On The Reliability Of Luke As A Historian

Christian apologists and missionaries believe that Luke was “inspired” and “inerrant,” even though Luke himself does not make such a claim in his books (Gospel according to Luke and Acts).

One of the most popular arguments often proposed by the missionaries as “evidence” that Luke was “inspired”, or at least someone who we can blindly trust without second thoughts, is as follows: he was an excellent historian who conducted a careful investigation during the course of composing his books.

It is claimed that Luke accurately named many countries, cities, that he accurately described certain events of his time, correctly named various officials with their proper titles and referred to places which have only recently been discovered. Therefore, this somehow “proves”, according to the apologists, that Luke’s story can be trusted in its entirety and that there is no room for doubts regarding his claims whatsoever.

We refer to the author as “Luke” simply for the sake of convenience and not because we believe that Luke authored the third Gospel and the Book of Acts. We might as well call the author “Max”, but because the third gospel is commonly known as the “Gospel according to Luke,” the name “Luke” is retained.

Did Luke Author The Third Gospel and Acts?

According to critical scholars, the third gospel, like all the gospels, is anonymously authored. That is to say, we really do not know who authored it. Nonetheless, even if we accept the traditional authorship claim, it remains that Luke was a non-eyewitness — he did not witness any of the alleged events from the life of Jesus first hand. Luke was a follower of Paul.

According to the late Raymond Brown, it is possible that Luke, a minor figure who travelled with Paul for some time, wrote the third gospel and the book of Acts decades after Paul’s death.

Brown writes:

We have no way of being certain that he was Luke, as affirmed by 2nd-century tradition; but there is no serious reason to propose a different candidate.

Similarly, Lee Martin McDonald and Stanley Porter accept traditional Lucan authorship but not wholeheartedly. They write (p. 295): “We are inclined to accept Lucan authorship, but not without some reservation …”

Bart Ehrman, summing up the stance of critical scholars, writes:

Proto-orthodox Christians of the second century, some decades after most of the New Testament books had been written, claimed that their favourite Gospels had been penned by two of Jesus’ disciples — Matthew, the tax collector, and John, the beloved disciple — and by two friends of the apostles — Mark, the secretary of Peter, and Luke, the travelling companion of Paul. Scholars today, however, find it difficult to accept this tradition for several reasons.

…none of these Gospels makes any such claim about itself. All four authors chose to keep their identities anonymous.

As for the dating of Luke and Acts, most scholars place it in the 80–100 AD period. For instance, Paula Fredriksen places Luke between c. 90–100. E. P. Sanders dates the final form of the gospels between the years 70 and 90. Theissen and Merz place Luke anywhere between 70 C.E to 140/150 C.E — more in the first half of this period The late Catholic scholar and priest, Raymond Brown, placed Luke in the year 85 — give or take five to ten years

Never Claim To Be Inspired

It should be noted that the author of the third gospel and Acts nowhere claims to have been “inspired” by a higher source to write his accounts. Such arguments are listed by one missionary as follows:

  • Luke refers to Lysanias as being the tetrarch of Abilene at the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, circa 27 A. D. (Luke 3:1) Historians accused Luke of being in error, noting that the only Lysanias known was the one killed in 36 B. C. Now, however, an inscription found near Damascus refers to “Freedman of Lysanias the tetrarch” and is dated from 14 and 29 A. D.
  • Paul, writing to the Romans, speaks of the city treasurer Erastus (Romans 16:23). A 1929 excavation in Corinth unearthed a pavement inscribed with these words: ERASTVS PRO:AED:P:STRAVIT: (“Erastus curator of public buildings, laid this pavement at his own expense.”)
  • Luke mentions a riot in the city of Ephesus which took place in a theatre (Acts 19:23–41). The theatre has now been excavated and has a seating capacity of 25,000.
  • Acts 21 records an incident which broke out between Paul and certain Jews from Asia. These Jews accused Paul of defiling the Temple by allowing Trophimus, a Gentile, to enter it. In 1871, Greek inscriptions were found, now housed in Istanbul which read:
  • NO FOREIGNER MAY ENTER WITHIN THE BARRICADE WHICH SURROUNDS THE TEMPLE AND ENCLOSURE. ANYONE WHO IS CAUGHT DOING SO WILL HAVE HIMSELF TO THANK FOR HIS ENSUING DEATH.
  • Luke addresses Gallio with the title Proconsul (Acts 18:12). A Delphi inscription verifies this when it states, “As Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the Proconsul of Achaia …”
  • Luke calls Publicus, the chief man of Malta, “First man of the Island.” (Acts 28:7) Inscriptions now found do confirm Publicus as the “First man”. (Josh McDowell, The Best of Josh Mcdowell: A Ready Defense, pp. 110–111)

