The earliest gospels 6(c) – Luke’s Gospel (Couchoud)

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by Neil Godfrey

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Continuing the series archived here: (I have also marked the name Josephus in bold for easy reference for any interested in the study of Luke’s use of Josephus.)

Irenaeus is the first to speak of Luke as the author of our Gospel and Acts dedicated to Theophilus (Haer. iii.1,2). Before Irenaeus we read in Colossians 4:14 of a Luke with the epithet “the beloved physician” having been interpolated into the original; and in the fictitious 2 Timothy 4:11 we read “Only Luke is with me.”

Following is an outline explication of the Gospel of Luke from Couchoud’s perspective of it having been composed around 142 c.e. by Clement of Rome.

The prologue refers to a number of Gospels and Acts already in existence and leads readers to infer that the author is collating his information from these earlier sources while also being in a unique position to offer more authoritative insights and a more coherent narrative of the whole.

With an acrobatic leap he passes from the fine style of a Greek rhetor to that of Biblical narrative. (p. 275)

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea,
A certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abijah:
And his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

And they were both righteous, walking before God
In all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
And they had no child, because that Elizabeth was barren;
Both were well stricken in years.

Couchoud then outlines the narrative we know from Luke 1:8-38 and that I won’t repeat here.

Along the way he remarks that Luke 1:37, “for no word is impossible with God”, uses the word Logos and was probably borrowed from John, “meaning at one and the same time Jesus, of whom the apostles were the eye-witnesses, and the Word of God, of which they were the announcers.”

He also observes of Mary’s thanksgiving to God with a Psalm, the Magnificat, and of Zechariah’s Psalm of rejoicing, the Benedictus, “should be carefully compared with Clement’s great prayer in 1 Clement 59:3-61. In each case keen emotion is expressed by means of a mosaic of Biblical quotations.” (p. 276)

Note – in the context of the previous posts — what this passage has achieved by way of reconciling so many hitherto factional views of Christ:

This fine beginning is a step forward on Mark and Matthew. John is the pre-ordained forerunner of Jesus from before their births. He is the heir of the Jewish priesthood, and is to be a prophet of the Most High; which is to say, in BIblical manner of speech, that the Law and the Prophets are the forerunners of Christianity. Jesus, kinsman after the flesh of John the Baptist, is, through his mother, in the line of Aaron the High Priest, and will be “the high priest of our offerings” (1 Clem. xxxvi. I; lxi. 5; lxiv). He is in this manner at one and the same time that Messiah the Son of David foretold by the prophets, that Messiah the Son of Levi predicted by others, and that Messiah the Son of Joseph awaited by certain sects; in addition to his birth by a virgin made him physically the Son of God. The virginal conception is not told from the viewpoint of Joseph, as in Matthew, but from that of Mary, which is far more delicate and touching. (pp. 276-277, my emphasis)

Historical birth at Bethlehem

The author of this narrative outclassed the evangelists before him by offering “material proof of Jesus’ birth (thus being really in the flesh) — and his being of the line of David — by reference to the Roman Census.” Mark and Matthew had given Jesus the home of Nazareth because they misunderstood the title some used for Jesus, the Nazaraean. (I suspect Matthew was in fact suppressing the real meaning and Mark was interpolated by an copyist as a result of greater familiarity with Matthew.) But “Luke” took the census he read about in Josephus (one by Quirinius about ten years after Herod’s death) and introduced a Census that was empire-wide and in which every person “had to return to the natal place of his ancestors; Joseph had therefore to go to Bethlehem as a descendant of David.”

Thus was Jesus born sharing the conditions of the poor and wretched of the earth, without even a proper bed. He was, moreover, born and enrolled as a Roman subject. So effective was this historical verisimilitude that “Justin naively begged the Emperor Antonine to have the registers of Quirinius searched so that he might be convinced himself of so transcendant a proof (1 Apol., 34). (p. 278)

(Can’t resist another interjection: thinking of those most fatuous arguments of scholars who appeal to “know one would make it up” reasoning to “prove” historicity of this or that . . . . Would a first century Luke really get away with “making up” an historical event that could so easily be disproven by his contemporaries? Surely it must be historical . . . .  tongue in cheek.)

Disappearing Matthew’s Magi; Enter the season for Shepherds

Our author found references to magicians and astrologers offensive enough without them also doing honour to the newborn Christ Jesus. In Acts 19:19 he has Paul have a large-scale burning of books by magicians. Magi are bad characters and are typified by Simon Magus and Barjesus (Acts 8:9; 13:6).

His style leans more to the idyllic and graceful; so he replaces the pompous Magi with simple shepherds. In accordance with Isaiah lxi. 1 he has the good news announced by the poor. Read Luke 2:8-18.

Thus Jesus’ birth that was foretold by the prophets of old was announced by angels and the poor of Israel and subsequently by the apostles.

