Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?

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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 Prologue in this post.

Here is Luke’s Prologue:

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. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Here is the historian Livy’s prologue to his grand history of Rome, beginning with the fall of Troy and the travels of Aeneas to Italy. I highlight the portions that remind me of the prologue above.

Whether the task I have undertaken of writing a complete history of the Roman people from the very commencement of its existence will reward me for the labour spent on it, I neither know for certain, nor if I did know would I venture to say. For I see that this is an old-established and a common practice, each fresh writer being invariably persuaded that he will either attain greater certainty in the materials of his narrative, or surpass the rudeness of antiquity in the excellence of his style. However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in investing, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world with a deeper interest; and if in such a crowd of writers my own reputation is thrown into the shade, I would console myself with the renown and greatness of those who eclipse my fame. The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labour. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, has grown to such dimensions that it begins to be overburdened by its greatness. I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth.

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. [I see here a transvaluation of this thought in Luke’s prologue. Luke is writing for his patron to “know the certainty” of what he writes.] This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states. Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder’s father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion. But whatever opinions may be formed or criticisms passed upon these and similar traditions, I regard them as of small importance. The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these-the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

There is this exceptionally beneficial and fruitful advantage to be derived from the study of the past, that you see, set in the clear light of historical truth, examples of every possible type. From these you may select for yourself and your country what to imitate, and also what, as being mischievous in its inception and disastrous in its issues, you are to avoid. Unless, however, I am misled by affection for my undertaking, there has never existed any commonwealth greater in power, with a purer morality, or more fertile in good examples; or any state in which avarice and luxury have been so late in making their inroads, or poverty and frugality so highly and continuously honoured, showing so clearly that the less wealth men possessed the less they coveted. In these latter years wealth has brought avarice in its train, and the unlimited command of pleasure has created in men a passion for ruining themselves and everything else through self-indulgence and licentiousness. But criticisms which will be unwelcome, even when perhaps necessary, must not appear in the commencement at all events of this extensive work. We should much prefer to start with favourable omens, and if we could have adopted the poets’ custom, it would have been much pleasanter to commence with prayers and supplications to gods and goddesses that they would grant a favourable and successful issue to the great task before us.

“Luke” may not embrace everything we find in a Roman historian’s prologue, but much (not all, but the greater proportion) of Luke’s prologue is an echo of what we read in that of the Roman historian’s.

The most obvious difference is length, of course. But that is also the first striking difference between Luke’s 28 chapters and Livy’s five whole books.

But to be specific:

  1. Luke and Livy acknowledge the many others who have written on their subject before them;
  2. They both self-consciously express their intentions to surpass the works of those others;
  3. Luke and Livy compare their work with their predecessors’ and explain that theirs is based on equally diligent personal investigation, laying everything out in a more “stylistic”/”orderly” manner;
  4. While Livy concedes that there are stories involving the supernatural that he will not pronounce on their truthfulness or falsehood, Luke insists that he will write to ensure that there is no doubt about the stories he writes.

If anyone reading this notices other similarities do comment.

But then here comes Loveday Alexander:

An online essay by Henry Wansbrough cites Loveday Alexander:

A large number of short treatises, of about the length of Lk’s work, have been examined in Loveday Alexander’s authoritative work (Alexander 1993). She establishes that it was a convention to begin with a preface similar to his, including such matters as name of author and recipient, his aim, the sources of his information, the importance of the subject, and a claim to personal competence for the task. Luke’s preface accords with these conventions, though in detail it is more similar to medical, mechanical, military and mathematical treatises than to historical works.

So the Livy echoes are not to be interpreted as being modelled on historiographical masters after all?

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)

Loveday Alexander argues that Luke’s preface is like those  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 in presentation beyond what is necessary for 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

Is Luke imitating a historian like Livy? Or is he making the most of the illusion?

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29 thoughts on “Luke’s Prologue — historical or historical illusion?”

  1. One of the things that I find suspicious is that the body of Luke is quoted a lot earlier than this introduction. To me, this means that this introduction was tacked on to an already extant gospel, which might explain its brevity. Who is our first witness to this introduction in Luke?

