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

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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 on, 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?

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Luke’s Prologue: the How question. (A question only)”

  1. There is good reason to think that among the sources Luke refers to — indeed, the primary reference — are written texts. It is not at all clear why this “stretches even further the possible time gap between the original events and his own time.” That seems a patent non sequitur. Furthermore, there is nothing in this passage that should lead one to think of a “chain of written documents.” To the contrary, Luke implies that he is setting his hand to the same task task as others who have written narratives, being dependent on those who were “from the first, eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” That the eyewitnesses and ministers are governed by a single Greek article in regimen suggests, if not requires, that they are to be seen as one group twice-described rather than two successive generations of tradents, that is, both eyewitnesses and ministers, not eyewitnesses then ministers. Thus, it would seem Luke’s prologue is an entirely inconvenient text for your argument. You would be better off to suggest that Luke is prevaricating if you are interested in what the “prologue itself actually say(s)”

  2. You are right in that my comment as expressed about stretching a time gap is “a patent non sequitur” and should have been omitted.

    But I don’t have “an argument” — only a question — that I am sharing here. I certainly have no intention of building any argument for anything on an interpretation that has nothing but a questionable status.

    What I wonder is, how justified is the common interpretation that this passage implies that the original eyewitnesses and ministers transmitted solely by oral means, not written? Is that an interpretation we bring to the text from elsewhere? (I agree the eyewitnesses and ministers are most likely the same group, by the way.)

    Does not the “just as” (kathos) and the “me also” allow for the eyewitnesses to have passed on their “hand me downs” in written form — as others and now the author are also going to write up their accounts of everything?

    One objection I can see against this interpretation is that it might be thought that original writings by eyewitnesses would have been taken as canonical and need little further narrative. But that would be to impute a status to the written record that is anomalous. — e.g. Q did not survive, Papias et al speak of preference for the spoken word, texts were often paraphrased rather than copied, etc.

  3. Thanks for your clarification, and please pardon me for thinking that you were asserting more than just asking.

    I do not recall that there is a standard view of Luke’s prologue that limits Luke’s sources merely to oral traditions. In fact, I have always thought of this as the locus classicus for the use of written sources on the part of at least one of the evangelists. So I think you are quite right, and I think others hold a similar view.

  4. Thanks for the feedback. I have long been of the impression this prologue has been used as part of the evidence for the Jesus narrative being based on early oral transmission with written efforts being relatively late. Maybe my impression has been without foundation.

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