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Luke's Prologue:  Statement of Purpose

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  Monday May 24, 2004

Luke's Statement of Purpose

A "meta-gospel" statement, as I described earlier, is a statement about the meaning of the gospel  message.  What we want is to find a meta-gospel statement from within the gospels that, in a sense, stands outside the gospel, pointing to it.  And we do find just such a statement in Luke's prologue (introduction). 

The author of Luke appears to give us a clear and straightforward Statement of Purpose for his work.  He says: 

"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."  (Luke 1)

Let's look at this closely, piece by piece.  I will append, in brackets, the prima facie meaning:

"Many have undertaken to draw up an account:

Therefore since I myself have [personally]


Overall Sense

The commentaries seem to agree that this preface, or prologue, is written in a particular literary style.  Namely, it is a "deliberately secular style" which "invites comparison of his work with that of the historians of his day"  (Word 11); one interesting comparison is to Josephus's prefaces to War and Against Apion (Word 4-5).  Comments such as the following are typical:

Indeed, it is true that Luke is self-conscious about the role of historical evidence in commending Christianity to a degree not reflected by the other evangelists.  (Word 11)

From this, the prima facie case for historical, factual interpretation is strengthened.  Luke appears to be going out of his way to tell us that these are events which really happend.  However, it is clear that the sense of several elements has been disputed.

Meaning of the Constituent Parts

In general, the commentaries debate and discuss fine points of the wording, but the assumption is, all along, that Luke is saying what he appears to be saying:  he is reporting what really happened, based upon his own careful study, going back to the eyewitnesses themselves.

things (that have been fulfilled)
These are most naturally thought of as "events", which "suits well the historian's craft."  (Word 7)

... although "fulfilled" refers to expectations, specificially scriptural ones, Luke "insists that what he is writing about has really happened."  (Jerome 119)

... is taken in its normal sense, i.e. someone who was there, who saw something and tells about it.  "autoptai, 'eyewitnesses', echoes once again the language of the historian.  It is found only here in the NT.  Being present as an eyewitness is the basis for becoming a witness (martus)" (Word 7)

handed over 
... again, taken at face value, "The original eyewitnesses made it their business to pass on what they knew."  (Word 9)

Much of the discussion has to do with whether Luke was a participant in the events, was a companion of the apostles, interviewed eyewitnesses, or simply read the works of the 'many.'  The consensus seems to be:

"it is most likely that "investigated" is the sense to be attributed to Luke's use of the verb."  (Word 9);

"The Gk pf. tense of the verb indicates Luke's competence; he has made a thorough investigation."  (Jermone 119);

and that his method was something weaker than participation but something stronger than simply reading his predecessors' books.

Objections and Answers

I have found three avenues of interpretation which have been used to support some form of the MG Theory.

1.  Later Scribal Insertion 

A very old objection, which tacitly agrees with all the foregoing but still allows the scholar to support the MG Theory, is to simply say that the prologue is not part of the (original) Gospel of Luke at all:  it was tacked on at a later date in order to lend credibility to the work during the second century.  Alfed Loisy, the 19th century critic of Christianity and fierce defender of a metaphorical understanding of the gospel, makes exactly this charge:

Perhaps a day will come when enlightened criticism, on the sole evidence of the prologues which stand at the head of the third Gospel and of Acts, will decide that the author who there addresses himself to Theophilus, and those who arranged the canonical edition of his work, must both be ranked in the same category as the apologists of the second century, who pleaded the cause of Christianity before the Antonines, and that he and they doubtless lived in that age.  (Alfred Loisy, The Origins of the New Testament - original in French 1936; English translation 1962)  Chapter VI.  

First, I would emphasize that this approach agrees with the standard analysis of the meaning of the prologue's claims, and thus supports my own contention, that Luke's Gospel (as it now stands) contains at its outset an explicit denial of the MG Theory. 

Second, none of the three MG scholars being considered has contended (as far as I know) that the prologue is a later addition.