    1. Because the body came from Marcion’s gospel which is one of the many other gospels being referred to in Luke’s preface. Luke took Marcion’s gospel, added whatever proto-catholic stuff he felt needed adding, then put a preface to it pointing out that there are many other gospels which in his mind are not accurate, and his is better so you should only use his. How is this so complicated to understand? Why is this even still being debated?

  2. It’s so refreshing to be exposed to this great prose of Livy’s. Those ancient Greek and Latin writers knew how to describe their most complex thoughts, and with a charm that remains unequalled.
    Even when reading a classical modern, such as Gibbon, it is striking that he does not equal the lightness of touch of Livy’s text. No wonder that Livy was considered one of the great models of classical prose. Luke’s is OK, but does not approach Livy’s charm.

  3. I think Josephus was indeed emulating other historians. And his preface is, like Luke’s, a declaration to make “the facts” known for the benefit of his readers: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud/josephus/ant-pref.htm

    One other (and even more favourite) fancy of mine is that Acts has a similar structure to the Primary History, that is, Genesis to 2 Kings. Among several points of contact is that both conclude with the lead protagonist at the time in prison yet at the same time enjoying some form of liberty that gives promise for the future.

  4. Its only natural when writing about a subject that’s already been written on, to make some mention of the fact that others have treated the subject before but you feel you can do a better job. Every scholarly book ever written does that essentially. It seems foolish to think that imitation has to be going on. People just feel the need to justify retreading the path that already been beaten, reinventing the wheel, killing the dead horse all over again–whatever you want to call it.

    1. I have just started reading a book on the crusades titled ‘God’s War’ and the author very specifically makes the point that he is following in the footsteps of an illustrious predecessor who wrote the classic treatment with whom he cannot hope to compete but…with the improvement in scholarship since the classic was written he hopes people will judge this his later work as an improvement.
      Pretty much matches what you said above.

  5. Luke is said to have written in an elegant and refined Greek, showing that he was very well educated person for the times. Few people had access to manuscripts, which were expensive and rare. Where then could Luke have been able to consult all those other versions that he mentions in “Many have undertaken to draw up an account…”?, the accent being on “many”. Seeing one account was already an achievement at this time, but seeing “many”? Who was collecting all those rare versions and making them available to Luke? Or could it have been a library, a huge one like in Alexandria, Antioch, or perhaps Rome?
    Does this “many” allow us to think that perhaps Luke was writing in the big library of Alexandria, a perfectly hellenized city with a good component of literate and rich Jews? Where a Greek could dare to write a new story about a holy Jew that would be acceptable to the Romans? With all the other accounts easily available at hand? Would then this explain his huge quantity of text on the Nativity of Jesus, with all the magical paraphernalia of angels, annunciations, dreams, shepherds, adorations, etc…?

    1. “Where then could Luke have been able to consult all those other versions that he mentions in “Many have undertaken to draw up an account…”?”

      He’s obviously an ecclesiastical writer of the 2nd century. These guys were aquainted with various gospels. Lets, there was Matthew, Mark, and John, and Marcion’s gospel, and the gospel of Peter. And for each of these there were different versions to boot, such as Valentinian recension, Basilidian recensions, and so on.

    2. Perhaps the later canonical author of Luke not only knew many gospels had been written, but even knew their authors personally. Were they, in the 130s, part of his circle of friends at Rome, like-minded God-fearers and/or Jewish proselytes who had decided to challenge the Simonians and respond to the gospel (allegory) that the Simonians had put out (urMark?). For illustrative purposes only, imagine such a group of individuals sitting around and discussing how best to beat the Simonians at their own game:

