The Design and Unity of Luke's History
AS has been stated, a historian may make a slip in some detail without losing claim to be trustworthy: no man and no historian is perfect. But he must not found his reasoning upon the error. Facts that are fundamental in his argument must be free from slip or fault. There must be no mistake on a critical point.

If we consider Luke's design, we shall see that the "error" which forms our subject affects the very life-blood of the work and the atmosphere in which the story moves. But every great work of literature like Luke's History must be reinterpreted by each new age for itself; and it is more useful to describe what views are now held as to the plan and design of that History, than to sketch the design.

The consummate literary skill shown in Luke's work must impress every reader, who allows free play to his sense of literary effect. We feel that in this work we have to deal with an author who handles his materials freely and with perfect mastery. The unity of style and treatment in the narrative, its dramatic character, varying according to the country and the action and the character of every speaker, so Greek in Athens, so "provincial" in the Roman colonies Lystra and Philippi, so Hebraic in Galilee or by the Jordan, and so Lukan everywhere -- this character and individuality, shown in numberless ways, make it clear that the author was no clipper-up of fragments from other writers, no mere scissors-and-paste editor of scraps, no mere second-hand composer, dependent on the accidental character of his "sources," according to the elaborate and somewhat pedantic theories that have been fashionable recently in Germany, but are already becoming discredited there. Only a person who has blinded himself to literary feeling by the strength of a fixed prejudice, could fail to perceive the literary quality of this History, and to infer from it the real unity of the work.

When a commentator on the text of Luke, observing that Luke "can be as Hebraistic as the Septuagint and as free from Hebraisms as Plutarch," and that "he is Hebraistic in describing Hebrew society," and Greek in describing Greek society, refrains from expressing any opinion as to whether this result is attained "intentionally or not," that is a very proper reserve for a commentator to maintain. He is not called upon to determine in the preface to a commentary whether this varying character has been given intentionally to the work by its author, or has remained attached to it by chance, according as the character of the different documents on which Luke depended continued to exist in his completed work. But the literary judgment will not hesitate. Luke is so completely master of his materials, and handles the Greek language with such ease and power, that he must have intended to give his work the literary qualities which are observable in it. A rational criticism must always assume that an author intended to attain that delicately graduated effect which in fact he has attained.

But the interval which separated the historian from the events which he records is an important element in estimating his design. Great literary power may tell against his trustworthiness, by helping him to hide the poverty of his materials; and that view has been maintained as regards Luke by writers of the type of Baur, Zeller and Renan. They argued that Luke was an able and beautiful but not very well-informed author, who lived long after the events which he records, at a time when all actors in those events had died, and when accurate knowledge of facts was difficult to acquire. In addition to the skillful arguments by which they showed up a series of internal discrepancies and improbabilities, the apparent discordance between the narrative (especially in the second book) and the general scheme and character of Roman Imperial administration in the Eastern provinces, seemed to many to weigh heavily against the idea that the book embodied a really trustworthy account of events.

In the picture of Christian history during the first century, according to the accepted interpretation of Luke's History, there was no apparent relation between the development of Christian influence and the existing facts of the Roman empire. The modern writers who professed to found their views upon Luke, after a few picturesque paragraphs about Roman proconsuls and armies and the march of the Roman eagles, plunged into Christian history, and the reader saw nothing more of Rome except when a Gallio or a Sergius Paullus obtruded himself on the scene with something of the air of a bad actor equipped in ill-fitting Roman dress. The life of the empire was wanting: that consisted, not in eagles and proconsuls, but in order and organization, and in the development and Romanisation of society.

Those who studied Roman history first of all, and Christian history only in a secondary degree, were inevitably driven to the conclusion that a work, upon which was founded such a lifeless and spiritless picture of part of the Roman world in the first century, could not be a product of that century, but must have originated at a later date, when the life of the time described was no longer understood.