Third, there is no textual evidence to support the contention.  Loisy's claim that the form of the prologue fits with the second century Apologists (e.g. Justin Martyr) forgets the Hellenistic parallels and Josephus himself (90's A.D.)  There is no reason, on the basis of the style alone, to deny Luke even a pre-70 composition.

2.  Far Removed from the Facts

It is possible to read the the prologue as implying a temporal distance between Luke and the facts, combined with an implied disregard for facts in favor of establishing 'correct' doctrine.  Loisy is an instructive and provocative example of such an attempt.

the many
How many were the "many"?  Most commentaries caution against a reading that requires dozens, or hundreds of previous authors.  Many could be as few as a handful.  Loisy presses "many" and concludes that the previous works, on this basis, must have been long established.

No small difficulty confronts the critics who would have us believe that the person here speaking is Luke, and make out that he wrote his two books before the year 70.  Their difficulty will be to explain how, by that time, many writers had already produced an account of the origins of Christianity or even of the career of Jesus.  Yet the writer makes it clearly understood that the literary work on which he now embarks is of a kind largely cultivated before his time; and he must have known its products better than we do.  A writer who uses language such as this cannot have written before the second century.  (Loisy, Chap VI)

ministers (of the word)
Next, the commentaries discuss whether 'eyewitnesses' and 'ministers of the word' refers to one set of people, or two, usually judging them to be essentially the same.  However, the Jerome commentary sees 'ministers' as separate from 'eyewitnesses', and hence:

Luke is drawing not only upon strictly eyewitness records but also upon the instructions, prayers, and popular stories through which the eyewitness accounts were "ministered" in the Church.  (Jerome 119)

How did Luke 'follow' the action?  Loisy here takes Luke's activity in the weakest possible sense, that he simply read the works of the many.  He also jumps to an interesting conclusion, that Luke's claim of accuracy means that the earlier works could not make such a claim, and therefore everything is very late (and, therefore, that Luke's claim, too, is false!):

Our author "for a long time past" as attentively "followed", not the course of a history of which he has not been a witness, but the documents of a tradition he sets out to interpret, the documents, that is, of a legend elaborated before his time even in regard to the so-called apostolic age ... The fact that our author is at pains to announce that this work will carry every guarantee shows clearly that he knew of others which, in his view, could make no such claim.  (Loisy, Chap VI)

Commentaries typically focus their discussion on the point that 'order' may mean various kinds of logical, or topical, order - rather than chronological order.  Loisy manages to see 'order' as one of comforming to orthodox doctrine:

What he claims to do is to present a well ordered and continuous exposition, conformable to a certain type of received doctrine; briefly, a safe compendium for the believer of what for us is the gospel catechesis, or legend, and the legend of the apostles.   (Loisy, Chap VI)

Answer.  It is of course possible that Luke's literary predecessors preceded him by several decades; that he merely read their works as the foundation of his own version; that he combined these works with further 'instructions, prayers, and popular stories' in order to produce an account structured in accord with the orthodoxy of the day - and the final result is the 'legend of the apostles.'  But that  issue is beside the point here.  What is germane is:  Is this what Luke is claiming?

Luke appeals to 'things [events] that have been fulfilled among us', indicating a closeness to the base events, not a distance.  It simply seems intuitively obvious, and I won't labor the point, that 'many' writers - even if construed as scores - does not in itself push the date back to the second century.

Separating 'ministers of the word' from 'eyewitness' is weak.  First, it ignores the parallelism so prevalent in the New Testament ('kai' is often used to re-state something in a slightly different form, rather than to introduce a contrast) - and even granting that, it is indeed an ambitious move to leap from the personal 'ministers of the word' to the impersonal 'instructions, prayers, and popular stories' postulated above.

Choosing 'conforming with orthodoxy' as the interpretation for Luke's 'order' is certainly not impossible, but what justifies it?  Is that what Luke is claiming?  He doesn't actually say what kind of order he means; his statements are more general, merely claiming that he's putting the accounts into an orderly form; he doesn't say what kind of order.  Interpreting it this way relies on an unfounded assumption.