      1st Individual (let’s call him ‘Matthew’): “Well, I think the best way to respond to their blasphemy is to write a competing gospel that will subvert theirs. I’m thinking of writing one that will make their Jesus character preach against Simon’s teaching; make him a stickler for the Law. I’ll put in his mouth those sayings of so-and-so. The one about “not one jot or tittle will pass from the Law…” will really drive them up the wall! And there are also his sayings that are critical of the Pharisees but say that nevertheless “do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you.” I’ll put those into Jesus’ mouth too. This will be fun. They think they are so clever. Well, when they read my gospel they will have no doubt that we are on to them. Their beloved Megas was really nothing but a magus. Maybe I’ll even start my gospel by having some fellow magi come and worship the baby magus. And if they think their fooling anyone by calling him the smallest or least whatever, I’ll take care of that too. In my gospel whoever breaks the least of the commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. To be called greatest will be reserved for those who obey and teach all the commandments.” Those clowns like to twist the meaning of Scripture. Wait till they see how I twist it to co-opt their Jesus. And wait till they see what I do with their hidden meanings. Nazarene for Samaritan? Hmmm. Let’s see. How about saying he was a Nazarene because he was from Nazareth? And for good measure, I’ll have my Jesus forbid his disciples to set foot in Samaria. I can’t wait to get started on this.”

      2nd individual (let’s call him ‘Luke’): “That’s interesting. Yes, I like the idea of an imitative gospel that will subvert theirs. And your idea about using the sayings of so-and-so is good too. But I wouldn’t make the gospel’s mockery of the Simonians so obvious. I think it would be a sweeter victory if we make this look as serious as possible and get people to buy into it. My Jesus is going to closely resemble the Old Testament prophets. He will defend the Law and the Prophets, of course, but he will not overdo it. I just don’t think people will find it believable that a Christian Jesus said to obey the Pharisees. And our Gentile neighbors are certainly not going to want to follow a Jesus who is such a stickler for the Law. So in my gospel I’m going to focus less on rubbing the noses of the Simoninans in it, and more on presenting a believable Jesus. I think we are all agreed that the important thing is that whatever Jesus we make, he must teach that there is one God and he is the Creator of all things and the one who gave the Law to Moses. If we can get Christians to believe that, we will have succeeded in turning Christianity into something acceptable.”

      3rd individual (let’s call him ’Clement’): “Good ideas, but I’m not so sure that we need to imitate the Simonian Gospel’s format. I favor a more straightforward approach. In my gospel I’m going to be open and upfront about the fact that Simon is the enemy; that it is he who blasphemously demoted our God. I’m going to expose him for the magician that he is; and I’ll have Peter best him in argument after argument. Peter will be our mouthpiece, the authorized mouthpiece for all of Jesus’ teachings. I don’t want my gospel to be too dry, of course. So I’ll put Peter’s refutations of Simon into some kind of interesting format. A novel perhaps. But I think that my idea gives us greater control of the gospel. The gospel will be what we, through Peter, say it is. In the novel Peter will end up in Rome and leave a successor in charge there. This will put us, not the Simonians, in Christianity’s driver’s seat.”

      At the end of the meeting it was agreed that everyone should work on their submissions to the “Jesus Gospel” contest. It was to be determined later whether there would only be one winner chosen by the members of the group, or if all submissions would be allowed to go public and the winner be determined based on which should prove most popular with non-members of the group.

      1. The setting of this reunion could be even better placed in Alexandria than Rome. Much closer, and more congenial. We could easily see these learned writers in the cosmopolitan context of Alexandria, where the general tolerance of the multiple cults around them would simply stimulate their inspiration to write yet another version of a Gospel, the only game in town for such gifted writers, to recount the story of another divine messenger for limited purposes (liberation of Judaea?), without any definite immediate dreams of imposing a new cult to replace all those other existing gods.

    3. VRIDAR: This comment was caught in the spam — rescued it about a day or more after it was originally posted.

      I’m currently researching the idea that the last author (ok, last major redactor of canonical Luke and major author of Acts) of the extant Luke-Acts is none other than the name to which this educational treatise is addressed. That is, the staunch anti-Marcionite bishop of Antioch, Theophilus. He may have been the holder and redactor of Peregrinus’s Ignatian letters, as well. What better way to retain, and control possession of the works, justify that possession while at the same time overwrite your opponents theological claims, not to mention that as a bonus Theophilus has his name in every Bible, but, like I said, it’s merely an idea.

      It is also my view that Antioch may one day be found as the evolutionary environment giving rise to the idea of Christianity from Gnostic Judaism. A library in that synagogue would explain the “many” and the author. Another idea. Thanks.

