This coming Sunday, June 7, we are beginning a new sermon series on the book of Acts. This week on the website, we’ll be posting 5 introductory articles, one each day, explaining some of the background issues surrounding the book that there isn’t time to cover on a Sunday morning. The schedule of what’s coming up:
There is near unanimous agreement that Acts and the third gospel are written by the same author. Both books are addressed to “Theophilus” (more on who this is on Thursday), and Acts references a “first account” (Acts 1:1)—a prequel—which is almost certainly the third gospel. Both works, however, are also technically anonymous as neither makes any direct claim of authorship.
From the works themselves, several characteristics of their author can be derived. First, the author was educated. The Greek of Acts and the third gospel, and especially their prologues (Lk. 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2), is the finest Greek in all of Scripture. Both books also show marked interest in researching and reporting history, a scholarly pursuit. Second, the author was not an original apostle since he wrote of those things that “were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” (Lk. 1:2). Third, although he was not an original eyewitness, he was a participant in some of the events about which he wrote, as evidenced by his use of the first person. The events of the third gospel were “accomplished among us” (Lk. 1:1; emphasis mine), and he includes himself in the narration of Paul’s missionary journeys, including his journey to Rome (Acts 16:8-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), as though he were part of Paul’s inner circle. If we assume the author was a companion of Paul not mentioned by name in Acts but mentioned by name in Paul’s prison epistles written from Rome, we have several options to choose from, one of whom is Luke.
Church history, however, unanimously identifies Luke as the companion of Paul who authored Acts and the third gospel. The Muratorian Fragment (late 2nd century), Irenaeus (2nd century), Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd century), Tertullian (2nd-3rd century), Origen (3rd century), Eusebius (4th century), and Jerome (4th-5th century) all attribute Luke-Acts to Luke, and it was not until the rise of biblical criticism in the 19th century that Lukan authorship was challenged.
However, while we can be confident in claiming Luke as the author of Acts and its accompanying prequel, we cannot be confident in saying much about who Luke was. Paul refers to him as “the beloved physician” (Col. 4:14), but Scripture says nothing else about him. Some have assumed that Luke was a Gentile due to Paul’s failure to include him in a list of “fellow workers for the kingdom of God who are from the circumcision” (Col. 4:10-11), but that assumption has been challenged, especially by those who argue for Lukan authorship of Hebrews, and the early church never commented on Luke’s ethnicity. The tradition that Luke was from Antioch in Syria (the location of the first “we” passage in Acts) is probable, but does not help identify him as either Jew or Gentile.
In the end, assertions about Luke’s background beyond the fact that he was a physician are nothing more than conjecture lacking any definitive biblical evidence. We can say with confidence only that the author of Luke-Acts was Luke, a physician and traveling companion of the apostle Paul, who was probably from Antioch in Syria, and was possibly a Jew (or at least a God-fearing Gentile).
References & Further Reading:
Allen, David L. “The Identity of Luke and the Jewish Background of Luke-Acts.” In Lukan Authorship of Hebrews. Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2010.
Carson, D. A. & Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.
Lea, Thomas D. & David Alan Black. The New Testament: Its Background and Message. 2nd Edition. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003.