Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

1. The Foreword to Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1:1-4)

Luke’s brief preface to his gospel, written in very elegant Greek, must be the beginning of all study of the gospels.

The most excellent Theophilus (“most fortunate Theophilus!”, says one writer, with feeling), to whom this gospel was addressed, is not identifiable, though not through lack of effort. Some have thought Theophilus to be the Philippian jailer. Other identifications include Titus Flavius Clemens, cousin of the emperor Domitian (but this calls for a decidedly later date for the gospel); and Theophilus, the Jewish high-priest following Caiaphas, A.D. 37-40; and one of Nero’s freedmen.

Such guesswork is not of serious consequence. Probably Luke was happy to let his gospel go out with this name in the preface because he saw also the appropriateness of it to any God-loving reader (Ps. 16:3).

The commonly held opinion that he is any God-loving or God-loved believer is probably vetoed by the title “most excellent”, for this designated a man in a position of honour and authority in the imperial Roman system (cp. Phil. 1:13). For example, the same title was used with reference to both Felix and Festus (Acts 23:26 -24:3; 26:25). It is noteworthy that when Luke came to follow up his gospel of Jesus Christ with the gospel of the Holy Spirit-the Acts of the Apostles-Theophilus was no longer “most excellent” (Acts 1:1). Had he, then, been demoted because of his faith in Christ? or was there a voluntary retirement from an imperial service now made impossible by his new faith?

Or, alternatively, was he given his honorific title in the gospel because not then baptized, but by the time Acts came to be written there had been an up-grading in Christ? (cp. 1 Cor. 1:26).

It was customary, indeed almost necessary, for any book published in Rome to have an influential sponsor, a kind of godfather for the new publication—patronus libri was the technical term. Amongst other things, he would help with initial expenses. But if the conclusion usually based on 2 Cor. 8:18 (see below) is correct, Luke’s gospel was in circulation before ever Luke got to Rome; in which case it is necessary to look elsewhere for Theophilus.

And almost certainly in vain, for the point has been well made that since this gospel describes a gross miscarriage of Roman justice, no Roman official in high office would be likely to enjoy having his name publicly associated with the published story of it. So Theophilus is almost certainly a pseudonym.

Written where? and to whom?

Luke probably wrote his gospel during the long stay in Philippi between the establishing of an ecclesia there and the time (Acts 20:5) when he joined Paul on his last journey to Jerusalem. “The brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches” (2 Cor. 8:18) is best identified with Luke, these words being an allusion to the recent publication of his gospel.

Certainly by the time Paul came to write his first letter to Timothy (A.D. 64?), he could quote from Luke 10:7 in a way which clearly implies that the third gospel was already widely-recognized as inspired Scripture (5:18).

Luke begins his preface with an allusion to the not inconsiderable body of “gospels” already in existence at the time (A.D. 58?) when his own was first being published: “Forasmuch (a very elegant Greek word - epeideper- hinting at the importance and necessity of this new undertaking), forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration...”

That verb: “taken in hand”, seems to hint ever so slightly at the inadequacy of those earlier efforts, and justifiably, it would seem, for not one of them has survived! It is true that a fair number of uncanonical gospels are known today - such as “The Gospel according to Peter” (supposedly). “The Gospel according to the Egyptians”. “The Gospel of the Childhood”. None of these has ever been acknowledged as authoritative, not even by the Roman Church. Most of them are plainly bogus. Not one of them dates from the first century. So this means that all the contemporary gospels alluded to by Luke have vanished from human knowledge except for Matthew, Mark and John.

Infallible Selection

How did the early church sort out so decisively the gospels which were worth keeping from those which were not? The explanation probably lies in one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit described by Paul as “the discerning of spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10). Evidently one of the safeguards, which the Lord provided for his people when the ecclesias were young and immature, was the endowing of certain individuals with the divine power to discriminate unerringly between that which was written or spoken by divine inspiration and that which was not.

There is another allusion to this in 1 Corinthians 14:29: “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the others judge (RV: discern)”. In the first-century existence of this God-provided gift lies the guarantee that the books which comprise our New Testament are there by divine right. They were approved by the Holy Spirit in the leaders of the church, and the rest which were not were quickly let go, fell into neglect, and disappeared. The fact that by contrast apocryphal gospels of later centuries survived is a sharp testimony to the decadeure of the church in later times in its blithe willingness to accept truth and imposture alike.

It will be seen by and by that in a quiet but firm way Luke goes on to assert not only the dependability but also the divine approval and authority attaching to his own record. It is understandable that not a few who had known the Lord Jesus would be eager to preserve what they remembered of his acts and teaching. But it may be taken as fairly certain that these efforts were inadequate or faulty, else why should Luke add to what had already been attempted?

All those gospels, and Luke’s outstandingly, concentrated on telling the story of God’s purposes (pragmata) which He had foreshadowed in the writings of the prophets and brought to fulfilment “among us” in the life of Jesus. Luke would hardly have written “among us” unless he himself had been a personal witness of much that had already been told and which he too purposed to narrate. His careful and accurate use of pronouns in the celebrated “we” passages in the Acts of the Apostles makes this an almost inescapable inference.