  6. One last note on Luke: OK, his style is not in the same category as Livy’s, at least as rendered into English. But, if we read his Gospel as a piece of literature, taking in the supernatural magic as simply an ingredient of the genre, we must give him credit: he spun some remarkable, gripping tale! It’s too bad that we’ve deadened our sensitivity to this overly familiar story. Read all afresh, if this is at all possible, it packs an extraordinary amount of power. No wonder that it was chosen by Irenaeus among the dozens of similar gospels floating around.

  7. I too decided 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 suggest that the key word in this passage is orderly. I imagine the situation to be that there was a collection of written stories that were not in a fixed order. Matthew (and perhaps one or a few other writers) had selected some of the stories and had arranged them into an order and then polished the compilation into one smooth narrative.

    Now Luke was commissioned by Theophilus to do the same task anew, using the same original collection of stories. Luke selected mostly the same stories, but Luke also selected a few that Matthew had omitted and Luke also omitted a few that Matthew had selected, and then Luke polished his own compilation in his own way.

    Why was Luke commissioned to do the task anew? The reason was so that Theophilus “may know the certainty of the things you [Theophilus] have been taught”.

    Apparently, Theophilus had come to think that the teaching might be affected by the particular ordering of the stories that had been done by Matthew. Perhaps that particular ordering had created some misleading understandings. Perhaps some concepts received too much or too little emphasis. Perhaps some logical progression was perceived wrongly or was not perceived at all. Perhaps the cause-and-effect of various events was missed or misunderstood.

    And so Theophilus enabled Luke to use the same original collection of stories to arrange a new, freshly ordered compilation. If the result did not change Theophilus’s certainty about what he had been taught, then the previous certainty would be confirmed.

    Luke’s task did not involve any new documents, new witnesses, new research or new information. Only Luke’s selection and ordering from the same original collection were new.

    1. Mike Sylwester: I suggest that the key word in this passage is orderly. I imagine the situation to be that there was a collection of written stories that were not in a fixed order.

      Some have seen a connection between Luke’s statement and to that of Papias’ statement about that “Mark having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.”

      It sounds like the earliest writings (we can put Thomas in there also) were more collections of sayings and deeds rather than orderly accounts of a life and death. Luke may well have been the first planned “biographical” account, with earlier writings (we can put Thomas in there also) being more collections of sayings and deeds.

  8. And what does “orderly” mean? The Greek is καθεξῆς and we see Stephen Carlson’s discussion on Hypotyposeis @ http://hypotyposeis.org/weblog/2006/11/notes-on-an-orderly-account-luke-13.html ; and Richard Anderson has another view @ http://kratistostheophilos.blogspot.com/2006/11/orderly-account.html .

    And clicking on some of the lexical options at Perseus: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=kaqech%3Ds&la=greek&can=kaqech%3Ds0&d=Perseus:text:1999.04.0057:entry=kaqech=s&i=1#lexicon — will bring up an interesting array of meanings among classical and other authors. Most of these are from Classical Greek (not NT Koine) and cover many concepts from “prevailing” to “the retentive power of the bladder”! I suppose that one revives the old Freudian twist to the meaning of the word “orderly”.

      1. I do not think that Luke felt compelled to put all the elements into a strictly chronological order, although that consideration would be a high priority. Some elements lacked any chronological indicators, and so Luke would grouped and placed those elements by considering their theme.

        The point I tried to make is that Theophilus commissioned Luke to re-order the elements afresh, because Theophilus had come to think that Matthew’s ordering of the elements might be misleading. Luke was supposed to select some elements out of all the already existing collection of elements and then arranging the selected elements into an order that was sensible or logical or orderly or whatever other word you want to use.

        To some extent, Luke’s result resembled Matthew’s result, and to some extent Luke’s result differed. We can assume that Luke’s result satisfied Theophilus that the truth of the religious teaching he had received did not depend necessarily on Matthew’s ordering of the elements.

        I think that Matthew and Luke used essentially the same collection of written elements. I think this was a collection of gospel stories — stories about what might have happened if Jesus had descended to Earth — that was assembled and maintained in Antioch. Some Christians in Antioch had come to believe that some of these gospel stories really had happened, and do there were several efforts — by Matthew, Luke and probably others — to select the “true” gospel stories from the entire collection of such stories and then to arrange the “true” stories into one coherent, “orderly” narrative.

