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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers







Late Dean of Wells.




I. The writer.—But one person bearing the name of Luke, or, in its Greek form, Lucas, appears in the New Testament; and of him the direct notices are few and meagre. He is named as being with St. Paul during his first imprisonment at Rome, and is described as “the beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14). He is still with him, stress being laid on his being the only friend who remained, when the Apostle’s work was drawing to its close (2 Timothy 4:11). Beyond these facts all is inference or conjecture. Both conjecture and inference are, however, in this case, full of interest, present many unexpected coincidences, and, by the convergence of many different lines of circumstantial evidence, raise the probabilities which attach to each taken separately into something not far from certainty as to their collective result.

The incidental mention of St. Luke’s name in Colossians 4:14, places us on more solid ground. He is emphatically distinguished from “those of the circumcision”—Mark and others who are named in Colossians 4:10-11. He was, i.e., a Gentile by birth, and this fact, it is obvious, is important on all the questions affecting his relations with the Apostle of the Gentiles, and the aim and characteristic features of his writings.

St. Luke’s character as a physician may be considered from three distinct points of view, each of which has a special interest of its own. (1) As influencing his style and language; (2) as affecting his personal relations with St. Paul; and (3) as giving him opportunities for acquiring the knowledge which we find in the books commonly ascribed to him. Each of these call for a special, though brief, notice.

(1) The differences of style in St. Luke’s Gospel as compared with the two that precede it, the proofs of a higher culture, the more rhythmical structure of his sentences, which are traceable even by the merely English reader, in such passages, e.g., as , are in the Greek original conspicuous throughout, the only exceptions being the portions of his Gospel which, like Luke 1, from Luke 1:5, and Luke 2, are apparently translations from a lost Hebrew or Aramaic document. The use of technical phraseology is, in like manner, traceable in his mention of the “fevers (the word is plural in the Greek), and dysentery,” of which Publius was healed at Melita (Acts 28:8); in the “feet” (not the common πόδες, podes, but the more precise βάσεις, baseis) “and ankle bones” of Acts 3:7; in the “scales” that fell from St. Paul’s eyes (Acts 9:18); in the “trance,” or, more literally, ecstasy, connected with St. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-10), as brought on by the Apostle’s exposure to the noontide sun after long-continued fasting; in the special adjective used for “eaten of worms,” in Acts 12:23; in his notice of the “virtue,” or healing power, that flowed forth from our Lord’s body (Luke 8:46); and of the sweat in “clots,” or drops like as of blood, that issued from it in the Agony of Gethsemane (Luke 22:44).

