Why Luke isn’t as historical as you think it is

Åâàíãåëèñò ËóêàIn my circles, Luke is often the ‘go-to’ for a historically credible gospel for seekers.  This is perhaps partly because of its opening:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Ironically, Luke* is quite explicit about not being an eye-witness, of course.  However, the author seems to make a claim that he’s done good historical research and is effectively compiling a suite of eyewitness reports.

That ain’t necessarily so.

The historical problems begin early and continue through Luke-Acts.

In Luke 2, there’s the famous mention of Quirinius as governor of Syria.

Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria… just not when Luke said he was.  In this and other places, the author of Luke seems to be drawing on Josephus to add bits of historical colour, but unfortunately, the timing of Luke’s account is problematic, placing Jesus’ birth simultaneously before 4BC and in AD6**.

A comparison between the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke likewise reveals irreconcilable differences, such as Luke’s omission of the ‘slaughter of the innocents’ (Matt 2) for which there is also no historical record (but a clear theological purpose in aligning Jesus with the Exodus event), and their difference of opinion about Joseph’s pre-census dwelling place (Nazareth (Luke) or Bethlehem (Matthew, only moving to Nazareth after their Exodus from Egypt).

Problems continue through Acts, when Luke’s description of Paul’s travels don’t line up with those explicitly given by Paul himself in his undisputed letters (for example his trip to Jerusalem for the apostolic council). Similarly there is Luke’s inclusion of Theudas’ revolt (also drawing on Josephus), which seems as chronologically out-of-kilter as Quirinius’ census was in the Gospel of Luke.

The text of the gospel is highly derivative.  It clearly draws on Mark (around two-fifths), with a further quarter shared with Matthew (drawing on the hypothetical ‘Q source’***, and contains around a third unique material.  The unique material shows a special interest in women and in the ‘gospel for the nations’.  Sometimes, the Jesus in Luke seems to contradict the Jesus in Matthew, who is far more tightly ‘for the Jews’.


Beyond these technical historical issues, there is the written text itself.  How did the author supposedly know the material which was included?  Even if Luke was able to interview Mary about the Magnificat recorded in Luke 2, was it really available word perfect?  What about the private conversations of Jesus with Herod and Pilate in Luke 23?  Or of Pilate and the Jewish leaders?  It would be impressive investigative journalism that could record these conversations with any pretense of accuracy.  Perhaps it’s not surprising the details vary so much from gospel to gospel…

I know that it’s possible that all of these details were passed down accurately through the oral tradition.  It’s just fantastically unlikely, and without supporting evidence.

I also know that it’s possible that the Holy Spirit enabled the author to accurately record these events to which they had no clear access.  It’s just that such a claim is not made by the text itself, and only seems to be brought in as a post-hoc defense in the face of no reasonable mechanism for the information being obtained.  Given that there are points where the historical record does reveal that the author has been in error, and that the author makes no such claims, this belies the accuracy of the telling.

If we are expected to believe the author ‘just knew’, without a reasonable mechanism for this, then it becomes impossible to critique any similar claim.

How, for example, can Mohammad’s pegasus cab-ride be refuted? (I know, it was allegedly Al-Buraq, not Pegasus, but the point remains). To accept either Luke’s or Mohammed’s account can only be done on the basis of special pleading.


There’s much more could be said, but this gives the basic outline.  How can Luke be viewed as a credible historical source, when all the evidence points to its late date, its derivative and composite nature, from an anonymous author who makes no claim to be an eyewitness, purporting to recount information it couldn’t have access to, and which doesn’t line up with other historical evidence available, or, indeed, the other gospels?


* the author of Luke is, of course, unknown, but I will refer to the author as ‘Luke’ for simplicity, and also to the author as ‘he’, though a case can be made that the author was a woman posing as a man.

** I happy enough to use the dating Christocentric conventions of BC and AD rather than the more neutral terms BCE and CE – I figure there’s more important things to argue over, even though I note the irony of using the conventional forms in the context of this discussion.

*** Although not currently the leading view, Farrer makes a strong case that there was in fact no hypothetical Q, but that Luke is simply drawing on Matthew and Mark, perhaps trying to correct some of Matthew’s nationalistic Jewish focus.  I increasingly find this view has better evidence than the traditional Q-source hypothesis, but will stick with the general consensus of scholarly opinion here.

2 thoughts on “Why Luke isn’t as historical as you think it is

  1. Hi mate, you throw a lot of problems out there without providing any evidence for your position. Are you saying that Luke’s facts about Quirinius are out of line with Josephus’ chronology or a re both Luke and Josephus out of line with a different source which you deem to be more reliable?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey mate, thanks for trying to keep me honest. 🙂
    This was definitely more of a ‘random musings’ post than a ‘formal essay’ type of post.

    The point about The Quirinius Problem is hardly novel or controversial – a quick look at Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Census_of_Quirinius) will do for starters, and the link given there to Raymond Brown’s overview is interesting too, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=Co8Mh-GliPIC&pg=PA17&dq=%22most+critical+scholars+acknowledge+a+confusion+and+misdating%22&redir_esc=y&hl=en#v=onepage&q=%22most%20critical%20scholars%20acknowledge%20a%20confusion%20and%20misdating%22&f=false).
    Indeed, I first learned of the problem from none other than Phillip Jensen, who didn’t suggest a resolution beyond the claim that a good solution may be found at some point, so it needn’t trouble Christians.

    Yes, Luke’s account is out of line with Josephus’ account. Of course, Josephus could be wrong, too (and surely is, in places), but I’ll stick with the consensus of scholarly opinion on this point since I’m not an expert. From my limited understanding, Josephus’ account fits more readily with scholarly analysis and dating of the period, and is broadly accepted by both critical and even many evangelical scholars. There are other problems in Luke’s account beyond the dates. I have read various proposed solutions but they all feel very strained or manage to tackle specific data-points but don’t reconcile all aspects of the problem.

    For the record, I date Luke as a second century composition which used Josephus (not brilliantly) as one source document (perhaps just going from memory). I guess that’s another discussion for another day.
    I think that’s all I’ll say right now.

    [Side note: It’s interesting that you use the word ‘facts’ about the author of Luke’s account rather than ‘narrative’ (or a similar more general descriptor). It’s probably a losing battle, but I still like to think that ‘facts’ should be reserved for things shown to be/established as supported by evidence. But that’s a red herring, sorry.]

    Liked by 1 person

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