the book of Acts (the story of the Early Church), which has a similar dedicatory preface. Turn to the book of Acts and consider some of the similarities and differences in their respective prefaces.

The third point: Like all ancient historians, Luke draws on a variety of sources. As I noted in my introduction last week, scholars have done a lot of work to try and sort out his sources. Luke makes no bones about the fact that he used sources. He says boldly

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitness and servants of the word, I too decided, after fully investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”

Luke is not denigrating the other attempts at writing the story of Jesus and the Church; rather he is arguing that as a historian he has access to several source materials and that he will thus employ his historian’s craft to make a fuller orderly account, taking into consideration all the material at his disposal. It should also be remembered that, in general, the ancient historian was less concerned about “fact” and more concerned about “truth.” Thus, the ancient historian wrote with a thesis (or a truth) they wanted to prove and used the available “data” that was amenable to proving their thesis.

This brings us to the fourth point, Luke’s purpose in writing. Having stated that he has gathered previous material and traditions to create a new “orderly account,” he then delivers his purpose in doing so, “So that you (Theophilus) may know the truth (gk: asphelia) concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” This particular word for “truth,” asphelia  - from which we derive the modern word asphalt – connotes truth in objective sense, rather than a philosophical or ethereal sense (in that case the Greek word alethea would have been used.  The truth about which Luke speaks is thus the “sure grounding” of faith, the asphalt or concrete upon which faith is built.  This is what his gospel is about, giving Theophilius (and his readers/hearers) the story upon which they can be sure of their faith.  What is that truth? Well, like any good writer, Luke is not going to deliver all the goods up front. This is the literary hook to keep reading. It is clear that whoever Theophilus was, he had received some instruction in the faith. We do not know what that was, but we do know that Luke believes there is more to be said, and most importantly, that amidst all the details of what Theophilus knows, there is much truth to be garnered from the sorting out of the facts and data of the story of Jesus. We expect, therefore, that Luke is going to put the material together in such a way that some new insight, some divine insight, into Jesus will be revealed, and in the details of this story and the way those details are assembled, the reader will have confidence in his or her faith and indeed, their faith will be strengthened.