(2) It is noticeable in tracing the connection of St. Paul and St. Luke, that on each occasion when the one joins the other for a time, it is after the Apostle had suffered in a more than common degree from the bodily infirmities that oppressed him. When they met at Troas, it was after he had been detained in Galatia by “the infirmity of his flesh” (Galatians 4:13). When the one joins the other in the voyage to Jerusalem, it is after St. Paul had had “the sentence of death” in himself, had been “dying daily,” had been “delivered from so great a death,” had been carrying about in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 4:10-12; 2 Corinthians 4:16). From that time St. Luke seems scarcely to have left his friend, except, perhaps, for short intervals; and the way in which St. Paul speaks of him as “the beloved physician,” makes it almost a matter of certainty that it was by his ministrations as a physician that he had made himself “beloved.” The constant companionship of one with St. Luke’s knowledge and special culture was sure, sooner or later, to affect St. Paul’s thoughts and language, and traces of this influence are to be found in many of the Epistles. Most of these are naturally more manifest in the Greek than in the English words; but we may note as examples the frequent use of the ideal of “health “as the standard of life and teaching, as seen in the phrases “sound,” or better, healthy, “doctrine” ( ὑ γιαινού σῃ) of 1 Timothy 1:10; 1 Timothy 6:3, 2 Timothy 1:13; and in the “doting,” or better, diseased of 1 Timothy 6:4; in the spread of error being like that of a gangrene or cancer (2 Timothy 2:17); in the word for “puffed up,” which implies the delirium of a fever of the typhus type ( τυφωθεὶ ς, typhôtheis) in 1 Timothy 3:6; 1 Timothy 6:4, 2 Timothy 3:4; in the conscience seared, or better, cauterised, till it has become callous (1 Timothy 4:2); in the malady of “itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3); in the “bodily exercise” or training (literally, the training of the gymnasium) that profiteth little (1 Timothy 4:8); in the precept which enjoined on Timothy, as a means of keeping his mind in a state of equilibrium and purity, uncontaminated by the evil with which his office brought him into contact, to “drink no longer water” only, but “to use a little wine, for his stomach’s sake and his often infirmities” (1 Timothy 5:23); in the judgment that a reckless disregard of the body is of no value as a remedy against what is technically called fulness (not “satisfying”) of the flesh (Colossians 2:23). These words are, in almost all cases, characteristic of the Greek of Hippocrates and other medical writers, and the same may be said of the Greek words used by St. Paul for “dung” ( σκύ βαλα—skyhala,, Philippians 3:8), for “occasion” ( ἀ φορμὴ ν—aphormè, 1 Timothy 5:14), for “gazing” or “looking earnestly” ( ἀτενιζων,, 2 Corinthians 3:7-13 : the word is used twelve times by St. Luke, and by him only), for “charge” (1 Timothy 1:3; 1 Timothy 1:18), for “contention” (i.e., paroxysm) in Acts 15:39.

(3) It is obvious that in the East, then as now, the calling of a physician was a passport to many social regions into which it was otherwise difficult to find access. A physician of experience arriving in this or that city, would be likely to become acquainted, not with the poor only, but with men of official rank and women of the higher class. How far, and in what special way this helped St. Luke to obtain the information which he wanted for his Gospel, will call for inquiry further on. Here it will be enough to note that such channels of information were sure to be opened to him.

II. The Authorship of the Gospel.—The two earliest witnesses to the existence of a Gospel recognised as written by St. Luke, are (1) Irenæus, and (2) the Muratorian Fragment. (See General Introduction on the Canon of the New Testament.) The former, dwelling on the necessity of there being neither more nor less than four Gospels, as there are four elements, four cardinal points, and the like, acknowledges St. Luke’s as one of the four. Pressing the analogy of the four symbolic figures of the Cherubim, he compares the Gospel which he names as Luke’s to the calf, as representing the priestly, sacrificial side of our Lord’s work. “As such,” he says, “it began with Zacharias burning incense in the Temple” (Adv. Hœr. ii.). In another passage he speaks of “Luke, the companion of Paul,” as having “written in a book the gospel which the latter preached” (Adv. Hœr. iii. 1). The Muratorian Fragment, which has suffered the loss of its first sentences, and so fails to give direct evidence as to St. Matthew and St. Mark, begins accordingly with St. Luke, mentioning, however, his Gospel as the third. What follows is interesting, though being, like the whole fragment, in the language of an obviously illiterate scribe, and presumably a translation from a Greek original, it is at once corrupt and obscure. The nearest approach to an intelligible rendering would be as follows:—“Luke the physician, after the ascension of Christ, when St. Paul had chosen him, as being zealous of what was just and right (juris studiosus), wrote in his own name, and as it seemed good to him (ex opinione, apparently with an implied reference to Luke 1:2). Yet he himself did not see the Lord in the flesh, and did what he did as he could best attain to it, and so he began his narrative from the birth of John.” The passage is every way important, as showing (1) the early identification of the writer of the third Gospel with Luke the physician; (2) the absence of any early tradition that he was one of the Seventy; (3) the fact that the first two chapters were part of the Gospel as known to the writer of the Fragment, or of the still older document which he translated. Papias, as far as the fragments of his writings that remain show, who names St. Matthew and St. Mark, is silent as to St. Luke. Justin, who does not name the writer of any Gospel, speaks of the “records of the Apostles, which are called Gospels,” as having been written either by Apostles themselves, or by those who followed them closely (using the same Greek word here as St. Luke uses in Luke 1:2), and cites in immediate connection with this the fact of the sweat that was as great drops of blood (Dial. 100 Tryph. c. 22). It seems all but certain from this that he had read the narrative of Luke 22:44 as we have it, and that he ascribed the authorship of it to a companion of the Apostles. So Tertullian, who recognises four Gospels, and four only, speaks of “John and Matthew as Apostles, of Luke and Mark as helpers of the Apostles (Cont. Marc. iv. 2); and Origen (in Euseb. Hist. Eccles. vi. 25) speaks of the Gospel according to St. Luke as being “cited and approved by Paul,” referring apparently to the expression “according to my Gospel” (Romans 2:16; Romans 16:25; 2 Timothy 1:8), and to “the brother whose praise is in the Gospel,” in 2 Corinthians 8:18-19.