O.T. Fulfilment

It is not difficult to see how King James’ men came to translate: “most surely believed”. But the Revised Version may surely be believed to be nearer the mark: “Those matters which have been fulfilled.” By such a word Luke seems to be bidding his reader see everything to do with Christ as a fulfilment of what was already written in the Old Testament.

Not unexpectedly this is the emphasis at the beginning of each of the other gospels:

“The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mt. 1:1), with clear reference to the great covenants of the Old Testament.

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; as it is written in the prophets...”(Mk. 1:1,2).

“In the beginning was the Word . . . for the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:1,17).
Everything concerning Jesus is to be seen against an Old Testament backcloth. He who reads the gospels without this theme constantly in mind loses a great deal.

The Word

The early gospel writers alluded to by Luke are described as “eyewitnesses-and-ministers of the word.” The Greek phrase implies not two classes, but one. But a man cannot be an eyewitness of the word until logos is given a capital W. This allusion to Jesus as The Word is more common in the New Testament than is usually supposed:

“The Word of God is quick (living) and powerful... neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight” (Heb. 4:12,13). “He (God) sent the Word unto the children of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:36 RVm). “I commend you to God and to the Word of his grace, who is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance...” (Acts 20:32). “Of his own will begat he us by the Word of truth” (Jas 1:18). “Being born again... by the Word of God, who liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Pet. 1:23). “The ecclesia, of which I am made a minister... to fulfil the Word of God ... which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 2:25,27). “The souls of them that were slain for the Word of God and for the testimony (about him) which held” (Rev. 6:9). After all, this emphasis on The Logos is a thing to be expected.

It is interesting also to note that, like the apostle John, Luke describes the early days of the Lord’s ministry as “the beginning” (cp. Jn 1:1,2; 6:64;8:25; 15:27 etc; so also Mk 1:1 and Acts 21:16 Gk.). The idea of a New Creation was strongly implanted in the thinking of the early church from the beginning.

The resemblance to the apostle John’s way of going about things is specially well-marked. Luke’s preface, with the gospel proper beginning at verse 5, is matched by 1 John which was almost certainly written as an accompanying letter to the Fourth Gospel. Luke’s first four verses and John’s first three verses have these ideas in common: “the beginning ... Jesus the Word ... eyewitnesses... I (we) write unto you ... a declaration of that seen and heard . . . fulfilled.” But whereas Luke emphasizes “certainty”, John, writing with the foundation of the synoptists already well and truly laid, concentrates on “joy” - the joy of fellowship in Christ.


The subtlety of writing behind Luke’s description of his own gospel-composition is something to marvel at. On the face of things he is stressing his “perfect understanding of all things (relating to the Lord Jesus) from the very first.” But here the two dominant words clamour for further interpretation, as implying divine guidance and control.

One of them might well imply close discipleship (along with Jesus).

“From the very first” is an adequate translation of the other (cp. Mt. 27:51; Jn. 19:23), suggesting recourse to personal memories and those of other early disciples. But anbthen is a double-meaning word which more often carries the idea of “from above” (e.g. Jn. 3:3,7,31; 19:11; Jas. 1:17; 3:15,17).

The conclusion hinted at in these words is reinforced by that translated: “it seemed good to me”. There can be no doubt that this Greek word is much more definite and emphatic than the rather colourless “seem” or “suppose” which often translate it. Luke here is making a very firm assertion.

With yet another touch of subtlety he has adopted the form of the verb which might well suggest: “This, which I now present for your reading and edification, represents my chief glory.” Who better than Luke, of all New Testament writers, could so neatly insinuate such lovely hints as lie here in one verse? It is in such passages where the student with Greek has an advantage.

The claim that the record concerning Jesus has been set down “in order” is not without its difficulty, for it is fairly easy to establish that in quite a few places Luke’s account does not follow a strict chronological order (see Notes). Presumably Luke’s meaning is: an intention to set things down systematically. But what system?

The personal address to Theophilus stresses the special benefit of this gospel for himself: “that thou mightest know the certainty of the things wherein thou hast been instructed”, quoting Pr. 22:20,21: “Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge? that I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth.”


Here, “instructed” is the word which in English has become “catechized”. The idea is that of dinning into the memory by means of constant repetition (cp. Gal. 6:6; Rom. 2:18; Acts 18:25; 21:21,24). It was the method normally employed in the synagogue schools in ancient days. Then what sort of character was the “most excellent Theophilus” that he was willing to learn as a little child in this way? Believers in this enlightened twentieth century are much the losers by their neglect of this long proven method of instruction.

With his catechism of Christian fundamentals reinforced by a systematic gospel record, Theophilus could rest assured that his faith in Christ was safe -- the word “certainty” is, literally, “without tripping up”.

In one small but significant detail the AV reading of this passage would be better for having an emendation-”that thou mightest know the certainty of the words, or sayings (logo!), wherein thou wast instructed.” With this detail restored, the link with the “Faithful Sayings” in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus becomes easy, for the instruction of believers (for details see “Faithful Sayings”, by H.A.W).