But a most important part of Luke's Second Book is concerned with Asia Minor and Greece; and any one who has gone through the long, slow process by which in recent years the lost history of Asia Minor has been in some degree recreated by the work of a number of scholars, and their studies Luke without prepossession, must observe, that his references to those lands have a marked and peculiar individuality -- a certain matter-of-fact tone -- which is utterly unlike the vague style of a later author, narrating the events of a past age with the purpose of showing their bearing on the questions of his own day. One feels that, in all that concerns Asia Minor, Luke is treating real facts with thorough knowledge.

As knowledge of Asia Minor grew, one perceived that Luke's statements explained some most obscure problems by setting in a new light the evidence that had long seemed unintelligible. Luke takes us right into the midst of the political development of central Asia Minor, when Roman organizing skill was treating one by one the successive problems of government amid a semi-Oriental population, regarding some districts as still too rude to be Romanised, and placing them under the educative care of dependent kings, treating others as already worthy of the honor of being incorporated in the Roman empire as fractions of a great province, and fostering among them a spirit of pride in the Imperial connection and contempt for the extra-provincial barbarians.

It is a difficult thing to revivify and rearrange the details of that magnificent political work; and in some respects I erred in my first attempt [4] to recreate the picture of the Imperial scheme for Romanising the inner lands by gradually building them up into a great Roman province called Galatia. But the errors (though vexatious to myself as I gradually came to see more clearly) were not so important as to disturb materially the truth of the picture in its general effect. It had been given me, through intense longing after truth, to catch the main outlines correctly, and to understand that Luke's brief references to the state of central Asia Minor plunged the reader into the heart of the conflict between Graeco-Roman forms of life and the amorphous barbarism of a Phrygian and Lycaonian population. In that state of the land, to be Phrygian or Lycaonian was to be unenlightened and non-Roman, to be Roman was to be a loyal member of the province Galatia. Such a state of things could not have been conceived or understood by a writer of the second century, when Rome had long been supreme over the whole of Asia Minor, and when the opposition between the contending ideas, Roman or Galatic on the one hand, native (i.e., Phrygian, Pisidian, etc.) and non-Roman on the other, had ceased to be a real force in the country.

But if this view which opened gradually before us was correct, then we had to abandon the current, generally accepted opinion, which. admitted no Roman conceptions in the terms relating to geography and political classification in Acts, which saw, for example, in the "Galatic Territory," not a Roman province, but the country where Attalus, King of Pergamos, had confined the Galatae or Galli about 230 BC. We must regard Paul as a Roman, using Roman terms and forms, just as he accepted the Roman classification and system of administration.

As it happened, this implied and necessitated a radical revolution in the interpretation of the book of Acts and of early Christian history as a whole. It meant that the connection and the conflict between Christianity and the Roman State did not begin in the second century, as was the almost unanimous opinion of the greatest authorities during the halfcentury preceding 1890 (when Neumann's book carried back the beginning to the reign of Domitian, AD.81-96). It meant that the conscious and recognized relations between the New Religion and the Roman Administration began when Barnabas and Saul stood before the Roman proconsul of Cyprus, when the latter, hitherto junior and subordinate to Barnabas, took the lead, and the supposed Hebrew wise man named Saul stood forth as the Greek Paul and impressed the Roman governor by declaring the principles of the new Catholic, world-wide religion. It meant that the first important step in the spreading of this Catholic religion was made, when Paul and Barnabas crossed Taurus from the secluded and unimportant Province Pamphylia, into the important Province Galatia -- the province which embodied all that was Roman in Central Asia Minor, the province in which the Roman element was involved in the sharpest antagonism to the rude ignorance of an Oriental, priest-guided, ritual-loving native population -- and planted their feet on the great highway of intercourse between the East and the West.

Further, it now began to grow clear that some of the discrepancies which had been the mainstay of Baur's and Zeller's argument, were due to the stereotyped misunderstanding of the Roman side of early Christian history, Both the general character and many details of that history were distorted, when contemplated through the medium of the dominant theory.