He goes on to present more similar citations and arguments.

Firstly, we should note that there is nothing in the above which would indicate that Luke was “inspired” or “inerrant” and that everything within his books can be trusted blindly. There is nothing here which would show that Luke was somehow “special”. Far from being remarkable, the above are very ordinary examples of Luke’s alleged accuracies. There is no reason to suppose that unless a person is inerrant or inspired, he or she cannot get such basic elementary facts straight. Such type of ordinary accuracies relating to certain factual matters is also to be observed in fictional books, which name, for instance, cities correctly, etc.

So what if Luke was able to name the various cities in existence in his time, accurately name officials of his time with their correct titles, name certain countries of his time, mention a theatre he knew about which has recently been discovered and accurately mention certain religious rites and practices of the time? There is nothing “extraordinary” about this. This only shows that Luke was a person who had a basic education and was familiar with his surroundings.

If I am not considered inspired and inerrant — despite accurately naming fifty countries in existence today, accurately naming various world cities, accurately naming heads of state and various other officials together with their correct titles and ranks, accurately naming a few theatres around London together with a few additional tourist attraction sites and accurately describing the workings and practices of the local mosques and churches — then why must Luke be considered inerrant and inspired?

These are utterly ordinary matters and such type of accuracies do not in any way suggest that the person or book is “extraordinary”, “special”, or in any way heavenly “inspired”.

Secondly, besides the above listed so-called wonderful “accuracies”, there are also grave inaccuracies within Luke’s gospel. The following are some inaccuracies and discrepancies within Luke’s Gospel and Acts over which there is widespread agreement among scholars, including devout Christian scholars:

  • Luke forged a genealogy for Jesus(P) even though he(P) had no father. The genealogy has no historical standing. Worse, his genealogy contradicts the one forged by Matthew.
  • Luke provides an infancy narrative which is irreconcilable with the infancy narrative provided by Matthew.
  • Luke mentions a census under Quirinius during the birth of Jesus(P) which is almost universally recognized as a major historical blunder on Luke’s part.

In addition to the difficulties raised by a detailed comparison of the two birth narratives found in the New Testament, serious historical problems are raised by the familiar stories found in Luke alone. In Acts, Luke has Gamaliel referring to a revolt by Theudas which in fact took place years later after his speech. Again, there is widespread agreement among Christian scholars that Luke was in error on this occasion.

There is also a general agreement among New Testament scholars that the speeches found in Acts are either the creations or adaptions of Luke.

Furthermore, Luke’s story in Acts contradicts at several points with the information within the authentic Pauline epistles, something also generally acknowledged by scholars. Luke was thus an errant writer who made mistakes and inaccuracies in his writings.

How Luke Copied From Mark

Moving on, “inspired” Luke lifted 50% of his gospel from Mark — a secondary source authored by a non-eyewitness. Why would Luke do this if we are to suppose that he was accurately researching the issues and shifting through reliable first-hand sources? We know from Luke’s opening words that he did not have high regard for the previous narratives. Evangelical scholar Donald Guthrie writes:

Luke’s preface is illuminating in regard to his own approach to his task. He claims to have made a comprehensive and accurate survey over a considerable period, which throws a good deal of light on his seriousness of purpose. Moreover, Luke admits that others had previously attempted the same task, but his words imply that he found them unsatisfactory…

W.G. Kummel, in his classical introduction to the New Testament, writes:

With his historical work Lk joins their ranks [ranks of his predecessors who composed gospel narratives], though he was not himself a witness from the beginning, because he feels the works of his predecessors to be in some way inadequate.

