The Date of the Canonical Gospel of Luke

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by Neil Godfrey

As discussed in previous posts from Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Joseph Tyson), if the Book of Acts is to be dated so late, and was written as a response to the Marcionite challenge, then what of the Gospel of Luke?

  • Irenaeus wrote that the same author composed both Luke and Acts.
  • The Muratorian Canon did the same.
  • Henry J. Cadbury coined the term Luke-Acts to describe the two texts and to emphasize their common authorship.
  • Some scholars treat Luke-Acts as a single text.

In an earlier post (Did Marcion Mutilate the Gospel of Luke?) I outlined Tyson’s reasons for doubting that Marcion edited what we know as the canonical Gospel of Luke.

Nonetheless, Irenaeus and Tertullian do speak of a relationship between Marcion’s gospel and canonical Luke.

So beginning with this post I will discuss Tyson’s next chapter in which he discusses the composition of canonical Luke. He begins with the question of its date.

More than one edition of the gospel of Luke

We know that Marcion’s gospel was recognized by Irenaeus and Tertullian as being a version of canonical Luke.

It is probable that Marcion’s version was based on an edition of the gospel known in Pontus. (See Did Marcion Mutilate the Gospel of Luke?)

Tyson will argue reasons for thinking that the author of canonical gospel also used this primitive version of Luke known to Marcion. He will suggest that the church fathers reversed the relationship between Marcion’s and Canonical Luke, and that canonical Luke was, like its companion volume Acts, also written as a response to Marcionism.

The date of canonical Luke

So given that there were at least two and probably three versions of Luke in circulation in the second century, arriving at a date for canonical Luke may not be the simplest of tasks.

The external references that exist for Acts permit a second century date of origin for this book. “The lack of early external references applies to the gospels in general” (p.80). But re Luke specifically –

The earliest citations of Luke outside the New Testament

The clearest is found in 2 Clement 8:5

For the Lord saith in the Gospel, If ye kept not that which is little, who shall give unto you that which is great? For I say unto you that he which is faithful in the least, is also faithful in much.

The cited verse if found in Luke alone of the gospels. It is Luke 16:10

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.

That does not prove that the author of 2 Clement knew our Gospel of Luke, but it does strengthen the probability.

And 2 Clement is generally dated to around 140 to 160 c.e.


Tyson discusses Martin Hengel’s proposal that Basilides from the early second century (ca 120-140 c.e.) knew canonical Luke. The evidence is in the Stromata of Clement of Alexandria:

And the followers of Basilides hold the day of his baptism as a festival, spending the night before in readings.

And they say that it was the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the fifteenth day of the month Tubi; and some that it was the eleventh of the same month, And treating of His passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the sixteenth year of Tiberius, on the twenty-fifth of Phamenoth; and others the twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi and others say that on the nineteenth of Pharmuthi the Saviour suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of Pharmuthi.

There appear to be two debts to Luke here:

  1. Luke 3:1 — Jesus was baptized in the 15th year of Tiberius
  2. Luke 4:19 — Luke’s use of Isa.58:6 and 61:2 to indicate Jesus’ ministry lasted one year

Tyson makes the following observations:

  1. Clement is speaking about the later followers of Basilides, not Basilides himself
  2. The evidence tells us that the followers of Basilides made use of a version of Luke that contained canonical Luke 3:1. We know Marcion’s gospel also began at Luke 3:1, although it did not refer to Jesus’ baptism. And Tyson will argue that there are good reasons for believing that source gospel behind both Marcion’s and the canonical gospel also began with Luke 3:1.
  3. So we cannot be sure which version of GLuke is indicated by Clement’s reference here.
  4. Hengel based his arguments on the work of his student Winrich A. Löhr. Löhr himself was more cautious about his conclusions re Basilides knowledge of the Gospel of Luke, and noted that Basilides’ knowledge of the baptism of Jesus owed more to the gospels Mark or Matthew than to Luke.

There is another passage Löhr thinks demonstrates Basilides’ knowledge of Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, the rich and the poor. The evidence comes from the Acta Archelai, a Latin text by Hegemonius, from the fourth century.

But the two main Latin manuscripts do not speak of the “parable of the rich and poor”, which would point to the passage in Luke. The key passage has been translated by S. D. F. Salmond as:

the figures of a rich principle and a poor principle

The critical Latin word in question is parvulam (normally meaning ‘small’). One early translator, M. Routh, was unable to understand this word in this context, so suggested it should be changed to parabolam (=parable). Löhr has based his view that Basilides knew this parable in Luke on this proposed translation by Routh. Tyson is not convinced. The more difficult original term should be understood first, and it is therefore preferable to follow the Salmond translation. If so, this passage in Acta Archelai gives no indication that Basilides knew the gospel of Luke.


The passage in Smyrnaeans 3:2 has striking resemblances to Luke 24:39. See the table on Glenn Davis’s site.

Tyson refers here to Andrew Gregory, The Reception of Luke and Acts in the Period before Irenaeus: Looking for Luke in the Second Century, WUNT 2:169 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003). I have not yet seen this work so can only quote Tyson:

After calling attention to similarities between the two texts in terms of setting and language, Gregory finally agrees with William R. Schoedel in rejecting the view that Ignatius knew and used the Gospel of Luke. (p.82)

I’m looking forward to having a look at Gregory’s arguments here.


He [Gregory] concludes that Justin and Marcion were the first to show an acquaintance with Luke but that probably neither was aware of the edition of Luke in its canonical form. Justin knew some sections of Luke but not the birth narratives, and Marcion knew a gospel similar to our canonical Luke but shorter. In fact, claims Gregory, “of potential significance . . . is the possibility that Marcion is actually the first witness to sustained use not just of Luke but of any discrete Gospel, and that he may in fact have been a conservative editor of a shorter form of Luke than that known today, a form with strong affinities to the western text.” Gregory further concludes that the “earliest patristic reference to a gospel associated with the name of Luke” is that of Irenaeus. (pp.82-83)

Tyson concludes “with Gregory and others, that citations and allusions to the Gospel of Luke do not require us to date the canonical version before ca. 120-125 c.e., the date we suggested for the composition of Acts.” (p.83)

Tyson then proceeds to discuss in detail the relationship between Marcion and Luke. Intend to cover that in future posts here.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The Date of the Canonical Gospel of Luke”

  1. I’d thought the from-memory reference to Luke in Smyreans 3.2 was the earliest. I assume Gregory gets around this by considering the Ignatius letters to be forgeries dated later than Eusebius’s estimation of Igantius’s death.

  2. No. I’ve since got access to Gregory’s discussion. I’ve only skimmed so far, it looks like he discusses the differences in the Greek, the variants in the Luke manuscripts and the patristic testimony — it seems it is facile to conclude a relationship in either direction between them. Evidence is said to strongly indicate both drawing on a common tradition. Look forward to making his comments available here.

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