The life of the early Church lay in constant intercommunication between all its parts; its health and growth were dependent on the free circulation of the life-blood of common thought and feeling. Hence it was first firmly seated on the great lines of communication across the empire, leading from its origin in Jerusalem to its imperial center in Rome. It had already struck root in Rome within little more than twenty years after the crucifixion, and it had become really strong in the great city about thirty years after the apostles began to look round and out from Jerusalem. This marvelous development was possible only because the seed of the new thought floated free on the main currents of communication, which were ever sweeping back and forward between the heart of the empire and its outlying members. Paul, who mainly directed the great movement, threw himself boldly and confidently into the life of the time; he took the empire as it was, accepted its political conformation and arrangement, and sought only to touch the spiritual and moral life of the people, while he always advised them to obey the existing Government and conform to the existing laws of the State and of society, so far as they did not lead into direct conflict with Christian principles.

But the formerly accepted interpretation of the Second Book of Luke's History carried Christianity away into eddies and backwaters of the ocean of Roman Imperial development, and placed there the scene of the first great conflict between Judaistic provincialism and the world-wide Pauline conception of Christianity. It was blind to the true character of Paul's work, which sought to spiritualize the life and educative development of the empire by affecting the main currents of its circulation and intercommunication; and it tried to distinguish the lines along which the new thought spread from the lines along which the life of the world was throbbing.

The dominance of that interpretation produced a position, the analogue of which still exists in respect of some other questions. That theory led straight into a series of difficulties, for which no rationally satisfying solution could be found; and the scholars who treated Luke's History were divided broadly into two classes. Some saw so clearly the unity, the power and the personal quality in the work, that they refused to be led astray by the serious difficulties in which they were involved on certain points. Others realized so strongly the difficulties, that they formed their judgment from them alone and ignored the quality of the History as a whole.

The progress of discovery is indubitably tending to show that the scholars of the former class were, on the whole, in the right; but this should not blind us to the immense service rendered by those of the other class, who kept the difficulties clear before the world's consciousness.

Moreover, it must be admitted that the scholars who judged by literary feeling and the general quality of Luke's History, were not always wise in their treatment of the difficulties. Instead of frankly acknowledging that the difficulties were inexplicable in our present state of knowledge, they sometimes attempted by ingenious special pleading to minimize them, and then claimed that the difficulties were solved. Their vigorous perception of the central and most important fact, viz., the first-hand directness of Luke's style, made them so thoroughly convinced that the difficulties must be explicable, that they were almost blinded to the strength of the arguments against them, and sometimes thought they had explained difficulties, when they had merely shut their eyes to them.

The result was that those who, like myself, had been accustomed only to classical Greek, and were too young to appreciate fully the literary quality of a writer in such an unfamiliar form of Greek, and who were determined to understand clearly and precisely every step in reasoning, were repelled by what seemed to us to be pure prejudice and unwillingness to admit reason, and were driven violently over to the opposite side; and it was a long and slow process to work back again to the side against which we had acquired such a strong prepossession.

In such a state of mind it was natural to rest for a time in a theory of double authorship, that Luke's History was partly excellent and partly second-rate (as I was almost inclined to do while writing The Church in the Roman Empire). One could feel that Luke's Second Book was characterized by such singular accuracy in all details bearing on the society and the political organization of the Eastern provinces, that the author's expression in many places could not have been framed without first-hand knowledge, and that his point of view was distinctly of the first century, or rather the pre-Domitianic type, as distinguished from that which was produced by the persecution of Domitian.

But, on the other hand, parts of the History seemed to involve insoluble difficulties and discrepancies.

Hence, while no distinct theory was stated in my treatise, yet the language used in it sometimes pointed towards a theory of dual authorship.