Raymond Brown, on the other hand, says:

…neither evangelist [Matthew and Luke] liked Marks’s redundancies, awkward Greek expressions, uncomplimentary presentation of the disciples and Mary, and embarrassing statements about Jesus. When using Mark, both expanded the Markan accounts in the light of post-resurrectional faith.

Yet Luke, our so-called “reliable” historian, copies no less than 50% of his book from Mark, regarded as an unsatisfactory source!

Raymond Brown mentions some of the ways on how Luke had used Mark:

  • Luke improves on Mark’s Greek, bettering the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, e.g., in 4:1, 31, 38 and passim by omitting Mark’s overused “immediately”; in 20:22 by changing a Latinism like kensos (=census) from Mark 12:14; in 20:23 by substituting the more exact “craftiness, treachery” for the “hypocrisy” of Mark 12:15.
  • Luke states at the beginning his intention to write carefully and in an orderly manner (1:3); accordingly, he rearranges Marcan sequence to accomplish that goal, e.g., Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is put at the opening of the Galilean ministry rather than after some time had elapsed (Luke 4:16–30 vs. Mark 6:1–6) to explain why his Galilean ministry was centred at Capernaum; the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is placed before the call of Simon and companions (4:38–5:11 vs. Mark 1:16–31) to make more logical Simon’s willingness to follow Jesus; Peter’s denials of Jesus are put before the Sanhedrin trial in preference to Mark’s complicated interweaving of the two. At times Luke’s orderliness is reflected in avoiding Marcan doublets (Luke does not report the second multiplication of loaves) whereas Matt likes to double features and persons. Yet Luke has a double sending out of the apostles/disciples (9:1–2; 10:1).
  • Because of changes made in material received from Mark, Luke occasionally creates inconsistencies, e.g., although in Luke 5:30 the partners in the conversation are “the Pharisees and their scribes,” 5:33 speaks of “the disciples of the Pharisees,” as if the Pharisees were not present; although in 18:32–33 Luke takes over from Mark the prediction that Jesus will be mocked, scourged, and spit on by the Gentiles, Luke (unlike Mark 15:16–20) never fulfils that prediction; Luke has changed the Marcan order of the denials of Peter and the Jewish mockery of Jesus but forgotten to insert the proper name of Jesus in the new sequence, so that at first blush Luke 22:63, in having “him” mocked and beaten, seems to refer to Peter, not Jesus. See also n. 67 above.
  • Luke, even more than Matt, eliminates or changes passages in Mark unfavourable to those whose subsequent career makes them worthy of respect, e.g., Luke omits Mark 3:21,33,34 and (in 4:24) changes Mark 6:4 to avoid references detrimental to Jesus’ family; Luke omits Mark 8:22–26 which dramatizes the slowness of the disciples to see, and Mark 8:33 where Jesus calls Peter “Satan”; in the passion, Luke omits the predicted failure of the disciples, Jesus’ finding them asleep three times, and their flight as reported in Mark 14:27,40–41,51–52.
  • Reflecting Christological sensibilities, Luke is more reverential about Jesus and avoids passages that might make him seem emotional, harsh, or weak, e.g., Luke eliminates: Mark 1:41,43 where Jesus is moved with pity or is stern; Mark 4:39 where Jesus speaks directly to the sea; Mark 10:14a where Jesus is indignant; Mark 11:15b where Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers; Mark 11:20–25 where Jesus curses a fig tree; Mark 13:32 where Jesus says that the Son does not know the day or the hour; Mark 14:33–34 where Jesus is troubled and his soul is sorrowful unto death; Mark 15:34 where Jesus speaks of God forsaking him.
  • Luke stresses detachment from possessions, not only in his special material (L), as we shall see below, but also in changes he makes in Mark, e.g., followers of the Lucan Jesus leave everything (5:11,28), and the Twelve are forbidden to take even a staff (9:3).
  • Luke eliminates Mark’s transcribed Aramaic names and words (even some that Matt includes) presumably because they were not meaningful to the intended audience, e.g., the omission of Boanerges, Gethsemane, Golgotha, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani.
  • Luke may make Marcan information more precise, presumably for better story flow, greater effect, or clarity, e.g., Luke 6:6 specifies that the next scene (Mark 3:1: “again”) took place “on another Sabbath”; Luke 6:6 specifies “the right hand” and 22:50 “the right ear”; Luke 21:20 clarifies or substitutes for Mark’s “abomination of desolation”.

