2008-06-14

Marcion and Luke-Acts: The Preface of Luke

by Neil Godfrey

Continuing notes from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts — the previous post (on Luke 24) is here, the lot archived here

Previously I discussed Ancient Prologues in detail, but that was with particular reference to the Book of Acts. Nonbiblical examples of split prefaces, such as we find in Luke-Acts, were part of that discussion, but here I’m focusing on Tyson’s look at the Preface of Luke in the context of his earlier sections on Luke’s special material, and their apparent Marcionite context.

So far we have looked at

  1. the evidence (especially from contradictions and tendentiousness within the Tertullian claim, and from Justin Martyr’s evidence) that Marcion was active considerably earlier than the 144 c.e. date that has generally been assigned to him;
  2. reasons for assigning a late date to the Book of Acts;
  3. arguments for canonical Luke and Marcion’s gospel both being editings of an “original Luke”;
  4. the arguably anti-Marcionite content of Acts;
  5. the anti-Marcionite aptness of the Infancy Narratives and the Resurrection appearances in Luke.

This post is continuing point 4, arguing for the coherence of the Prologue to the Gospel of Luke within a context of a reaction against Marcionism.

Prologue of the Gospel of St Luke from the Gospel of St Riquier circa 800

Loveday Alexander on Luke 1:1-4

Her translation (Preface to Luke’s Gospel):

Inasmuch as many have undertaken the task of compiling an account of the matters which have come to fruition in our midst just as the tradition was handed down to us by the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed everything carefully and thoroughly, to write it all up for you in an orderly fashion, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may have assured knowledge about the things in which you have been instructed.

Unlike prefaces of ancient historians

Alexander challenges the common view that Luke’s preface was modeled on those of ancient Greek and Roman historians. The latter were noted for their attempts to impress audiences with high levels of literary expression. Not so Luke’s. Among the differences:

  1. Luke’s preface is one sentence long; Thucydides’ is 23 chapters long, each at least 4 times the length of Luke’s sentence;
  2. Luke does not include any moral reflections that characterized the prologues of Hellenistic historians;
  3. The convention of Greek historians was to speak of themselves in the third person (Luke uses the first person);
  4. Ancient historians never open with a second person address, while Luke’s preface is such an address (directly to Theophilus)

Like prefaces used in “the scientific tradition” (i.e. those introducing works of philosophy, mathematics, engineering, herbal astrology, dream interpretation, medicine, rhetoric)

These authors were less interested in their audiences, so there is less interest on presentation beyond what is necessary for the introducing the subject matter. Alexander sees Luke’s preface, particularly its structure and content, as being very much like the prefaces found in these works. The topics most often covered in these, as in Luke’s, are:

  1. the author’s decision to write
  2. subject and contents of the book
  3. the dedication or second person address
  4. nature of the subject matter
  5. others who have written on the subject, whether as predecessors or rivals (conventionally without explicit reference to names or identifying descriptions)
  6. author’s qualifications
  7. general remarks on methodology

Joseph Tyson’s 3 questions

Tyson asks 3 questions of topics 5, 4 and 7 above:

  • Who were the “others” who had written on this topic before, and what was Luke’s attitude towards them?
  • What is the nature of the subject matter indicated in Luke’s preface?
  • What methods does the author claim to employ and what does he hope to accomplish?

Who were the “others” who had written on the subject,

Luke’s “many” has been argued to be nothing more than a cliche or rhetorical flourish without necessarily meaning a large number. It is also sometimes argued that Luke is not necessarily referring to written gospels but also to oral traditions. None of these arguments has proved conclusive. Tyson believes that a simplest explanation can be found for Luke’s choice of words if we challenge the conventional trajectory of gospel beginnings.

It is generally held now that the author of canonical Luke knew only the Gospel of Mark and Q as earlier “gospel sources”. (The problem is increased for those who believe that Q was an oral source only.)

But problems to the reference to “many” disappear if:

  1. Canonical Luke is placed in the early second century;
  2. and if the author of canonical Luke knew:
  • The Gospel of Mark
  • Q [or the Gospel of Matthew -- my addition, not Tyson's]
  • An “original” or pre-Marcionite edition of Luke
  • Perhaps Marcion’s gospel
  • and other gospel texts [some would include the Gospel of John -- my addition, not Tyson's]

and what was Luke’s attitude towards them?

It is sometimes argued (e.g. Alexander) that the author of our Luke thought positively of his predecessors, who attempted to pass on the venerable tradition, and who may have done so orally, and with whom our author sees himself as in league.