It is perhaps desirable to add here a few brief suggestions about the writing of the other three gospels.

Early church tradition, not as strong as it is usually assumed to be, makes Mark’s gospel the earliest of the four. Analysis of the distribution of common material in the synoptists seems to support this idea. In that case, if the date accepted here for the writing of Luke be correct, Mark is even earlier.

Early testimony in effect makes Mark into a Gospel according to Peter, written down by “Marcus my son” (1 Pet. 5:13). Careful study of the text strongly supports this idea. It may fairly safely be accepted as true. This is almost the only theory about Mark which is worth taking seriously.

Matthew is supposed to have written in “Hebrew”, i.e. Aramaic. Yet it is almost certain that his gospel was written originally in Greek. Practically all the ingenious results which stem from translating Matthew’s Greek back into Aramaic, then applying a neat emendation, and then turning it into a very different English, belong to cloud-cuckoo land. Matthew may have produced a compilation of “Logia” (Sayings of the Lord) in Aramaic, but if he did (and there is only the erratic Papias to vouch for this) it was a document quite distinct from his gospel.

A presentable case can be made for the view that in Thessalonians and Corinthians Paul has a series of allusions to Matthew. If this conclusion is dependable, then Matthew (and therefore Mark?) must have been written before A.D. 52. There was a time when this idea would have been regarded as outrageous. Today it acquires a certain degree of respectability. After all, Matthew was a businessman, accustomed to keeping records. As likely as not he knew some kind of shorthand, and it would be relatively easy for him (even apart from Jn. 14:26) to preserve his own notes about what Jesus said and did, he himself being present.

There is also what is commonly referred to as the Synoptic Problem. “The Bible Handbook” (Angus & Green) sums it up this way:

“Let the substance of the Synoptics be divided into 89 sections. Of these are:

Common to all three

Common to Mt. and Mk.

Common to Mk. and Lk.

Common to Mt. and Lk.

Peculiar to Mt.

Peculiar to Mk.

Peculiar to Lk.
To this fact of general agreement both in matter and in order, combined with minor differences in both, is to be added the no less significant one of verbal agreement and difference in recording the same incident or discourse. . . It is this double fact of agreement and difference that constitutes the Synoptic Problem. How is it to be accounted for?”
All kinds of complicated and ingenious theories have been coined. However, all that need be said here is that all the vast amount of time and energy that has gone into this highly speculative field has advanced understanding of the text very little indeed. It constitutes one of the most arid and fruitless segments of all gospel study. Life is too short to spend on futility of this sort.

John’s gospel appears to have been written after the other three, for here and there details in John (e.g. “we”; 20:2) assume the priority of the other records. And such evidence as is available indicates that this gospel was written before A.D. 70. But the point is mostly of academic importance.

Over long centuries a very popular approach to the four gospels has been to identify their several characteristics with the four faces of the Cherubim-Ox, Lion, Man, Eagle. This is an idea in need of critical reappraisal, if only because by no means all expositors equate the same gospel with the same cherub. The best case to be made out for this is to be found in “The Characteristic Differences in the Four Gospels”, by Andrew Jukes.

Notes: Lk. 1:1-4

Taken in hand. This suggests “on their own initiative,” and if so implies the opposite for Luke. A divine directive? The only other occurrence of this Gk. word (2 Chr. 20:11) seems to carry a derogatory flavour.

To set forth in order. This word comes nowhere else. Grammarian Blass insists that it means, or implies: “from memory”.

A declaration: used by the Jews to describe the Passover routine (J. Lightfoot).

Things. NT. usage nearly always has the idea of purpose or intention.

Surely believed. Other NT. occurrences support this meaning for plerophoreo; e.g. Rom. 4: 21; 14: 5; Col. 2: 2; Heb. 6: 11; 10: 22. But if this is the meaning here, why should Luke bother to write? The first part of the word means “fulfil” (with reference to prophecy). The second part is repeatedly used about inspiration of the prophets; e.g. 2 Pet. 1: 17,18,21; 1 Pet. 1: 13; 2 Jn. 10; Acts2: 2; Heb. 1: 3; 6: 1; Gen. 1: 2 LXX. 2 Tim. 4: 5,17also might imply an O.T. foundation for the teaching.
Ministers. Note to whom this word is applied in Acts 13: 5; 26: 16; Jn. 18: 36; 1 Cor.4: 1.
It seemed good. On this see: “A neglected Greek verb”, by H. A. W.

Perfect understanding. Here only does modest Luke abandon his modesty.

Perfect. Better: “accurately”. Note how Luke stresses: (a) assiduous enquiry; (b) accurate work; (c) systematic narrative.

In order. Examples of where Luke’s material is not in correct chronological order:

3: 20,21
4: 5,9
4: 16ff
5: 1-11
10: 13-17
11: 14ff
11: 24-32
11: 39-52
13: 34,35
19: 37,41
21: 37,38
22: 21-23
22: 24-30

Most excellent Theophilus. So it is right to refer to a man by his human titles. But see also 1 Cor. 1: 26; Job 32: 21,22.


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