III. The sources of the Gospel.—The question, Where did the writer of this Gospel collect his information, is obviously one of special interest. In St. Matthew we have, accepting the traditional authorship, personal recollection as a groundwork, helped by the oral or written teaching previously current in the Church. In St. Mark (see Introduction to that Gospel), We have substantially the same oral or written teaching, modified by the personal recollections of St. Peter. St. Luke, on the other hand, disclaims the character of an eye-witness (Luke 1:2), and confesses that he is only a compiler, claiming simply the credit of having done his best to verify the facts which he narrates. St. Paul, to whom he specially devoted himself, was, as far as personal knowledge went, in the same position as himself. Where, then, taking the facts of St. Luke’s life, as given above, was it probable that he found his materials?

(1) At Antioch, if not before, the Evangelist would be likely to come in contact with not a few who had been “eye-witnesses and ministers of the word.” Those who were scattered after the persecution that began with the death of Stephen (Acts 11:19), and the prophets who came from Jerusalem with Agabus (Acts 11:28), the latter probably forming part of the company of the Seventy (see Note on Luke 10:1), must have included some, at least, of persons so qualified. There, too, he must have met with Manaen, the foster-brother of the Tetrarch, and may have derived from him much that he narrates as to the ministry of the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20), our Lord’s testimony to him (Luke 7:18-34), the relation between Herod and Pilate, and the part which the former took in the history of the Crucifixion (Luke 23:5-12), the estimate which our Lord had passed upon his character (Luke 13:32). That acquaintance served probably, in the nature of things, to introduce him to a knowledge of the other members of the Herodian family, of whom we learn so much from him, and, of the Evangelists, from him only (Luke 3:1; Acts 12:1-25; Acts 25:13; Acts 26:32).

(2) During the years of St. Luke’s work at Troas and Philippi, there were, we may presume, but few such opportunities; but when he accompanied St. Paul on his last journey to Jerusalem, they must have been multiplied indefinitely. Mnason of Cyprus, the old disciple (a disciple from the beginning, as the word signifies, Acts 21:16), must have had much to tell him. During St. Paul’s stay at Cæsarea there was ample time for him to become acquainted with the current oral, or, as his own words imply, written teaching of the churches of Palestine, which formed the groundwork of what is common to him and the first two Gospels, as well as with the many facts that connect themselves with that city in the narrative of the Acts. We cannot, however, think of a man of St. Luke’s culture bent upon writing a history, because he was not satisfied with the “many” fragmentary records that he found already in circulation, resting at Cæsarea during the two years of St. Paul’s imprisonment without pushing his inquiries further. We may think of him accordingly as journeying in regions where he knew our Lord had worked, most of which lay within two or three days’ easy journey, while yet there was little record of His ministry there, and so collecting such facts as the raising of the widow’s son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), the appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), the full record, peculiar to this Gospel, of His ministry and teaching in Peræa.