In this manner there is not the slightest interruption to the continuity of Old and New Testaments. (p. 279)

Additional links to the Old are the ensuing narratives of Jesus’ circumcision — circumcision being the seal of the Old Covenant — and the prophecy uttered by the old man through the Holy Spirit in the Temple that Jesus was to be the Messiah of Israel and the Saviour of the Gentiles. Luke 2:21-38.

This old man Simeon is the double of the old apostle John, of whom it was said, according to a widespread and dangerous belief, that he would not die till Jesus came. In this manner an awkward belief is suavely undermined; it is explained away as a confusion, which is a more subtle artifice than the misunderstanding supposed in the appendix to John. (p. 280)

A childhood detail from Josephus

In his Life, paragraph 2, Josephus boasts that the wise teacher of the law acknowledged his own wisdom in such things while a mere child of only fourteen years.

Moreover, when I was a child, and about fourteen years of age, I was commended by all for the love I had to learning; on which account the high priests and principal men of the city came then frequently to me together, in order to know my opinion about the accurate understanding of points of the law.

Jesus outdid Josephus by achieving the same feat at only twelve years of age: Luke 2:47.

By this tale our author demonstrates that Jesus is a doctor of the Old Law before he introduces the New.

Further, when Jesus replies to Joseph and Mary who found him in the Temple that he must be “about his Father’s business”, the reader is being informed that Jesus’ Father was the same God as the God worshiped in the Temple of Jerusalem, the Yahweh of Israel.

The opening

Thus is the opening of the Gospel of Luke. (We’ll call the author Luke for convenience.) The style grounds the rest of the Gospel as an extension of the patriarchal narratives of the Old Testament. The remainder of the Gospel will be drawing on different sources and does not resonate with the same idyllic tone.

This variation is intentional, for it allows Jesus’ words to be interpreted in a special light, attenuates their meaning at times, gives them a conservative meaning, or at any rate takes from them their flexibility. It allowed Jesus to say of John the Baptist, “He that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke vii. 28) without suggesting a rupture with John’s worshippers; or of Mary, “My mother and my brethren are these which hear the word of God and do it” (Luke viii.21) without formally disavowing his relation to Mary after the flesh. He can even declare, “How say they that Christ is David’s son?” (Luke xx.41); and the reader, forewarned that Jesus is a Son of David, will not perceive that this is a declaration denying that he is the Israelite Messiah. The impress given so strongly to this Gospel in its opening chapters is borne by the whole narrative. (pp. 280-281)

I would add here that the conclusion returns us to this Old Testament biblical style narrative. I have discussed this in some detail — comparing the Emmaus Road narrative with scenes in Judges and Genesis — in an older post here.

Drawing on Matthew’s and Marcion’s Gospels
(and Josephus and Mark and John)

Luke now turns to Marcion’s gospel and slightly edits his opening words that went: “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor, Jesus Christ the Son of God came down from heaven and appeared in Capernaum, a town in Galilee.” Luke omits Marcion’s “came down from heaven” and keeps the date and adds historiographical touches from Josephus:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,
Herod tetrarch of Galilee,
His brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and the region of Trachonitis,
And Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene,
Annas (and Caiaphas) being high priest(s).

This is a typical Josephan dating style and the details of Lysanias. The name Caiaphas was probably inserted by a copyist when one compares what is written elsewhere in Luke-Acts about his knowledge of the high priest of the time being Annas. There are several other anomalies and inaccuracies here that I will not detail for now.

Luke next draws on Matthew 3:1ff to relate John the Baptist’s predictions. Couchoud does not see a need for a Q source common to Matthew and Luke. “In place of Q there are (1) Matthew’s borrowings from Marcion, which are characterized by being entirely remodelled in Semitic style, and (2) Luke’s borrowings from Matthew (passages which do not appear in Marcion) which are distinguished by their quasi-literalness.”

To Mathew’s account of John the Baptist Luke adds to John’s audience publicans and soldiers — that is, Gentiles. Recall Matthew’s gospel is preached only to Israel.

Luke reduced the age of Jesus as found in John’s gospel — 46 years (John 2:20; 8:57) — to about 30 (Luke 3:23). Had he paid attention to the date of the true census by Quirinius he would have made Jesus 20 years old. Possibly Luke was wanting to assign the divine flesh maximum physical prowess.

Luke took the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness from Matthew and developed it as well in order to clearly demonstrate that Jesus had a truly human nature.

From this point on Luke primarily follows Marcion’s Gospel.

Where Matthew had mainly followed and adapted Mark, Luke primarily follows Marcion’s Gospel and incidentally looks across to Mark or Matthew, occasionally from John (e.g. Luke 3:15 & John 1:20; Luke 23:4, 14, 22 & John 18:38; 19:4, 6) or another source, to add other details. (Luke was quite likely using Marcion’s Gospel itself as a template for his own.)