        1. Very convincing scenario. Antioch seems more likely to have been the place for the birth of the Gospels. than Alexandria. Rome is without a doubt out of consideration.
          Writers were competing for the most telling account, with an eager public to know more, as they do these days for instance, on the death of JFK.

        2. Lately I’ve become increasingly convinced that the core of Luke was re-purposed by the same author who wrote Acts, and that the introduction is more paste than prologue. For Trek fans out there, think of the original Luke as “The Cage” and the canonical Luke/Acts as “The Menagerie.” The difference is that the original Luke, written by a different author (from the Marcion community?) bears the marks of an editor who gives away the game.

          I’m probably in a very small minority, but I have never been persuaded that Theophilus was anything more than a literary device. The main purposes of the Luke/Acts — e.g., establishing the trajectory from Galilee to Jerusalem to Rome and demonstrating the unity among all Jesus’ followers — seem patently obvious, and the pretend patron simply adds more glue that holds the disparate pieces together. It’s suspicious that the supposed author of Luke is specific about his imaginary patron but is not forthcoming about his relationship to Mr. “God-lover,” his own name, his situation, his background, his sources, his location, his own testimony, etc, even though he is writing in the first person.

          For all we know, the original God-fearing gentiles came to think of their conversion to Christianity as transforming them from fearers to lovers of God. Hence, the name in the introductions to Luke and Acts may have simply been a literary device to address these converts. If that’s the case, then Theophilus is the author’s version of “Dear Reader.”

          1. It’s suspicious that the supposed author of Luke is specific about his imaginary patron but is not forthcoming about his relationship to Mr. “God-lover,” his own name, his situation, his background, his sources, his location, his own testimony, etc, even though he is writing in the first person.

            I suppose that if Luke had foreseen how important his writings would become in world history, then he might have told some more about himself. Perhaps he foresaw only, however, that his writings would be passed around among a small circle of people who already knew Theophilus and himself.

            The main purpose of The Gospel According to Luke was to assemble a coherent narrative that would convince readers that Jesus Christ had lived and died on Earth as a divine-human being.

            I think that the main and different purpose of The Acts of the Apostles was to explain why this Jesus-on-Earth belief was absolutely absent in Judah and Israel, where Jesus supposedly had lived and acted and taught and performed many miracles before large crowds of people. Rather, this belief existed only in Antioch and in areas northwest of Antioch — far, far away from the places where Jesus supposedly had been seen. Essentially, Acts explains how the belief in a divine-human Jesus Christ eventually was rejected by Jewish believers and adopted by Greek converts.

            I imagine that after Luke wrote his Gospel based on a collection of writings in Antioch , then he went and visited Israel and Judah for the first time and was puzzled to find that nobody there ever had even heard of any such Jesus Christ. Luke was able to find only some scanty information about Simon Peter and some of his disciples living and debating for a while in and around Jerusalem.

            Then Luke returned to Antioch, found some information about Paul, and then traveled in Paul’s 100-year-old footsteps and collected whatever information he could in places where Paul had established churches. Luke would have been questioning the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of local people who supposedly had known Paul or even had been converted by Paul into the mystical-Christ religion of Paul’s time.

            When Luke was doing this research in Paul’s footsteps, perhaps a couple of decades had passed since he had written his Gospel. Many copies had been made of that gospel and of Matthew in Antioch, and those copies had been distributed and had convinced many mystical Christians that Jesus Christ indeed had existed for a while as a divine-human being in Israel and Judah. In other words, this new kind of Christianity had originated in Antioch and had spread from Antioch most effectively into the same places where the mystical Christianity had spread from Antioch — along the footsteps of Paul.

            So, when Luke traced Paul’s 100-year-old footsteps, he found people who had been born and raised as mystical Christians and who had been converted because of Luke’s own 20-year-old Gospel into the new kind of Christians who now believed in a divine-human Jesus Christ who had lived on Earth.

