Category Archives: Luke-Acts Prologue


2013-11-23

“Eyewitnesses” in Luke-Acts: Not What We Think

by Neil Godfrey

There is a very good argument that the word for “eyewitnesses” in the preface to the Gospel of Luke (and by extension to Acts) does not refer to persons who literally saw the people and events that are found in the narratives.

The argument by John N. Collins has been published in The Expository Times (June, 2010) and deserves far more attention than it appears to have received. Its implications are far-reaching and highly significant for any thesis that rests upon the view that Luke drew upon oral traditions or accounts of individuals who were known for having personally witnessed Jesus or other events found in the Gospel and Acts.

I originally posted this as What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See? I won’t repeat it in all its detail here. I’ll outline here the main points of the argument but first let’s have another look at that prologue in the inspired King James translation:

1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us,

2 Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word;

3 It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

4 That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed.

The original article and my post have the details, but in sum the argument goes as follows: read more »


2012-12-09

What Did Luke’s Eyewitnesses See?

by Neil Godfrey

The Gospel of Luke begins with words that many have understood to be an assurance that its narrative is based on the firsthand eyewitness testimony of those who had seen Jesus for themselves. Here is Craig S. Keener‘s rendition of Luke 1:1-2

. . . many have sought to complete a narrative of the acts fulfilled in our midst, just as those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the message have from the beginning transmitted them orally to us. (from the header to chapter 10, “The Gospels’ Oral Sources”, in The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, 139)

Keener captures the meaning Richard Bauckham imputes to the term “eyewitnesses” in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses

The autoptai [eyewitnesses] are simply firsthand observers of the events. (p. 117)

Now . . . we have discovered how important was the notion of an eyewitness who was qualified to tell the whole gospel story by virtue of participation in it from beginning to end . . . . (p. 124)

John N. Collins, in a 2010 Expository Times article, ‘Re-thinking “Eyewitnesses” in the Light of “Servants of the Word” (Luke 1:2)’ on the other hand, has cogently argued that the term translated “eyewitnesses” in Luke 2 almost certainly means something quite different from this widely-embraced view, and after 2 1/2 years Richard Bauckham has still to find time to respond. One scholar who has noticed Collins’ article is Thomas L. Brodie. He cites it six times in Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus. (For info on John Collins see his details at the end of his review on Catholica.)

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke

English: beginning of the Gospel of Luke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Collins closely examines the context of the word for eyewitnesses in Luke 1:2 and concludes it refers to officers of long-standing in the Christian community. At this point it is important to recall the opening words of Luke’s preface:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled [peplērophorēmenōn] among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you [NRSV]

Given that the opening verses are about literary activity, and the close association of the “autoptai” with “servants”, Collins further concludes that their role was related to the authentication of the documents accumulated from those many literary endeavours.

The word in question is found only once in the New Testament so there are no other biblical comparisons that can assist us with its meaning. The essence of Collins’ argument follows. (In all quotations the bolding is my own, not original.)

Eyewitnesses are also the Servants of the Word “From the Beginning”

First, Collins draws attention to the word order of the Greek. He sets out the above NRSV translation the following word order to reflect the Greek:

the from beginning eyewitnesses and servants being of the word

Servants and eyewitnesses are bracketed as a unit between “the” and “being/genomenoi“. It is clear that the two terms, eyewitnesses and servants, are to be understood as the one and same group with the same dual functions — eyewitnessing and serving — from the beginning. read more »


2012-05-03

Who Wrote That? Verbal Affinities Between the Lukan Prologue and Acts

by Tim Widowfield
Saint Luke the Evangelist

One of the disciples hands Luke a sworn, signed, eyewitness statement. — Saint Luke the Evangelist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently, Robert Bumbalough asked, “. . . What of the style and grammar of the Lukan prologue vs. that of the Lukan infancy narrative vs. subsequent sections? Is there evidence [that] portions stem from the same pen?” This question reminded me of a personal, informal study I undertook a short while back, comparing the word selection in the Lukan Prologue to the rest of the New Testament. What follows is a brief recap of that study. Caveat lector: I’m not a professional text critic, just a curious amateur; I’m interested in your take on the matter too.

Is the prologue original to the text of Luke?

I start with the hypothesis that the original core of Luke probably did not contain the prologue and perhaps not even the genealogy or birth narrative. My working theory, at least for the purposes of the study, is that the later author who wrote the Acts of the Apostles added introductions to both works and “ironed out” the language in the original gospel of Luke to conform better to his linguistic preferences.

Word selection is not proof of authorship, but it can be a strong indicator. When we write we tend to follow known, comfortable patterns. These patterns include sentence length, preferences for correlative clauses versus clauses concatenated with conjunctions, and word choice. For example, if you ever see me use “author” as a verb, you’ll know my body has been taken over by aliens.