But such ideas were utterly inconsistent with the unity of plan, the vigorous controlling intellect which revealed itself throughout Luke's work; and the impossibility to stand still in such a halfway position, clinging to rival and inconsistent views, became rapidly manifest. It was not possible to introduce maturer views into the book already published, even in a new edition; for the sole merit that it possessed lay in its being perfectly unprejudiced and unfettered by any theory as to the composition of Luke's History. After forming a definite opinion about that History as a whole, it was no longer possible to write as if one had no opinion. Therefore, the book had to remain as it was, with its defect of being not self-consistent in respect of Luke, since the want of systematic unity was the guarantee of its being the unprejudiced effort of a mind groping for truth.

It became more and more clear that it is impossible to divide Luke's History into parts, attributing to one portion the highest authority as the first-hand narrative of a competent and original authority, while regarding the rest as of quite inferior mold. If the author of one part is the real Luke, or any other person standing in similar close relations with the circle surrounding the apostles (particularly Paul), then that same person must be the author of the whole, and must have brought to bear on his whole work the same qualities which made one part so excellent. It may be that he found it more difficult to feel perfectly at home in the Palestinian part of his narrative than where the scene lies in the Aegean lands. It may be that in the parts intervening between the Resurrection or the Ascension (with which many, probably all, of his written authorities ended) and the beginning of Paul's personal recollections, he found it harder to obtain perfectly satisfactory knowledge. But we cannot lay much stress on these causes of diversity in character. The History must stand as a whole, and be judged as a whole. If one part shows striking historical excellence, so must all; if any part shows a conspicuous historical blunder, we must be very suspicious of a theory which attributes surpassing qualities to another part.

In regard to the Second Book of Luke, my arguments are set forth elsewhere, [5] and, while I feel conscious how imperfectly they have been stated, and how much better the work ought to have been done, I have nothing of consequence either to retract or to modify, though much might be added. After three years more of study, Luke appears more clearly than ever to me as one of the great historians.

Such a view is unfashionable; and there is in some quarters a disposition to regard it even as a crime and a personal affront to the distinguished scholars who have thought differently. It is true that I have advocated a view diametrically opposed to their judgment, and that, if I be right, they have erred in a critical question of the utmost importance and interest. But I have not sought to give the discussion this personal application. It is not a crime to differ from another scholar as to the date and quality of any of the disputed classical works; and my desire has been to proceed in regard to Luke on the same lines as in the questions of extra-Biblical scholarship. One of the scholars whom I reverence most deeply in all Europe differs very strongly from my judgment as to the authority of the Peutinger Table, but the difference makes no change in my profound respect and admiration for him, and none in the great kindness which he has always shown to a beginner like me. Similarly there is no reason why Luke's authority as a historian should not be treated as a justifiable subject for discussion. I entertain, and have always professed, great admiration for many scholars whose opinions I dispute on some points of Christian history, and from their learning I have gained much.

It is a more serious evil that a disposition is sometimes shown to terrorize the investigator by the array of learned opinion on the opposite side, and to treat it as the necessary mark of a reasonable scholar in this subject, that he should be always searching for and finding proofs of the late date, and inaccuracy, and composite character of Luke's History. It is comforting to certain minds to have some one whose opinions they can accept implicitly; and it would almost appear that a few of our English scholars attribute to the German commentators on the Bible that inerrancy which our parents or grandparents attributed to the text. They set up an idol, and condemn as an impious iconoclast him that sees the idol's feet of clay, even while he reverences the image.

But in matters of scholarship it is not safe to follow implicitly any scholar, however great he may be; and we appeal to fact and reason against the dogmatism which seeks to close the case, refuses to admit further argument, and brands as an "apologist" any defender of Luke's character as a historian.

Not long ago it was reckoned by many as essential to a respectable scholar that he should pooh-pooh Luke as a second-century writer. Now we are permitted, on the highest German authority, to date him in the first century. We are permitted also to speak of certain parts and scenes in the Second Book of his History as showing marvelous accuracy and great power of conceiving and setting before the reader a life-like picture of what actually occurred. But we are not permitted to infer that he is a trustworthy historian, and that the presumption is in favor of his accuracy, even in cases, where no clear external evidence corroborates his statements.