The important point to note here is that Luke has used Mark and made several changes to its contents. New Testament scholars compare Luke and Mark to see how Luke is using his source (Mark) and adapting it. Mark is obviously not the only source employed by Luke, but since we know that he has altered the Markan stories in a variety of ways, it is only logical and reasonable to conclude that Luke must have done the same with the other sources at his disposal — he must have altered them as well to suit his agenda and presuppositions. The fact that Luke accurately mentions certain ordinary details, such as naming cities correctly etc., does not follow that his story in its entirety can be trusted blindly.

Thus, the statement that “honest sceptics are now forced to agree that the Bible is historically accurate and reliable” is nothing more than nonsense. Critical scholars certainly do not regard Luke, or any book of the Bible, in its entirety to be “historically accurate and reliable” just because certain ordinary details are recorded accurately within them.

Luke As A Historian: Final Observations

Although we have not gone into detail regarding the above-mentioned issues, the aim was to simply highlight here some of the major problems within Luke’s writings over which we have a scholarly consensus. Contrary to Ramsey’s conclusion (and bear in mind that he was an apologist and not a balanced historian) is the fact is that there is nothing “super”, “extraordinary” or “special” about Luke’s writings, even if we buy all of Ramsey’s claims regarding Luke’s alleged accuracy on certain issues.

Moreover, Luke also makes mistakes, some examples provided above. Of course, apologists will challenge all of them but note that these are accepted as such and acknowledged by mainstream scholarship.

Instead, we come across a fairly ordinary writer who utilises sources at his disposal, making a variety of changes to them to suit his theological agenda and one who makes errors at times and also gets certain facts right. None of the examples presented by these apologists suggests that the “Bible” (which is a collection of many individual books and letters by authors of varying degrees of education and literacy) is “historically reliable” as a whole.

Modern New Testament scholars do not entirely endorse Ramsey’s claims about Luke’ abilities as a historian and consider him to have exaggerated his case. To be more precise, the studies by Ramsey and others did at least establish that Acts was not a complete fiction authored in the mid-late second century period. The author is likely to be one writing sometime in the late first century, someone who was educated and well-travelled, and was using some traditions and sources at his disposal. There is no doubt that he does present accurate details, yet it is also a fact that his account is selective, romanticised at times and theologically motivated. We know that the author was not just relating bare incidents and events without changes but was adapting them to suit his purposes.

Hence his work (the gospel and Acts) needs to be used carefully and critically by the historians.

Raymond Brown remarked that Luke would have been a fitting candidate for membership in the brotherhood of Hellenistic historians, but he would never be made the president of the society. Howard Marshall, on the other hand, a major conservative evangelical scholar of our times who is quite charitable towards Acts, admits that:

“…he [Ramsey] was capable of making assertions about Luke’s historical accuracy which went beyond what could be shown by the available evidence.”

Marshall talks about the “essential” reliability of Acts regarding historical matters and not its complete reliability. Sherwin-White, for instance, believes that “Luke makes mistakes, but the main thrust of his book is to demonstrate that for the most part, Luke portrays the first-century Roman scene accurately.”

Do note that this does not mean that we can accept all of Luke’ stories blindly. So, while many modern scholars do not outright dismiss Acts and consider it to be more accurate than was previously thought, it is nonetheless recognized that its author is not without mistakes and does colour sources at his disposal for theological and apologetic reasons. This means that not everything within his books is historically accurate, as alleged by Christian missionaries.


Originally published at https://www.bismikaallahuma.org on March 9, 2019.

Mohd Elfie Nieshaem Juferi

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SEO Specialist, Muslim internet activist and desktop gaming enthusiast. I wear many hats in my life.

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