Food for thought: If the short introductions to Luke and Acts, which were addressed to a fictional Theophilus (“Dear God-lover . . .”), can be shown to be the products of a second-century redactor (to add verisimilitude and “a touch of class”) then what does that say about historicists’ assertions that we have “no reason to doubt” Luke when he says he knew of “many” gospels and talked to “eyewitnesses”?

Textual analysis: Verse 1

Here’s the Greek text of Luke 1:1 from Westcott and Hort:

Ἐπειδήπερ πολλοὶ ἐπεχείρησαν ἀνατάξασθαι διήγησιν περὶ τῶν πεπληροφορημένων ἐν ἡμῖν πραγμάτων,

Epeidēper polloi epecheirēsan anataxasthai diēgēsin peri tōn peplērophorēmenōn en hēmin pragmatōn,

As a reminder, here’s the English translation of the first verse:

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, (KJV)

We’ll look at each word (other than common words such as articles, conjunctions, and prepositions) to see where they were used elsewhere in the NT. read more »


2011-11-23

Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

by Neil Godfrey

I was reminded of Luke’s prologue (again) when I recently read (again) the prologue of Roman historian Livy. Stream of consciousness takes me immediately to Loveday Alexander’s argument that Luke’s prologue is very “unlike” the prologues of ancient historians and to my own pet notion (anathema to most interested classicists, I am sure) that Luke’s second volume, Acts, is structured around the founding myth of Rome: both narrate the voyage of a hero from the east, via Troy, to establish a new (imperial/spiritual) headquarters in Rome. But I do take some courage in that at least one scholar, Marianne Palmer Bonz, has written an exploratory book, The Past As Legacy: Luke-Acts As Ancient Epic, expressing the same theme. (I call it “exploratory” because I am still seeking more specific details to support the argument.)

So I collate the different possible explanations of Luke’s Prolog in this post. read more »


2008-06-14

Marcion and Luke-Acts: The Preface of Luke

by Neil Godfrey
From Allposters.com

Prologue of the Gospel of St. Luke, from the Gospel of St. Riquier, circa 800. From Allposters.com

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. read more »


2008-01-19

The literary genre of Acts 1(a): Ancient Prologue followup

by Neil Godfrey

My post on the style, content and function of ancient prologues or prefaces in relation to the Book of Acts has been misunderstood as interpreted by some as an attempt to argue or prove from the prologue itself that the author did not intend to write history. read more »


2007-11-12

The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues

by Neil Godfrey

Richard Pervo (Profit with Delight) compares Acts with ancient novels and finds striking resemblances. We tend to resist finding the thrill of novelistic adventure and humour in the books of the Bible. Holy books are supposed to be read with much gravitas, after all. But Pervo’s comparison with ancient novels has persuaded him that Acts shared their particular qualities that excited and entertained his audiences. I have read many ancient novels over recent years — and many ancient historians over a longer period of time — and fully agree with him.

read more »


2007-09-24

Luke’s Prologue: the How question. (A question only)

by Neil Godfrey

Luke 1:1-4

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I am not an expert in biblical Greek. I rely on tools such as lexicons and grammars and dictionaries. But till then my use of those tools has led me to ask the following:

Is there anything in the prologue of Luke that discounts the possibility that he is speaking of written transmission exclusively?

The author begins by reminding readers that many before him have written a gospel-like narrative.

He then says that those who were there from the beginning, the eyewitnesses, “delivered the data” to us. That “delivered” work in Greek is the same as used elsewhere for Christ being delivered up for us, sinners being handed over to Satan, and Paul delivering the decrees from the Jerusalem council to his churches. It doesn’t seem to me to be related in any way at all to a method of delivery, but rather to a fact of delivery, method immaterial.

Is there anything in this prologue that denies the possibility, even plausibility, that the original eyewitnesses were believed to have passed on their understanding through a written narrative?

The Greek-English Lexicon of the NT ….. 4th ed of Bauers’s …. includes a meaning for the word for “delivered” the following:

3. of oral or written tradition hand down, pass one, transmit, . . . .  (p.615)

That sounds to me like a prima facie argument for the eyewitnesses handing on the tradition whether orally or in written form….

Then the author of Luke’s Prologue says it seemed a good idea for him to do the same thing as had been done up to the point of his own experience. To add another link to the chain to give some confidence to his own readers that the past was still present.

The strongest argument against this question that comes to mind is later belief that the original eyewitnesses did not write their of their own experiences. (Except maybe for Matthew for some, and John for others. — but these are not majority views.)

But we cannot without good reason judge the intended meaning of the author of Luke’s prologue by how later generations interpreted it. What does the Prologue itself actually say and what are the plausible interpretations of what it says in its own right quite apart from later interpretations?

Is it reasonable to think that the author of the Prologue was speaking of a chain of written documents — which of course stretches even further the possible time gap between the original events and his own time?