We might ask whether it is a probable or possible view that the author can be so unequal to himself, that in one place he can show very high qualities as an accurate historian, and that in another place, when dealing with events equally within the range of his opportunities for acquiring knowledge, he can prove himself incompetent to distinguish between good and bad, true and false. He that shows the historic faculty in part of his work has it as a permanent possession.

The power of vivid conception and accurate description in concise, wellchosen, pregnant language, which Luke admittedly shows in some passages, proves that he could estimate correctly the comparative importance of details, select the essential points, and skillfully group them. An author fixes a standard for himself at his best, and is most unlikely to sink below it. The true critic will recognize this, and will not rest satisfied till he has traced the same qualities throughout the work. That method of studying Luke has not yet been consistently employed in the light of modern historical, geographical and antiquarian knowledge. The attempt to carry it out consistently will be stigmatized by those who dislike its results as pedantic insistence on minute points of language and mere "Mikrologie"; but it must be made in the face of such prohibition.

On this subject there are only two alternatives. It grows more and more clear that compromise -- such as is common among those by whom it is esteemed fair-minded to accept as much as possible from the results of the destructive school -- is impossible. The mind that is really logical and self-consistent cannot admit part of the so-called "critical" view -- what ought to be called the uncritical view -- and yet on the whole cling to the belief in real Lukan authorship. Luke's History is of such a strongly marked character what are called the "gaps" or omissions in it are so distinct, or, in other words, the proportion of the parts in it is so peculiars -- the insistence upon some facts and the summary dismissal of others with a bare word forms so prominent a feature of the work -- that either the author had a distinct idea of plan and purpose and comparative importance, according to which his whole narrative was ordered and guided, or he was not the real Luke.

Occasionally it is possible, with some plausible and deceptive show of reason, to maintain that the length at which some incident is narrated is due merely to the author's possessing exceptionally good sources of information about it. Take for example, the long description of the voyage From Philippi to Caesarea. That description is given in the words of one who was present on the ships. It therefore rests on authority of the highest character; and it might plausibly be maintained that the exceptionally excellent nature of the information led the author to devote an exceptional amount of space to it.

But if a believer in the Lukan authorship of the History attempts in a consistent way to carry out that theory, he is led into hopeless contradiction. Situations at which the real Luke must have been present are dismissed in the curtest way or omitted altogether, while others in which he was not present are described at great length. If the author so carefully chronicles the progress past Chios, and Samos, and Cos, and Rhodes, and Myra, and Cyprus, for the sole reason that he was present and knew what happened, why should he, after describing so carefully and minutely the progress of the Gospel in Corinth and Ephesus, or its comparative failure in Athens, which he had not seen, sum up in a word the two years in Rome, where he was present -- years which must have been so full of important events and impressive preaching? Why should he omit the two years' residence in Caesarea, except as regards two isolated scenes, and describe so much more fully the previous twelve days' residence there? Why should events in which Paul and Luke were both keenly interested, and as to which they must have known each other's views -- why should such events be narrated at great length by Luke, and in a way which shows, on the accepted interpretation, utter ignorance of Paul's views?

No answer has ever been given to these questions. In truth, he who admits that theory must., if he is logical, go on, like Professor Harnack and Professor McGiffert, to deny that the real Luke was the author.

But it is at once the special strength and the peculiar weakness of English scholarship that, even when it makes a mistake, it shrinks with a healthy and saving instinct from carrying out the mistake to extremes; it is not consistent with itself where to be consistent means to go further astray. With its practical sense it gains the chief result -- truth in the main. It returns to the right path when its course is becoming clearly divergent; and often it returns before it has erred so far from the true path as to become completely conscious of its wandering. Hence, it disapprovingly regards him that remonstrates with it for its want of consistency, on the ground that "he hunts down the statements of his opponents into what seem to him to be their consequences". In this country we are, perhaps, too apt to think that a scholar is responsible only for what he has explicitly stated, and not for the logical consequences of his views.