Luke gave an orthodox and completed edition of Marcion. (p. 282)

But first Luke reverses Marcion’s itinerary for Jesus. Marcion had Jesus first preach at Capernaum and later at Nazareth. Luke wants Jesus to begin teaching at his hometown so he can only take the message to others after his compatriots have rejected it — according to the proverb.

Luke’s Gospel is also different from Matthew’s. For Matthew the Gospel was the Kingdom of God. For Luke it is “the fulfilment of the prophecies of the Old Testament in Jesus.”

Marcion’s Gospel told how the Jews barbed Jesus with a vicious insult, “Physician, heal thyself!” But Luke re-writes this to reduce the insult to a cushioned hypothetical. Rather, as Marcion could never have done, Luke “conjures up an impressive confrontation of the Book of Isaiah with Jesus, of the written prophecy and the object of the prophecy”. See Luke 4:16-23.

In so making this reversal of Marcion’s itinerary Luke has left behind a clumsy reference to miracles having been performed in Capernaum before Jesus even went to Capernaum.

The point of the reversal is that Jesus is able to justify his henceforth delivering the Gospel to pagans and others.

As in Marcion’s Gospel Jesus merely passes through the crowd to escape the crowd’s attempt to kill him. But Luke’s readers, having been prepared to imagine a truly human flesh and blood Jesus, must now imagine anything but Marcion’s image of an insubstantial spirit passing through the crowd.

Under way

From now on Luke’s Gospel is little more than a stitching together episodes from Matthew and Mark into Marcion’s Gospel by means of minimal comments and corrections and linking phrases and occasional in-between frames. The result is a reasonably homogeneous whole.

Of course Luke is very alert to anything in Marcion’s or Mark’s Gospels that deprecates the Jewish Scriptures. In such a mind he could not resist adding to the parable of the new wine in old skins “the impertinent comment:”

No man, having drunk the old wine, desires new; for he says, the old is better. (Luke 5:39)

“The Gospel is good to him just because it is not new wine.” (p. 284)

Where Matthew had said, “The disciple is not above his maser” Luke knew this meant Jesus was the sole doctor. So he had no hesitation in adding:

But every disciple who is perfect shall be as his master (Luke 6:40)

For Luke all the Old Testament and its characters were concerned only with Christ’s Passion. So why did they appear in the Transfiguration to Glory in Mark and Matthew? Luke adds an explanation:

[They] spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:31)

If Jesus preached the resurrection of the dead then Luke reminds readers that the Old Testament had taught the same long before:

That the dead are raised, Moses showed in the chapter of the Bush, saying, Jahweh, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. For he is not a God of the dead, but of the living; for all live in his sight.

Compare other Old Testament arguments by Clement for the resurrection of the dead — 1 Clement 26:2-3 The burning Bush is also mentioned in 1 Clement 17:5.

On the events of 135

This gospel is being composed some seven or so years after Hadrian had set up the Temple of Zeus in the place of the Jerusalem Temple in 135. There is no longer any alarm expressed over the abomination of desolation of Daniel’s prophecy found in the mouth of Jesus in Matthew and Mark. Quite the contrary. Apocalyptic expectations, hopes for the imminent return of Christ, are suppressed in Luke. He has Jesus forbidding his faithful to follow anyone who says in his name that “The time draws near.”

Josephus furnished this author with the contents of another parable to drive home the need to put an end to immediate expectations of Christ’s return. The parable of Luke 19:11 is inspired by Josephus’s relation of Archelaus going to Rome to be invested as King by Augustus, and being followed by a deputation of Jews who protest against his being made their king. Luke concluded his parable by having those who opposed Jesus as king while he went away being executed. The extermination of the Jews will be God’s final act. The Kingdom will belong to the Gentiles and the apocalyptic end of time will see the death of Jews, not Gentiles. This is no gentle Marcionite God.

(Luke also modified Matthew’s version of this parable by having all the faithful servants receiving the same reward on Jesus’ return. For Luke there was to be no inequality in the eyes of the Holy Spirit.)

Not Marcion’s Jesus

Luke’s Jesus is as rigorous in judgement as his father God of the Old Testament. Yes, the innocent along with the guilty will perish if they do not repent – Luke 13:1-5. For Jesus Israel is a barren fig-tree that is a waste of space so it must be cut down — Luke 13:6-9.

Jesus can, however, shed a tear over the needful destruction of the Jews. Alas, why did they not recognize him in time? The evangelist plagiarizes the celebrated pages of Josephus in which Titus laments the coming destruction of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44).

Annoyingly there is no citation of the passage in Josephus Couchoud is referencing here.