On the whole, then, everything tends to the belief that St. Luke’s statement that he had carefully traced to their sources, as far as he could, the facts which he narrates, was no idle boast; that he had many and ample opportunities for doing so; and that he did this, as we have seen above, with the culture and discernment which his previous training was likely to have imparted. It is obvious, however, that coming, as he did, into the field of inquiry some thirty, or at least twenty, years or so after the events, many of the facts and sayings would reach him in a comparatively isolated form; and though there is an obvious and earnest endeavour to relate them, as he says, “in order,” it might not always be easy to ascertain what that order had actually been. And this is, in part at least, the probable explanation of the seeming dislocation of facts which we find on comparing his Gospel with those of St. Matthew and St. Mark. (See Notes on Matthew 8:1; Matthew 9:1.)

IV. The first readers of the Gospel.—St. Luke’s record differs in a very marked way from the other three in being addressed, or, as we should say, dedicated, to an individual. Who and what Theophilus was, we have but few data for conjecturing. The epithet “most excellent”—the same word as that used by Tertullus in addressing Felix (Acts 24:3)—implies social or official position of some dignity. The absence of that epithet in the dedication of the Acts indicates, perhaps, that the Evangelist had then come to be on terms of greater familiarity with him. The reference to Italian localities of minor importance, as places familiar to the reader as well as writer, in Acts 28:12-14, suggests the conclusion that he was of Latin, probably of Roman, origin; the fact that the Gospel was written for him in Greek, that he shared the culture which was then common to well nigh all educated Romans. He was a convert, accordingly, from the religion of Rome to that of Christ, though he may, of course, have passed through Judaism, as a schoolmaster leading him to Christ. The teaching which he had already received as a catechumen had embraced an outline of the facts recorded in the Gospel (Luke 1:3), and St. Luke wrote to raise the knowledge so gained to a standard of greater completeness. The name, it may be noted, was, like Timotheus, not an uncommon one. Among St. Luke’s contemporaries, it was borne by one of the Jewish high priests, the brother-in-law of Caiaphas (Jos. Ant. xviii. 4, § 3), who probably was responsible for St. Paul’s mission of persecution to Damascus, and by some official at Athens who was condemned for perjury by the Areopagus (Tacit. Ann. ii. 55). Beyond this all is conjecture, or tradition which dissolves into conjecture. He is said to have been, by this or that ecclesiastical writer, an Achæan, or an Alexandrian, or an Antiochian; he has been wildly identified by some modern critics, with one or other of the two persons thus named; it has been held by others that the name (= “one who loves God”) simply designated the ideal Christian reader whom St. Luke had in view.

It is, however, reasonable to infer that the Gospel, though dedicated to him, was meant for the wider circle of the class of which he was the representative, i.e., in other words, that it was meant to be especially a Gospel for the educated heathen. It will be seen in what follows, that this view is confirmed by its more prominent characteristics.

V. The characteristics of the Gospel.—(1) It has been said, not without some measure of truth, that one main purpose of the Acts of the Apostles was to reconcile the two parties in the Apostolic Church which tended to arrange themselves, with more or less of open antagonism, under the names of St. Peter and St. Paul, by showing that the two Apostles were substantially of one mind; that the former had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles (Acts 10:48), and had consented to the great charter of their freedom (Acts 15:7); that the latter had shown his reverence for the ceremonial law by twice taking on himself, wholly or in part, the vow of a Nazarite (Acts 18:18; Acts 21:26). Something of the same catholicity of purpose is to be found in the Gospel which bears St. Luke’s name. It was obviously natural that it should be so in the work of the friend of one who became as a Jew to Jews, and as a Greek to Greeks (1 Corinthians 9:20). Thus we have the whole history of the first two chapters, and the genealogy in Luke 3, obviously meeting the tastes, in the first instance, of Jewish readers on the one side, and on the other the choice of narratives or teachings that specially bring out the width and universality of the love of God, the breaking down of the barriers of Jewish exclusiveness, the reference to the widow of Sarepta and Naaman the Syrian (Luke 4:26-27), the mission of the Seventy as indicating the universality of the kingdom (Luke 10:1), the pardon of the penitent robber (Luke 23:43), the parables of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Piece of Money, and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15); midway between the two, the story of Zacchæus, the publican, treated as a heathen, and yet recognised as a son of Abraham (Luke 19:9).