On the contrary, it has also been argued (Klein) that the preface addresses the inadequacy of previous efforts. The reference to “assured knowledge” in the new work is said to imply a criticism of that of his predecessors. The preface is even said to boldly assert that the assurance of salvation was unavailable until the time of this writing. Previous attempts, even though based on tradition and eyewitness testimony, were inadequate. The preface claims that it is only through apostolic tradition that this assurance can be given — and its author supplies this in Acts.

Tyson concludes that the attitude expressed towards predecessors in the preface is ambivalent. The author associates himself with their works and grants that they were based on eyewitness testimony and tradition. But simultaneously there is the subtle hint that their work was inadequate in the ways expressed above. “If Luke’s predecessors include not only Mark and Q but also a pre-Marcionite Luke and possibly the Gospel of Marcion, the preface may be understood as a meaningful, if gentle, expression of the inferiority and inadequacy of these earlier texts.” (p.113)

What is the nature of the subject matter?

Tyson, with R. J. Dillon (1981), believes that the Preface points directly with the Resurrection chapter (Luke 24 — see previous post in this series) with its message of Jesus being the fulfillment of Scriptures, and the apostles becoming the appointed witnesses to hand down that message to others.

The key phrase is:

the matters [based on tradition and eyewitness testimony] which have come to fruition in our midst

“Apparently this is Luke’s subject matter as well. The verb translated here as “come to fruition” is πεπληροφορημενων, the perfect passive participle of πληοω, which means to fulfill, bring about, or accomplish.” (p. 113)

Contra Cadbury’s claim, Dillon does note that the author does use this word frequently to express the idea of fulfillment of Scripture — and especially in Luke 24. Dillon shows the important link between Luke 24 and the preface.

The preface anticipates the experience of the apostles being the eyewitness of Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture at the resurrection, and Jesus as Lord appointing them, as his servants, to be his eyewitnesses and to preach the word of repentance. (Note the expression “ministers” or “servants” of the word in the preface.)

Tyson also notes the anti-Marcionite implications of the emphasis on the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures and the authority of the apostles as eyewitness servants and trustees of the tradition.

What methods does the author claim to employ

in order

It has been suggested that when the author claims to write “in order” or “in an orderly fashion” he means to set things out in the order that a written account would bring (over against oral accounts); or that he means to set out events in chronological or geographic order.

Tyson refers to David Moessner’s study (1992) of the word in question here, καυεξης, and shows that another meaning is implied.

The same word is used in Acts as part of Peter’s preface to his report to the Jerusalem apostles about his meeting with Cornelius:

Peter began to explain to them in order (καυεξης) (Acts 11:4)

Moessner notes that this report of Peter’s (11:4-18) that is said to be a narration of the events of 10:1-48 “in order”, is in fact narrated in a different order, and some events in Peter’s account are given less attention than the narrator’s. But most noteworthy is that “the material re-description of particular incidents is in some cases significantly different.” For example:

Peter said that the angel told Cornelius that he would bring a message of salvation

And he told us how he had seen an angel standing in his house, who said to him, ‘Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon whose surname is Peter, who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved. (11:13-14)

Yet the earlier narration tells us that Cornelius was waiting for Peter to arrive not knowing what the message was that he was to expect

He saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying, “. . . Now send men to Joppa and send for Simon whose surname is Peter. He is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea. He will tell you what you must do.” (10:3-6)

Rather than a chronological or geographical ordering, it is an ordered account in which “the ‘logic’ of the Cornelius encounter is illuminated for the larger narrative development of the story.”

If the author has used the same word in the same way in his preface, he means that he will stress the significance of the events reported, not their chronological sequence.

Moessner thus concludes:

To read Luke’s two-volumes καυεξης is to ‘get the story straight!’ — ‘to gain a firmer grasp of the true significance of those events of which you have been instructed’ (Lk 1,4).

and what does he hope to accomplish?

He writes so that the reader “may have assured knowledge about the things in which you have been instructed”.

The debate hinges over whether Theophilus is an outsider or insider in relation to Christianity.

Is the author writing to give a positive spin to an official who has heard hostile reports of Christianity?

Is he writing for one who had only indirect access to other teachings? If so, is he attempting to persuade the hearer of the unshakable truth of what he had heard?

Is he writing for one who had till now only had oral reports? This is Alexander’s view, and she further warns against taking the statement of purpose too seriously. She informs us that in most scientific prefaces the statement of purpose was a conventional flourish, an afterthought, that really added little meaning.

Tyson, however, thinks the Preface’s statement does not appear to be a throwaway afterthought but is meant to be taken seriously. He suggests that if we see this work as a second-century product, then the words take on a strong significance.

He proposes that Theophilus should be seen as one who has received some Christian instruction, but that he is now becoming unsettled by the different challenges (Marconite) to what he has heard. The author of the preface was seeking to equip the reader with the information necessary to resist Marcionite teaching.

Next in this series – the body of Luke (3-23) . . . .

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