Luke turns the old apocalyptic fantasies upon their head. Instead of the last days witnessing some part of the Jews being converted and the heathen being annihilated, God’s last act would be to destroy the Jews for their rejection of the innocent Jesu — Luke 23:28-31:

But Jesus turning to them, said: Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over me; but weep for yourselves, and for your children.

For behold, the days shall come, wherein they will say: Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that have not borne, and the paps that have not given suck.

Then shall they begin to say to the mountains: Fall upon us; and to the hills: Cover us.

For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?

Luke’s finest contribution to the story of Jesus consists of two exquisite parables, which give a delicately veiled answer to that painful problem as to why God should prefer the Gentile to the Jew in these days. The answer here given is to the effect that the Gentiles are better capable of good works than the Jews, and more wholly given to that filial repentance which rejoices the heart of the Father. (p. 287)

These are, of course, the parables of the Good Samaritan (10:30-37) and the Prodigal Son (15:11-32). Today it is difficult to assign parables that teach the spiritual superiority of Gentiles over Jews a “finest” contribution, however.

Couchoud suggest (on the basis of the Ferrar group of manuscripts) that the anecdote of the woman caught in adultery now found in the Gospel of John was originally located after Luke 21:37. Perhaps it was excised from the Gospel because a too literal reading of the story could lead to a too indulgent attitude towards adultery. Later it was copied at the end of the four gospels, that is, at the end of John’s Gospel, as a kind of erratum. Later still it was incorporated into John’s Gospel after 7:32. Originally, suggests Couchoud, the story was symbolic of the forgiveness of pagans who had gone whoring after other gods while the Jews had their own fill of sins.

Luke sought to whitewash Peter as Matthew had done but he used a different tactic. At the moment Jesus predicts Peter’s failure he also assures Peter — and in particular the readers — that Peter will be restored and strengthened for the experience — Luke 22:31-32:

And the Lord said: Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat:

But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.

Luke renounced Marcion’s impractical idealism in the face of persecution. Marcion had said that disciples should not carry purse or shoes with them. But Luke more advisedly instructed the need to cling to purse, wallet and to get a sword by selling one’s cloak — Luke 22:35-36:

When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, did you want anything?

But they said: Nothing. Then said he unto them: But now he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise a scrip; and he that hath not, let him sell his coat, and buy a sword.

Once more Luke brings out a narrative of two opposing characters and this time they are the good thief and the bad thief crucified either side of Jesus, one representing the Gentiles and the other the Jews.

In depicting the resurrection Luke had no interest in Paul’s and Marcion’s teaching that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom”. Jesus shows himself as flesh and bones and invites his disciples to prove this by handling him. (Marcion’s Gospel, according to Harnack, apparently had Jesus only speak of bones and not flesh and bones. The bones are said to refer to the teeth, hands and feet — the spiritual body of an ascetic. Jesus had the same non-flesh body as he had before his resurrection.) The Christian’s most concrete hope, the resurrection of the flesh, was thus established.

On the Emmaus Road Marcion had Jesus remind the travellers that Christ must suffer. Luke goes further and adds that Jesus began with Moses and taught them all that the Prophets said must happen to Christ.

Marcion’s Gospel closed with the words:

Thus it was that the Christ should suffer,
And rise again from the dead the third day
And that there be preached in his name
Repentance and remission of sins to all the nations.

Luke saw what was not said so added:

These are my words that I spoke
While I was yet with you;
How that all things must needs be fulfilled as it is written
In the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms of me.
Then opened he their mind
To understand the Scriptures.

Thus Jesus’ final teaching links up with the first. Marcion is refuted. The Old Testament and Gospel are not in opposition. The Gospel is found in the Old Testament.

This leads to Acts, the second volume of Luke (or Clement?) and then the other works we find in the New Testament. But those notes will have to await a future set of posts. I’d love to finish it all now but I also have other posts in mind I want to catch up with.

Related series

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “The earliest gospels 6(c) – Luke’s Gospel (Couchoud)”

  1. ‘He has Jesus forbidding his faithful to follow anyone who says in his name that “The time draws near.”’

    The reference is Luke 21:8,9, for anyone who had their curiosity piqued by the above.

  2. Neil,

    “Annoyingly there is no citation of the passage in Josephus Couchoud is referencing here.”

    In Josephus’s, Wars of the Jews, book VI, ch. 4.7-8, there is this, 7 “… and Titus supposing what the fact was, that the house itself might yet be saved, he came in haste and endeavored to persuade the soldiers to quench the fire, …” followed by 8 “Now although any one would justly lament the destruction of such a work as this was, since it was the most admirable of all the works that we have seen or heard of, …”

    This may show both why P-L Couchoud was remiss in citing the reference, that is, it needs to be deduced from the above (or something similar), and that the deduction is an obvious one to grasp.

  3. Pingback: How Paul Influenced Christianity Part 1 | BaedonWebz
  4. Pingback: Resources for Luke 21:8 - 9

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