Introduction to Luke

The Inspired Word of God

Divine Message in Human Language

When the Word of God took flesh in Jesus, it expressed itself through the capabilities and limitations of the human nature of a first-century Palestinian Jewish man, Jesus.  When the Word of God expressed itself in the preaching and writings of first-century Christian authors (including Luke), it expressed itself through the limitations, assumptions, thought-patterns and literary techniques of first-century Greco-Roman culture.

Over sixty years ago in 1943 Pope Pius XII had drawn scholars’ attention to the importance of distinguishing the variety of literary forms used in Scripture:

“Let the interpreter then, with all care and without neglecting any light derived from recent research, endeavour to determine 
    • the peculiar character and circumstances of the sacred writer, 
    • the age in which he lived, 
    • the sources written or oral to which he had recourse 
    • and the forms of expression he employed.  
Thus can he better understand who was the inspired author, and what he wishes to express by his writings.  There is no one indeed but knows that the supreme rule of interpretation is to discover and define what the writer intended to express...”.  Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 1943, paras 33,34.

What did the Authors Intend to Tell their Readers?

The Second Vatican Council made the point strongly and clearly that God’s inspired message in the Scriptures is conveyed through the language and thought patterns of the human authors:

“Seeing that, in sacred scripture, God speaks through human beings in human fashion, it follows that the interpreters of sacred scripture, if they are to ascertain what God wished to communicate to us, should carefully search out the meaning which the sacred writers really had in mind...” Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation “Dei Verbum”, para.12.

As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, inspiration is not dictation.  To arrive at the revealed truth it is important to know the authors’ intentions.

Understanding Differences

In 1993 the Pontifical Biblical Commission repeated the need to approach Scripture with the clear knowledge that it is the product of a foreign culture and a distant time.  Speaking of the scholars’ role, it listed the need to:

  • “clearly distinguish ... what in the Bible is to be regarded as secondary detail conditioned by a particular age,
  • what must be interpreted as the language of myth,
  • and what is to be regarded as the true historical and inspired meaning” (p.110).

What kind of literature were the authors using: historical, poetic, narrative, legal, metaphorical, hyperbolic, mythical, prophetical, apocalyptic?  Was the authors’ understanding of historical writing the same as that of a modern reader? To what extend did culture, as well as the authors’ levels of moral or human development, affect their ability to convey the truth intended by God?

Normal Competence and Scholarly Help

Modern readers are practised in distinguishing the kinds of language used in sports reports, scientific literature, poetry, parliamentary debate, novels, children’s stories, general conversation, etc..  When people recount a conversation with someone else, no one expects them to give a literal word for word record of what was said.  Though being  far from exact, they do not intend to deceive.  

People know instinctively how to interpret such reports.  Familiarity ensures that the messages conveyed are understood appropriately.  To fail to appreciate the difference is to miss the truth intended.

Likewise, the authors of the Gospels did not intend to deceive.  They would have laid down their lives rather than misinform their readers concerning the Christ they loved and about whom they wrote.  But they need to be understood properly and their intentions recognised.

With an adequate knowledge of the literature of Jesus’ culture and time, modern readers are in a position to access better the intentions of the various authors, and get closer to the message communicated by God through those authors.  Without that knowledge they are more likely to miss significant meanings of the Scripture.  Scholars can help considerably.  The modern reader is fortunate indeed to live at a time of flourishing biblical scholarship.  However, since scholars sometimes disagree among themselves, the need remains for prudent discernment.

How Important?

When the Gospels are read for the purpose of nourishing readers’ personal relationship with Jesus, it may not matter much, surprisingly, whether the events be treated as accurate historical records or not.  Until the last century most Christians tended to accept the Gospel message in a literalist way.  They had few interpretative skills, yet their faith was obviously nourished.  However, for the sake of their own integrity, today’s Christians living in an enquiring, secular world need to be able to give an account of their faith both to themselves and to their contemporaries.

With few exceptions the events recorded in the Gospels were chosen more to illustrate the teaching of Jesus than to invite wonder or to prove anything.

After all, wonders do not prove much to those who do not want to believe:

  • Most of Jesus’ contemporaries did not believe him.
  • After Jesus’ death and before his resurrection, even the apostles lost faith.
  • Jesus criticised those who asked for signs and wonders.  He expected his hearers to be able to recognise truth when they heard it.
  • Jesus asked for faith before his healings, rather than as a result of them.


When Jesus asked for faith, what he sought was trust in himself and commitment to the truth of his message.  Faith is not so much adherence to correct or accurate statements as a personal relationship.  Jesus expected people to believe irrespective of healings or wonders.

The early Church, through its leadership, selected the New Testament writings and rejected others, on the basis of the reliability of their teaching: they expressed accurately the faith of the Christian community.