On the other hand, it is at once the strength and the weakness of German scholarship that it is thoroughly and remorselessly logical, that it carries out its views with steadfast and unwavering consistency, that it works out every theory to its consequences, that it is always conscious where it has gone, and is never untrue to itself, even though it thereby sacrifices the real object of its pursuit. When it goes wrong it demonstrates its own error with absolute conclusiveness, for it never works round out of the straight line back towards the true path.

A good example of the attempt at compromise and of the illogicality of such an attempt, is found in the main subject of our investigation -- Luke's story of the birth of Christ and the first enrollment of Palestine.

The attack directed against the credibility of that episode has been strong, confident, almost triumphant in its tone. [6] The defense has been rather timid and hesitating; the introduction of Quirinius's name has been abandoned almost universally as a demonstrated blunder; and even the reality of the "First Enrollment" has been championed by Luke's advocates in a very reluctant and half-hearted way.

But to make even one of these concessions is practically and logically to abandon the case, so far as Luke's character as a historian is concerned. He who says that "Luke is in error in the name of Quirinius," admits that, even when Luke had learned a fact from some authority, he could not keep himself free from a huge blunder in stating it.

Beyond all doubt, the suspicion entertained about Luke's History is due to the belief that, when he touches on general history, his references are usually demonstrably false, as contrary to historical record, and are rarely or never conclusively supported by other historians. He is the only Evangelist who has attempted to place his narrative in its proper relation to contemporary history; and when he tries to do so, almost every one, even most of his defenders, admit that he cannot do it without making errors.

It is generally admitted that (as Canon Gore puts it) "the chronological data in Luke 2 and 3 were supplied by himself and not by his sources". Luke gives us the result of his own investigations into the historical surroundings of the life of Christ. But if his investigations were of such a character that he confused the census of 8 BC. with that of 6-7 AD., and imagined that Christ was born "in the days of Herod the King," during a census held about ten or eleven years after the death of Herod -- when Herod was king, and yet when a Roman viceroy was organizing the new province of Palestine -- of what value were his investigations, or his ideas about past history, or his evidence? [7] What should we think of the historical qualities of a modern author who began an account of the life of Hereward the Wake by confusing between Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror? The one case would be no worse than the other. The first attempt that the author makes to connect his subject with contemporary history shows hopeless ignorance of that history.

It is no wonder in these circumstances that Luke's History has fallen under suspicion so strong that the case in its favor has been generally considered weaker than that in favor of any other important book in the New Testament. When I ventured, in defiance of the general verdict, to argue that Luke is a real historian -- and "the first and the essential quality of the great historian is truth" -- even so conservative and so friendly a scholar as Professor Sanday found that my "treatment of Luke as a historian seems too optimistic".

But it is an essentially inconsistent position to fancy that we can accept three-fourths or nine-tenths of what Luke says as true, and reject the rest. Destroy a historian's credit in one critical point, and there remains naught.

The confounding of one census with another in this case would be one of the serious things, which condemn the would-be historian as hopelessly incapable of accuracy or sound historical judgment. His statements cease to have any value in themselves; we can in each case only seek for a source, and estimate the probability of the statement by the authority of the source, after subtracting the likelihood of some other blunder having been made by Luke in using his source.

To judge how seriously this blunder affects the author's character, how inevitable are the inferences which the logical mind must deduce from the blunder, we must glance at two preliminary points which will form the subject of chapters 3. and 4.


[4] The Church in the Roman Empire, Pt. 1.

[5] Both in the pages of the Expositor in many separate articles, and in St.Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen.

[6] See chapter 5.

[7] There are other impossibilities upon impossibilities which have often been stated, and are repeated in chapter 5.

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