Luke 1:1-4

The Purpose of the Gospel

Scholars generally agree that the Gospel according to Luke was written somewhere towards the end of the first century, probably in the 80s. It was written in the Greek language by an author who wrote quite stylishly. The Gospel is the first of two works by the author, its companion volume being Acts of Apostles. Tradition has given the name of Luke to the author, but there is no certainty that Luke was the author’s name, and if it was, whether he was the Luke mentioned in Acts of Apostles and the Epistles of Paul. It was a common custom of the time to attribute literary works to known and famous persons so as to ensure their being taken seriously. Luke may have come from Antioch in Syria, though this is uncertain. He was possibly of Semitic but not Jewish background. A number of internal factors lead many scholars to conclude that he was writing for a community of Gentile Christians.


The narrative began with a dedication and an indication of its nature and purpose.

Luke 1:1-4  -  Dedication

1 A number of people have undertaken
to draw up an account of the events
that have been accomplished among us, 
2 just as the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word
have handed them down to us.
3 I have carefully sifted through everything from the beginning,
and have decided to put into writing for your sake
an orderly account, noble Theophilus,
4 so that you may come to know
the sound foundation of the catechesis you have received. 

Luke dedicated his work to Theophilus, indeed to noble Theophilus. Nothing is known of this man, even though the title suggests a high civic rank. The word means “lover of God”, and perhaps Luke simply meant to address the God-lovers who made up his community.

The work was written about fifty to sixty years after the incidents recounted. It was based on a careful examination of other (unidentified) writings circulating at the time, whose reliability in turn rested on their being based on eyewitness accounts.

Its content was the events that have been accomplished among us – events from the life of Jesus that had happened earlier and whose meaning, effects and purpose had become real (fulfilled) in the life of the Christian community to which both Luke and Theophilus belonged.

Luke’s Sources

It will become clear as the story unfolds that Luke drew mainly from three sources:

  1. The Gospel according to Mark, written about twenty years before.
  2. Another written collection of teachings of Jesus. It was used extensively also by another evangelist, Matthew, quite independently from Luke. Originals of this document no longer exist.
  3. A third collection of teachings of Jesus, exclusive to Luke and unknown to Matthew. It is not mentioned elsewhere, and is no longer in existence.

Luke’s intention was to write an orderly account, without specifying what he meant by order. 

  • He was not interested particularly in putting events in their chronological order – because, apart from the major happenings – he did not know it. He generally accepted the order of events as outlined in Mark’s Gospel. 
  • If his intention was logical order, it is not always obvious to the reader. His concern seemed to have been more to connect the many floating teachings of Jesus either to events as outlined by Mark or to each other on the basis of theme. At times a number of different moral conclusions could be linked with the one parable or teaching.

Though at times his connections can be puzzling, he no doubt did manage to organise what was a great mass of unconnected sayings, teachings and stories into one manageable narrative.

He said that his purpose in organising his matter was that Theophilus might know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. The word translated as truth could also be rendered as the firm basis – a reliable account giving a deeper insight into the essential message he had already heard.

Why Luke Developed Mark’s Gospel?

Luke did not indicate why he believed his work necessary.

Mark’s Gospel had already been circulating for about twenty years in many of the Christian communities of the empire. But life had moved on in those Christian communities. Situations had changed; new questions had emerged; new needs had surfaced. Luke wished to provide a firmer and more adequate basis to help Theophilus cope better with an ever-changing scene. What was the significance and relevance of the life and message of Jesus in the world in which Theophilus lived?

Mark’s Concern.  Mark’s Gospel had given an indispensable account of Jesus’ life and concerns. It had not contained much detailed teaching, however, beyond Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom, and its implications for living as Christians in community. 

Jesus’ world had been the world of Judaism. He was part of it; he belonged there. His was one of many voices calling for change, offering the ordinary person a new vision of what Judaism should be, and challenging in the process the existing political and religious structures and the elites who managed them.

Change. Over the twenty years since Mark had written, Judaism as a national political entity had disappeared, crushed by Rome; the social elites were no longer relevant. The temple had been destroyed; priesthood had been made redundant. Zealots had been wiped out in the war with Rome. Essenes had been decimated, and with no elders and no priesthood to challenge, had lost their purpose and focus.

The struggle for the soul of Judaism among the Jews dispersed in the towns and cities of the empire had been virtually won by the Pharisee party; and the Jewish followers of Jesus had been cut off from their Jewish base. The majority of Christians were now in fact Gentile converts.

Luke’s Community. While even by the time of Mark Christians had begun to question the likelihood of an imminent return of Christ in glory, the ensuing twenty years had seen that expectation recede further into the background. Christians were now gearing up to face the long haul across history. Their horizon could no longer realistically be, as it had been with Jesus, the reform of a socio-religious culture according to the mind of God. Wherever they existed in the towns and cities of the empire, they were an insignificant minority, struggling even to survive.

Their gaze initially became more inward looking. Their priority was to make of themselves an alternative community living according to the mind of God, in the midst of a world and culture that threatened to overwhelm them.

For many, their first conversion had been accompanied by an intense and personal experience of the inpouring of God’s Spirit, that gave them a sense of elation, joy and inner freedom. They found themselves strongly drawn to God and to each other in love. While some Gentile converts had had previous experience of Judaism, and some had adopted the Jewish faith system, many of them knew little of this God. They knew little of the practical implications of living in love, maintaining unity and breaking free from the instinctive selfishness of their surrounding culture.

How did the life and death of Jesus throw light on their lives? How did the teachings of Jesus find flesh in their new situation and answer their new questions?

Luke’s Questions. It was to address this reality that Luke felt the need to write his Gospel. Who was this God to whom they had turned? How were they to relate to this God? Where would they find true and on-going inner freedom? How were they to live in community and deepen their relationships in mutual and supportive love? What stance should they adopt to the world in which they were immersed? 

Mark’s Gospel had briefly addressed some of these questions, but there was need for further teaching and deeper reflection. 

Luke returned regularly in the Gospel to issues of 

  • prayer 
  • inclusive hospitality 
  • clear self-knowledge 
  • personal integrity
  • and solidarity with the poor.

The Gospel of Mark would recover its relevance when, beginning with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity would once more become a significant presence in nations and cultures (though for other reasons the Gospel of Matthew became more widely used). For the moment there were other more pressing needs that Luke felt inspired to address.

Next >> Luke 1:5-25