            When Luke visited and questioned these new-kind Christians, they already had revised their old, local stories about Paul so that the stories fit with their new belief. These local Christians now remembered that their grandparents had told them that Paul apparently believed that Jesus Christ had lived and died as a divine-human on Earth.

            By this time, Luke might have seriously doubted that this new belief was true, but he had to finish his Acts in order to receive his final payment from Theophilus, and so Luke held his nose and finished his Acts as a writing that would satisfy Theophilus.

  9. Christians frequently make a big deal out of the prologue mentioning “eyewitness” accounts of Jesus’ life.

    I came across a blog post about a paper on that subject that looks very interesting although I haven’t read it, yet.

    It’s by a John N. Collins and it’s titled “Re-thinking ‘Eyewitnesses’ in the Light of ‘Servants of the Word’ (Luke 1:2)
    Collins seems to argue that the “eyewitnesses” in Luke’s prologue were more likely a literary tradition and not an oral history that had been passed down.


    1. Interesting. Will give it a look. And yes, references to eyewitnesses was a literary convention to establish credibility in a work of history — as can be seen in works by Thucydides and Josephus. (I’m not suggesting that it was “nothing more” than a literary convention for such authors — they really did rely on eyewitnesses, too.)

      From another angle, I have been thinking about the gospel themes of eyewitness authority and comparing it with gnostic-like Christianities. I find it very difficult to understand how gnostic Christianities could have emerged from a scenario of a historical Jesus and Easter experiences. Those Christianities, at least some of them, had no significant or truly saving role for Christ/Jesus at all. He was in many cases only a bit-character. But it is much easier to imagine a group of Christians wanting to establish their own authority above all such rivals — and how better to do that than by creating a scenario where your ‘founding fathers’ did not rely on heavenly visions whenever they happened, but could trace their knowledge of Jesus back to the flesh before he rose to heaven, and to a set of visions confirming that event. That is, a once and for all past event to pull the rug from all the gnostics for whom revelations were ongoing “now” happenings. The transfiguration also explained away all those “false reports” of more recent visions.

  10. From yet another angle, the gospel themes of eyewitness authority pretty often are attacks on the authority of eyewitnesses. This, I think, is true for the Gospel of Thomas where the disciples repeatedly ask Jesus questions only to be slapped down by his responses. They are apocalyptic in orientation and Thomas’ Jesus is present/primordial oriented. Also the Gospel of Mark where the disciples evidently are ignorant of the main themes of Mark’s Jesus, the suffering death rising of the Son of Man. Mark appears to be engaged in an interesting project of arguing via biography that those who were eyewitness are not to be trusted and that by implication he, the author, knows what is what. This is sort of the same line of thought we find in Paul’s bio in the first part of Galatians, where we are to trust Paul’s view re: Jesus rather than that of Peter or James whose eyewitness knowledge is of trivial value.

    It might be interesting to think, rather than that some Christians picked up Gnostic religion and Christianized it for whatever purposes that some Gnostics picked up Christian motifs. In other words, Christianity may have had social characteristics that appeared desirable to Gnostics and so they Christianized their stuff to take advantage of that. The Secret Book of John, for instance (about which I published a book not too long ago) is obviously a stand-alone Gnostic production that then was Christianized. Why did Gnostics find it useful to do that may lead in different directions than the formulation Why did Christians find it useful to do that.

    Stevan Davies

  11. Thanks for your thoughts, Stevan. I have only an introductory knowledge of Gnostic questions till now so feel quite out of my depth at this stage in any discussion. At least reading Walter Schmithals while still holding on to Birger Pearson and Michael Williams for more modern balance is very deep and slow wading for me.

    Yes, I was overlooking the point that Mark’s Gospel is an attack on eyewitnesses. You mention Thomas, and I suspect you are also thinking of the lowering of Thomas’s status in the Gospel of John being related to a deprecation of ongoing visionary experiences that were part and parcel of Thomasine Christianity.

    But your “other angle” raises for me even more questions about likely originating scenarios. I don’t feel quite in a position to try to articulate them them succinctly yet. So let me catch up with your book first so I can have a better idea of where you are coming from.

    And John — for those who do not have access to Cambridge online journals I will try to give others here some idea of the arguments in a future post — unless you want to do that yourself first.

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