Even more to the point is - What does Luke mean by 'interpreted' or 'followed'?  Does he mean to say that he merely read other accounts, without trying to go behind them to the facts?  Then why doesn't he say that?  In the text, he is actually contrasting the act of reading the other accounts with going back and looking at it all for himself.  He goes out of his way to assert a statement entailing fresh investigation.

3.  Truth - Spiritual or Factual?

The desired result of Luke's work is "that you may know the certainty of" that which Theophilus has been taught.  What is this knowledge?  One interpretation is that the result is intended to be a spiritual appropriation of the mysteries of faith, rather than an attainment of factual knowledge.

know the certainty  
It is claimed that the content of the gospel is 'the word', the Christian preaching, and that the result is 'assurance', which may transcend historical knowledge.

Luke's concern is not merely historical, though.  He signals that his narrative will relate the things "that have been fulfilled," that the events are "the word" (the Christian message or preaching), and that his account will provide Theophilus with "assurance." (New, 40)

It is pointed out that Luke does not explicitly fault the accuracy of the previous writers.  Perhaps historical accuracy is not his goal at all.  Perhaps his intention is to remedy false doctrine, or to simply strengthen existential faith in some way.

In contrast to other prologues, Luke's does not criticize other accounts as inaccurate.  At most there is the implication that his work will supply "the truth."  This term can mean "security", "safety", "assurance", or "certainty."  One debated issue that arises from these verses concerns Luke's aim and purpose in writing a gospel.  Is he supplying (a) an orderly account to correct (historical) inaccuracies in other accounts, (b) (doctrinal) truth where false teaching was a threat, or (c) assurance where uncertainty had prevailed?  (New 40)

In fact,

The Greek can also mean "that you may be more solidly and certainly grounded in the mysteries of salvation."  (Jerome 119)

Answer.  First, I want to point out that the specific words themselves are fairly neutral in tone.  There is nothing that forces a 'spiritual' interpretation of 'certainty', much less a purely spiritual meaning which rules out historical truth.  We cannot assume this point, because, in fact, it is just this issue which is the center of our MG discussion!  I have critiqued the philosophical view that pits the spiritual against the factual in my earlier section about Truth and Faith. 

Given that, I think it's pretty clear that the total context of the statement should be kept in mind when trying to interpret this one phrase.  As I tried to establish in point #2, everything that leads up to this statement indicates that Luke was trying to report what happened (no matter how spiritually significant it was).  The sense of 'certainty' should be governed by the premises leading up to it.

This brings me to my main observation:

To my mind, the most telling point of all is the inescapable fact that Luke chose to use an existing literary style, practically shouting his intention to do historiography in the classical sense - to tell the facts.  And he did that at the introduction to his work, where you might reasonably expect to see a Statement of Purpose.

He could easily have said something else.  He could have said almost anything else, and proved the literal view wrong.  He could have simply said that he was speaking 'from faith to faith', ushering the reader into the 'mysteries of salvation', speaking in figures that which cannot be said literally.  He could have claimed to be writing from visions or revelations, or to be recording holy stories.  But he didn't do that.


1.  I conclude, first of all, that the mainstream scholarly interpretation of Luke's prologue squares with the plain sense.  The scholar who wishes to turn the prologue around semantically to mean something deeper or different ought to bear the burden of proof.

2.  Taking each element individually, I think it's clear in several instances that interpreting an element in the MG direction requires a fairly arbitrary choice, without clear foundation.

3.  Taking the elements together, they tend to reinforce each other in the plain sense.

4.  A consideration of the style and placement of the passage as a whole not only give pima facie credibility to the traditional interpretation, it is - in itself - compelling evidence that the author intended his work to be taken as an account of 'what happened.'

5.  Finally, if the Prologue fails to convince the MG scholars, at least in respect to Luke's Gospel, then I would ask them, "If Luke had wanted to express his intention of writing out an account of what really happened, what would he have done differently?"  It is very difficult to think of a stronger, clearer, better passage that could have been written.