(2) In the Acts, again, especially in the earlier chapters, we note a manifest tendency in the writer to dwell on all acts of self-denial, and on the lavish generosity which made the life of the Apostolic Church the realisation, in part at least, of an ideal communism (; Acts 4:32; Acts 4:37; Acts 6:1; Acts 9:36). So in the Gospel we recognise, over and above what he has in common with others, a principle of selection, leading him to dwell on all parts of our Lord’s teaching that pointed in the same direction. The parables of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), of the Unjust Steward, with its direct and immediate application (Luke 16:1-14); the counsel to the Pharisees to “give alms,” and so to find a more than ceremonial purity (Luke 11:41); to His disciples to sell what they have and to seek for treasures in heaven (Luke 12:33); the beatitudes that fall on the poor and the hungry (Luke 6:20-21), are all instances of his desire to impress this ideal of an unselfish life upon the minds of his readers. Even in his account of the Baptist’s teaching, we find him supplying what neither St. Matthew nor St. Mark had given—the counsel which John gave to the people—“He that hath two coats let him impart to him that hath none” (Luke 3:11). In this also we may recognise the work of one who was like-minded with St. Paul. He, too, laboured with his own hands that he might minister to the necessities of others (Acts 20:34), and loved to dwell on the pattern which Christ had set when, “being rich, He for our sakes became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9), and praised those whose deep poverty had abounded to the riches of their liberality (2 Corinthians 8:2). He, too, had learnt the lesson that a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things that he possesseth (Luke 12:15), and had been initiated into the mystery of knowing how, with an equal mind, to be full and to be hungry, to abound and to suffer need. (See Note on Philippians 4:12.) He, too, warns men against the deceitfulness of riches, and the hurtful lusts springing from them that plunge men in the abyss of destruction (1 Timothy 6:9; 1 Timothy 6:17).

Lastly, we cannot fail to note, as we read his Gospel, the special stress which he, far more than St. Matthew or St. Mark, lays upon the prayers of the Christ. It is from him we learn that it was as Jesus was “praying” at His baptism that the heavens were opened (Luke 3:21); that it was while He was praying that the fashion of His countenance was altered, and there came on Him the glory of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:29); that He was “raying” when the disciples came and asked Him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1); that He had prayed for Peter that his faith might not fail (Luke 22:32). In the life of prayer, no less than in that of a self-chosen poverty, His was the pattern-life which His disciples were—each in his measure and according to his power—to endeavour to reproduce.

It is, of course, obvious to remark that many of the facts referred to are found also in the other Gospels, and formed part of the current oral teaching out of which the first three Gospels grew. Admitting this, however, it is clear that the history of Apollos brought him specially within the range of those who were likely to be conversant with St. Luke’s teaching; and if we suppose him to have any written record before him, it is far more likely to have been the third Gospel than either the first or second. The two men, who were friends and companions of the same Apostle, were, at any rate, likely to have met and known each other, and if so it would not be strange that, with like character and like culture, there should be a reciprocal influence between them. Traces of that influence are to be found, it is believed, in the references in the Epistle to some of the passages which, though common to the other Gospels, are yet specially characteristic of this Gospel; to the temptations of the Son of Man as giving Him power to sympathise with sinners, though Himself without sin (Hebrews 4:15); to His prayers and supplications and strong crying (Hebrews 5:7-8); to His endurance of the cross, despising the shame (Hebrews 12:2); His endurance also of the contradiction of sinners (Hebrews 12:3); to His being the Mediator of a new covenant (Hebrews 12:24), the great Shepherd of the sheep (Hebrews 13:20).

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.