The Gospel of Luke begins with a preface, Chapter 1, verses 1-4. This preface tells us a great deal about what Luke is attempting to do in his Gospel. These verses, while at first appearing to be simple and straightforward, are in reality packed with meaning. Thus, we must devote a great deal of attention to each of the verses to understand all that Luke has written.
I shall use the NIV version for this analysis.
The first verse begins, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account…” Some scholars have used this language as part of their argument as to the dating of Luke, thinking that Luke must be referring to Mark and perhaps Matthew as being the “Many”. This position may be buttressed by the further language of verse 2, which states “…just as they were handed down to us…by those who…were eyewitnesses and servants of the word…”
The first verse through the fourth verse shows us that Luke is using a classical Greek literary form. Luke writes a formal preface and this preface is in the style which suggests that he is following the model of other historiographies of his time, that is a writing based upon eyewitnesses. Historiographies of his time began with, as he begins his work, with a formal preface, followed by a statement of the purposes for writing the history, and the naming of a recipient of the writing. By doing so, Luke is saying that he is writing a history in a manner which follows those of other recognized historians of his era. By doing this, he is also stating that the story of Jesus is worthy of such a historical treatment. By writing a history of Jesus, Jesus becomes a historical person. And in so writing, a classical Greek historical treatment of Jesus, Luke is making Jesus accessible or more accessible to a learned audience, whether Greek or Roman. This in turn stresses that Luke is writing a Gospel for the Gentile and not for the Jew.
The fact that Luke first alludes to other Gospels as having been handed down is important. In that era, information that is “handed down” is authoritative tradition, the words “handed down” being a technical term, which Luke’s audience would have recognized. In this manner, Luke is giving added weight to the other Gospels. They are thus more authoritative works upon which to base his own work.
Luke makes clear that he is not an eyewitness; however, Luke makes it clear that he, himself, “…carefully investigated everything…” He emphasizes the depth of his investigation by further saying that his investigation was “…from the beginning…” His investigation apparently included talking with eyewitnesses and other servants of the word.
The fact that eyewitnesses of the events were still alive to be interviewed by Luke is also a clue as to the dating of the writing of the Gospel. If Jesus was crucified in 30 AD, a date of 60 AD for the writing would not be untoward. Men and women who were in their 20s or 30s in 30 AD, could easily and conceivably have been alive in 60AD to be interviewed. Obviously, later dates for the writing of the Gospel of Luke become more suspect, if one gives credence to Luke having interviewed eyewitnesses.
What is Luke’s purpose in writing this Gospel? Verse 4 states: “…it seemed good to me to write an orderly account…so you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” The purpose thus becomes at least two fold: 1. to write an orderly account and 2. to write an account so that the recipient may know the “certainty” of what the recipient has been already taught.
An orderly account seems to suggest that the other accounts with which Luke was familiar may not have been orderly, which suggest that they may have been fragments of the life of Jesus. If this is so, then this also helps us to date the Gospel of Luke making a date of 60 AD seem more likely, than a later date, by which time, presumably, other “more orderly” accounts might have existed.
Further, an orderly account shows us that Luke is intending to write a Gospel which will detail the life of Jesus from beginning to end in a chronological fashion.
Luke in this second purpose is making sure that the faith of the recipient will not waver, rather that the faith of the recipient will be made more certain. This would be accomplished by the recipient knowing the account which Luke writes is based upon eyewitness testimony, upon the teaching of those who are servants of the word, as well as the Gospels which have been handed down. The recipient, Theophilus, is known to Luke; Luke obviously cares about Theophilus and wants Theophilus’ faith to be made strong. It is for this reason that Luke has made his thorough investigation of all things from the beginning, which investigation included the Gospels handed down, the eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of the servants of the word.
We do not know the identity of those who are the servants of the word. My personal speculation upon this matter is that Luke is here referring to both Peter and Paul, with whom he worked and lived, as well as, perhaps, others.
As I began this analysis of the preface, I commented that it is packed with meaning in just four short verses. While I do not think that I have unpacked all the meaning that may well lie within these four verses, I believe that this analysis is a solid foundation for our further review of the Gospel of Luke.